Power on Young, 'Anatomy of Post-Communist European Defense Institutions: The Mirage of Military Modernity'

Thomas-Durell Young
Eoin Power

Thomas-Durell Young. Anatomy of Post-Communist European Defense Institutions: The Mirage of Military Modernity. London: Bloomsbury, 2017. 312 pp. $135.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-350-01239-4; $40.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-350-09580-9.

Reviewed by Eoin Power (University of Texas at Austin) Published on H-War (December, 2021) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56667

Drawing on more than fifteen years of experience as a program manager for the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, Thomas-Durrell Young makes a bold and provocative claim: that after more than twenty years of technical assistance and more than two billion dollars of spending on military training and equipment, Western efforts to reform post-Communist defense institutions have largely failed. In Young’s view, the United States and its Western partners have fundamentally misdiagnosed the challenges facing post-Communist militaries and ministries of defense. Instead of understanding post-Communist defense reform as a process of cultural and institutional change encompassing civilian and military institutions, and the broader defense policymaking apparatus, they viewed it narrowly, as a technical challenge, and asked their militaries to address it. The resultant militarization of Western defense reform efforts left them unable to effectively grapple with higher-order questions concerning civil-military relations and, instead of achieving lasting, systemic change, produced a confused morass of “legacy” concepts shielded from public view by a façade of Western-style terminology and mountains of unrealized policy papers and strategic plans.

This is, prima facie, an imminently plausible thesis; writing in the weeks after the US-trained Afghan National Army’s collapse, it is not hard to muster skepticism about the United States’ ability to sustain lasting reforms in foreign militaries. And Young calls out real shortcomings in how the US has chosen to deliver institutional reform and capacity-building programs to partner nations’ defense establishments in eastern Europe. To the extent that the US government has any expertise in long-term, whole-of-government institutional reform, it is not clear that it resides within the Department of Defense, and as an operational combatant command, EUCOM (United States European Command) is especially ill-suited to deliver the kind of change management services circumstances have called for.

But if Young’s assessment of the flaws in American inputs to eastern European defense-institutional reform seems correct, the book he has written offers no systematic way to evaluate the outputs of this process, and the causal story that connects the two is poorly specified. While the latter issue may only be concerning for political scientists, the former serves to blunt the impact of what could have been a valuable book for scholars of eastern Europe, defense institutions, and institutional reform more broadly. Young’s analysis covers the former Warsaw Pact countries, a grab bag of former Soviet republics (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Ukraine), and the Yugoslav successor states (except Kosovo), and he accompanies this tripartite division with a high-level discussion of the features and behaviors common to each grouping. This is a helpful descriptive exercise for the uninitiated, but Young’s frequent appeals to some unstated country-specific nuance to explain the actual results on the ground undermines the book’s analytical value.

He does also deliver country-level assessments of their defense institutions’ current performance across six key areas (policy framework, national-level command, military decision-making process, CONOPS (concept of operations), logistics, and professionalism). But it is never clear what data or metrics these assessments are based on. Young includes anecdotal mentions of unfulfilled strategic plans, unimplemented budgets, shocking internal communications practices (for example, one country’s Ministry of Defense eschewing the use of email until 2011), and poor training regimes (for example, Bulgarian pilots only manage thirty-forty hours of annual flight time), but no clear systematic framework underpins his evaluations, and there is not enough descriptive evidence of country-level practices to make up for it. Ultimately, when Young claims that the Baltic states’ policy framework remains “in transition,” while Ukraine’s retains its “legacy” status, we just have to take his word for it.

We are also forced to take his word on the causal processes at play. Young’s core argument here is that foreign defense institutions’ ability to effectively absorb and implement Western methods is a function of their cultural distance from the United States. There is little doubt that culture matters in shaping how defense establishments adopt, and adapt to, new concepts and methodologies, but on its own the observation that, for example, eastern European cultures tend to have a higher power distance than the United States explains little. All told, Young cites six main cultural dimensions, but he never clarifies how, as independent variables, they explain variance in the outcomes of interest. Compared to a US baseline, the Baltic states appear to have cultures more conducive to adopting Western defense reforms, but Young’s qualitative analysis suggests that their defense institutions have instead performed worse. And given significant within-group heterogeneity in reform outcomes, the grouping of states by their postwar historical experience (post-Yugoslav, post-Warsaw Pact, and post-Soviet) also provides little insight. A central idea in Young’s analysis is that North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) membership has done little to improve defense-institutional quality in eastern Europe, but he never systematically compares NATO and non-member states.

Overall, this book is a frustrating piece of scholarship. For scholars of the region interested in civil-military relations or for specialists in civil-military relations interested in developing a regional expertise, it may serve as a helpful primer and as a useful introduction to relevant country-specific literature. As it stands, the analysis is too thinly theorized to provide a convincing causal account and too lacking in descriptive data to be valuable as a source of rich empirics. Given the scope of Young’s hands-on experience working with the countries in question, it feels like a missed opportunity.

Citation: Eoin Power. Review of Young, Thomas-Durell, Anatomy of Post-Communist European Defense Institutions: The Mirage of Military Modernity. H-War, H-Net Reviews. December, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56667

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