The reintroduction of military conscription has frequently been proposed as a way to instil national values in younger citizens. These arguments have gained added significance in Europe following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Drawing on new research, Vincenzo Bove, Riccardo Di Leo and Marco Giani argue that many of the proposed benefits of conscription are difficult to identify empirically. Indeed, far from fostering cohesion among citizens, conscription appears to be linked to a decline in institutional trust.
Military conscription has always been understood as an expensive labour policy. Yet, until the 1990s, having a mass army was believed to yield two compensating benefits: it helped keep Europe safe by discouraging the Red Army’s ground warfare, and it helped tie citizens – specifically, young male citizens – to a nation’s values.
Over time, however, history and socioeconomic progress jointly increased the costs of conscription, while reducing its benefits. As the ‘knowledge economy’ became central in Europe, the opportunity costs of interrupting draftees’ skill formation at a crucial stage of their life sharply increased.
Moreover, from a military perspective, the fall of the USSR, coupled with the emergence of international terrorism, changed the nature of contemporary warfare, calling European states to focus on quality rather than quantity when thinking of their defence policies. For these reasons, an overwhelming majority of European countries chose to discontinue military conscription from the early 1990s onwards, with little in the way of opposition from decisionmakers and the public.
The revival of conscription
End of the story? Not quite. Little by little, epistemic communities and politicians alike have begun to question the relinquishment of military conscription. In a minority of cases, reinstating conscription has been proposed as a response to Russian aggression. Sweden reinstated military conscription in 2018 partly on this basis, Latvia is moving closer to reintroducing the draft after scrapping it 15 years ago, and Poland is also considering the possibility.
Yet numerous European policymakers from across the political spectrum have long advocated the reintroduction of conscription by appealing to motivations that have nothing to do with military strategy. The romantic notion of compulsory service as a ‘school of the nation’ has been explicitly embedded in these narratives. Perhaps surprisingly, these ideas are not only articulated by populist politicians but by a diverse array of actors.
France recently began implementing a one-month, mandatory (civil and military) Service National Universel. President Macron strongly defended the introduction of the service as an effective way to transmit French values to and strengthen social cohesion among the youth, and thus promote cross-regional, class, and ethnic exchange. Macron proposed to reinforce and extend the system during the 2022 presidential election campaign.
Germany abandoned conscription in 2011, but calls to reintroduce it have mushroomed since then. This year, SPD defence spokesman in the Bundestag, Wolfgang Hellmich, argued that compulsory service helps to “promote a sense of community”. These sentiments were echoed by Carsten Linnemann, deputy leader of the conservative CDU, who claimed that reintroducing compulsory service would “do real good” for German society, and help bring people together. Meanwhile, the possibility of reintroducing military conscription has become a campaign issue ahead of the upcoming Italian general election.
Wrong premises, contrasting evidence
Conscription as we know it is a fully immersive, long, intense life experience taking place at an age of malleable thoughts. It does have the potential to mark individuals’ political socialisation. The cultural dividend that the state may legitimately aspire to get from such a costly policy is to mitigate the downward trend of institutional trust in the West, which is particularly acute among young generations.
Patriotic chants, marches, and rituals that citizens have to – but have not chosen to – endure may still go some way toward constructing social cross-regional and inter-class cohesion, even to the point of spurring patriotism. But neither the establishment of long-term improbable friendship ties through conscription, nor the triggering of a loose outdated sense of nation, should be expected to necessarily tie up the citizen with the state’s democratic institutions. In fact, the opposite may occur.
One possible approach to addressing this question is to compare the levels of institutional trust among men drafted just before the abolition of conscription with those of men who were exempted from the draft. These are contiguous generations exposed to the same political context throughout their life, with the difference that the former group had to endure military service without choosing to do so.
In new research, we adopt this approach by studying the impact of conscription reforms across 15 European countries. We find that men drafted just before the end of conscription display significantly and substantially lower levels of trust in institutions, politicians, and political parties than those who were exempted from conscription.
This gap in institutional trust between conscripted and non-conscripted men survives over time and is truly likely to be the by-product of military policies. The same effect cannot be observed among women from the same cohorts, who were not directly affected by conscription reforms, but were exposed to the same political context.
Our research suggests that far from increasing trust in democratic institutions, conscription may have the opposite effect. By exposing young people to a military setting, combining clearly identified hierarchical dynamics, a shared set of values and rules, and a cohesive community, conscription policies appear to promote the primacy of the military over mistrusted democratic institutions.
Our research accounted for the differences in conscription systems that existed across countries. These include the length of the draft, the ease with which its start could be postponed, the year of adoption, and the end of conscription. We find that the positive impact of not being conscripted on institutional trust is stronger in particular contexts, such as post-socialist countries, where the pervasiveness of military and political corruption at the time of the reform was higher, the abolition of military conscription was part of a broader reorganisation of defence policies, and the reform occurred later in time compared to western Europe.
Whilst partly motivated by geopolitical concerns, the debate over whether conscription should be reintroduced (or not) in Europe mainly rests upon the idea that compulsory military service might foster civic values among young people. Our findings cast doubt on this argument, suggesting that other avenues should be pursued by policymakers to address the mounting detachment of younger generations from their societies.