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Samantha Mayhew

IR 014U

Costa Rica & Realism

Is There a Major Flaw Within Realism?

According to realism, we live in a world of anarchy oftentimes shaped by conflict,
driven by self-protection, and characterized by a decisive lack of trust; and yet, counter
intuitively there are several countries, some in high conflict areas, which do not have
armed forces. How and why do these countries succeed and does this create a flaw within
the schema of realism?
Some countries such as Costa Rica, Haiti, and Granada underwent
demilitarization; others such as Samoa were formed without militaries (World Factbook
1). Why has the rest of the world not taken advantage of something that according to
realism should be considered a weakness? Items such as internal costs and external
agreements (or in Japans case compliance) with other countries are cited as reasons for
not having a military. Furthermore, most military less countries have some form of
protection-orientated alliances or agreements that seemingly function as their defense
instead of a military.
Yet, alliances and agreements are based on trust, which is an idea realism states
the world intrinsically lacks. These countries do not simply trust others with trade

agreements; their independent existence is at stake. And so far, they seem to have their
independence. The puzzle is why does this work? In order to explore this question, I will
focus on the demilitarization of one specific country, Costa Rica, how the decision was
implemented, why they made the decision, and how this may be inconsistent with
A Closer Look at Costa Ricas Demilitarization
In 1948, Costa Rica made an astonishing and uncommon decision; it abolished its
army. While Costa Rica had traditionally managed to evade much of the violence that
beset most of Central America, it could not avoid a bloody civil war that initiated its
largely unprecedented decision to demilitarize. When Jos Figueres Ferrer won the civil
war, he led a governing junta and announced its first main initiative on December 1, 1948
(Council on Hemispheric Affairs 1). He pledged, It is time for Costa Rica to return to
her traditional position of having more teachers than soldiers. Costa Rica, her people and
her government, always have been devoted to democracy and now practice their belief by
dissolving the army because we believe a national police force is sufficient for the
security of the country (Hoivik 2).
This fanciful speech was brought into full reality in 1949 when Costa Rica
formed a new constitution. Figueres declaration was granted a more official and
permanent standing in Article 12 of this new constitution. Article 12 clearly lays out the
boundaries of an unarmed Costa Rica stating, the army as a permanent institution is
proscribed. For vigilance and the preservation of public order, there will be the necessary
police forces. Only through continental agreement for the national defense may military
forces be organized; in either case they shall always be subordinate to the civil power;

they may not deliberate, or make manifestations or declarations in individual or collective

form. In summary, a permanent army is forbidden, police forces are expected to
maintain the internal structure of the country, and only in extremely rare circumstances
will an army be allowed to gather (Hoivik 2).
In addition to demilitarization, Figueres enabled universal suffrage rights and
became somewhat of a national hero, winning Costa Ricas election in 1953 with ease.
This election was the first to take place under the new constitution (since then 13 have
occurred following relatively similar guidelines). The reason behind Costa Ricas
demilitarization before that first election is a matter of heavy speculation. The political
maneuvering and calculations behind the decision were most likely multi-faceted and
extremely complex.
Why Choose to Not Have a Military?
One prevalent idea is that Figueres was ensuring his own safety as a leader.
Article 12 is cautious to mandate that if an army is voted into existence it stays
subordinate to the civil power. The LA times points out that it was common for armies
to back coups, especially against left-leaning governments like his, even if the
government was left-leaning in perception only (Barash 1). As Figueres came into power
through a rebelling army, it is interesting to note the care he took to minimize the chances
of an event like that reoccurring.
Figueres rational may have been about protecting himself; however, the decision
was greeted with popular approval. To many citizens of the United States, a decision to
demilitarize would be met with heavy skepticism and fear. And one of the U.S. neighbors

is Canada, a country that lies in heavy juxtaposition to Costa Ricas neighbors Nicaragua
and Panama. Yet, the decision in Costa Rica was welcomed, evidenced by Figueres
election and re-election. As a result of demilitarization, the country was able to invest in
other resources. Money previously spent on the military could be moved towards
domestic needs, in effect increasing the standard of living for citizens. Funds within the
national budget that would go to the military could be spent on education, culture, and
health. This effect holds today, Costa Rica invests in butter instead of guns (Barash 1).
Another facet of the decision rests on ideological implications. As Tanishia
Hayles, the Charg daffaires of the Kingston Embassy of Costa Rica, states, after
Figueres renounced a national army there was now the establishment of a consciousness
of peace in the absence of the military force (Hayles 1). Citizens and other countries
alike could be confident that Costa Ricas first move would never be forceful coercion
based upon the threat of war; in fact, Costa Ricas last resort would rarely be war as well.
Costa Rica broke free from attempting to maximize its own power in the form of arms
and in some ways this move became beneficial. Costa Rica is able to function as a more
trusted actor than most states as a result of its definitive stance as a peaceful nation
(Green 1).
However, as beneficial as this position would be, it would hardly be useful if the
country lost its independence to the aggressive actions of another country seeking to
maximize its own power. There are several clear reasons as to why demilitarizing can be
beneficial; however, this unarguably leaves a country vulnerable. What gave Costa Rica
the confidence to demilitarize?
The Rio Treatys Significance

The most prominent answer to this question lies within the Inter-American Treaty
of Reciprocal Assistance (Rio Treaty 1). Signed on September 2, 1947 and entering into
force in 1948, the treaty guarantees American assistance if Costa Rica is attacked by an
outside power (Council on Foreign Relations 1). Under the treaty an armed attack or
threat of aggression against a signatory nation, whether by a member nation or by some
other power, will be considered an attack against all (Info Please 1). In addition to this
ultimatum, the treaty mandates no signed member can use force without a unanimous
consent from all of the signatories while other measures against aggressors may be
approved by a two-thirds majority. The factor that makes the Rio Treaty unique is that it
answers to a higher authority, the Security Council of the United Nations (Inter-American
Treaty 1).
However, a treaty is only as useful as its credibility. Realism states that treaties
can easily become tantamount to scraps of paper. They are perhaps useful, but certainty
not something to trust entirely, and most definitely not something to trust with a countrys
independent existence. Yet, Costa Rica places a large amount of faith within the Rio
Treaty and, as of now, its decision to do so has been proven correct.
The treaty was tested for the first time a mere week and half after its initial
announcement. Eight hundred anti-Figueres men from Nicaragua invaded Costa Rica in
1948, effectively being the first challenge to a demilitarized Costa Rica. Costa Ricas old
army had not entirely disbanded yet and some remnants of the group were able to hold
the revolutionaries near the border. Today this group would be tantamount to the Costa
Rican Special Intervention Unit of around seventy members (Beckhusen 1).

The most significant part of this interaction was Costa Ricas successful appeal to
the Organization of American States (the OAS). The OAS sent its first investigative team
out to examine the situation and declared the actions of the group of Nicaraguan men to
be unfounded, condemning Nicaragua for allowing the mens aggressive action to take
place. Shortly after, an Inter-American Committee of Military Experts was initiated to
ensure peace be returned to both borders. Following this event, it was clear the Rio Treaty
had effectively survived its first test (Hoivik 6).
How Does Costa Ricas Demilitarization Fit (and Not Fit) into Realism?
There are several compelling concepts that contribute to the definition of realism.
These concepts are the foundation of the theory, and when violated, can serve to discredit
the ideology. Therefore, by systemically applying the information above to the definition
of realism, it can be determined if the countrys demilitarized existence stands in
violation of realisms view of world politics.
Realism defines states to be the dominant actors on the international plane and
claims that interactions between states are defined by bargaining. Costa Ricas situation is
consistent with this concept. In the process and maintenance of demilitarization, states
clearly function as the dominant actors (Frieden xxvii). Although a rebel group, a nonstate actor did initiate the demilitarization movement. However, the military could only
be fully abolished after the rebel leader took control of the governmenttherefore
functioning as the state of Costa Rica and no longer a non-state rebel actor.
The next, and perhaps most important, element that comprises realism is an
unconditional belief in both anarchy and uncertainty (Frieden xxvii). On a very general
level, Costa Rica could prescribe to these concepts. It is true that there is not an
international government ruling over the world as a whole. However, narrowing the

concept of anarchy and uncertainty to fit Costa Rica specifically proves to be

The problem is that realism assumes anarchy profoundly shapes the interest and
interactions that matter in world politics. It believes that as a result of there not being an
overarching international system with authority, states must live in constant fear of each
other (Frieden xxviii). Yet, Costa Rica does not live in constant fear of its neighbors
and economic trade partners. Costa Rica has very deliberately ranked education and
health care, among other factors, to be higher than the need for an institutional military.
As a result, Costa Rica is not seeking to constantly increase its power. It has found a way
out of the inevitable security dilemma that realists believe characterize the world. While
many states are constantly running faster to stay in the same place, Costa Rica simply
stopped running. And this strategy was successful.
In contrast, realism states that war is a permanent fixture of international
relations because there is nothing to stop states from waging war when it is in their
interests to do so (Frieden xxviii). While some states work incredibly hard to become the
strongest power, the leader of nuclear arms, or the highest military spender, Costa Rica
has created a position for itself outside of this race. As the Diplomat states, acting with
such maturity makes them more respectable in the eyes of the US than the attitude of an
unconditional ally under armed protectorship. Although realists believe that the threat of
war overwhelms everything, Costa Rica has successfully managed to differ from this
viewpoint. It defies the realist idea that uncertainty about other actors defines all
interactions and placed full trust within the Rio Treaty, the United Nations, and other
countries non-aggressive intentions. In fact, Luis Guillermo Sols stated during the most
recent General Assembly of the United Nations that, Costa Rica firmly believes and

practices all aspects of international law; this is the only way we know. Our only
weapon has been and will always be international law. (Gonzalez 1)
Despite maintaining its past initiative in current events, Costa Ricas success is by
no means ensured for the future. The countrys safety is an ongoing process; anarchy,
uncertainty, mistrust, and maximization of power could still win out over Costa Ricas
peaceful policy. However, Costa Rica sees itself as a beacon of hope for the future and
the country is confident that it will prevail. Based on its precedent of success, this
outcome is highly likely. The country is doing extremely well, even hosting the
headquarters for the United Nations University for Peace (Palet 1). Regardless of if
demilitarization remains feasible, the fact remains that, so far, it has successfully existed
in a state contrary to realism for 66 years. That fact in itself is a beacon towards hope.

Works Cited

Barash, David P. "Costa Rica's Peace Dividend: How Abolishing the Military Paid off."
Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 15 Dec. 2013. Web. 03 Mar. 2015.
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Boring. N.p., 10 Aug. 2014. Web. 07 Mar. 2015.
"Costa Rica: An Army-less Nation in a Problem-Prone Region." Council on Hemispheric
Affairs. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2015.
"Field Listing :: Military Branches." The World Factbook. Central Intelligence Agency,
n.d. Web. 1 Mar. 2015.
Frieden, Jeffry A., David A. Lake, and Kenneth A. Schultz. World Politics: Interests,
Interactions, Institutions. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010. Print.
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15 Mar. 2015.
Hayles, Tanishia Ellis. "Costa Rica a Country without an Army and Proud of It Columns." Jamaica Observer News. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.
Hoivik, Tord, and Solveig Aas. "Demilitarization in Costa Rica: A Farewell to Arms?"
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"Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (Rio Pact)." Military. Global Security,
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"Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (Rio Treaty)." Council on Foreign
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Palet, Laura Secorun. "Having An Army Might Be Practical, But It's Not Obligatory."
NPR. NPR, n.d. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.
"Rio Treaty." Infoplease. Infoplease, n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2015.