Professional armies often toil in obscurity until they are needed. Absent a sense of external threat, militaries ate often unappreciated and lack constituencies of their own. These professional armies, as is the case in most European and North American countries, are generally small, have little lobbying power and few friends in high places. They are vulnerable. But they are available for what often appears to be whatever task comes up. Unless they are carrying out an overseas contingency operation or domestic deployment, the perception on the part of the public is that the armed forces are not truly being fully utilized--and are thus available for these tasks.
Nearly every nation worldwide has some experience with their armed forces in a domestic capacity. Some countries, such as China, have armies that are vertically and horizontally integrated into the economy, often funning major business enterprises. Other countries take the opposite view; Germany, for instance, has long viewed the employment of the Bundeswehr on German soil as anathema.
Of course, the raison d'etre of any national armed force is to defend the state and carry out homeland defense. But armies are often asked to perform more mundane tasks, such as trash collection and firefighting, often to the detriment of their readiness to carry out their primary function. While there are benefits to having military forces engaged in civil support tasks, there are also opportunity costs involved. Soldiers engaged in these tasks often cannot be readily redeployed. They cannot be in two places at one time, and require significant amounts of time to extricate themselves from one civil support task in order to carry out another. Moreover, contemporary professional soldiers are expensive, particularly when compared to ordinary conscript soldiers. Using highly-trained fighters for tasks such as static guard duty or trash collection seems like a rather inefficient use of manpower.
Both North American and European states have a rich history of employing military forces in domestic contingencies. Of course, every country has its own unique national security organizational structure, as well as traditions and strategies. These are based on unique perceptions of the threats and challenges to their own domestic security. Germany takes a fundamentally different approach to this issue than France, just as Russia takes a different approach than China. Even within North America, the differences between Mexico and the United States on the subject of military cooperation with civilian law enforcement agencies are striking: American soldiers are prohibited by law from performing law enforcement functions, while Mexico's armed forces have been deployed to combat the threat posed by drug cartels and other local criminal organizations.
Due largely to historical contexts, the European tradition is markedly different from that of the United States. The United States, with its experiences in both the Revolutionary and Civil wars, has been traditionally reluctant to employ soldiers domestically, though that is clearly changing. And the unique structure of the American armed forces, with both professional Federal and National Guard troops, has resulted in a bifurcated experience. The National Guard has often been assigned to carry out civil security tasks, while their active-duty brethren are restricted by law since 1878 from carrying out similar duties, particularly those involving law enforcement. In this regard, Canada also has a much more limited experience.
On the other hand, the European tradition of employing armed forces domestically is well established. European militaries have acted with great frequency in a broad range of functions in response to domestic crises and other events when called upon by national authorities. Whether the requirement is securing borders, supporting law enforcement authorities or providing disaster relief, European armies have responded and acquitted themselves well in nearly all instances. In doing so, they have garnered significant levels of public support in nearly all European...