As tanks rolled through Ankara over the weekend, it looked like Turkey was about to become the first and only NATO member since the end of the Cold War to suffer a textbook coup d’état. Then, after merely a few hours, the plot began to falter. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan resisted his overthrow with a defiant address (albeit one delivered secondhand via television cameras broadcasting Erdogan’s smartphone transmission to a shocked nation). Then word began to leak that the commander of Turkey’s military was not even part of the coup but was instead being held hostage by rogue elements within the army. Soon, a much larger part of the military began to fight back against the plot.
In the span of a few hours, the doomed plot was transformed from one that was poised to overthrow one of the most strategically important governments in the world into one that looked like amateur hour, or to borrow U.S. President Barack Obama’s now infamous phrase, the “junior varsity team” of coup plotters.
But when you zoom out from Turkey and look at the wider world of coups, the Turkish plan looks extremely familiar. And in a comparative context, the would-be putsch’s doomed outcome was eminently predictable because of a few telltale signs that signal early on whether a coup is likely to succeed or to fail.
Coups have become markedly less common since the end of the Cold War, declining from an average of nearly 13 plots around the world per year in the 1970s to fewer than 4 per year today. Moreover, the proportion of successful coups has fallen, having roughly a fifty-fifty chance of success in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, to less than a one-in-four chance since the end of the Cold War. Those changes are driven by a combination of factors, from new international norms against coups and foreign aid conditionality to rising incomes and better civil-military relations.
But even as the frequency of