From liberal to popular peace?

Liberal peacebuilding fails because it is not liberal. Time to develop a new, more inclusive approach, argues David Roberts.

David Roberts
29 October 2010

International security is increasingly deemed to depend on western strategies of intervention in various failed, failing and fragile states. Such conditions are bad for the people in these states: but the main reason for western interest is that those conditions offer sanctuary to international terrorists that threaten the western way of life. International security strategies advance liberal peacebuilding as the means to pacify and secure such spaces. These peacebuilding interventions are predicated on a number of assumptions regarding democracy and liberalism. First premise: democratic elections provide the best process for peacefully resolving contests for leadership in conflict-riddled states. Second, democratic polities respect human rights, which protect the electorate from possible elite indiscretions. Third, since it is thought that democracies do not fight other democracies, local peace can be exported globally, lessening the prospect of interstate conflict in the future. This formula is claimed by some to be the ‘closest thing we have to a rule’ in the world of international politics. All in all, local people reap the rewards of democracy and growth, and the benefits of such peaceful polities travel internationally, vindicating the idea of the liberal peace from all quarters. But, as Oliver Richmond has pointed out on openDemocracy, drawing on a broader body of critical opinion, liberal peacebuilding routinely fails to sediment democracy or peace. Even loyal supporters of liberal peacebuilding have started to agree with this verdict. The problem is that no-one has yet presented a viable alternative. This article looks at why peacebuilding fails and proposes the idea of ‘popular peace’ to address major shortfalls in the legitimacy of peacebuilding and its, at best, fundamental irrelevance to a majority of post-conflict lives.

Liberal peacebuilding prioritises elite liberal political institution- and value-building in metropolitan centres. After securing the local turf, it disarms combatants, resettles internal refugees, restrains and retrains the army and police and neutralises the political environment by implanting and monitoring liberal rules and institutionalising the idea of the rule of law. When conditions are right enough, it holds elections, after which it departs and leaves the embryonic ‘liberal’ state to grow under its own steam, having seeded the basics. Metropolitan centres boast new government buildings and courts, a multiplying media and, normally, some form of political powersharing, intentionally or otherwise. It assumes with regard to such institutions that, if we build them, they will come. But increasingly, critics are claiming that the edifices and nomenclature of liberalism mask an underlying trend in which political elites continue to fight for power using traditional means that manipulate and exploit the new institutions, which are in reality mere husks. This peace is a limited peace for a limited minority. In focusing on metropolitan centres and elite institutions, the basic, everyday needs of millions of very poor and frequently vulnerable citizens are relegated to chance and charity. This emphasis condemns millions of ordinary, everyday lives to penury in the extreme conditions characteristic of postconflict spaces, which are routinely devoid of clean water, sanitation, electricity, sealed roads and jobs, all of which are foundational to development out of war. Liberal peacebuilding, tasked with political and economic liberalisation, achieves neither for a majority of the populations whose lives it is meant to address. Peace and stability rarely prevail subsequent to liberal peacebuilding interventions, contradicting the assumptions and expectations of orthodox thinking and ignoring the aspirations and needs of millions of human beings.

In short, liberal peacebuilding doesn’t do what it says it does on the tin. Why is this? Explanations can be divided into two groups. Uncritical liberals argue that liberalism isn’t being applied properly. They point towards local resistance and co-option of the process and blame it on internal matters, justifying this by arguing that local people are incapable of resolving their conflicts, or peacebuilders wouldn’t be required in the first place. Uncritical liberals also suggest that there is nothing wrong with the choice of (liberal) processes, it just needs tinkering with. Writers such as Roland Paris say it isn’t taking because we’re doing it the wrong way round, while Simon Chesterman argues it’s because we aren’t doing enough of it, advocating a more intrusive and paternalistic approach. In contrast, critics of orthodox liberalisation maintain that it doesn’t work because we’re overdoing it and removing agency and choice from people, so that the surface vernacular of participation and stakeholding proves to be mere rhetoric, which in turn undermines, according to an increasing band of critics, the idea of the process being either democratic or legitimate at the local level.

And here, critics may be onto something. It is reasonable to argue that rather than focusing criticisms on the ‘illiberal’ nature of the outcome, which inevitably puts the blame on local people, it would be more useful to see the outcome as irrelevant, which allows us to interrogate the utility and meaning of liberal peacebuilding to people in postconflict spaces. We may begin to consider that despite the rhetoric, democratization and peacebuilding in fragile states doesn’t take because it just isn’t relevant to a majority of everyday lives. And why would it be? Peacebuilding mainly happens in capital cities. It largely ignores the everyday lives of the vast majority of the rural population, whose priorities are rarely elite political institutions in distant capitals privileging a narrow and particularist agenda of human rights and liberal values. It disrupts and criminalizes institutions and practices that serve the basic needs of many people very well. Conditions in postconflict states may not be apocalyptic – although from the perspective of someone with no home, inadequate food, no clean water, few clothes and three children below the age of 5, it may very well and quite reasonably look that way. But they are severe. They are normally devastated by years of war, neglected or brutalized by absent, irrelevant or violent government, and undermined by weak economies. This is not to say people can’t fight back against these conditions and survive; they can. But it is to suggest that prioritising elections and new law courts in a distant capital city with freshly-painted political institutions drawing disproportionate sums of external funding may not be at the forefront of most people’s minds if they were actually asked to list what they wanted their peace to look like. In short, peacebuilding privileges do not reflect the imminent needs of most people in postconflict spaces. This undemocratic process, whereby the will of the majority is largely ignored, is irrelevant and illegitimate to too many.

If this legitimacy deficit is not very visible to the outside observer, it is because the propaganda and fanfare attached to popular elections and the ensuing ‘choice’ of leaders meant to ‘empower’ the electorate, obscures our view. Whilst elections clearly do offer some choice, the focus and emphasis on this element of democracy masks the paucity of choices people actually have in deciding the longer-term matter of how their peace evolves. The appearance that the short term process is inclusive and democratic obscures the fact that the longer-term process is exclusionary and illiberal. Global peacebuilders cannot advance liberal priorities and expect people simply to adopt them when they are so at odds with local needs. Such is the nature of an evolving critique of liberal peacebuilding and its failure to build liberal peace. The problem isn’t that the outcome is illiberal; it’s that it’s irrelevant.

I would argue that what is needed is ‘popular peace’. Popular peace derives from local priorities serviced through able institutions sustained, where they are lacking, through external cooperation. It exists at the interface of what Foucault called ‘technologies of self’ and ‘technologies of governance’, with a further extension to technologies of global governance (the ideological authority behind prevailing peacebuilding practices). This popular peace is legitimate internally because forces of government and governance combine to serve the popular will, as any good democracy should, and society then respects the right of those sources of power to rule, and desists from fighting the state or simply ignoring and bypassing it. If people prioritize jobs and schools, and the state is unable to provide for or mobilize these democratically-affirmed priorities, then global governance institutions step up to help the state provide these demands, mobilizing further existing local agency and creating the grounds upon which social acquiescence to the democratic state evolves. Global governance encourages such provision whilst simultaneously financially disciplining state bodies in accordance with the liberal rights and values intrinsic to everyday lives, needs and stated, peaceful preferences. Hundreds of global governance bodies already monitor states for concordance with external values in the process of democratization. There is absolutely no good reason why such organisations, and new ones, should not attend to ensuring state institutions sustain basic liberal values like the right to life, which are so routinely compromised in the extreme conditions of postconflict spaces. In this process, the popular will is served, nurturing the other end of the social contract through provision relevant to a majority who then have more reason to legitimate and authorise the state.

Popular peace is peace that is democratically-determined, from the bottom-up, relevant, apposite and legitimate to a majority of everyday lives and nourished from the top-down, at the interface of which are the people who will sanction and legitimate elite authority through judgments more meaningful, and durable than momentary electoral ballots. It is strictly specific to context and tailored to local needs, locally identified; it cannot be defined or determined by outsiders, but outsiders can act to remove at least some of the impediments to its realization. It lays the framework for the nourishment of everyday needs, engaging formal and informal actors and institutions at local and global levels, especially rendering the right to life meaningful where such rights are immediately threatened en masse. There is, in other words, no standardized blue-print for an everyday peace, since all everyday lived realities are influenced by an enormous range of social factors that differ from landscape to landscape. It is messy in make-up, rather than formulaic; reactive rather than rigid, and better suited to spontaneous contingency, circumstance and complexity than the rehearsed rhetoric and ready rubric of liberal universalism.  

For popular peace to be most effective, two agendas require consideration. The first is everyday need, the second is neoliberal exceptionalism. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, even if neoliberal determinism is considered by some to be counter-intuitive to local needs. Ultimately, peace of this kind could be ‘emancipatory’, not just for people in postconflict spaces, but also for the liberal peace idea, morally distressed and devalued by the distance between what it preaches in human rights rhetoric, and the practices it privileges in reality that deny key life rights to millions.

Whilst popular peace at the local level is limited by existing capacity, it can be enhanced with moderate changes in global governance. Connecting the two requires acceptance of the utility and legitimacy of ongoing informal practices as necessary and locally legitimate. The more institutional activity, formal and informal, provides for popular peace, the greater the likelihood of a viable social contract, institutional legitimacy and political stability, all of which are in accordance with both everyday needs and liberal peace concerns. Indeed, rather than being a radical departure from existing approaches, popular peace extends the concept of institution-building beyond the present limitations. The solution is to conduct new research that identifies the popular will of the people at whom liberal peacebuilding is directed – and then work out how to service it. Without this change, it will continue to fail.


Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData