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Liberal peace transitions: a rethink is urgent

A significant shift is required if international statebuilding and peacebuilding projects around the world are to contribute to peace and lead to reconciliation while also engaging with international standards for democracy and human rights.

Oliver P Richmond
19 November 2009

It is widely accepted among those working in, or on, international organisations, from the UN to the EU, UNDP, NATO or the World Bank, that statebuilding offers a way out of contemporary conflicts around the world: local, civil, regional and international conflicts, as well as complex emergencies, and for developmental issues. Most policymakers, officials, scholars and commentators involved think that they are applying proven knowledge unbiased by cultural or historical proclivities to the conflicts of others. This is not the case. Indeed, what has become known as 'statebuilding' around the conflict-affected parts of the world today is nothing more than a grand experiment drawing on several hundred years of western political and economic experience, interests, and culture, affecting millions of people's lives often carelessly and in a way that makes little sense to them.

From Cambodia and Somalia in the early 1990s, to Bosnia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, DR Congo, Kosovo, East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq, also including Cyprus and Israel/Palestine among others, these international actors have assumed that liberal internationalism, security sector reform, democratic institutions, liberal notions of civil society and a rule of law, together with market development, offer a silver bullet, from the 'new world order' of the first Bush in Somalia to the proclamation of success for the statebuilding mission in Timor Leste by the World Bank a few days before the new state collapsed in 2006. This was to provide a scientific, normative, and technical process of peaceful governance for the as yet uninitiated into peaceful liberal ways. It often took some form of military intervention to provide the basis for liberal institutional reform, the holding of elections, tutoring in human rights, and the opening up of the poorest and least stable parts of the world to international markets (the latter with generally debilitating effects - from Bosnia to Afghanistan standards of living have dropped and unemployment and poverty has increased according to the World Banks own figures).

The broader idea has been that liberal democratic and market reform will provide for regional stability, leading to state stability and individual prosperity. Underlying all of this is the idea that individuals should be enabled to develop a social contract with their state and with international peacebuilders. Instead - in an effort to make local elites reform quickly, particularly in the process of marketisation and economic structural adjustment - those very international peacebuilders have often ended up removing or postponing the democratic and human rights that citizens so desired, and which legitimated international intervention in the first place. A peace dividend has only emerged for political and economic elites: the vast bulk of populations in these many countries have failed to see much benefit from trickle-down economics, or indeed from democracy so far. Political elites have used international support to entrench themselves at the cost of a social contract and liberal reform, and strangely, international actors have become complicit in this paradoxical process. Internationals have proven naively ill-equipped to reform the politics of post-conflict states, and uninterested in empowering citizens.

Yet, most military, humanitarian, diplomatic, political, economic, and social, interventions since the end of the Cold War have been geared to this liberalization programme, with limited success and many obvious pitfalls (not least the adventurism and self interest of the interventions themselves from Kosovo to Iraq, in which many have speculated that liberal ‘peace-as-statebuilding’ was a mere cover for more duplicitous intentions on the part of key western actors). With these failures, and the choppy waters of democracy and international capitalism, such agendas have become relatively more difficult to 'sell' to eager local recipients. Overall, the statebuilding programme has been dogged by setbacks, 'backsliding', shocks, violence, inefficiencies, and limited resources, not to mention a marginal impact upon conflict actors and ordinary people in post-conflict areas. Many local actors have complained not only about international arrogance and heavy-handedness, but a lack of representation, rights, or needs redressal, and a mutual miscomprehension between international peacebuilders and local actors and communities alike. Many internationals across such a diverse array of contexts have themselves expressed great concern (usually in private rather than public) at the implications of the projects they were engaged in under the auspices of one or other western government, the UN, UNDP, World Bank, or EU.

Yet, as the theory of installing liberal governance to create a liberal peace was 'proven' in the eyes of many liberals and neoliberal (and of course, neoconservative) academics and policymakers who may not have reflected very much on their own ideological positions after the end of the Cold War, all that apparently stood in the way was the perfection of this ‘new’ technique. Yet, many now agree that this liberal peace is itself in crisis now. The shock of conflict has been used to liberalise, modernise, marketise, develop, democratise, and to remove any older political agencies and resiliencies that appeared to be an obstacle to this process. What began as a humanitarian project has turned into an insidious form of conversion and riot control which has had many casualties. It has been profoundly anti-democratic in many cases, including in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. From the ground, for many of its recipients, the various iterations of this liberal peace project have taken on a colonial appearance. It has become illiberal and has provoked a range of responses: political elites have mouthed cooperation while corrupting the system (for example in Kosovo, where a 'democratic' voice worked hard for unilateral independence, thus marginalising the ethnic minority; business communities and political elites have profited at the expense of their own communities and constituencies often through primary resource of asset stripping; while local social movements, labour movements, NGOs, and political leaders have resisted it in open and hidden ways. From Bosnia to Kosovo, Afghanistan to Timor, such resistance is generally represented as having led to a deadlock which requires more coercion, conditionality, or 'persuasion' from international actors. In fact these deadlocks often represent new and interesting developments for peacebuilding where the all-powerful liberal peace project is being modified on the ground by its recipients. A local-liberal mediation is occurring, leading to new, contextual, and hybrid forms of peace.

Local resistance

It is not surprising that local forms of resistance have emerged in many regions subject to multiple forms of peacekeeping, peacebuilding, development, structural adjustment, and statebuilding programmes. These expressions of agency are often in response to the echoes of colonialism that local elites and community actors often detect in this ‘new’ technique of liberal peacebuilding and statebuilding. These are sometimes violent, organised as 'national' agendas or resistance movements, sometimes as embryonic social movements, or as hidden and everyday acts of marginal resistance in the exercise of local agencies for reconciliation, reconstruction, and recovery on their own terms. Through the unexpected expression of such capacities, local actors are reframing what they require from a viable, just, and durable peace, often quietly and in the margins, drawing on the liberal peace as well as their own customs and interests. These are the 'infrapolitics of peacebuilding', where local agency and capacities, so sought after by liberal social contract builders, are in fact expressed as hidden or overt resistance rather than straightforward acquiescence or even passivity. These dynamics place international organisations like the UN, donors, international financial institutions, peacekeepers and enforcers, and even NGOs, in the difficult position of having to propagate and indeed introduce an ideology (liberalism and neoliberalism), through subtle or open coercion, commonly known as 'conditionality' but also seen in more forceful terms in the US's role in Iraq. Normally, such approaches result in the denial of local autonomy by international actors with predictable results: calls for for the 'Kosovanisation' of 'Timorisation' of distant peacebuilding in both Kosovo and Timor. These are sensitive terms in fragile environments. Instead, it might be more useful to engage with these dynamics, as indeed, is already occurring from Timor Leste to Afghanistan.

Talk of ‘human security’, ‘responsibility to protect’, ‘do no harm doctrines’ and ‘local ownership’ seems very empty from the perspective of most of the peoples these concepts have been visited upon. This in turn has often elicited from subject communities a 'post-colonial response', criticising peace interventions as self-interested, imperialistic, orientalist, and focusing on the interveners' interests rather than local interests. A local (transnational and transversal) attempt is under way to reclaim political agency and autonomy from the new post-Cold War 'civilising mission', which has over the last twenty years, shown itself unable to provide for basic needs, rights, security (state or human) at levels local actors expect, or to respect or understand local differences and non-liberal, and even non-state patterns of politics. Non-liberal and non-western forms of politics, economics, society, and custom, are clamouring for discursive and material space in many post-conflict zones, with mixed implications for sustainability and for the purpose of achieving a normatively (to liberals at least) and contextually acceptable, locally sustainable peace.

Moves are under way to reopen spaces for local agency across South America, as well as in many reconstruction sites in Africa and Asia. This agency or resistance may have started as hidden and relatively passive but then the vocalisation of alternative approaches to politics, society, economy, and peace itself becomes more confident as liberal peacebuilding fails to deliver. These initiatives are often elite and localised or civil and derived from evolving social movements or customary systems, which are quite often widely or transnationally connected. They have made a dramatic appearance from Iraq and Afghanistan, to Timor, the Solomon Islands, Mozambique, Liberia, Kosovo, and Bosnia, among others, sometimes in subtle ways (such as the manipulation of political systems, democracy, and markets to maintain traditional elites or create states), or more confrontationally (use of violence, demonstrations), or as local peacebuilding (social movements, the application of localised law or welfare through customary institutions, alternative approaches to land use and management, or amalgamating tribal or chiefly councils into the modern state, etc). The role of non-state actors in such processes has indeed been discussed in various contexts, such as Lebanon, where non-state actors have been accused of usurping the state. This is as opposed to the substitution of failed state or customary institutions that international donors, agencies, and NGOs were expected to do since the 1990s. They should not be seen as automatically negative though some do ensure the persistence of a range of anti-democratic practices, patriarchy, corruption, or discrimination.

These, however, may be heavily modified not only by their prolonged contact with the agents of liberal and neoliberal reform over the longer term, but also through internal renegotiations. For it is in the antagonistic political contact between liberal peacebuilding and local dynamics, not the virtual states and dependencies that have sprung up through neoliberal forms of statebuilding, that a more sustainable, everyday peace, developing more locally resonant forms of peacebuilding, has actually emerged. In some cases, as in Kosovo and Timor Leste this has led to a modified form of state emerging, heavily influenced by both liberal norms and local customs, practices, identities, and national agendas. Very difficult issues arise here for 'international planners' of peace and world order, not least in how they respond to such confrontations between very different political systems, customs, and agendas. But, it is also the case that synergies may arise, where these are sensitively handled and properly understood.

All too often this has not been the case. Liberal peacebuilding has fallaciously assumed that post-conflict individuals, from Kosovo to Kabul, were colonial children to be mentored, engineered, coerced, and beckoned into adulthood (often by contextually inexperienced administrators), and that liberalism itself was universal rather than culturally constructed according to the wests contextual and historical experiences. All but the most basic aspects of security have been ignored. Social contracts between communities and emergent states in these areas have not been forthcoming, not least because of the neoliberal focus on ownership, property, production and consumption. What this ignores is how peace requires well-being via human needs stemming from rights defined by their contexts, (where context may mean local, customary, state, market, regional or international, not merely the 'local' it is often taken to mean). These contexts are of course connected to the ambit of liberal state and international institutions, but they are not defined by them. As a result, millions of people around the world do not have adequate rights or needs provision, nor proper access to representation, despite the best intentions of liberal peacebuilders.

What must change?

For there to be a humanitarian and peacebuilding project which is welcomed – not reviled, scorned or co-opted on the ground as has recently occurred with disturbing frequency - a new approach is required. This need not abandon the humanitarian project, its internationalism or transnationalism, and its transformative commitment to human rights, to peoples needs, or to reconciliation. It should not abandon the collective ambitions and capacities of many who work in this sector, in the UN, the international financial institutions, NGOs, donors, or universities. It might just be that the recognition of this process of renegotiation is what is required - the replacement of one-size-fits-all prescriptions by a model that is designed from the ground up in each case in locally resonant ways respecting autonomous agency, capacity, custom, identity, religion, and alternative models of politics, society, and economics and their relations with, resistance to, exposure to, and acceptance of the liberal peace paradigm.

To achieve this the ethically and methodologically dubious privatisation of security and peacebuilding and its connection to neoliberal marketisation strategies in the context of a classically sovereign state should be abandoned. The privatisation of peacebuilding means that no accountability is possible until after a specific development project has failed, and only then by refusing funding often to those who need it most. Such strategies have attracted to this sector a dangerous fringe of arrogant bureaucrats, 'ambulance chasers' and 'cowboys' rather than imbuing peacebuilding with the dynamics of grounded reconciliation.

As a result, liberal peacebuilding is now caught up in a post-colonial encounter with its 'others'. Initially, international actors responded by writing off local agencies and their autonomy, deploying the usual forms of infantilisation and coercion, while paradoxically hoping to enable capacity. This has seen non-liberal ideologies, warlords, tribal leaders, chiefs, customary and traditional forms of governance and political, social, and economic arrangements, not to mention alternative approaches to property and land ownership, move into very uncomfortable relationships with would-be liberal peacebuilders. Yet, from this encounter, a post-liberal peace may now be emerging less encumbered by idealistic prescriptions and more locally resonant. This form of peace raises very difficult choices and compromises. We may see this clearly in recent discussions about re-opening negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan or attempts to introduce aspects of Shariah law into its national constitution. The same is true of moves to associate the modern governmental state with traditional governance in Timor Leste, or the Solomon Islands, or calls to introduce a national welfare system and mixed economy in Iraq or Timor. The increasing reflection about basic needs and welfare approaches has now also become evident in Bosnia, with the OSCE calling for attention to related areas in the context of its peacebuilding engagement. Notably, democracy is rarely resisted other than by the most extreme of actors, but it is often criticized for being distant in outcome to local communities. In the end, a recognition that this emergent local-liberal form of hybridity which is leading to a post-liberal form of politics, may lead to states and to forms of peace that are more locally relevant, stable, autonomous, while also reflecting widely agreed international norms, which themselves may be altered by these developments. It will be profoundly more democratic and accountable as a result.

Such hybridity might achieve what emancipatory liberalism has tried and failed so far to achieve, at far too high a human cost: locally sustainable, regionally stable, internationally acceptable forms of peace, which reflect thin cosmopolitan norms and thick local expectations and identities (from whence a social contract must emanate). At the moment the impulse appears to be to illiberalise, to postpone democracy, to open markets further, and to depoliticise because a lack of local agency is seen to be the cause of these failures, rather than faulty international analytic and policy approaches and mistaken idealism. Ironically, this spurs more local claims for autonomy and exercises of agency and hidden capacities which modifies the nature of the liberal peacebuilding project in unanticipated ways, often then also resisted by international actors rather than engaged with.

Clearly, the more democratic reform is allied to context as well as to material opportunity, needs as well as rights, to public services and to a sense of shared identity in a range of ways not necessarily related to the state, the more it will resonate with a population. The anchoring of peacebuilding to globalisation has failed. It is time to start anchoring it to localisation and peacebuilding's infrapolitics, as well as transnationalisation, at least until post-conflict polities are democratically and materially able to assert their own compromise on what may be their international and regional position and their national or local identities, once reconciliation has taken place. This is a basis for the emergence of emancipatory discourses about peace free of their current prescriptive baggage.

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