What is your alternative?

Moving beyond liberal peace is possible. Modifications are already out there, says Oliver Richmond.

Oliver P Richmond
29 October 2010

The phrase ‘what is your alternative?’ is often heard in response to criticisms of the liberal peace. This is like saying,‘resistance is futile’. The liberal peacebuilding and statebuilding framework is regarded as the highest achievement of modern society – a way of taming the violence of state formation. Compliance with this hierarchical schema is demanded like a proof of identity (the author was once told off at a major international conference for appearing ‘anti-liberal’!). In a post-colonial era of pluralism, diversity, and the promotion of development, there is a somewhat contradictory desire for a centralised model of peace, to be led by key international actors and donors, who together will maintain the dominant liberal and neoliberal version of the state, together with its associated knowledge systems. Its proponents appear to be in constant fear of a sudden leadership challenge from inferior or alien forms of peace.

It might be better to recognise the changes that have already occurred to the liberal peace model - from Timor where the rational state is being mediated by a customary and traditional order, to Guatemala where the indigenous population is increasingly holding the neoliberal state accountable to an alternative life-world, and Afghanistan, where a range of actors (some quite unsavoury) have begun to demand and receive accommodation in the political process.

To begin to understand such processes, and how they may contribute to a peaceful order in a positive sense, which is locally relevant, is far more important than maintaining the liberal state or even the global economy in its current form. Ultimately, this request for an alternative fails to recognise the implications of such processes and maintains the exclusiveness and exclusionary dynamics of the liberal peace. It is a form of censorship that negates any kind of peace not organised in a similar fashion to that of a liberal peace. It is a power claim, couched in terms of an elite knowledge, designed either to preserve northern hegemony, or simply resulting from a methodological bias towards security, rights, and institutions, as seen via northern, rational problem-solving approaches. These biases write out the voices, needs, rights, and socio-historical milieu of many of the world’s citizens in post-conflict and development settings beyond the global north. They evacuate the local and replace it with western modes of politics and economy - with western hegemony- however well-meaning- expressed through peacebuilding, statebuilding, aid and development.

Such statements also mistake the target of our critique. Critics like myself are not ‘in it’ for ideological reasons, or even to produce a new narrative for peacebuilding, also controlled by those who have created it. It is not to be troublesome, or to present new idealistic visions of an alternative for the many post-conflict citizens of the world. Instead we are trying to restore to the centre of debate, and to the centre of the very processes of peacebuilding or statebuilding, the political subjects who are the reason for their existence.

Ironically, liberal peacebuilding and statebuilding have forgotten the situation of their subjects - the needs, rights, and historical, contextual milieu of the post-conflict citizen. The critique’s central engagement with peace confuses many commentators who are used to thinking about exporting ‘flat-pack’ assemblages for state reform: programming that mirrors some idealised western experience. It also confuses those who think liberalism represents the ‘end of history’ and so the ultimate form of peace. It also confuses those who are concerned with states, institutions, and power, and believe that organised and large scale mobilisation is the only form of progressive politics. They are often more used to thinking in terms of - and defending - power, sovereignty, institutions, territory and markets (with ‘rights’ as a rhetorical flourish).

Of course liberalism is flexible about the right of critique, which after all is the engine of progress in Enlightenment terms. So it is peculiar that, for many, it is almost taboo to critique the liberal peace. There is an unwillingness to recognise that exported grand political projects may not succeed, or that power disappears or is wasted on white elephant projects. Meanwhile, local political subjects, aware of their own context, can make peace for themselves and also crave autonomy. Even in post-conflict settings, it is the citizens who either give legitimacy to peacebuilding, statebuilding, and development projects run by externals, or withdraw it. Yet rampant interventionism together with a civilising mission have replaced processes of local and national enablement and support. Nevertheless, it is an inconvenient fact that local subjects in all sorts of post-conflict settings around the world, have found ways of transforming the liberal peace project, despite its apparent hegemony. Sometimes this appears commensurate with international norms, human rights, and democracy, and sometimes not. But local contexts and the associated norms of a liberal peace are modifying each other.

So the answer to the question, what is the alternative? - is to look around the world and see how many modifications and alternatives are actually out there, coming into being in post-conflict settings and driven by local capacity. Some appear more conducive to forms of peace than others - but this calculation should rest on the level of local legitimacy, representation, and engagement with needs, assessments which should then be incorporated into international understandings of legitimacy rather than the other way around. There are many different types of state, some nuanced versions of liberal states, others neoliberal, others centralised, some decentralised, others authoritarian, some social democracies, some ethnically majoritarian, some power sharing, federal, confederal, some representative democracies, some participatory, some representing a national myth, some based on religion or socialism, some balancing many identities, many adopting and developing particular strategies in the global economy, and so on. This diversity is reflected in both regional arrangements and in local and contextual forms of politics, too.

This is far more the reality than the current banality of liberal peace/neoliberal state vs local anarchy/ failed states that mark much of the west’s rather colonial view of the world. It is no wonder that there has been a post-colonial reaction against this from many states and emerging donors, the BRICs, and of course, civil society and customary actors, and individual citizens concerned with their identity, global inequality, and the local resonance of the peace, the state, regional and global order they desire.

So, a far more plausible research strategy for peacebuilding and statebuilding would look at the impact such local agencies, norms, institutions, and capacity have on the liberal peace and states-system, processes of state formation, and vice-versa. This would develop and protect local, state, and regional dynamics of peace, pluralism and diversity, institutions, law, and rights as well as dealing with needs (which has been one of the most problematic omissions of the liberal peace system). It would prevent the hijack of peacebuilding and statebuilding for ideological ends, and would mitigate the unintended consequences of the dominant northern methodological bias towards security, power, state and institutions - especially on human life. I would argue that such research reflects what is already occurring rather than a policy driven attempt to create external compliance. We are already beyond the liberal peace.

Luddites might defend it, and want to be taken to the hypothetical leader of the daring challenge against the liberal peace and neoliberal state (if only to attempt a citizen’s arrest), but the more significant research project is about how the dominant models are being modified and reformed by their supposedly weak subjects, who are utilising their own institutions, context, and rights of representation - as democracy intends - though against the odds. This form of critical and local agency is not just modifying the liberal peace but it is a challenge to the centralised and state-centric notions of power and norms that this peace is organised around. They are leading and producing hybrid, post-liberal forms of peace. To resist this would be futile: to enable, assist, and mediate it would be a better strategy.


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