On post-conflict peacebuilding

Michael Barnett, Professor, Harold Stassen Chair of International Affairs, Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis

We now know a lot more than we once did about post-conflict peacebuilding, and we also know a lot more than we once did about what we do not know – but need to know – if the international community is going to help states and societies navigate the difficult transition from civil war to civil society.    One reason why we know more now than we did a decade ago is because of the careful work by social scientists, using a range of methodologies, to identify the conditions under which, when, and how peacebuilders are likely to have a positive impact.   An important finding that cannot be overemphasized is that international peacebuilders are limited in what they can do - and recognizing these limits might enable them to be more strategic and more successful in producing small victories that can support the emergence of decent governments and that provide the foundations for future movements toward a positive peace.  Building on the insights of social science and this summary observation, I have organized my memo according to three conclusions and their implications for considering all future peacebuilding strategies.   

All Politics is Local - and Local Elites Prefer the Status Quo

International peacebuilders and local elites frequently have divergent preferences – they want different things.  Peacebuilders want to promote democracy, the rule of law, and market-oriented economies, all of which are viewed as necessary for a positive peace.  Local elites frequently want to maintain their power and consequently are suspicious of any sort of structural reforms.  Peacebuilders use a combination of carrots and sticks to guide post-conflict processes in directions that are consistent with their mandates; that is, they will try and get local actors to do what they otherwise might not want to do.  Lessons from recent operations, however, suggest that local actors are a lot better manipulating peacebuilders than the reverse.  The result is a compromised peacebuilding that reinforces the status quo and an illiberal order. 

  • Local elites, like all elites, are consumed with maintaining and extending their political and economic power and doing so often means defending the status quo.  This is particularly true in the context of peacebuilding, which is intended to pluralize the political and economic order and thus reduce the power of elites. 
  • Local elites are “in to win” while external peacebuilders can always declare victory (or distribute blame) and leave; consequently, they are likely to be much more motivated than are external actors to fight for their interests. 
  • International peacebuilders arrive with limited time, money, and resources, and relying on the cooperation of local parties – thus increasing their willingness to compromise and strengthening the bargaining position of local elites.  Indeed, even when external actors come in with tremendous force (for instance, Iraq and Afghanistan) local elites have managed to drive the process.. 
  • International peacebuilders frequently arrive with general models regarding what they believe represents the ideal process but their general ignorance regarding local politics, culture, history, and society leaves them ripe for manipulation by local actors.  The combination of hubris and ignorance can be deadly for the peacebuilding operation. 
  • Because international peacebuilders generally labor under tremendous uncertainty – uncertainty about what the key parties want, uncertainty about local history, uncertainty even about who are the key actors – they will always find themselves with less influence than they believe. 
  • International peacebuilders have to compromise and their compromises are likely to be closer to the ideal positions of local elites than they are to the positions of the international community.  This compromised peacebuilding is likely to result in post-conflict governments that are far less liberal than peacebuilders would like.
Peacebuilding is Statebuilding

A central challenge of postconflict statebuilding is to design states, first, to contain the threats to stability posed by arbitrary power and factional conflict, and, second, to encourage society to begin conferring legitimacy on the new institutions.   There is the threat to liberty posed by the exercise of arbitrary power by the state.  Factions, a permanent feature of any society, can create instability if not controlled; rivalry can explode into conflict or lead one faction to try to grab state power and deploy it against its enemies.  States also need to develop legitimacy if they are to maintain order, gain the loyalty of their citizens, and implement effective public policies. 

While my previous comments that “all politics is local” and that local elites desire the status quo suggests that there is little that the international community can do to promote a better outcome, outsiders can follow some recipes for improving the situation.[1] 

I call this strategy “republican peacebuilding” in order to distinguish it from “liberal peacebuilding” and in order to call attention to the fundamental insights of the American federalists who drew from republican political theory to invent new governance principles to confront the threats posed by factions and arbitrary power.  These principles, I argue, are as relevant to today’s post-conflict cases as they were to the post-conflict American republic in 1787 – and are present in many of the successful cases of post-conflict peacebuilding.   Three principles – deliberation, checks and balances, representation – should guide international peacebuilders as they think about the institutional design of post-conflict states:            


Genuine deliberation requires that individuals and groups give public reasons for their positions and decisions.   Deliberation has various virtues:

  • it forces individuals and factions to legitimate their positions and proposals in the name of the community’s interest, thus encouraging them to widen their positions and incorporate the views of others. 
  • It helps give the collective decision some legitimacy, thus increasing the chances that policies will be accepted, or at least not met by passive or active resistance. 
  • It provides an opportunity for individuals to change their mind, to alter their beliefs, and to identify with the community.  
Constitutionalism and Divided Power 

Constitutions for establishing rules that restrain the exercise of arbitrary power, limit conflict between factions, and reduce the returns to power.    Most famous are checks and balances - that is, the distribution of political authority that limits the possibility of either a centralized government exercising arbitrary power or a faction dominating the political system.

The benefits of this kind of arrangement include creating a balance of forces within the political system and compelling the local actors to negotiate and compromise. In this way, divided government helps to further the goal of both political stability and legitimacy.   Also critical is a process of deliberation and representation that leads to the construction of the constitutional arrangements; following these principles will help give the constitution some legitimacy.

Representation. The principle of representation does not hinge on democracy but rather on ensuring that all those affected by a decision have their interests considered before the decision is made.  This view of representation is particularly relevant for post-conflict situations where it is now well understood that elections held too quickly can cause more troubles than they solve and potentially undermine the democratization.  Consequently, it is imperative that post-conflict arrangements consider representative mechanisms instead of elections, including consultative bodies and transitional governments that can perform the function of representation until elections are appropriate. 

If unelected bodies are to meet the principle of representativeness they must have:  inclusivity, incorporating diverse groups; and publicity, making transparent their decisions and the reasons behind them.  Satisfying these two criteria encourages those in power to broaden their perspective, acknowledge the views of others, and meet minimal standards of representation.  As such, these criteria help invest the political process with legitimacy, reduce the possibility of arbitrary power, and stabilize the postconflict setting.

The principles of deliberation, divided government, and representation have other virtues that are essential for post-conflict peacebuilding:

  • Legitimacy.  These principles will increase the legitimacy of the state.  Legitimacy depends on the use of proper means to arrive at collective goals.   Proper means is dependent on a political process that considers the diverse interests of its citizens; that is, groups need to believe that their views are being incorporated.  Hence the importance of forms of deliberation, representation, and publicity.  Too often we assume that legitimacy depends on democracy; we need to focus more on meeting the underlying principles and imagine different forms that those principles can take. 
  • Modesty.  There are various virtues in modesty and incrementalism.  Unlike liberal peacebuilding, which uses shock therapy to push postconflict states toward some predetermined vision of the promised land, deliberative processes allow space for societal actors to determine for themselves what is the good life and how to achieve it.  Unlike liberal peacebuilding, which has the vices of all grand social engineering experiments, basic design principles and deliberative processes provide the shell for improvisation and learning informed by experience.  

One last but very important point:  These principles should guide not only building states after war but also the conduct of peacebuilding operations.  The concern with arbitrary power extends beyond the postconflict state - it also includes the exercise of power by peacebuilders. 

Beyond Integration and Stabilization

The important lessons learned of recent operations include the virtues of integration and stabilization, yet integration and stabilization must be understood strategically.  Specifically, as peacebuilders become more modest in their ambitions they must develop strategies that ensure that the integration of their policies are designed to further the prospects that a good society will develop after stabilization.  This calls for the following considerations:

  • Those delivering aid must become more strategic.  NGOs have not engaged in strategic analysis and its consequences.  States must be more aware of how their actions affect those on the ground and the ability of aid agencies to do their work.  International organizations are notorious for being allergic to the very idea of strategic thinking. 
  • Avoid the myth that one strategy fits all circumstances.  International peacebuilders are better at recognizing this myth than avoiding it.  Different political settings require different stabilization strategies and different approaches to humanitarian situations.  Those involved in postconflict reconstruction must consider a menu of strategies that fit a range of tasks and settings. 
  • Work for the Creation of Decent Governments.  Because international peacebuilders cannot produce heaven on earth, they must consider strategies that can shore up potentially decent, but not fully democratic political coalitions in states that might be at risk for backsliding and humanitarian crises. 

If a strategy of backing a decent winner is going to be a normatively desirable outcome, then it must do more than be consistent with the preferences of powerful local elites who give vague pledges not to brutalize their populations.  Too often powerful states and international organizations are willing to go along with these arrangements – thus compromising to the point that they help to produce illiberal orders.  Instead, they should consider how to institutionalize arrangements that encourage the development of publicity principles, deliberation, negotiation, and compromise, thus helping to create a more stable and mutually consensual outcome.

Keep Working For Strategic Integration. Strategic integration must include a consideration not only of means but also of ends; too often integration becomes so focused on policies that means drive ends.  To what extent can aid agencies, states, and international organizations develop a strategic consensus regarding the idea of backing a decent winner?  All collaborations entail tremendous challenges and potential pitfalls – especially for the weaker party.  Yet if postconflict reconstruction is going to deliver a normatively superior outcome in which lives are improved then it will be important that aid agencies, states, and international organizations must investigate how their strategies, tactics, and roles might be better coordinated. 

Evidence-Based Peacebuilding. We have only made progress in peacebuilding because of careful, social scientific, research.  While there is no substitute for experience and practical judgment, too often policymakers mistake their informal knowledge for evidence that can be applied to new situations.   Consequently, policymakers should constantly challenge their own assessment, asking themselves two basic questions: what is the evidence for my strategy and policy? How will I know I am wrong?    

[1] Michael Barnett, “Building a Republican Peace: Stabilizing States After War,” International Security,   30, 4, Spring, 2006, 87-112.

Sist oppdatert: 29.11.2007
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