Since the end of the Cold War, international peacebuilding interventions, whether involving the United Nations or not, have been focused on shaping and regulating the domestic governance of states.
This ‘statebuilding’ agenda is typically seen by peacebuilding scholars and practitioners to reflect the ‘lessons learned’ through earlier intervention efforts in the 1990s. According to Roland Paris, for example, early post-Cold War peacebuilding interventions had adopted a narrow conception of the liberal peace thesis and essentially sought to rapidly democratise target states, privatise their economies, and then quickly leave, assuming this would produce a peaceful outcome. The evident lack of success of many of those interventions, he argues, led to the adoption of longer term forms of intervention, seeking to construct better functioning states to attain both stabilisation and development.
Yet, this form of interventionism has had a patchy record too, especially reflected in the colossal failure of the US-led statebuilding projects in Iraq and Afghanistan. These failings are seen by many to have undermined the hitherto hegemonic ‘liberal peace thesis’ – the view that liberal societies and institutions are the best means of attaining and maintaining peace. Indeed, the subsequent adoption of more pragmatic forms of intervention, apparently more accommodating of recipients’ social, cultural and political structures, such as the US’s counterinsurgency doctrine, seems to substantiate the view that the liberal peace is in an ideological crisis.
For some, the ideological decline of the liberal peace suggests a weakening of the commitment to international intervention in general. This is either viewed as a negative development by those supportive of the idea of liberal peacebuilding, or as a positive development by those critical of it. This debate is misplaced, however, since the conflation of liberal peacebuilding with international statebuilding is a category mistake. Although statebuilding has undoubtedly been the main delivery device for peacebuilding since the early 2000s, the former’s origins are in deeper changes to the intervening states, which are not related to the peacebuilding agenda.
Specifically, statebuilding interventionism is an outcome of the emergence of regulatory forms of statehood, initially in the West, in two ways. First, statebuilding interventions are typically now diffuse, multilevel, multi-actor interventions, across many areas of governance and service-delivery. This is a manifestation of the prior disaggregation of governance in the intervening states, as well as in international organisations, such as the UN. Specialist agencies of states, international organisations and non-state organisations are thus increasingly networked and engaged in particular aspect of statebuilding – e.g. health, education, policing.
Second, rather than driven by a humanitarian impulse, or the desire to impose a liberal peace, the impetus for international statebuilding is that of risk management. Transborder threats of various kinds – terrorism, infectious disease, organised crime, even irregular migration – have moved to the centre of the security agenda for many states and international organisations, including the UN. Addressing these issues is often argued to require effective governance across all the relevant jurisdictions, as unilateral action by governments would not suffice. Hence, statebuilding interventionism focuses on transforming strategic parts of the state apparatus of states seen as the origin of transborder threats and linking these to broader efforts to manage these threats. These interventions are viewed as an essential tool for managing these problems and mitigating the risk of transnational spillover.
This means that statebuilding interventions are unlikely to cease entirely, even if the ideological commitment to the ‘liberal peace’ dissipates further. Indeed, statebuilding is not about attaining peace as such. Rather than being deployed in conflict or post-conflict environments, as the term ‘peacebuilding’ suggests, statebuilding has been extended into most developing countries, especially through development aid practices. As long as trans-boundary security problems are viewed as a significant challenge to powerful states and societies, agencies of powerful states and international organisations will seek to intervene within states to promote their preferred governance response to these issues.
Yet, there are deeper issues manifesting in the rise of this mode of international interventionism. It is a reflection of the crisis of the nation-state, or more accurately of the national scale of governance and politics. The point is not that states are becoming less important. They are as important as ever, as the statebuilding agenda surely attests. Nonetheless, the assumption that states are ‘power containers’, producing a neat division between what is inside and outside the state, is increasingly problematic. Shifts in the global political economy over recent decades – ‘globalisation’ – have extended the disjuncture between the scope of state power and the formal national territory and have produced increasingly disaggregated forms of regulatory statehood. Although this process has often been contested and its results uneven across different states, there is little doubt that the trend has been for a weakening of institutions, like representative democracy, that are amenable to popular pressure.
But while this crisis of the national scale continues to unfold, the idea of national sovereignty retains an important place in popular imagination, is institutionalised in international law, and there is no substitute to the political accountability and representation offered by national institutions. Therefore, tension is growing between the diffusion of state power to non-majoritarian parts of the state and the expansion of executive power, including through statebuilding interventionism, and popular demands for political expression and accountability. Recent events, such as the Arab Spring, as well as growing dissatisfaction within Western states, manifesting in movements like Occupy, are in most cases yet to lead to meaningful change. They do reflect, however, the crisis of authority affecting the nation-state – a crisis whose roots are deep, as mentioned.
To be sure, no easy solutions exist for the problems statebuilding aims to address. However, the response through international statebuilding carries its own risks. International statebuilding interventions are often said to be about restoring state capacity and hence sovereignty to the recipients of intervention. Yet, their main thrust is in fact to transform target states internally to reduce the susceptibility of their administrations to domestic political and popular demands, which are seen to undermine ‘good governance’. Hence, they ironically extend the deeper crisis of the national scale they purportedly are aimed at ameliorating.
Therefore, what is at stake here is no less than the future of statehood. What forms statehood assumes in the future will depend on how the tension between the reality and idea of contemporary statehood is resolved in particular instances.
Shahar Hameiri is Associate Professor of International Politics at the Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University, Australia. In January 2016 he will take up post at the School of Political Science and International Studies, University of Queensland. His most recent book, co-authored with Lee Jones, is Governing Borderless Threats: Non-Traditional Security and the Politics of State Transformation (Cambridge University Press, 2015). He tweets @ShaharHameiri.