In Defense of the Liberal Peace

A short essay in response to the question: “Are the criticisms against liberal peacebuilding justified?”

Quinn Zimmerman State Failure & Statebuilding 2013 Department of War Studies – King’s College London

Word Count: 1491 (excluding cover page and bibliography)

Introduction Liberal peacebuilding, the one-time darling of post-Cold War international relations theory, has had a sobering fall from grace in the 21st century. Originally heralded as panacea for the many conflict-ravaged states and societies that emerged in the power vacuum following the end of the US - Soviet superpower struggle, aspirations for what it could accomplish were high. In many respects, it was seen as the application of what Francis Fukuyama deemed humanity’s “endpoint in its ideological evolution.”1 However, events since 2000, particularly those following the 9/11 attacks, have resulted in a backlash against liberal peacebuilding, with even its supporters acknowledging the shortcomings seen in its practice. Roland Paris, a proponent of the liberal peace, acknowledges that attempting to rebuild postconflict states through neoliberal market reforms and the establishment of democratic rule alone is too optimistic.2 However, Paris also offers a counterpoint: that the extreme swing against liberal peacebuilding is both unjustified and based on arguments that are often generalized, misplaced, or lacking the nuanced considerations a deep and expansive subject necessarily requires.3 This essay supports Paris’s views, and will argue that, while right to highlight problematic elements of the liberal peace in practice, critics are nevertheless fallacious and unjustified when they assert that liberal peacebuilding as a whole is inherently flawed. By reinterpreting liberal peacebuilding as something it is not, and citing problems of execution within specific, highly-challenging contexts as proof of a greater ideological failure, critics do disservice to the credibility of their claims. Indeed, as Paris makes clear, “Recognising shortcomings… does not, in itself, demonstrate that peacebuilding has on balance been harmful to the societies… Most… are probably better off than they would have been without such missions.”4

Liberal peacebuilding: what it is, and isn’t. Defined by Boutros Boutros-Ghali in 1992 as “actions to identify and support structures which will tend to strengthen and solidify peace in order to avoid a relapse into violence”5, liberal peacebuilding has been interpreted to mean many things by many people. However, certain fundamental elements are consistent: it is conducted by liberal, Western states; it is motivated by liberal objectives such as human rights and the responsibility to protect; and it promotes liberal-democratic institutions, good governance, and economic liberalization as the necessary tools for realizing lasting peace in post-conflict societies.6 However, many critics define liberal peacebuilding as something else entirely - an “empire in denial”7, “alien rule that denies human dignity”8, an “effort… to maintain essentially undemocratic societies which

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Paris (2010) p. 340 Chandler (2005) 3 Paris (2010) p. 338 4 Ibid., p. 352 5 Boutros-Ghali (1992) para. 21 6 Zaum (2012) pp. 121-122 7 Chandler (2006) p. 176 8 Bain (2006) pp. 525-38

facilitates the continued exploitation of the global poor by the global rich“9 – all of which are faulty reinterpretations of the liberal peace as a form of neo-colonialism. Unlike true colonialism, in which activities are taken primarily to benefit international occupiers at the expense of the host, modern UNled liberal peacebuilding missions do not seek to extract resource wealth and other capital from the societies they intervene in. Indeed, as Paris points out, “On the contrary, the predominant flow of resources in contemporary peacebuilding has been in the opposite direction: from international actors to the host state.”10 Furthermore, unlike colonial policy - which sought to maintain control of captured states indefinitely - even those most ambitious, far-reaching and potentially intrusive liberal peacebuilding missions have been designed around temporary stewardship.11 The end goal of the liberal peace is an independent, stable, responsible state benefitting both its people, and the international community.

In defense of the liberal peace. Critics often attempt to highlight failures of the liberal peace as proof of its inherently flawed nature, but they are wrong in doing so. History is against them, as made clear by Paris’s reminder that, “…democratic or representative forms of government, plus some kind of market-oriented economy, are probably the best long-term solution for civil violence. An impressive number of studies have demonstrated that… market democracies are significantly more peaceful than other kinds of states.”12 Such peace-advancing political and economic principles are at the very heart of liberal peacebuilding. Furthermore, the international community and its laws reinforce many of the central tenants of liberal peacebuilding, particularly in regards to human rights and the responsibility to protect. As such, some proposed alternatives to liberal peace, such as Herbst’s prescription to simply “let them fail”13, or Weinstein’s “autonomous recovery” approach14, which effectively call for no external involvement, fly in the face of international consensus. Their policies are troubling on both a moral level - modern civil wars see very high civilian casualties and atrocities - and on a strategic level, as conflict can create environments in which internationally threatening activities (terrorism, organized crime) can flourish. It also impacts neighbor states, reducing regional stability. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that fighting will in fact end. These realities considered, “letting them fail” is a far worse prescription than attempting a liberal peace. If “letting them fail” is not a viable solution to addressing conflict and subsequent post-conflict transition, perhaps “letting them lead” is. This approach, popular among liberal peace critics, is more persuasive, as traditional liberal peacebuilding has been seen as top-down and often conducted with insufficient local input and involvement, which is problematic for successful transition of power from international to local actors. However, “letting them lead” is not without its problems. As Paris reveals by highlighting Chopra’s work exploring peacebuilding in Kenya, “Efforts to tap into traditional conflict-


Robinson (1996) pp. 6-7 Paris (2010) p. 349 11 Ibid. p. 350 12 Paris (2005) p. 768 13 Herbst (2004) p. 302 14 Weinstein (2005) p. 5

resolution techniques through community-level ‘peace committees’ in Kenya have… in some cases… served to ‘deepen existing rifts between communities’ and ‘reinforce divisions’ while also undermining concurrent efforts to strengthen respect for the rule of law at the national level.”15 In Sierra Leone in 2007, most civil society organizations (CSOs) emerged not to engage the greater goal of peacebuilding, but to enrich themselves. As Cubitt makes clear, “CSOs became the new entrepreneurs of post-war reconstruction, often working donors by ‘skewing’ their projects in line with international agendas on issues which were not necessarily grass roots driven, lacking local legitimacy.”16 Such cases reveal that popular alternatives advanced by critics of liberal peacebuilding are likely to be, upon closer examination, more damaging. Comparing alternatives brings to mind the words of Winston Churchill when he stated that, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried…”17

The problems of peacebuilding: execution, not ideology. Historically, many mistakes have been made by peacebuilders, but these reflect not the failure of liberal peacebuilding as a whole, as critics are fond of suggesting, but rather failure in its execution. A few examples serve to illustrate this point. Paul Collier argues that democracy, when rushed, can exacerbate conflict in the fragile context of post-war society, pointing specifically at the tendency by peacebuilders to equate holding elections with the successful realization of democracy.18 Chandler calls to attention the undermining of state capacity and legitimacy that peacebuilding, with its top-down, Western-led approach, has practiced. Specifically he details Bosnia, in which post-conflict peacebuilding resulted in the EU and members of its staff holding ultimate authority over state laws and local officials, weakening Bosnian governance capacity.19 Zaum, referencing Richmond, is critical of peacebuilding’s history of downplaying or ignoring the importance of local perceptions and the informal sector (civil society, local power structures, non-state institutions) in contributing to the establishment of lasting peace and stability.20 Paris suggests that the primary issue concerning shortcomings is a deep underestimation by peacebuilders and their sponsors as to the timeframe and difficulty required to peacebuild effectively: “The problem is not… promoting democracy or free markets. The problem is the assumption that external actors can do so quickly and painlessly in countries that are just emerging from civil war – that it is possible to hold an election, initiate market-oriented reforms, sit back, declare success, and then expect the rest to take care of itself.”21 While it is worthwhile and necessary to highlight shortcomings in liberal peacebuilding practices to date, it is nevertheless entirely unjustified to suggest that problems in execution are tantamount to a larger general failure. Indeed, none of the challenges highlighted above are beyond addressing within the liberal peacebuilding framework.

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Paris (2010) p. 359 Cubitt (2013) p 102 17 Churchill (1947) 18 Collier (2009) p. 29 19 Chandler (2005) 20 Zaum (2012) p. 125 21 Paris (2005) p. 768

Conclusion While brief, this essay has argued that many if not most of the criticisms of liberal peacebuilding are unjustified. Through misinterpretation of motives, conflation of execution with ideology, and the providing of problematic if not all together dangerous alternatives, heavy-handed critics of the liberal peace undermine their own arguments. Clearly not without its challenges, liberal peacebuilding is nevertheless a promising and capable solution for problematic conflict-prone states, working to advance peace and human empowerment for the countless millions suffering in their absence.


Bain, William. "In Praise of Folly: International Administration and the Corruption of Humanity." International Affairs 82.3 (2006): 525-538. Boutros-Ghali, Boutros. “An Agenda for Peace: Preventive Diplomacy, Peace-making, and Peacekeeping.” Report of the Secretary-General, UN Doc. A/47/277-S/24111 (1995): para. 21. Chandler, David. "How ‘State-building’ Weakens States." Spiked Essays 24 (2005). Chandler, David. Empire in Denial: The Politics of State-building. London: Pluto Press (2006). Churchill, Winston. Quote from a speech in the British House of Commons. London (11 November, 1947). Collier, Paul. War, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places. New York: Harper Collins (2009). Cubitt, Christine. ”Responsible Reconstruction After War: Meeting Local Needs for Building Peace.” Review of International Studies 39.1 (2013): 91-112 Herbst, Jeffrey. "Let Them Fail: State Failure in Theory and Practice.’ in Robert I. Rotberg (ed.), When States Fail: Causes and Consequences, Princeton: Princeton University Press (2004): 302-318. Kilpatrick, Kate. "Towards More Effective Peace Building: A Conversation with Roland Paris." Development In Practice 15.6 (2005). Paris, Roland. "Saving Liberal Peacebuilding." Review of International Studies 36.2 (2010): 337-365. Robinson, William I. Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony. Cambridge University Press (1996). Weinstein, Jeremy M. “Autonomous Recovery and International Intervention in Comparative Perspective.” Available at SSRN: (2005). Zaum, Dominik. "Beyond the ‘Liberal Peace’." Global Governance 18.1 (2012): 121-132.

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