Intervention and International Actors

May 12, 2010

Are International Administrations of war-torn societies useful peacebuilding instruments?

This question is a fraught one, and the answers one comes to reveal more about the person asking the question than about international administrations. Here, as in every other area in human experience, personal prejudices and biases guide one’s conclusions. Obviously any sort of international administration can go wrong in any number of ways but Tolstoy’s maxim on happy families also does not apply here, since there is no one way to do international administration correctly. This seems to suggest that any efforts will lead to a hopeless chasing of the tail. This difficulty—numerous ways to administer post conflict societies wrong, no one way to do it correctly—has led some to suggest that it is best not to try. I think this is wrongheaded. Here, I’ll expand upon some of the pratfalls of international post-conflict administration and argue that despite the difficulties they are good and worthy endeavors using Belloni’s State Building and International Intervention in Bosnia and Talentino’s “Perceptions of Peacebuilding.”

In her article, Talentino points out perhaps the most significant problem for international administrators in post-conflict zones to keep in mind: the “source factor.” Many of the problems she later identifies can be said to spring from international actors not identifying the sources that can cause them trouble and acting adequately in response to them. To everyone, everywhere in the world, the source matters. People are more likely to believe things a source they trust says even if those things are demonstrably false. This is an important factor to take into account when embarking upon peacebuilding, because there are usually leaders who stand to lose a lot from any sort of peace, and who also control the means of disseminating information. These people and means are likely to be trusted sources, and need to be accounted for on the part of the peacebuilders.

Whose perception really matters, though? Elites, spoilers, and ordinary citizens are all likely to be concentrating on different things, but all of these groups, and the sources that they get their information from, have to be accounted for. It is important for the terms of peace to actually address the concerns of the belligerents, not to shoehorn fit some mandate from an international actor. Those definitions of peace rarely sync well with conditions on the ground. International organizations prize, as a rule, “neutrality” when interacting with groups in conflict situations, for example. There’s a delicate balancing act, as “too much” neutrality can lead to the perception that things are not in fact fair. On the other hand, in Haiti, refusal to engage with the Spoilers in the area undermined the international community’s credibility. Too much neutrality; not enough neutrality. Tough proposition.

The actual stance of international administrators matters, too. Talentino says, “Citizens in target states have at times reacted against what appear to be displays of conspicuous consumption. This may become particularly important in caseswhere locals cannot afford basic monthly expenses.” Most post-conflict zones are sites of severe economic devastation, with the civilians of the area living in poverty. In The Punishment of Virtue, Sarah Chayes describes the disconnect between international aid workers availing themselves of swanky cafes and private cars while ordinary Afghan citizens had to worry about making it home alive. In Kosovo, the appearance is that international actors are benefitting more from intervention than the people of Kosovo are.

Part of the problem, I think, is “Wilsonianism,” which Belloni tackles at length. Wilsonianism, the norm for international development, fails to take into account identity politics and the way that they can short circuit the push for reform. Since stateness in these countries is up for debate, the ability of reforms to be effective is very small. The liberalisation of markets has tended to further entrenchment of belligerent powers in Bosnia, making the peace process more difficult. International actors are often so focused on bringing “democracy and economic liberalism” to post-conflict societies that they ignore the nuances of the societies they’re dealing with. Thus, in the case of Bosnia, economic reform served to entrench adversarial powers and provide them with economic muscle rather than reducing their influence.

I do not think, however, that the fact that international actions are seldom (never?) perfect is a strong argument against international actions themselves. The difficulty of a task is rarely used as an argument against doing things in other spheres, and I believe it applies here, too. Intervention has its problems, but surely nonintervention is just as problematic. Overcoming these difficulties requires international actors to remain watchful at all stages and ready to be flexible when conditions on the ground are not what was anticipated.

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