Peacebuilding: Resilient in Crisis


This blog post by Jan Pospisil, PSRP researcher, reviews David Chandler’s new book Peacebuidling, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1997-2017.

In his most recent volume, ‘Peacebuilding: The Twenty Years’ Crisis’, David Chandler gives an intriguing historical account over what he identifies as the post-Dayton lifespan of peacebuilding. His argument is revealing and well-founded: international interventionism in violent conflict has shifted from implementing liberal models of statehood and peace towards a pragmatic governance of effects, which would mark the de facto end of the peacebuilding endeavour: ‘Any international interventions of this sort can no longer be construed as “peacebuilding” as there would be no separate or discrete realm of policy in this area’ (p. 209). This is an intriguing insight; it is hard to deny that the increasing use of complexity theory, risk approaches and the concept of ‘resilience’ point towards the international re-orientation of managing effects – and, as a consequence, managing conflict.

However, is this the whole story? I would like to raise three points that are meant to complicate the story. They were provoked by Chandler’s book but take nothing away from the insights it has to offer.

(1) The history of peacebuilding, as told by Chandler, develops in rather clear sequences: the post-Cold War optimism of the 1990s, the ‘Empire in Denial’ years before and after Dayton, which mark the start of peacebuilding and the end of liberal optimism at the same time, and, closely intertwined, the turn to the local and to effects-oriented concepts such as resilience in the last decade. These phases are certainly interesting and have traction – but was there really such a succession? And is the concurrent, permanent talk about peacebuilding’s crisis instead a sign of its blossoming and remarkable durability, even in light of obvious failure? It is certainly true that the farce Hillary Clinton would have represented in terms of liberal interventionism, subsequent to the tragedy of the Blair/Bush years, is probably gone once and for all (cf. p. 14). Yet, this does not necessarily imply that the alternatives are indeed anti-interventionist, anti-liberal or, as it is suggested in the book, pragmatically effects-centred. The first 100 days of the Trump administration have shown us convincingly that this is unlikely to happen. Even though Trump campaigned with a distinct isolationist agenda, his realpolitik is considerably more engaged in old-school interventionist enterprises than the declared liberal interventionist Obama ever was.

(2) Now what about the ‘end of the liberal episteme’, which Chandler declares in concluding (chapter 9, pp. 191-210)? At first, it needs to be underlined that the claim that peacebuilding, in particular in the form of peacebuilding-as-statebuilding it took in the 2000s (pp. 69-91), was more a quest of domination than liberal internationalism certainly holds true for many of the key interventions of this period, particularly Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet, many other cases, particularly in South Asia but also in Sub-Sahara Africa, showed peacebuilding based on a rather clear liberal programme: rule of law, civil society building, electing constitutional assemblies, constitution-drafting, democratic elections. Quite often, it has to be said, with disastrous effects and an amazing detachment from given realities that the ‘local turn’ then highlighted.

Yet, peacebuilding was a lot more liberal than as assessed by this book, and it still is. It must not be forgotten that notwithstanding all calls towards resilience, community-based approaches, and local knowledge, there is still a level of foreign policy and diplomacy that substantially interferes with peacebuilding’s pragmatic turn. Therefore, we find – in astonishing coexistence – claims to both resilience and the rule of law, capacity building and civil society development in contemporary high-level policy documents, such as the EU Global Strategy. And while indeed challenging the current understanding of peacebuilding, as highlighted by Chandler (p. 7-8), the UN Review on its peacebuilding architecture still reconfirms the need for ‘capacity building, state building, institution building and development’ as technical exercises (p. 13), and, as the ultimate liberal peacebuilding demand, calls to address the root causes of conflict (ibid.).

The resilience-boom in both peace- and statebuilding thus is probably best understood against the background of its inherent ambiguity: resilience can (and many would argue, should) mean re-focusing from crafting society towards governing effects, but it may also mean the resilience of populations through the implementation of liberal institutions – and indeed it is used as such! In this way, resilience turns into the resilience of the liberal internationalist endeavour itself, in the light of its own failure.

(3) Finally, the role of the counterparts and addressees of peacebuilding needs to be highlighted. Certainly not the focus of Chandler’s journey, the often creative, even Schumpeterian creatively destructive use of peacebuilding approaches and discourse by recipients in fragile states themselves reveals a lot about peacebuilding’s awkward trajectory and disposition. In this regard, Barnett and Zürcher’s claims about the ‘peacebuilder’s contract’, also highlighted in the book (p. 36), is a telling analysis that confirms the strong role of local actors, as is de Waal’s depiction of the ‘political marketplace’ of peace negotiations.

As the ‘global marketplace of political change’ develops further, and global multipolarity offers a wide array of possibilities for flexible alignment, the role of the peace- and statebuilding ‘partners’ tends to get stronger. As much as the Syrian tragedy is a result of the disorientation and potentially fatal crisis of contemporary peacebuilding, it shows this new multipolarity at play. The pragmatic turn, and indeed the end of the liberal episteme that Chandler asserts, is as well linked to this change in the global conditions.

This all of course leads to the ‘so what?’ question. Where to move from here? Chandler has good reasons for his scepticism about both the ‘local turn’ and resilience pragmatism. Yet, his call for accepting politics remains somewhat shallow. On the one hand, regarding global politics, the emergent global marketplace is rather accelerating all forms of competition rather than undermining it, while at the same time making it even more difficult to name and shame the ‘empires’ or ‘imperialists’.

On the other hand, current donor discussions and approaches chime remarkably with Chandler’s critique: the need to work more politically is the claim of the day in international development, and, for example, DFID’s reliance on concepts such as ‘political settlements’, ‘inclusivity’ and ‘fair power structures’ demonstrates that there is willingness to put this into practice. Whereas a self-reflective understanding of ‘Western hierarchies of power and knowledge’ (p. 207) are certainly still underdeveloped, the call back to politics – and the painful experience of diminishing influence – may make the remaining peacebuilders much more receptive. Since it is unlikely that peacebuilding will completely vanish in the upcoming future, it is useful to seriously engage with this challenge. Chandler’s ‘Twenty Years’ Crisis’ undoubtedly provides the necessary background for such an engagement.

Image shows part of the cover of the book published by palgrave macmillan.