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The White Liberal Democrat’s Burden

Paddy Ashdown may have been a failed politician in Britain, but the former Lord of Bosnia now fancies himself as a free-floating colonialist who can fix the world's problems.

David Chandler

Topics Politics

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Dominik Zaum, The Sovereignty Paradox: The Norms and Politics of International Statebuilding, Oxford University Press, 2007; Paddy Ashdown, Swords and Ploughshares: Bringing Peace to the 21st Century, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007.

Two new books on international intervention seek to revive the spirit of liberal interventionism, spinning the failure of the American and British adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq into positive lessons for both a brave new ethical future and for a more secure and stable world.

One is written by Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat peer who is something of a ‘man of the moment’ in UK politics, co-chairing both the Future of Iraq commission and the Independent Commission on National Security in the Twenty-First Century. Ashdown recently made the front pages after turning down an invitation from new UK prime minister Gordon Brown to become Northern Ireland secretary. It is little surprise that Ashdown is being feted by the Labour government; while those in government were being drawn in and demoralised by the Iraq debacle, Ashdown was lording it as High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina and has returned a reinvigorated man, at the same time as those around him have lost political impetus.

While Ashdown brings his peculiar gung-ho brio to liberal interventionism, Dominik Zaum makes a more academic case. He is one of a sizeable group of Oxford scholars working on reviving the moral standing and political legitimacy of interventionist policymaking.

Both Ashdown’s and Zaum’s books illustrate a growing transatlantic divide in this area. US assessments of international intervention have tended to be sobering ones; they have blamed the patient (Iraq) rather than the cure (America), and have warned that the costs of full-scale peace enforcement missions are not feasible unless the interveners are extremely committed and the states concerned are relatively small (1). In the UK, however, academics and policymakers, who are often at one step removed, have tended to take a more upbeat approach (2).

Zaum seeks to rescue the moral and ethical high ground of international intervention and neo-colonial international administration by arguing that, firstly, this does not undermine sovereignty or the rights of people in subject territories, and, secondly, that these international interventions cannot be understood purely in terms of realpolitik interests of power and geopolitics. The ‘sovereignty paradox’ in the title of Zaum’s book is not an explanation for the limited success of external statebuilding – a process which tends to undermine the very institutions it establishes – but a paradox which explains why interventions that might appear oppressive are, in fact, legitimate and ethical practice. Zaum believes such interventions are legitimate because the motives of external actors are moral and ethical, and attempts to substantiate his case through a study of statebuilding on the ground.

Zaum attempts to ‘resolve’ the contradiction between strengthening sovereignty and external statebuilding by removing the problem. He starts off with the assertion that statehood can be differentiated from sovereignty, arguing that the recognition of statehood is a one-off declaration while the recognition of sovereignty is a continually renegotiated process. Sovereignty – political autonomy – is therefore always conditional on the state’s practices, reducing statehood from defining the borders of a political community to those of an administrative one. Zaum’s ethical dictum that ‘recognition as a state and recognition of sovereignty should not be conflated’ necessitates some measure through which this distinction can be made; this is the ‘standard of civilisation’, reworked from the days of nineteenth-century imperialism to today’s conception of the ‘responsibility to protect’.

These new ‘standards of civilisation’ – the effectiveness of rule (good governance), the protection of human rights, democratisation, the rule of law and a free market economy – are held to provide not only the legitimacy for international intervention but also the programme for external interference which undermines de jure, legal sovereignty in order to build up de facto, empirical sovereignty. In Bosnia and Kosovo, for example, the international bureaucracy often sought to go beyond their legal mandates and to impose ‘best European practice’ beyond what ‘would be deemed acceptable in many Western countries’.

For Zaum, the case studies of international intervention show that the technocratic international agenda is essentially faultless; it is only politics which gets in the way. He says the need for compromises with local actors (and sometimes the requirements of international institutions) undermine the effectiveness of external statebuilding and occasionally lead to a premature handover to local actors, thereby weakening ‘empirical sovereignty’. From this Orwellian viewpoint, sovereignty and statebuilding can be undermined by competing local claims for self-government, which external interveners still find it difficult to ignore.

Zaum does have a point in his critique of realist approaches to understanding international intervention. On the face of it, it would seem irrational that external interveners would attempt to impose standards which have little connection to the context in which they are working – for example, insisting on Bosnia and Kosovo having higher levels of civil service independence from elected politicians than in most Western states, or that East Timor had a justice system which it could not possibly afford and which took little account of traditional legal practices. For Zaum, this irrationality is merely a tool with which to beat the realists – it is clear that these measures are far more expensive and interventionist than necessary for ‘peace, order and regional stability’. Whereas for a more critically minded researcher, the irrationality of international claims and practices and their deleterious effect would pose questions of exactly what drives these interventions if it is not traditional realpolitik, in the binary theorising of Zaum the only alternative, once interests are dismissed, is that of new cosmopolitan ethics.

Zaum’s project is to save the moral or ethical impulse to intervene from the failures of practice on the ground. His constructivist take can only ever be an apologia rather than an analysis. This is because his methodological approach is that of constructing a ‘thick narrative’ based on what leading international actors say are their objectives and intentions, in which case, interviews, policy documents and public statements form the primary research material (p13). This is a re-presentation of the self-description of leading actors, rather than a work that gets under the superficial appearances. Zaum is essentially concerned with the justifications for policy practices, rather than with analysing them. He gives the US approach of ‘blaming the patient’ an ethical reworking to portray interventionist statebuilding as a contest of conflicting norms, suggesting that ethical ‘blueprints’ aimed at strengthening technical ‘sovereignty’ will inevitably be undermined as long as norms of self-government are allowed to legitimise local obstruction. The implicit conclusion, of course, is not to draw back in the face of these difficulties, but to extend the cosmopolitan ethics of international administration and governance. How to do this successfully is the subject of Paddy Ashdown’s new book, Swords and Ploughshares.

Ashdown’s book is a confident call for more and better international interventionism. He had initially planned to write a ‘lessons learned’ review from his experience of running Bosnia as the international High Representative from May 2002 to January 2006, but in the circumstances of government malaise over Iraq, he has consigned the ‘Bosnia diary’ to the final third of the book. The first two thirds are broadly drawn lessons to improve intervention. For background, Ashdown draws liberally on the conflict studies research of the World Bank team, led by Paul Collier, and the Rand Corporation’s work on nation-building, led by James Dobbins, but throws in plenty of his own experience and insights (3).

Where Zaum poses the drive to intervene in terms of ‘global governance’, Ashdown prefers the more straightforward message of the struggle of civilisation against chaos and barbarism. For Ashdown, Bush and Blair were wrong to pose the war on terror as about ‘Western values’ or a ‘clash of civilisations’; it is more basic than that, he argues. It is ‘a campaign for civilisation – all civilisations – against a new medievalism’. It is one that cannot be won on the battlefield, in seeking to control territory or in ‘seeking to assert a self-declared global hegemony’, but ‘is, at its heart, a battle of ideas and values’.

Ashdown asserts that ‘out there’ there is ‘a perfect storm gathering’ as the threats of globalisation, climate change, resource depletion, AIDS, poverty, famine, terrorism and crime gather ominously, while at home, ‘we in the West are facing a crisis of confidence in our own institutions and a lack of belief in the mores and creeds which used to act as a reliable and understood framework for the way we live our lives’. Nation states are becoming more puny, global forces more strong, and the only solution is to extend governance and law internationally to try to hold back instability and chaos. In these circumstances, the question is not whether to intervene, but ‘how can we do it better?’

Ashdown brings together his experience – of military counterinsurgency, running an international bureaucracy and political deal making – to draw up a ‘worst scenario’ guide, full of hindsight from a litany of international failures and brimming with confidence, in contrast to what he argues is the evasiveness, low horizons and vacuum of forward-looking thinking at UK and intergovernmental policymaking levels.

Step one, argues Ashdown, is to take no chances with the enemy; while overwhelming force might not be needed to fight hi-tech wars of intervention, a full-scale military occupation is recommended to secure security and the rule of law after the fighting stops. Ashdown poaches the idea of the ‘golden hour’ from James Dobbins at RAND to argue that delaying full-scale occupation or martial law for weeks or even a few days could lead to long-term failure and ‘criminally captured states’, as he holds to be the case in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq. Step two is securing the rule of law, transforming the police and making sure that the approach is ‘holistic’, taking in the whole of the justice system and the judiciary. Further ‘ideal world’ steps follow in quick succession, such as the rapid transformation of the economy to a world of thriving small businesses. He also enforces the point that the interveners have to practice ‘tough love’, ensuring that all aid, apart from humanitarian, is firmly conditional to increase international ‘leverage’ over post-conflict reforms.

Consciously, last on Ashdown’s to do list is holding elections. Ashdown argues that elections should be held ‘as late as the interveners can get away with’. Interestingly, the reasons elections eventually have to be held is to enhance the legitimacy…of the occupation! ‘Without elections, how do the interveners have partners who genuinely represent the people? How can they justify occupying a country that has not yet had a chance to express its democratic views?’ The Lord of Bosnia holds no truck with the association of elections with democracy and suggests that in post-conflict situations political parties ‘are actually not political parties at all’ – either they are illegitimate sectional or nationalist interests or ‘boutique’ parties around charismatic figureheads. In fact, Ashdown is against declaring democracy to be an aim of external intervention, preferring instead the concept which he holds truly to be the West’s ‘big idea’ – good governance.

Ashdown at least calls a spade a spade and has no time for pussyfooting around when it comes to ruling other people’s countries. He openly expresses his interventionist and colonialist instincts, his desire for more military adventures and for keeping a close check on democratic procedures ‘over there’. Ashdown is serious about exporting his ideals and morals, by force when necessary, to the badly governed (previously ‘savages’) of the East and the South. For Ashdown, it’s a serious job, not one suitable for ‘well-meaning Guardian readers from Hampstead Garden Suburb’ who think they can help with cuddly good causes, and have wasted huge amounts of money, in places such as Bosnia, by ‘setting up NGOs and civil society organisations’ which make ‘no impact apart from creating handy employment projects for the middle classes’. He also has little time for the liberal guilt-tripping of the international political class who ‘seem prepared to go to any lengths in order to invent increasingly complex mechanisms to avoid the accusation of running protectorates. Yet that is what we are, in most cases, doing.’

Ashdown argues that once the international intervention has stabilised the country, the task of statebuilding can begin. Here he shifts from a military mindset to a bureaucratic one and asserts the importance of a top-down institutional focus: ‘It is better, if you can, to reform the institution before you start reforming the people – for example it is better to create a modern police structure before trying to create modern policemen; better to reform judicial systems before reforming judges; better to reform political systems than to hope for the emergence of reformed politicians.’ Like Zaum, Ashdown admits that sometimes compromises have to be made, if politics – people – get in the way of grand plans, and that peace settlements or local circumstances will sometimes undermine external efforts to create the best systems of governance.

Ashdown’s patronising patrician tone is no clearer than when he asserts his liberalism, stating that: ‘You cannot give people freedom, without giving them the freedom to make mistakes’, stressing his forbearance in gradually restraining his use of executive powers in Bosnia. This forbearance comes at a price: ‘a setback in the country’s progress’ is unfortunately ‘normal and to be expected’ because the ‘democratic process is more messy than running it through enlightened fiat’. Nevertheless, Ashdown hopes that, in an ideal world, after the ‘tough love’ of martial law and extended occupation the locals can slowly be allowed into the gleaming new institutions of governance, which the external interveners have created, if they promise to leave their muddy political boots outside the door.

It seems clear that these two authors are more interested in making government policymakers and advocates of intervention feel better about themselves than in taking a more objective look at the limitations of international intervention. Zaum gives his readers the good news that, even if things fail on the ground, their motivation is an unsullied one, and Ashdown tells them that ‘the fact that we have got it wrong so often should not blind us to the fact that there is a way of doing it right’. While Zaum wants to wish away the problems of Iraq by stressing the new global cosmopolitan ethics at play in international intervention, Ashdown seeks to reassure the political class that the West does have the will and the power to bring order out of chaos. Both offer a recipe for further disastrous military expeditions and the undermining of people’s national rights wherever the West judges there is a ‘collapsing’ state.

David Chandler is professor of international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster and editor of the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding. Visit his personal website here.

(1) See, for example, James Dobbins et al, The Beginner’s Guide to Nation-Building (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2007), see also Simon Chesterman et al, Making States Work: State Failure and the Crisis of Governance (New York, United Nations University Press, 2005) which concludes pessimistically that ‘states cannot be made to work from the outside’ (p.384).

(2) See for example Richard Caplan’s defence of neo-protectorate international administrations as the ‘Rolls Royce of conflict-management strategies’ vis-à-vis less interventionist measures, International Governance of War-Torn Territories: Rule and Reconstruction, Oxford University Press, 2006: p.256; or Ashraf Ghani Clare Lockhart and Michael Carnahan’s, ODI paper, Closing the Sovereignty Gap: An Approach to State-building, Overseas Development Institute, September 2005.

(3) See, for example, Paul Collier et al, Breaking the Conflict Trap: Civil War and Development Policy, World Bank/ Oxford University Press, 2000; Paul Collier and Anke Hoffler, Greed and Grievance in Civil War, World Bank, 21 October 2001; James Dobbins et al, The Beginner’s Guide to Nation-Building, RAND Corporation, 2007

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