Neoliberal ‘Peace-building’ and the UN – Part 2

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In the first part of this piece, we looked at how political and economic neo-liberalism became embedded in the UN’s approach to peace-building. In this part we will examine some of the primary characteristics of this ‘neo-imperial’ form of Peace-building.

Formal Sovereignty

As the law professor Anthony Anghie argues,

Many imperial projects sought to create what might be termed a ‘dependent sovereignty’; that is, a situation in which formal sovereignty was benevolently bestowed on the conquered state even while real economic and political control was retained by the imperial power.[i]

Similarly, in the current global environment the more powerful countries do not wish to be seen as engaging in imperial adventures. Apart from the financial costs of direct imperial rule, there is also the desire to avoid any “political responsibility” with respect to maintaining order and managing the State in which they have intervened.

An example of this approach can be seen in the manner in which the US ‘engaged’ the UN to assist them in the transfer of power firstly to the transitional Iraq administration and then to administer the elections there. In the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan, Chandler writes:

Few acts are as fundamentally undermining of sovereignty as the external removal of a state’s government. Yet, no sooner have intervening actors destroyed sovereignty than they are talking up its fundamental importance and pledging to restore authority to local actors at the soonest possible moment. State-building is the process of negotiating these contradictory drives towards intervention and away from responsibility for outcomes.[ii]

In this way, it is possible to keep up pressure on the state being ‘assisted’ while at the same time maintaining a significant, if not determining, influence over political and economic decision-making in these states. Although, progress towards ‘liberal democracy and an effective market system’, as desired by the US and the Global North has been extremely slow and is still very fragile in Iraq and Afghanistan, the UN has been successfully enlisted as a subordinate partner in the ‘transfer’ of formal sovereignty to the people of Iraq.

Good Governance

The efforts to spread ‘good governance’ on the part of the UN and the international community have also come in for criticism. As Anghie explains, the concept of ‘good governance’ that the UN has been involved in propagating globally through transitional administrations and other peace-building modalities, bears significant resemblance to the whole idea of ‘development’, in that it appears to embody a range of positive and powerful qualities attractive to all. However, as with ‘development’, the reality is more complex, as ‘good governance’ can be used to justify a “whole series of very different, and perhaps inconsistent, projects and initiatives”. In fact, the apparent neutrality of the idea of ‘good governance’ acts to conceal a specific agenda on the part of the Global North to mould the world in its image.

Good governance… provides the moral and intellectual foundation for the development of a set of doctrines, policies and principles formulated and implemented by various international actors, to manage, specifically, the Third World state and Third World peoples,. Attempts by Western states to promote ‘good governance’ in the Third World – and this involves far-reaching transformations, relating to the promotion of democracy, free markets and the rule of law – are directed at reproducing in the Third World a set of principles and institutions which are seen as having been perfected in the West, and which the non-European world much adopt if it is to make progress and achieve stability.[iii]

Benevolent Autocracy

At the conclusion of his study of the UN’s role in state building and transitional administrations, Chesterman highlights the fact that through the title he has chosen for his book he has intended to indicate the “tension between the ends of liberal democracy and the means of benevolent autocracy”.[iv] Chesterman contends that although autocratic measures and perhaps even coercive force may be required to pave the way for state-building interventions and/or assuming responsibility for certain governance functions in ‘failed states’, these can be justified by the positive results such actions produce.

The problem with this, of course, concerns what ends and for whose benefit? Similarly, when the effectiveness of the state-building initiative is being gauged will the success or failure of the intervention be related to what the citizens of the state were hoping to achieve or the goals and aims of outside sources involved in its reconstruction, via the UN or otherwise?

The belief that the contradiction between benevolent autocracy and liberal democracy might be resolved through an examination of the ends achieved through ‘state-building’ initiatives is seriously deficient. Essentially, it is another way, albeit more delicately couched, of stating the view that in order to achieve the societal structures worldwide that certain parties favour, it may be necessary to engage in the production of a certain degree of ‘lesser evils’ to avoid the greater ones that might be provoked by the failure of states to adopt appropriate governance systems and structures. Needless to say, this lesser evil will not be experienced by the liberal democratic states and their citizens but rather by those states and their inhabitants who are being rescued from themselves. In other words, the autocracy will be experienced by the failed states, in whatever manner deemed necessary by those members of the international community, such as the UN, involved in ‘state-building’, even if it is supposedly dispensed benevolently. Indeed, it is hard to think of a more misleading oxymoron than ‘benevolent autocracy’.

Another Imperialism?

In 1991, the political theorist Francis Fukuyama achieved notoriety with his (in)famous outpourings on the ‘End of History’. According to Fukuyama:

“for a variety of theoretical reasons, liberal democracy and free markets constitute the best regime, or more precisely the best of the available alternative ways of organizing human societies (of again, if one prefers Churchill’s formulation, the least bad way of doing so). Liberal democracy most fully (though not completely) satisfies the most basic human longings, and therefore can be expected to be more universal and more durable than other regimes or other principles of political organization.”[v]

It is unsurprising therefore that in his writings on state-building, Fukuyama espouses an approach which will a global body of states composed entirely of free market, liberal democracies. Furthermore, he candidly admits the imperial nature of such an ‘End of History’ project:

This international imperium may be a well-meaning one based on human rights and democracy, but it was an imperium nonetheless and set a precedent for the surrender of sovereignty to governance by international agencies.[vi]

While, as De Waal observes, not everyone might be as willing as Fukuyama to “applaud the imperialist approach of using force for peace”, many are, particularly when it can be justified because of ‘humanitarian conditions’ existing in the countries concerned or when certain ‘failed states’ are considered as a threat to the Global North’s security.

Chandler writes of such manoeuvrings by dominant countries in the North as being imperial in nature. However, unlike, “traditional empire” that had confidence in its

“ability to transform and improve societies being intervened in. Today’s Empire in Denial is a fragile one, asserting power and influence but desiring to hide behind forms of formal sovereignty. The new international language of ‘good governance’, ‘capacity-building’, empowerment’, ‘partnership’ and ‘ownerships’ symbolises the politics of denial and evasion which mark every aspect of the state-building discourse.”[vii]

However, true as it may be that the ‘Empire’ today might in general be less comfortable in directly displaying its true colours, this is not always the case. As a senior advisor to the Bush administration candidly stated in 2004:

We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.[viii]

Here we are the crux of the issue. Although the Global North and the UN advocates the spread of liberal democracy and free markets globally as the optimal solution for all irrespective of the particular political, economic and social conditions of their states they live in, albeit with certain flexibilities, the particular evangelistic method of their choosing is essentially an imperial one. To spread democracy, autocracy – benevolent or not – is required. The peoples who are to benefit from the democratic ‘enlightenment’ being thrust upon them may well be included as active participants in the process, but this will only happen if they accept the absolute rectitude of liberal democracy and free markets. If they fail to accept the incontrovertible wisdom of the ‘End of History’ project, they face being excluded from the entire process or, at the very least, sidelined until the requisite governance and legal structures have been put in place to ensure the dominance of free market, liberal democracy in their respective states.


[i] Anghie, A. (2006) ‘On critique and the Other’, International Law and its Others, (ed. Ann Orford). Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

[ii] Chandler, D. (2006) From Kosovo to Kabul and Beyond: Human Rights and International Intervention. Pluto: London

[iii] Anghie, A. (2005) Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

[iv] Chesterman, S. (2005) You, The People: The United Nations, Transitional Administration, and State-Building. Oxford University Press: Oxford

[v] Fukuyama F. (1994) ‘Reflections on the End of History, Five Years Later’, After History: Francis Fukuyama and His Critics, (ed. Burns, T.) Lanham, Maryland: Bowman & Littlefield

[vi] Fukuyama F. (2005) State Building: Governance and World Order in the Twenty-First Century. Profile Books: London

[vii] Chandler, D. (ibid)

[viii] Alterman, E. (2006) ‘Bush’s War on the Press’, The Nation, April.