Book launch: A Liberal Peace?

Tuesday 14th February 2012, 5.30pm-7.00pm

Westminster Forum, 5th Floor, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Westminster, 32-38 Wells Street, London W1 (nearest tube Oxford Circus)

Panel with Editors David Chandler and Meera Sabaratnam, followed by publisher’s reception

All welcome

The 1990s was a weird decade for all kinds of reasons. The dice that were thrown into the air as the Soviet Union retreated landed in a particularly intriguing configuration for those politicians, public functionaries and academics from wealthy countries and institutions concerned with ‘peace’ and ‘development’. Their missions, marginalised for decades under concerns for national (i.e. military) security, were quite suddenly elevated as symbols of the new world order and installed as defining foreign policy priorities of wealthy states.

This would be an era in which the promises set out in the UN Charter in 1948 could finally be fulfilled, and various actors could reconcile their progressive self-images with their behaviour in the Third World. It promised the completion of a virtuous circle between peace, development, democracy, security and prosperity, to be achieved by international ‘peacebuilding’. The pathology of armed conflict could, at least in principle, be gradually erased from social structures, via a series of curative interventions into state and society designed by experts. From the outset, these included the holding of multi-party elections, economic liberalisation, privatisation of state enterprises and public sector reform, amongst other campaigns such as the promotion of human rights, compliance with various international legal norms and practices. The broad political agenda, and the practices which ensued, have been collectively understood in the academic literature as ‘the liberal peace’.

Two decades on, what has been the record of the liberal peace? In some cases following UN-mandated peacebuilding interventions, such as Namibia, Nicaragua and Mozambique, there seemed to be happy endings. In others, such as Rwanda and Angola, there were distinctly unhappy endings. In others still, such as Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor, there have perhaps been no real endings at all. Moreover, the liberal peace agenda morphed and mutated over this period, with the rather more expansive occupation-and-statebuilding operations in Iraq and Afghanistan extending its logic of interventionary reform into one of regime change and counter-insurgency.

Earlier scholarship set about debating whether this meant that the liberal peace was ‘too liberal’, advocating more long-term and penetrative reform, such as in Roland Paris’ notion of ‘institutionalisation before liberalisation’. Critical scholarship in this period often articulated the liberal peace as a neo-colonial attempt to introduce Western social and political norms via the back door. In this sense, it did not disagree with the interpretation that peacebuilding interventions were oriented towards liberal reform.

Many chapters in this volume however note that in many cases that many practices of ‘liberal peace’ intervention have been neither ‘liberal’ nor particularly peaceful. The increasingly obvious chasm between the projected objectives of interveners and their actual actions and effects not only forces a re-assessment of the record, but also pushes the debate about the politics and ethics of the liberal peace in different directions.

This includes, crucially, challenging rather than reproducing the self-representations of interveners. Rather than liberal, technically-efficient experts who have the power to produce outcomes in post-conflict environments, the stories that emerge from the re-evaluation in this volume place interveners as often improvisational, vacillatory and ineffectual, reliant on the power of their finanical clout to produce fragile forms of co-operation and compliance. Rather than a virtuous circle emerging between peace, development, democracy, freedom and security, these are mobile discouses which can present themselves as being in tension with each other in the present global order. Agents and supporters of intervention thus become involved in a complex set of re-articulations and re-justifications for maintaining intervention, which broadly shift responsibility for mission failure onto its intended beneficiaries.

The volume offers a set of different ideas about how to keep understanding and talking about the ‘liberal peace. For some contributors, its framework, although imperfectly executed, remains the only viable one for ultimately necessary interventions in post-conflict environments. For others, a much deeper and closer analysis of the broader social forces that underpin the logic of intervention is crucial. In yet other chapters, a case is made for starting with the agency and critiques articulated by the intended targets of intervention. In bringing together a diverse set of perspectives, the volume aims to demonstrate the political and analytic complexities that have emerged around one of the most uniquely ambitious, self-confident and unusual agendas of the last twenty years.

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