Peace & Security04 Aug 2009Ko Colijn

‘No system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other’.

— US President Barack Obama, from his address to the Muslim world, Cairo, Egypt, 4 June 2009.

Interventions in unstable countries only make situations worse, according to Isabelle Duyvesteyn of Utrecht University, the Netherlands. In a recent paper, The Intervention Paradox: Intervention in armed conflict makes things worse?, Duyvesteyn launched a debate on humanitarian interventions. She says that intervening puts target countries in an ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’ situation. Yet governments have many reasons to intervene in other countries. The so-called democratic peace theory had ‘proven’ that democratic countries are less inclined to engage in war, so it seemed wise to start exporting democracy – even forcefully, as the Bush administration tried to do in Iraq in 2003. But we’ve learned our lesson. There’s little to gain in buying this particular theory; ‘democratic peace’ is not a drug like Ritalin that can be easily administered to patients suffering from ADHD. Democracy is a very tricky export product, and it is even trickier to export to countries where the intervention is nothing less than state-building from scratch.

Duyvesteyn bases her ‘don’t intervene’ dictum on a broad literature study. Although war has often bred new states – even successful ones – these states mostly came into being after a self-induced yet no less painful labour. Foreign interventions, on the other hand, may well cause miscarriages. Duyvesteyn quotes a diplomat from a donor country in Sierra Leone who laments that ‘all our resources have gone towards recreating the conditions that caused the conflict’. In that respect Duyvesteyn is right. Are successful states – let’s say, the Western European countries – the result of lobbying by Amnesty International, or of UN resolutions or, for example, an ‘Operation Dutch Freedom’ intervention? Clearly they are not. And so no International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) or Doctors without Borders at the bedside please, because it only leads to complications during birth.

Too often terms such as ‘rebuilding’, ‘reconstruction’ or ‘re-establishing’ are laced into the text of an intervention prospectus. One could add to that list security sector reform: foreign support for building the army and police force, even though the latter at least imply improvement. But these terms suggest that there were decent public institutions to begin with, and that interventions are simply meant to recreate them. But were there really? Consider how sour experiences have been with the few interventions in which the ‘export of democracy’ appeared to be successful. Did they always bring about the desired outcome (Hamas, Hezbollah, Iraqi Shias and so on)?

Interventions that aim for regime change moreover create a dilemma of legitimacy. The old regime is declared illegitimate, and is replaced by a new legitimate one. That is a regrettable simplification of reality. We all know that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are not so black and white. How often did the US doubt during its ‘rebuilding’ of Iraq whether the complete elimination of the Sunni Ba’ath elite from the Iraqi government had been wise? Is the rebuilding of Afghanistan and the promise of security thinkable without there being a role for the former warlords and their militias in that country?

In view of this, Duyvesteyn cites (and agrees with) experts who urge us to recognize the importance of patrimonialism as a source of legitimacy and effectiveness. It is not so much building the ‘right’ institutions that should be the goal; it should be to establish ‘order’, which might be best acheived through patrimonialism. With patrimonialism the hierarchy is clear, and everybody knows their position. It is a prime source of legitimacy. If the intervening country becomes deeply involved in the target country for a lengthy period it is likely to become part of the problem rather than the solution – either as the leading but illegitimate bearer of order, or as the pivotal institution in policy making. Its very presence may be so overpowering that it has a crowding-out effect and stifles the development of promising indigenous elements of state-building. In other words, says Duyvesteyn, ‘intervening forces do not necessarily hold the key to successful state-building. Legitimate order and institutions are formed from the bottom-up and hardly ever as a social engineering project from the top-down’.

The implications of this approach are anything but trivial. The ultimate consequence may even be a plea for ‘autonomous recovery’ of failed states, non-interference in other words, even when there is an ongoing local war. Such a war can, according to Jeremy Weinstein of Stanford University, function as ‘a process that can provide strong incentives for competing groups to secure the consent of the governed’. The local war acts as a fermenting agent for the recuperating state, because it can spark nationalism as a better alternative to sectarian conflict and might even generate the administrative capacity to deliver essential public goods to the population.

Are these rather controversial thoughts at odds with the findings of the Human Security Report Project (HSRP), which leans towards recommending intervention as a remedy for failing states and a cure for armed conflicts (although it does not recommend armed interventions, except as a last resort)? The answer is yes. Because even if the HSRP acknowledges that target intervention countries often go from bad to worse, that is considered a practical argument against interventions, not a principle one. The findings of the HRSP indicate that sustained meddling, including the use of stabilizing (military) forces, can end conflicts and will favour the chances of successful mediation, armed truce and reconciliation. Therefore, I conclude that we shouldn’t embrace the laissez-faire approach too eagerly, but instead try and combine the HSRP optimism with the warnings of Duyvesteyn that due attention to the advantages of autonomous recovery is indispensible. Sierra Leone is not necessarily in dire need of a House of Commons, nor does South Sudan necessarily need a Royal Military Police, but I am as yet not convinced that interventions do more harm than good.

Response to Ko Colijn column “Interventions”

In his column in The Broker 15, Ko Colijn refers to Isabelle Duyvesteyn who posits that intervention in fragile, conflict-ridden countries in order to build stable and democratic states is counterproductive. Duyvesteyn points to the history of state formation in early modern Europe where war and statebuilding where intimately connected: to finance the war effort, governments created tax bureaucracies that evolved into full-bred state institutions. Democratisation followed because citizens demanded representation in policymaking in return for the payment of tax. In addition, wars built nations as having a common enemy strengthened national coherence and identity. These historical developments are often, as Duyvesteyn does, compared with current-day statebuilding efforts. The conclusion she draws is that states can only be strengthened from the inside, and that warfare can have a constitutive role to play in these processes. As Edward Luttwak put it a decade ago, “Give War a Chance”.

However, the comparison between early modern European state formation and contemporary problems in fragile states is fundamentally flawed. The context has changed to such an extent that the parallel cannot be drawn. There are at least two major differences between then and now. First, the wars that led to statebuilding in the past were external wars, fought with other states, whereas most of today’s wars are civil wars. The consequences of these civil wars are in many ways the complete opposite of statebuilding: they destroy the national economy, cause productive middle classes to flee, divide up the nation into competing identity groups, and lead to a crumbling of state institutions and taxation capacity. Contemporary wars do not build states, they distintegrate them.

The second major difference is globalisation. Current-day civil wars do not occur in isolation, but are in many ways connected to global processes. Just think of the impact of rich countries’ quest for natural resources, or the War on Terror, or the international division of labour, or trade barriers, or global price shocks, or transnational criminal networks… External factors play important roles in causing and prolonging these wars, and therefore external involvement is needed in ending them. (If for no other reason, then at least out of self-interest: the ramifications of these wars can be felt across the world in the form of refugee flows, trade shocks and even terrorist attacks.)

This is not to say that states can be built purely from the outside, or that statebuilding interventions are easy. Efforts to stimulate peace- and statebuilding need to take much better account of local power structures, capacities, and opinions. Imposing alien democratic systems, as we now know, does not work. Neither, indeed, does creating neo-protectorates that depend on the international community for their survival. But standing back and waiting for wars to lead to statebuilding has very little chance of success either.

Both Ko Colijn and Willemijn Verkoren comment on an article by Isabelle Duyvestein in the latest issue of S&D (in Dutch). In the same issue four case studies are presented in reaction to Duyvestein. One on Afghanistan (by Ko Colijn), one on Iraq (by Mient-Jan Faber), one on Kosovo (by Chris van der Borgh and Yannick du Pont) and one on Sudan (by Frans Bieckmann). The Dutch minister for Development Cooperation Bert Koenders has promised to react on the articles in a next issue of S&D.’


Unfortunately, due to the age of this contribution and several migrations to online content management systems, the footnotes in the text may have been lost. The footnotes below are listed in its original order of appearance in text.
  1. Isabelle Duyvesteyn (2009, forthcoming) De Interventieparadox, submitted to Socialisme & Democratie with the working title ‘The intervention paradox: Intervention in armed conflict makes things worse?’ Humanitarian Studies Conference, Groningen, February 2009.
  2. The ‘democratic peace’ theory refers to a gradually acquired empirical insight, the first theoretical propositions of which go back to Immanuel Kant’s Eternal Peace, in for instance C.J. Frederich (ed.) (1949) The Philosophy of Kant, New York: Modern Library, pp.430–476. For a modern version, see among others Bruce M. Russett and Harvey Starr (2000) From the democratic peace to Kantian peace: Democracy and conflict in the international system, in M.I. Midlarsky (ed.) Handbook of War Studies II, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press; and Bruce M. Russett and John R.Oneal (2001) Triangulating Peace: Democracy, Interdependence and International Organization, New York: Norton.
  3. Weinstein, J. (2005) Autonomous Recovery and International Intervention in Comparative Perspective, Working Paper 57, Center for Global Development.
  4. Human Security Reports 2005 (as well as Briefs 2006 and 2007) can be consulted through the Human Security Report Project