In this essay I wish to reflect upon the concept of the ‘liberal peace’ in (post-)conflict environments, from a purely theoretical perspective, arguing that the liberal peace reinforces social antagonisms by attempting to extend the sovereign project of exclusionary politics, resulting in reified group identities of enmity. The liberal peace, as a form of international conflict intervention, attempts to integrate a (post-)conflict political community (often considered a ‘failed’ state) into the international system of states along liberal democratic lines, in the belief that this will reduce the likelihood of a return to violent conflict. I argue that the attempted imposition of democratic governance and extension of free market principles and practices in a (post-)conflict state relies upon a stadial conception of conflict and state building, derived from the European experience of modernity, and that this stadial (or periodised) conception excludes certain discourses and attempts to solidify social identities and interactions.
In the first section I argue that there are serious problems with the concept of the liberal peace, suggesting that, while it is predominant in the world today as a form of conflict intervention and ‘state-building’, it is predicated upon the exclusionary politics of sovereignty, a politics formed on processes of alterity that can often be the root cause of violent conflict. I briefly consider the ontology of the liberal peace and argue that placing the international before the domestic is misguided and based upon spatial and temporal misconceptions. In the second section I expand upon the idea of exclusion and consider the importance of identity in conflict and how different group identities may mutually constitute one another. I argue that international actors are not best placed to determine (post-)conflict identities. In the final section I argue that the acceptance of difference is required for there to be any condition that might be described as peace.
The problem with the liberal peace
Over the past couple of decades the concept of the ‘liberal peace’ has emerged as the predominant transformative mechanism of the western-dominated international community with which to move a political community beyond conflict and into a viable peace. The doctrine is intended to be implemented with the financial, political, and technical support of the international community in an area that is moving from a condition of conflict to a condition of peace – whether imposed by international military intervention or sought by the internal political elites of various conflicting groups. The liberal peace seeks to create the formal social and political structures – such as democratic institutions and a free market – that will constitute a society that allows individuals to achieve their political and economic ambitions within a juridical-institutional order and not through violence. To draw on David Chandler, the liberal peace doctrine seeks to not just prevent conflict, but to move, ‘towards the external engineering of post-conflict societies through the export of liberal frameworks of ‘good governance’, democratic elections, human rights, the rule of law and market relations’ (Chandler 2010: 137-138). It seeks to create ‘ordered’ liberal democratic states that can form a part of the international system of states. The kind of states that are, apparently, not marked by internal violence and conflict.
The liberal peace would seem to provide a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem (so perceived) of violent conflict, implemented by external actors and maintained by the local political community. Keith Krause and Oliver Jütersonke have described such efforts as, ‘[resting] upon an assumption that a sophisticated, yet still utopian, ‘social engineering’ approach could replace, or accelerate, a process of state formation that occurs rather more organically’ (Krause and Jütersonke 2005: 448). Certainly there is no doubt that the liberal peace assumes the superiority of European modernity and political models (Mac Ginty 2010: 394; Meyer 2008: 562). The overwhelming material strength of liberal peace actors – be they delegates of a United Nations agency, another state, or an international financial institution – is such that they can determine very successfully the social and political transformation of a state leaving a period of conflict (Mac Ginty 2010: 408). The voices of local actors can be lost, because, ‘the hegemonic ambitions of the liberal peace mean that it attempts, often successfully, to minimize the space for alternative versions of peace, development, security and governance’ (Mac Ginty 2010: 403).
Such a focus on the superiority of the European experience of development and modernity creates a desire in the practitioners to ‘fast-track’ (post-)conflict states to the point of such social, political, and economic development as can be materially seen in western Europe and the United States. While such an attempt to transplant the European experience of capitalist development and liberal democratic institutionalism to another context may seem problematic enough (Krause and Jütersonke 2005: 451), it is found to be further problematic as it seems to rely on a stadial conception of development (and conflict). Such a conception is based on a way of conceiving of history as progressing, in a linear fashion, through formal stages of development. When applied to the context of violent intra-state conflict, a stadial conception of conflict views periodised categories such as ‘pre-conflict’, ‘conflict’, and ‘post-conflict’. This seems problematic, because, while there may be indicators of such ‘periods’ – such as a peace accord brokered between political leaders – violent conflict may still be perceived by non-elites to be continuing – for example some groups may splinter and form new violent groups which continue acts of violence. This periodisation, or stadial approach, of the liberal peace, decides externally when a conflict is over and when it is appropriate to move beyond conflict, thus creating greater tension between the international and the local. In a sense, the liberal peace attempts to construct a functioning international state, before there is a functioning domestic state.
In this section I have attempted to briefly suggest some of the problems of the liberal peace, arguing that, in many cases, it occludes the possibility of local involvement in deciding what shape peace will take and tries to transplant European experiences into different contexts, which is a task fraught with theoretical and practical problems. The ontological foundations of the liberal peace are the same as those of the nation state: there is a clear focus on the territorially bounded state and the concept of citizenship. This ontology of exclusion is deeply problematic in many (post-)conflict environments. In the next section I consider the importance of identity in conflicts, arguing that the liberal peace lacks sufficient interest in the dynamic and discursive nature of identity, instead reinforcing exclusion of certain identities – a process that can be the source of conflict in the first place.
The importance of identity in conflict
Identity is not a foundational characteristic of individuals that can be assessed as ‘fixed’ or somehow unchanging: it is highly mobile, discursive and conditional. Our identities are not simply present within us, but are constructed in our knowledge of others and their identities. As Martin Coward has stated: ‘All notions of selfhood are derived in and through a relation with otherness’ (Coward 2006: 71). In this way we can say that constructing identity is partly achieved through creating boundaries between ourselves and others and defining what we are not, what is ‘other’ (Coward 2006: 71). This process can be referred to as one of alterity, or ‘othering’, in which individuals construct notions of identity and difference. On this point, David Campbell has suggested that, ‘As the vocation aroused by alterity, deconstruction’s onto-political claim is that our condition can be characterized by the problematic of identity/difference, where neither term can be understood except in relation to the other’ (Campbell 1998a: 23).
In the context of violent conflict these observations are of particular import, because identity and self- and other-definitions are seemingly necessary to understand events of tremendous emotional intensity, such as the death of a member of one’s community. Susanne Buckley-Zistel has noted, ‘The repetition of narratives about the traumatic event constructs the group’s identity in opposition to the identity of the opponent who caused the trauma’ (Buckley-Zistel 2006: 8). Here, again, we see a process of alterity defining the self via a definition of the other. Also, the experience of traumatic events seems to be necessarily understood in terms of broader narratives of conflict, which dramatically shape the identity of the self and the other. Jenny Edkins has suggested that identity is informed by a careful balance of remembering and forgetting traumatic events: a group, ‘must co-opt the dead into its own narratives,’ while, on the other hand, ‘the rupture of war, its trauma, must be forgotten’ (Edkins 2003: 95). If these narratives become internalised during periods of heightened violence it seems possible that individuals, on both (or all) sides, could, ‘end up trapped in collective identities’ (Buckley-Zistel 2006: 8).
These enmities can be the result of conflict, but can also very much the cause of it too (Buckley-Zistel 2006: 5). It is in this context that one must ask if the liberal peace, which is founded upon the very same notions and practices of exclusion as the sovereign state system, is actually appropriate at all for creating lasting conditions of peace in an area defined by violence and conflict. The processes of alterity, so predicated on notions of exclusion, that form group identities in conflicts, are discursive and subject to change. But practitioners of the liberal peace, removed from any detailed knowledge of local identity, are not interested in these processes, instead working to (generally) fixed time-frames with project-based goals. Practitioners of the liberal peace, however, are very much involved in the discursive (re)production of local identities. The construction of both ‘peace’, as the liberal peace understands it, and formal state institutions both require making huge assumptions about group identities. By the practices that are carried out by the international community in conflict zones, identities are defined and reified without the consultation of the individuals or groups concerned. For sovereign practices to be internally logical, group identities are considered homogenous and ‘natural’ and not part of a discursive construction of identity. But these practices of the international community are themselves part of the discursive (de)construction and (re)production of identities. (For a superlative example of this in the literature, see David Campbell’s concept of ‘meta-racism’: Campbell 1998a: 161). As Buckley-Zistel has argued: ‘[Conflict] is a part of the (re)production of identities whose articulation in turn produces conflict’ (Buckley-Zistel 2006: 6). In (re)producing and articulating ‘local’ identities of enmity, the international actors of the liberal peace are directly contributing to the condition of possibility within which violent conflict can exist, to conditions of enmity and hatred.
Peace and the acceptance of difference
In this final short section I wish to argue that a radical reformulation of the political is necessary to achieve meaningful peace. I have argued that the sovereign exclusion of difference that would seek to classify and categorise subjects, and which is promoted by the liberal peace, is incapable of achieving peace, and that it only conflates enmities and sustains violence. David Campbell has called for a radical reconfiguration of politics, ‘to reach the principle element of the ethos of affirming life’ (Campbell 1998b: 513). It is an ethos for which, ‘the overriding concern is the struggle for – or on behalf of – alterity rather than a struggle to efface, erase, or eradicate alterity’ (Campbell 1998b: 513). Along similar lines, I would draw on Vivienne Jabri’s challenge to, ‘conceive of peace as situated in a critical discursive process which, rather than reifying exclusion, incorporates difference’ (Vivienne Jabri, cited in: Buckley-Zistel 2006: 10).
Jabri and Campbell point toward an emancipation of the positive power of difference, one that does not need to be constructive only in discourses of enmity, but which can allow for the definition of the self to not regard the other as hated (Buckley-Zistel 2006: 9). This can be achieved by, at the localised level and on one’s own terms and by one’s own standards, engaging in new discourses about the other. Buckley-Zistel suggests: ‘Through changing the way we talk about our enemy we, over time, alter the wider discursive setting that determine the enemy’s role in the society at large’ (Buckley-Zistel 2006: 10). This is not to suggest that challenging and altering discourses of the identity of the self and other would be easy in a (post-)conflict scenario, but that it is something that is clearly not being addressed by the ineptitude of the liberal peace. For there to be peace from conflict there needs to be an acceptance of difference as being positive and contingent to the meaning of oneself: the discourses of alterity present in identity need not be based on enmity, but can be viewed as positive in both senses of the word.
In this essay I have critiqued the concept of the liberal peace and its suitability for achieving peace in areas of (post-)conflict, finding its core aims to consist of the project of sovereign exclusion. In another essay I might also have considered its craven desire for internationalising, commercialising, and the marketization of (post-)conflict states, no matter the local/domestic consequences. Instead, I have focused on social and political exclusion of the liberal peace and the ways that, ‘This maintenance of antagonistic relationships keep societies vulnerable to future violence’ (Buckley-Zistel 2006: 9). I have also considered the importance of identity and (very briefly) narrative in conflict, suggesting that the acceptance of difference is key to peace and that the liberal peace is not ontologically capable of supporting such a peace.
To conclude in a more meaningful way I wish to reflect not on my own words, but on those of the group of authors who use the pseudonym Wu Ming. The following is the epigraph to their novel 54, which does not directly pertain to the liberal peace, but I feel can be read as a condemnation of the blindness that leads to the practice of such international projects:
‘‘Postwar’ means nothing.
What fools called ‘peace’ simply meant moving away from the front.
Fools defended peace by supporting the armed wing of money.
Beyond the next dune the clashes continued. The fangs of chimerical beasts sinking into flesh, the heavens full of steel and smoke, whole cultures uprooted from the earth.
Fools fought the enemies of today by bankrolling those of tomorrow.
Fools swelled their chests, talked of ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’, ‘in our country’, as they devoured the fruits of riots and looting.
They were defending civilisation against Chinese shadows of dinosaurs.
They were defending the planet against fake images of asteroids.
They were defending the Chinese shadow of a civilisation.
They were defending the faked image of a planet.’
(Wu Ming 2006: 3).
Buckley-Zistel, Susanne 2006. ‘In-between war and peace: identities, boundaries and change after violent conflict,’ Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 35, 3-21.
Campbell, David 1998a. National Deconstruction: Violence, Identity and Justice in Bosnia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Campbell, David 1998b. ‘Why fight? Humanitarianism, principles, and post-structuralism,’ Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 27, 497-521.
Chandler, David 2010. ‘The uncritical critique of ‘liberal peace’,’ Review of International Studies, 36(1), 137-155.
Coward, Martin 2006. ‘Securing the global (bio)political economy: Empire, poststructuralism, and political community,’ in Marieke de Goede (ed.), International Political Economy and Poststructural Politics. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave MacMillan. pp. 60-76.
Edkins, Jenny 2003. Trauma and the Memory of Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Krause, Keith and Oliver Jütersonke 2005. ‘Peace, security and developments in post-conflict environments,’ Security Dialogue, 36(4), 447-462.
Mac Ginty, Roger 2010. ‘Hybrid peace: the interaction between top-down and bottom-up peace,’ Security Dialogue, 41, 391-412.
Meyer, Jörgen 2008. ‘The concealed violence of modern peace(-making),’ Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 36: 555.
Wu Ming 2006. 54. Trans. Shaun Whiteside. London: Arrow Books.