The Mirage of Modern Political Order in Post-Conflict States

Transformative peacebuilding attempts fall short of achieving their core objective of effective and legitimate governance in post-conflict countries because the interventions themselves enable, and are coopted by, post-conflict elites intent on forging a neopatrimonial political order. This book has explained the disconnect between the formal institutional engineering undertaken by international interventions and the governance outcomes that emerge in their aftermath. It has done so through the lens of the incentives motivating domestic elites in those countries over the temporal sequence of three peacebuilding phases: the elite peace settlement; the transitional governance period; and the aftermath of intervention. The international community advances certain forms of institutional design at each phase in order to achieve the goals of effective and legitimate governance. Yet, over the course of the peacebuilding pathway, powerful domestic groups co-opt the process to shape formal institutions and dominate the practice of governance within those institutions to their own ends. Subsequently, these elites consolidate their holds on power by both working through and actively subverting the very institutions intended to guarantee modern political order, thereby damaging the prospects for effective and legitimate governance. The significant resources brought to postconflict settings via the liberal peacebuilding model - foremost among them legitimacy and enormous sums of foreign aid - become a new source and site of power for domestic elites.1 One of the core insights of historical institutionalism is that “incremental shifts often add up to fundamental transformations.”2 This study has demonstrated, in a subtle twist, that the incremental shifts pursued by post-conflict elites undo what are intended by the international community as fundamental sociopolitical transformations to build lasting peace.

In undertaking peacebuilding through transitional governance, the UN acts on an implicit theory about how best to change the domestic political game in order to create the foundations for sustainable peace. Yet, in practice, at each phase of the peacebuilding pathway domestic political realities trump international objectives. The international community has pursued elite peace settlements through a process of institutional engineering without grappling adequately with the fact that this phase simply initiates the hyperpolitical experience of peacebuilding for those countries going through it. Peace settlements are viewed by the international community as elite pacts to end conflict and embark upon the business of post-conflict governance. Postconflict elites, by contrast, treat these agreements as simply delimiting the grounds and terms of continued struggle. They do not bring an end to long-term conflict; instead they move it into the political arena.

In turn, the transitional governance phase of peacebuilding requires a domestic counterpart to help govern the country while embarking upon a time-bound process of statebuilding and democratization. This approach, paradoxically, enables certain domestic elites to take an iterative series of actions to lock in their power and bestows legitimacy upon them through democratic elections along with the other power and patronage resources that come with control of the state.[1] As David Roberts observes, “Victorious elites are routinely overwhelming in postconflict spaces”[2] - such that an attempt to create a new, improved power balance usually comes up short. At the same time, the emphasis on consensus and power-sharing typically embodied by the intervention approach comes at the cost of governance efficacy. In the implementation of transitional governance, a specific tension lies between the statebuilding and democratization components of the peacebuilding model: whereas democratization involves the inclusion of many actors and, ideally, the construction of bottom-up representative institutions, statebuilding focuses on top-down efforts to strengthen the bureaucratic apparatus, including instruments used to control citizens. Neither political rebalancing nor improved governance is fully achieved through the transitional approach - let alone both together.

In the post-intervention phase, a neopatrimonial political order that rests on pervasive patron-client networks fortifies itself, blocking the effective and legitimate governance sought through interventions and forming a low-level political economy equilibrium. The institutions engineered through transitional governance are manipulated by domestic elites intent on remaining in power. The patterns of clien- telism and even predation are familiar to observers of developing countries - especially those where there are large and exclusive benefits to holding power.5 Time horizons are short in an environment where institutions are weak and the shadow of the future is of uncertain length. Elites benefit from neopatrimonial practices while in power - and, fearing the consequences of losing office, are motivated even further to distribute the resources of the state as patronage in exchange for political support. The hybrid political order becomes even more pronounced as leaders intent on such practices prevent the consolidation of autonomous state structures. The state, instead of becoming an arena of rational-legal authority and legitimacy, comes to mirror the clientelist political balance.

A neopatrimonial political order is a self-reinforcing and suboptimal equilibrium that is quite simply the norm in newly democratizing developing countries suffering from low commitment credibility and weak institutions. Yet transformative peacebuilding purports to build modern political order - and this book demonstrates that it fails to do so because domestic elites are intent on something else entirely. The resources conferred by international peacebuilding interventions upon these elites are co-opted in a neopatrimonial order that is extremely resilient to the attempts of the international community to achieve rule- bound, effective, and legitimate governance. Brief examples from two additional cases illustrate the generalizability of this causal logic. The US-led nation-building endeavor in Iraq re-emphasizes the inherent tension between statebuilding and democratization. The peace process negotiated by the international community in Burundi, in turn, reiterates the manner in which steady elite interests reassert themselves over the institutional trappings of the liberal peace, with post-conflict elites using the resources and legitimacy conferred by the peace process to reinforce a neopatrimonial political order.

  • [1] Barma 2007. 2 Roberts 2011: 70.
  • [2] 5 Hutchcroft 1997; Le Billon 2003; and Robinson 2001.
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