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A postcolonial critique of liberal peacekeeping theory

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Northern Statism at the Margins:  A postcolonial critique of liberal peacekeeping theory.

Today, ‘humanitarian intervention' or so-called ‘muscular' peacekeeping occurs in contexts known as ‘complex emergencies', which combine elements of civil war, state collapse, human rights violations, ‘criminality' and humanitarian crisis.  Often, local agents have formed vested interests connected to external powers, which induce them to reproduce situations of emergency.  Mark Duffield aptly refers to the ‘security-development nexus', in which global assemblages of crisis management are connected to the local reproduction of crisis.  This nexus deploys peacekeeping and peacebuilding as alternatives to recognising the impact of neoliberalism and imperialism on development (****).  Duffield's analysis resonates with the idea of crisis-management in the work of Gayatri Spivak (1990: 97-8), who portrays crisis as a constant situation in a postcolonial world where the North constantly wards off the traumatic effects of colonialism.  While clear from official documents, this status of responses to the South as crisis management is not apparent in the fantasmatic discourse of public pronouncements and media coverage.  In this context, it becomes crucial to the critique of colonial power to simultaneously see the process of crisis management and its ideological construction to repress the colonial trauma.  An examination of liberal theories of peacekeeping must show their complicity in both these processes.

This paper will pursue an approach of ‘seeing together' in relation to liberal theory, by reading this theory together with the intervention in Somalia.  It will thus seek to draw out the complicities between false and oppressive assumptions in theory and colonial actions (and failures) in practice.  The main purpose of this paper will be to establish that liberal and instrumentalist peacekeeping theorists share a number of colonial assumptions.  While drawing on postcolonial studies, the approach will also engage with ethnography, anarchism and cultural studies as means of providing multiple angles from which to see situations.  Multivocity is deployed to approximate a complex situation by viewing it from a number of different directions at once, each viewpoint being taken as an incomplete perspective.  Postcolonial theory will here be shadowed firstly by Richard J.F. Day's anarchist critique of liberalism, to demonstrate the complicity and interchangeability of colonial and statist standpoints.  Secondly, it will be traced through reflections on the intervention in Somalia by anthropologists and postcolonial theorists.  While recognising the danger of epistemological violence in the Northern anthropologist's representation of the Other, such accounts are useful in exposing the structural gap between the theoretical framing of the situation and the situation as it appears from a more nuanced engagement.  There are doubtless also gaps between the anthropologist's reconstruction and the immanent discourse of everyday life, but for the purposes of this paper it is necessary only that the anthropological account be closer to this discourse than is that of the normative theorists. 

The article focuses on three related liberal theorists: Nicholas Wheeler, C.A.J. Coady and Fernando Tesón.  The theorists discussed here are similar in their general frame, though varying in the degree of subtlety with which they express it.  Coady offers a more subtle theory that the other authors, but his subtlety supplements rather than overriding the performative effectivity of liberal discourse.  In this article, we treat them as part of a single discourse, and trace their colonial logic through a series of five interlinked assumptions which can be traced through all the theorists discussed.

1. Northern privilege as universalism

The first problematic assumption is the view that a desituated Northern agent can assert and establish the content of a universal ethics.  Most often this is constructed in opposition to a straw-man of relativism.  It is not, however, the universalist stance which is most crucial to their colonial status.  Rather, it is the fact that they believe universally true positions can be established by reference solely to Northern experiences and values.  Their approach is thus colonial in foreclosing the need for dialogue with difference.  Northern standpoints are privileged by means of a separation between marked and unmarked terms.  The unmarked term of the civilised world becomes the exclusive referent for justifications of approaches to the ‘uncivilised' other.   Hence, the ‘civilised' world is ethically tautological: its relation to its Others is justified by its own values, which are the relevant referent because it is ‘civilised, a status it possesses by virtue of its values.  This reinforces the view that, despite the tenuousness of its moral realism, liberal cosmopolitanism is a paradigmatic ‘royal science', seeking to give a certain Law to its readers to provide a stable basis for moral order.  As Richard Day writes of Kymlicka, liberal theory produces ‘an utterance that does not anticipate a rejoinder' (78). 

The construction of monologism takes different forms in each theory.  Wheeler rests his account of the normative force of the duty to intervene on a liberal international relations (IR) perspective which is pitted mainly against the Realist view that states are incapable of normative concern.  His main concern is thus to show that normative restrictions, even if used or formulated in self-interested ways, can still be binding on states (2004: 4, 7, 24).  This sidesteps the question of how ethical positions should be reached, but has a symptomatic side-effect.  This construction of international normativity thus focuses on the emergence of normative communities among states (e.g. 2004: 23, 44).  Stateless societies can be the objects of intervention, but are excluded from the formation of the normative community which legitimates it, effectively relegated to terra nullius by the absence of a relevant international claimant - not empty of people as ‘bare life', but empty of morally relevant agents, people who ‘matter' as normative voices.  Things get no better when Wheeler briefly enters the field of discussion of how positions should be reached, rendering this process the exclusive province of the ‘values of... civilized societies' (2002: 303).  Hence, ‘civilised' societies ask themselves if they are entitled to intervene; nobody thinks to ask the recipients.  In practice, this leads to a situation where the  UN believed that no consent was needed to intervene in Somalia due to the absence of a state able to give such consent (Wheeler 2002: 183). 

Fernando Tesón offers the most unreconstituted variant of the universalist global-local.  He adopts a strongly realist moral ontology in which moral truths are absolutely independent of their origins (Tesón 2001:12).  Having asserted ontologically that such truths exist, he nevertheless provides no clear guide to the epistemological means by which they can be known.  But what he does not say, he shows by his performance as speaker of ethical ‘truths'.  His reference is to a Northern in-group connected to the dominant fantasy frame, as for instance when he writes of ‘the shock we felt' over the Srebrenica massacre (2001: 44).  The type of subject who felt shock at this juncture is of a certain type: tuned into the global media, experiencing the events of Bosnia from the outside, contained in a sphere of safety in which such events are shocking rather than horrifically quotidian and predictable.  This ‘we' excludes by gradations the Srebrenica victims themselves, whose emotions were likely much sharper than mere shock; the solidarity activists, Muslim and secular, who would be angry but unsurprised at the Serbian atrocity and the UN betrayal; and the other recipients of intervention, the Somalis, Rwandans and so on, whose reactions remain opaque. 

Like Tesón, Coady is a moral realist who views ethics as a form of knowledge allowing universal claims and derived from human nature (2002: 13-14, 18).  This position is counterposed to a simplified view of relativism (2002: 14), and again, its ontological firmness is undermined by its silence on epistemology.  No method is provided for distinguishing in practice between relative and universal positions, though such judgements are most definitely made in practice (2002: 16).  Again, it seems that the universal truth is established solely by Northern agents.  One establishes truth through the ‘courts of reason, feeling, experience and conscience', which may or may not produce an obvious answer (2002: 14).  Being internal to the desituated Northern observer, these ‘courts' do not require any accountability to non-Northern Others, or any kind of reflexivity.   A Northern subject-position is introduced performatively.  Hence for instance, reactions of Northern media viewers are deemed facts of human nature (2002: 29, 36).  Hence it is clear that, while Others are allowed to make claims in these courts, but the judge remains resolutely Northern. 

In practice, such universalism, operating as a global-local, provides space for linguistic despotism.  Deleuze and Guattari have argued that the persistence of despotism after the end of absolutist states relies on the despotic functioning of transcendentalist language (Anti-Oedipus 207).  In peacekeeping discourse, this transcendentalism is expressed especially in the binary between civilised and uncivilised, which creates the conditions for sovereignty and states of exception.  One can thus think of peacekeeping violence in terms of law-founding violence, a suspension of ethics in the creation of a statist order.  Hence, Hardt and Negri are right in arguing that ‘[m]odern sovereignty… does not put an end to violence and fear but rather puts an end to civil war by organizing violence and fear into a coherent and stable political order'.  Peacekeeping in the dominant discourse is the violence which forms a bridge between ‘anarchy' (the demonised Other) and liberal-democracy, cutting through complexity with the simplicity of brute force (Debrix 110).  The effects of this discursive asymmetry are made clear in Sherene Razack's investigation of peacekeeping violence.  Razack's book focuses on instances of torture and murder by Canadian peacekeepers in Somalia, and accounts for such violence as expressions of discourses of superiority (10).   Razack argues that Canadian peacekeepers in Somalia committed atrocities because of their identity as agents of a civilised nation operating in a hostile, otherworldly context.  They use such categories to construct an ‘affective space' of belonging (24).  The identity of Canadian peacekeepers as citizens of a civilised nation lead to the denial of personhood to Somali Others (Razack 9). 

The stance as civilised outsiders leads to violence through the operation of a binary of civilised versus savage which is inherently racialised (13).  The civilisers are counterposed to the ‘dark corners of the earth' in a narrative which places Northern peacekeepers outside history (12).   They are assigned the task of sorting out problems of Southern others at some risk to themselves (32).  ‘History is evacuated and the simplest of stories remains: more civilized states have to keep less civilized states in line' (48).  Sites such as Somalia thus become viewed as utterly hostile, sites of absolute evil in which anarchy blurs with terrain and climate (15, 84).  Since the South is constituted as an inferior category, peacekeepers enter a space where their ability to relate to others' humanity is impeded (54, 155).  Such black holes, or extraordinary spaces, become sites of exception and emergency (44).  Excluded from dialogue by the myth of its absolute evil, the Other is taken to understand little but force (38-9, 93).  Canadian peacekeepers involved in abuses were acting on a narrative bearing little resemblance to their actual situation in a largely peaceful town (73).  They in effect went looking for enemies, scheming to lure and trap Somalis who were then assumed to fit stereotypes (79-81).  The narrative of imposing order amidst chaos creates conditions in which peacekeepers initiate conflict to provide a context in which to respond overwhelmingly and brutally.  Paradoxically, peacekeepers thereby often become unable even to keep the peace between themselves and their local hosts, let alone to impose it among locals. 

2.  State as necessary; social order

The second problematic grouping of assumptions concern the social role of the state.  Liberal theorists view the state as identical with or essential to society, and as something without which a decent life is impossible.  This is taken as a truism.  As Richard Day argues, liberal scholars systematically ignore arguments that stateless life might be preferable to life under the state, in an intellectual doubling of the move of liberal states to ruthlessly suppress movements aspiring to stateless life.  Despite their criticisms of particular state policies, liberals consistently think about social life from the standpoint of the state.  As Day writes, liberalism identifies with the state by adopting its subject-position (79).  This fixation on the state expresses itself normatively in the attachment of overriding significance to themes of order, security and stability.  For instance, the UN resolution on Somalia called for action ‘to restore peace, stability and law and order' (cited Lyons and Samatar 34).  On the other side, metonymic slippage is established between terms like statelessness, lawlessness, anarchy, chaos and barbarism.  This conceptual conflation combines into a single concept at least four distinct phenomena:  state collapse as such, the collapse of society (such as everyday meanings and relations), the existence of a situation of civil war, and the existence of a set of ‘lawless' actions similar to criminality (such as murder, torture, rape, armed robbery and extortion).  This runs against the warnings of more informed empirical scholars who emphasise the need to disaggregate these phenomena (Menkhaus State Collapse 405, 407). 

On an explanatory level, statist authors tend to attribute the other aspects of a complex emergency, particularly social conflict and ‘lawless' actions, to the absence of a state (or of the right kind of state).  Hence, they fail to distinguish between peaceful and warring stateless societies, or between ‘lawless' stateless societies and those with some degree of diffuse ‘governance'.   A society such as Somalia is stateless, hence necessarily beset by civil war and social predation.  As a result, it is assumed that the response to problems related to civil war and ‘lawlessness' must be resolved by the restoration or construction of a proper state.  An absence is taken as the explanation for various effects, with no sense of what specific forces cause these effects.  The possibility that the worst problems in complex emergencies could be mitigated instead by moving towards a more peaceful and less predatory type of statelessness - a possibility at the forefront of the empirical literature on Somalia for example - is simply ruled out in advance.  Also excluded from the frame is the need to establish and engage with contingent causes of intergroup conflict. 

These themes can be traced through the work of the authors under discussion.  Wheeler deems ‘state breakdown... and a collapse of law and order' a sufficient cause for intervention (2002: 34).  In referring to situations in which ‘the target state... had collapsed into lawlessness and civil strife' (2002: 2), he clearly conflates statelessness, ‘lawlessness' and civil war: state collapse itself means ‘lawlessness and civil strife'; this is what a society becomes when a state collapses.  Furthermore, ‘lawlessness' and the ‘breakdown of authority' are taken to be the cause of famine in Somalia (2002: 176, 206), notwithstanding the continued absence of state authority in the famine-free years since 1994.  Wheeler also rather strangely refers to state-building as the removal of ‘the gun' from political life (2002: 306).  States are not known for their lack of guns.  Writing in 2002 - by which time Somalia had experienced a stateless peace for nearly a decade  - Wheeler argues that ‘[d]isarming the warlords and establishing the rule of law were crucial in preventing Somalia from falling back into civil war and famine' (2002: 190).  What Somalia needed, he decided, was a ‘law-governed polity' (2002: 173).  To this end, he advocates ‘the imposition of an international protectorate that could provide a security framework for years, if not decades, to come' (2002: 306), effectively the recolonisation of the country. 

In constructing criteria for the success of an intervention, Wheeler's position is again ambiguous.  His exact demand is that a successful intervention establish ‘a political order...  hospitable to the protection of human rights' (2002: 37).  Yet when he discusses Somalia, and faces the problem that humanitarian relief and state-building were contradictory goals, he takes a pro-statebuilding position (2002: 189-90).  This can be interpreted to mean that he assumes that only a statist order could possibly be hospitable to human rights, notwithstanding the appalling human rights record of the previous Somali state.  Yet there is no reason why local polities could not be assessed in terms of human rights (Menkhaus and Pendergast, 2). 

In Tesón's account, a Hobbesian position on state collapse, including the identity of state collapse, societal collapse, ‘lawlessness' and civil war, is explicitly advocated.  ‘Anarchy is the complete absence of social order, which inevitably leads to a Hobbesian war of all against all' (2001: 7).  People are thus prevented from conducting ‘meaningful life in common' (2001: 7).  It is clear that state and society are so closely linked here as to be indistinguishable; it is left unclear if the ‘absence of social order' means the absence merely of the state or of other forms of social life.  Given that contexts such as Somalia do not in fact involve the collapse of all social life, it must be assumed that the former is being inferred from the latter.  We see once more the reproduction of the conflation of statelessness with a range of problems, in apparent ignorance of the possibility of other kinds of statelessness.  The solution is taken to be pervasive imposition of liberal social forms.  Humanitarian aid simply addresses ‘the symptoms of anarchy and tyranny', whereas building ‘democratic, rights-based institutions... addresses a central cause of the problem' and does ‘the right thing' for the society (2001: 37). 

As a result, situations of anarchy necessarily lead to barbaric interpersonal behaviour which is seriously unjust, causing a ‘moral collapse of sovereignty' and a loss of the right to self-government (2001: 2-3).  The difference between statist societies and stateless societies is not, he tersely declares, a matter of legitimate dispute.  The difference is a matter of what all ‘reasonable' views will accept and what they will not (2001: 13-14).  This boundary reproduces the tautological ethical stance of the Northern agent.  While emotively related to the extreme effects of civil war and predatory violence, this position in effect declares any stateless society to be beyond the pale regardless of whether it displays these characteristics.  The gesture of Schmittian sovereignty, deciding on the exclusion of those deemed unreasonable, is particularly dangerous given that intervention happens in contexts where the majority of local agents show such characteristics.  Peacekeepers primed to enter situations deemed uncondonable are doomed to violent contact with local agents (including ‘victims' who do condone them, because their very frame is constructed to exclude engagement. 

Again in Coady's work, the assumption that states exist for benevolent purposes is prominent.  States are viewed as responsible for the protection of citizens (2002: 11-12).  Intervention can legitimately be aimed at ‘failed or profoundly unstable states' (2002: 21), and has the goals of ‘ensuring political stability and enduring safety' (2002: 30), liberal code for state-building.  It is not unusual in peacekeeping theory to find a distinction drawn between ordinary human rights (identified with concrete violations) and extraordinary human rights (identified with the collapse of legitimate state power), a binary which ethically voids the very concept of rights by identifying its actualisation with a particular social order.  In other varieties, one finds it in distinctions between truly shocking and merely wrong forms of violation, between ‘extremely barbarous' and mundane abuses, or between law and order as a primary goal of intervention and human security as a secondary luxury (see Coady 2002: 16, 28, Tesón 2001: 37, Walzer Just and Unjust Wars 108, Lund 2003: 28-9, 47-8, Paris 2004: 47-8).  This serves to put the denial of rights, or of the state, in the South (or rather, its crisis-points) in an incommensurable category distinct from human rights abuses in and by the North (and its Southern allies).  With human rights deemed impossible in a stateless society, rights-violation is excused as ‘law-creating violence', the creation of an order where rights become possible, but which does not require prefigurative recognition of rights in the present, a position not dissimilar to the telos of socialism in Stalinist ideology.  The declaration of justice and rights as the purpose of the state sits uncomfortably with the kind of state likely to result in practice from statebuilding in contexts such as Somalia.  Clearly, Tesón has transmuted his normative position on what states should do into an essentialist position on what states are, which leaves him with a project of building a state per se, without regard for whether the project or the resultant state serves the ascribed goals.   In the meantime, the patently obvious existence of customary rights in societies such as Somalia is conveniently ignored.  Presumably, as rights of the ‘uncivilised', these rights do not count as fully ‘human'. 

In practice, the effects of such a statist frame are to disengage peacekeepers from populations they are supposed to be rescuing, constructing them as epistemologically-privileged bearers of a project of social reconstruction which is in the interests, regardless of the wishes, of the locals.  This framework produces a paradigmatically colonial arrogance.  Peacekeepers misperceived unfamiliar institutions as an absence of institutions, leading to racist effects.  Empirical scholars have approached Somalia with a frame distorted by such statism, as when Lyons and Samatar portray the country as a ‘Hobbesian world without law or institutions', divided between ‘the most vulnerable' and ‘the most vicious' (Lyons and Samatar 7; c.f. Makinda ****).  In practice, the Somali intervention was framed by Northern insecurities about ‘disorder' in the context of global neoliberalism.  According to one cultural analyst, the intervention was an attempt to suture the field of global disorder, acting out a predetermined script in an attempt to create an appearance of fixed order, namely, neoliberalism as the end of history (Debrix 97-9).  This suture is necessary because of the gap separating neoliberal ideology from the actuality of global disorder (107).  It was to fail because an excess of uncontrollable images arising from local difference began to disempower the global order (Debrix 126). 

In Somalia, peacekeepers found themselves in a society with very different assumptions about state power. According to Menkhaus, ‘there is perhaps no other issue on which the worldviews of external and internal actors are more divergent than their radically different understanding of the state' (Menkhaus State Collapse 409).  ‘For many Somalis, the state is an instrument of accumulation and domination, enriching and empowering those who control it and exploiting and harassing the rest of the population' (Menkhaus Governance 87).   Hence, statebuilding was misconceived as necessary for peacebuilding in a setting where it was virtually impossible.  Menkhaus and Pendergast argue that the ‘radical localization' of politics in Somalia is often misunderstood as disorder and crisis, when in fact it is part of the functioning of local social life.   ‘The challenge to the international community... is to attempt to work with this “stateless” political reality in Somalia rather than against it.'  It is a myth to see the intervention as rebuilding a state, since an effective state has never existed in Somalia (Menkhaus State Collapse 412). 

Somalia has historically been resistant to the implantation of the state-form, and previous colonial and neo-colonial states, arising mainly as channels for global patronage flows, were caught between the extractive and despotic use of concentrated power by the clan which dominated the state and moves to balance against this excessive power by other clans.  Even such an artificial state has been made impossible by changing conditions (Menkhaus and Pendergast 2-3).  Attempts to rebuild a centralised state have exacerbated conflict between clan militias, which compete for the ‘potential spoils' of such a state (Menkhaus and Pendergast 13).  With the capital viewed as the site or ‘house' of state power, the battle for the state encouraged clan conflicts for control of the capital (Jan 2001: 81; )   Where state-building has occurred in postwar Somalia, it has been similarly marked by strong extractive and divisive tendencies (Lewis 81-3).  Hence, to favour statebuilding in Somalia is to contribute to exacerbating conflict by taking stances between diffuse forces which favour some and disempower others.  In seeking local collaborators in building the state, the UN ended up favouring some clan militias against others (Rutherford 16, 23, 40-1). 

On the other hand, empirical evidence does not confirm the view that peace required a strong state.  Statelessness as such did not cause civil war or social problems.  Until the 1980s, Somalia was extremely safe, despite or because of its weak state; the source of security was communal, not juridical (Menkhaus State Collapse 412).  Similarly, Somalia rapidly returned to peace after the UN departure, with conflict infrequent between 1995 and 2006 (Menkhaus Governance 87-8).  In part, this was due to the declining local influence of warlords inside their own clans.  Ameen Jan analyses the post-UN scenario as a revival of processes frozen by the intervention, which were already moving national power towards clans and clan power towards civilians (2001: 53-5).  Another apparent anomaly is that the de facto independent northwestern region of Somaliland successfully constructed peace and local political institutions with meagre resources, at the same time that expensive UN peace conferences were failing (Lewis ix-x).  This process succeeded because it arose from the grassroots and started with reconciliation on issues of contention, many of which were social issues such as buying off militia members and resolving land disputes (Lewis 91, 94-5; Menkhaus, Governance 91).  Hence, the causes of the civil war in parts of Somalia were contingent products of circumstances which are unlikely to recur (Menkhaus and Pendergast 7, 15).  Having started from the wrong premises, it is no surprise that the wrong conclusions were reached.  Successful peacebuilding in Somalia would involve a transition from a violent diffuse acephalous society to a peaceful diffuse acephalous society, whereas the colonial assumptions of peacekeepers instead sought to override the entire structure of Somali society as a means to construct their preferred form of order. 

In practice, this obsession with order and interpellation of otherness as disorder expresses itself in reliance on hard power.  The UN and US sought to rely on technical and military power as a substitute for engagement in the context (Debrix 115, Wheeler 2002: 181, 205).  This tends to reproduce the very context posited by the Northern discourse.  Pieterse has argued that the emphasis on hard power in interventions reinforces or even creates rigid ethnic categories and authoritarian institutions, hence creating the conditions for humanitarian crisis. The emphasis on hard power stemming from the problematic of sovereignty effectively rendered peacebuilding impossible.  While local clan reconciliation conferences were more effective in practice, the UN approach focused on militia leaders, a process which tended to entrench their power and disaggregate them from their support-base (Jan 2001: 63).  This misrepresented their power through the frame of sovereignty.  Clan militias, like Clastrean chiefs, did not hold stable power.  They were speculative and temporary, and subject to rapid decomposition (Lewis 80, Menkhaus and Pendergast 4-5).  Lewis views the Somali militias as clan militias involved mainly in territorial conflicts (Lewis 75).  Far from dominating the context, militias depended on soft power within clans to a great degree, and were unable even to implement accords among themselves due to their limited influence over their clans (Menkhaus and Pendergast 4-5). 

Clastres' theory of warfare in indigenous societies, the source of the Deleuzian theory of war-machines, emphasises the role of intergroup alliances and balancing as quasi-intentional means of warding off concentrated power and transcendentalism. Intergroup feuding expresses ‘the will of each community to assert its difference',‘[t]o assure the permanence of the dispersion, the parcelling, the atomization of the groups'.  Such a situation of centrifugal forces is indeed typical of the kind of conflict settings which peacekeeping interventions target.  Somalis are predominantly nomads, and form the archetypal nomadic war-machines carrying out the diffusion of social power.  The frame applied from the North is, however, rather dangerous: the logic of the war-machine is misunderstood as a primal Hobbesian violence.  This sets peacekeepers up for colonial warfare.  The terminal crisis of the UN intervention arose from the redefinition of one of the two major alliances of clan militias as an enemy.  Focused unduly on the person of General Aidid, the escalation arose following an attack on UN troops which was interpreted as a violation of transcendental sovereignty, an attack on protected bodies of exceptional value.  In the local frame, however, it was reconfigured as horizontal warfare rather than vertical enforcement, and the UN became seen as the ‘sixteenth Somali faction' (Jan 2001: 72). 

Hence, it seems that an incapacity to think outside a narrowly statist frame was the source both of a violently colonial intervention, and of the constitutive unrealisability of the goals of the intervention.  It would seem that statism and colonialism intersect, with certain Southern societies judged as inferior for their lack of state forms.  This expresses the promotion of the Northern state, in spite of its increasing authoritarianism and colonial legacy, as an unmarked term to which the world should aspire.  Although it is outside the scope of this paper, it is also apparent that Southern states are typically pathologised as the wrong ‘type' of state - too corrupt, too contaminated by the dirty world of social life, insufficiently able to mobilise uncontested concentrated power or authority.  It is possible that the club of ‘real' democracies, or ‘successful' states, is actually a repetition of Fanon's club of the civilised, held up as a goal for those who are constitutively excluded from it. 

3.  Victims

The third set of assumptions of such theories are concentrated in the figure of the victim.  The victim is a contradictory figure, for, while she is the quasi-absolute ethical referent of peacekeeping theory, the figure on whose behalf other ethical principles may be suspended, whose call is the source of an imperative ethical obligation, and whose claims form the entire basis for normative theorising, at the same time she is completely voiceless within this theory.  She is also a figure of sameness within the difference of the South, established by means of the emptying of specificity.  The victim as a discursive figure typically has no social situatedness or culture; she does not belong for instance to a certain clan victimised by another, but simply to a binary of the ‘victims' against the ‘vicious'.  The victim is thus a reproduction of the liberal subject.  As Day argues, liberals view subjects as having relations, not with each other, but only with the state (80).  Hence, people in a stateless society cannot be thought as socially situated (in relations with each other),  or as having voice (which lacks its target, the state on which demands are made).  The status of this subject is a priori.  Hence, the Northern intervener can decide that the ethical claims of the victim justify intervention, without her having to demand intervention and without her having any say in what form the intervention takes. 

This figure is crucial to all three theorists.  Wheeler terms ‘victims' the proper ‘referent object for analysis' in determining the justification for an intervention (2002: 38), and they recur throughout his text at regular intervals (2002: 10-11, 50, 185, 298, 305).  This claim, however, is disarticulated from any possibility of voice.  It is assumed that an external observer can readily establish what the ‘victim' wants or needs.   Rarely does Wheeler include any reference to the statements of ‘victims', or even to their status.  Their presence in his text is that of an absent claimant.  Their voicelessness is in discontinuity with their ethical centrality, but in continuity with the tautological reference of the ‘civilised' world to itself.  Wheeler tends to frame both victims and villains in socially desituated terms.  Rhetorically, humanitarian interveners are not warriors or police, but ‘firefighting' (2002: 304), as if dealing with forces of nature and not of culture. 

Tesón similarly posits a set of claims attributed to ‘victims' but established by the observer's fiat.  The duty to intervene is grounded in just entitlements of victims.  ‘People trapped in such situations deserve to be rescued' (2001: 8).  In his case, the voiceless victim is constructed through the transmutation of an absent voice into a speculative claim as to what victims can be expected to want.  Beginning as a claim that legitimate interventions must be ‘welcomed by the victims' (2001: 4), this quickly transmutes into a Kantian derivation of victims' interests from presuppositions (2001: 42).  In principle victims are meant to have a veto over intervention, but have no means to exercise this veto (2001: 20, 23).  Crucially, no need is suggested for the intervener to be responsive to the actual desires, political aspirations or cultural situatedness of the much-vaunted victims.  Indeed, quite the opposite is suggested in practice: that the intervener has a right to expect ‘reasonable cooperation' from the victims, and that they may legitimately be harmed for the greater good of the intervention (2001: 20, 33-4).  Similarly for Coady, intervention aims at ‘rescuing foreign people', aiming ‘to rescue the innocent and helpless from persecution and extreme distress' (2002: 11-12, 21).  Hence, ‘the cries of the victims... carry an urgent appeal to conscience' (2002: 32).  Yet once more, these ‘cries' seem to be without words; victims are invoked but never heard. 

A variety of authors have problematised the image of the victim in peacekeeping discourse.  Liisa Malkii has argued that victims of atrocities are often silenced in Northern discourse, as a condition of Northern commentators' ability to perceive the situation as absolute and unknowable, and themselves as outside history (****).  Menkhaus argues that communities are often wrongly portrayed as passive victims, when in fact they are practising recognisable strategies of survival (Vicious Circles 163).  Debrix argues that the narrative of victimhood required that Somalis remain disempowered, keeping their status as victims.  Once they were viewed as empowered, as during the hunt for Aidid, they were reconceived as enemies (Debrix 119).  Razack argues that the silence of victims in intervention discourse demonstrates that interventions are not really carried out on behalf of victims, but in fact, are all about the Northern intervener.  With locals silenced, atrocities are taken to be ‘aimed at us', the Northern observer, through the intermediary of the peacekeeper (22).  Paradoxically, this leads to a situation where Northern agents feel the need to empower themselves against atrocities, claiming special duties towards others while simultaneously lessening concern for their human rights (14). 

The victim appears in Northern discourse as a homogeneous, desituated, mythological figure appealing silently for help.  Actual victims/survivors, however, had a variety of situated positions which run against the logic of Northern intervention.  Survivors within warring clans would be likely to look to their own clan militia and the balance of power within Somalia for justice or restitution.  The capacity for group revenge is a force for resolution through customary law, and impedes intergroup violence (State Collapse 412).  Indeed, the absence of a balance of power was the reason certain groups were vulnerable.  Victims were disproportionately drawn from unarmed, non-nomadic population groups such as the agrarian Rahanweyn (Lewis 131).  The main reason is that these groups were outside the alliance system.  Menkhaus attributes the success of peacebuilding after 1995 largely to the arming of such vulnerable groups (Governance 89, Vicious Circles 161).  This runs firmly against the Northern approach of disarmament as a means to peace (see below). 

4.  State as privileged social agent

Fourthly, peacekeeping theorists assume a nexus between the state as a privileged agent of social action and the claims of universal ethics.  When an ethical obligation is deduced, it is the state which is assumed to be the agent under the obligation, which thereby requires both a duty and a right to engage in it.  The state is thus a kind of unmarked term of liberal ethics: if something must be done, this means that the state must do it.  It is rarely considered that functions of defence of vulnerable groups, peacebuilding or conflict resolution may also be (and often are) performed by diverse other agents, ranging from volunteer solidarity fighters to non-governmental organisations.  Hence, little argument is provided for preferring the state to other possible agents for actualising the duty to intervene.  It is recognised that the duty of states to intervene  may be impeded or overridden by limits to state power, in particularly in the vital class of cases (such as Chechnya and Tibet) where a complex emergency is brought about largely by the actions of a geopolitically strong state and where intervention would risk global war.  For liberals, this paradoxically renders the duty utterly unable to be actualised, despite the fact that other types of agents may be more able to act in such settings.  (**** Chechnya).  On the other hand, it is assumed that states have extensive power to intervene in cases of diffuse networked societies such as Somalia.  Little awareness is shown of the problems of asymmetrical warfare which so preoccupy the normative theorists' colleagues in security studies. 

This assumption of states as the agents of action is central to liberal theory.  While the ultimate appeal of Wheeler's ethics is societal not statist (2002: 303), his account is constructed around the assumption that the only alternative to state action is to do nothing (2002: 1).  Hence, while his theory focuses on individual rights, states paradoxically become the agents of these rights (2002: 12), alienating from individuals the actualisation of their rights.  Wheeler justifies his exclusive focus on states with the claim that they are the only institutions powerful enough to act against atrocities (2002: 310). 

Coady has more awareness of the practical limits of state power and the history of unjustified violence by states through the centuries (2002: 17).  ‘A legitimate concern for principles needs to be anchored in the factual realities within which the principles have to make sense and be applied' (2002: 16).  In terms of state limits, he constructs an analogical argument which likens state power to trying to stop a murder with a stick (2002: 30).  This does not, however, preclude the basic goals: nation-building is not to be attempted from the outside, but is to be encouraged by local agents; rebuilding ‘political institutions' is not to be done by military means, but is to be done by other means (2002: 34).  The main alteration in the standard liberal nexus in Coady's case is that intervention is to be vested, not in any state which feels obliged to act, but in the United Nations (UN) as a source of normative power and relative impartiality (2002: 26).  The difficulty with this view is that a reformed UN empowered to engage in direct interventions would be statist in form, and thus most likely take on a statist fantasy-frame, especially given its hegemonisation by a liberal discourse awash with statist assumptions. 

In Tesón's theory, the privileging of the state comes from a different source: the state itself, in its very presentation, is heavily moralised.  Apparently blissfully unaware of the historical origins of states in structural violence, he follows a social contract view of states as derived speculatively from autonomous agents and created for purposes such as protecting human rights and securing justice (2001: 1, 6).  Humanitarian intervention thus expresses this basic purpose of the state, as the intervening state ‘is helping to restore justice and rights, the purpose of all justified political institutions - most prominently the state' (2001: 37).  This defence of justice and rights in general paradoxically permits rights (such as the right to life) to be sacrificed, because it is a ‘normatively privileged' goal more important than such matters as bodycounts (2001: 37).  With the higher good of human rights as such, the sovereign decision on human rights, served by the project of state-building, a blind eye can be turned to the ordinary human rights violations arising from intervention and its aftermath. 

In practice, the power of global states is far more limited.  New wars operate in a terrain of networks operating around or beneath the control of states (Duffield 2001).  Attempts to dominate such wars by means of state power depend on an exaggeration of this power, and in particular, of the impact of hard power in complex situations.  In fact, centralised states have faced increasing difficulty fighting lightly organised networks, as is recognised by strategic theorists such as Arquilla and Ronfeldt.  The ‘fourth generation' of war, in which memory and trauma become crucial stakes in wide-spectrum conflicts, is problematising the utility of military power in peripheral contexts.Such conflicts are typically won, not by military defeat, but by demoralisation.  Settings such as Somalia, with dense social networks and difficult terrain, particularly favour netwarriors after states.  Global powers such as the US and UN are also setting themselves up for defeat because the framing of situations as absolute evil is inherently traumatising, effectively empowering adversaries.  This is reinforced by the gap between the peacekeeper's identity as benevolent lawbringer and the demoralising hostility faced from locals rejecting colonial occupation. 

America intervened in Somalia on the grounds that it alone had the capability to act (Rutherford 76-7).  Yet it achieved little, and was defeated easily, as is widely recognised.  Lewis for instance bemoans how little has been achieved by the weight of external intervention (Lewis ix).  In military terms, the US was ultimately driven out of Somalia by lightly armed adversaries with the advantage of local knowledge (Lewis 79, Rutherford xvii).  This was a classic defeat in asymmetrical war.  Military losses were light compared to those caused by the occupation force, yet were crucial in terms of morale, generating iconic images of the mistreatment of soldiers' bodies which hegemonised coverage of the war (Lyons and Samatar 59).  Hence, even in the Northern media, US/UN forces were outmanoeuvred by Aidid, who was able to turn images from a buffer against horror to a means to accentuate it (Debrix 126-8). 

5.  Colonial elision

The fifth grouping of assumptions take the form of an elision or sanctioned ignorance.  Peacekeeping theorists view the relationship between North and South as an entirely external relationship, eliding issues of colonial history and contemporary interconnection (except in the inverted form of knock-on consequences of Southern inequality for the North).  Intervener and intervened are assumed to exist as separate entities, billiard balls, ‘strangers' who have never met each other until the desituated Northern agent hears the cry of the victim. 

Throughout Wheeler's account, neither global inequalities nor colonialism are mentioned except a handful of times.  The brief mentions are symptomatic.  In one case, Wheeler recognises that Michael Ignatieff would view his proposal for UN protectorates as colonialism (2002: 207).  In contrast to the rest of the book, this claim is not subject to a response; it is simply noted and passed over.  In another passage, global redistribution is mentioned, but as an afterthought, in a concluding section (2002: 307-8).  Again its implications are not explicated, despite the potentially massive significance of wealth-inequalities for the causal matrix of complex emergencies.  These marginal mentions of interconnections are in stark contrast to the centrality of the category of ‘strangers', which appears in Wheeler's title.  A knowledge of colonialism past and present throws into question whether Southern peoples are really ‘strangers' to the North. 

Tesón gives even less space to colonialism than Wheeler.  Its one marginal appearance is as an absence, when Tesón provides an analytical argument that ‘tyranny and anarchy', the evils to be countered by intervention, have certainly caused far greater suffering and death than ‘humanitarian interventions' (2001: 30).  This shows a remarkable ‘sanctioned ignorance' of the continuities between his own discourse of humanitarian intervention and the earlier discourse of the civilising mission which was complicit in colonial genocides, slavery and prolonged occupations by violence - ‘interventions' whose effects call into question his calculus of suffering. 

Again, no awareness is shown of interconnectedness.  Indeed, social life is removed entirely from a theory constructed wholly at an abstract normative level.  There is no ethical openness to the Other in this theory, no awareness of the contingency of Tesón's standpoint.  Rather, just arrangements are so ethically primary as an overwhelming telos that everyone has a duty to bring them about, including by militarily bringing others into them (2001: 46).  Nothing is too sacred to have primacy over this telos - not the self-determination of societies, not the lives or rights of victims, and not the rights or lives of civilian citizens (Tesón explicitly advocates conscription for humanitarian intervention).  There are clear shadows here of a liberal colonialism which will bring ‘uncivilised' peoples kicking and screaming into ‘just arrangements', whether they like it or not.

Coady, unlike Wheeler and Tesón, does show awareness of similarities of humanitarian intervention to colonialism, and the need to avoid colonial entanglements (2002: 8, 15, 22-3, 30).  The effects of this awareness are, however, performatively rather limited.  Their effect is more supplementary than transformative: to show due respect to the danger of colonialism and legitimate objections to it, one must avoid being too blatant or crude in what one does.  One must for instance avoid strong claims to superiority - though one can still claim superiority less blatantly; one must avoid demonising enemies, even while quite possibly referring to them as ‘very bad' or ‘purely murderous' (2002: 15-16, 35-6).  The suspension of liberal arrogance involved in Coady's analysis is supplementary, not performative.

In practice, the elision of colonialism goes hand-in-hand with the reproduction of colonial relations, in which power is concentrated in the hands of the occupier.  Peacekeepers sought to impose concentrated formal sanctions in a context where diffuse formal and informal sanctions were prevalent, a process which could only involve disempowerment of local actors whose power was constituted at the local level.  Practices aimed to constitute concentrated power also introduced dangerous asymmetries which had disastrous effects.  Disarmament was a particularly problematic project given the cultural significance attached to weapons, and it drew peacekeepers into intrusive colonial practices such as house searches (Rutherford 83-4, 185; Lyons and Samatar 41).  Further, it affected potential victims most heavily, reinforcing asymmetries within the situation.  While major militias were impossible to disarm, certain minority groups and private forces could be disarmed but were thereby left vulnerable to the remaining militias (Razack 132-3; Menkhaus and Pendergast 12; Lyons and Samatar 42).  Again, centralised power and peacebuilding are at odds.

Conclusion: Against ‘acting', against ‘doing nothing'!

We have thus shown a deep complicity between liberal peacekeeping theory, peacekeeping violence, and colonialism.  This still leaves a political question: does a postcolonial position require opposition to peacekeeping interventions?  The dilemma of a postcolonial engagement with peacekeeping is the difficulty of the false binary between endorsing colonial action and persisting in an implicitly colonising inaction: Razack's contingent endorsement of peacekeeping in some cases, versus Zizek's “I'd rather not” (****).  Razack's position is that despite the risks, it is sometimes unethical not to support intervention.  Hence, she basically carries out a suspension of the performative implications of her own critique, thus rendering her criticism of colonialism ‘supplementary' to it.  Zizek in contrast carries through the implications of critique, but in a way which leaves the normal operation of neoliberal devastation intact.  To ‘do nothing' might break with the dominant fantasy-frame, but in a context where complex emergencies are connected to global power-inequalities and the security-development nexus, it leaves one complicit in the production of atrocities. 

The third alternative to supplementary endorsement and inaction is to seek alternative ways of engaging in situations through transversal solidarities, transnational networks and autonomous social action.  Such approaches would start from a Levinasian ethics of openness to the call of the Other, rejecting the silencing of ‘victims' and starting from concrete engagement with the needs, demands and desires of suffering others while also reflexively questioning colonial privilege and resisting the global frame of neoliberalism. 

One instance of such a transversal politics is to demand the recognition of refugee rights in cases of complex emergencies.  One might for instance question whether ‘rescuing victims' is best performed in situ, or rather, by the time-honoured practice of offering asylum to people fleeing persecution and humanitarian crisis, a practice now under attack from neoliberal enforcers of global segmentarity.  In Somalia, remittances have been a factor aiding peace, whereas repatriations are a factor causing a risk of renewed conflict (Menkhaus Vicious Circles 158).  Further options emerge from dialogical ‘conflict transformation' approaches such as those developed by John Paul Lederach (****).  Lederach criticises Northern peacebuilders for failing to question their situated knowledges,and argues that, since changes towards peace are necessarily relational, they require connectedness, openness and the involvement of those who are affected by them. 


Lepard, Walzer, Chopra, Tesón book

  1. Robert J.C. Young, White Mythologies (London: Routledge, 2004).
  2. An interesting side-effect of this liberal IR argument is that, if applied to individuals rather than states, it would preclude the very necessity of the state on which Wheeler's account is premised, since it would imply the possibility of binding customary ‘law' emerging among individuals in an ‘anarchic' setting.
  3. Benjamin, Walter (1927/1999), ‘Critique of Violence', in Selected Writings, Volume 1, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 277-300.  ; Slavoj Žižek, ‘Lenin's Choice', in Revolution at the Gates (London: Verso, 2002).
  4. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude (New York: Penguin, 2004), 239.
  5. Richard J.F. Day (2005), Gramsci is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements (London: Pluto), 54.
  6. Another peacekeeping author, Neclâ Tschirgi, manages to exceed this piece of statist doublethink even more magnificently, describing states as ‘non-violent' (2004: 5).
  7. Jean-Paul Brodeur, Violence and Racial Prejudice in the Context of Peacekeeping (Ottawa: Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada, 1997).
  8. Menkhaus and Prendergast 1.
  9. John Markaris, ‘Ethnic Conflict and the State in the Horn of Africa', in Katsuyoshi Fukui and John Markaris eds., Ethnicity and Conflict in the Horn of Africa (Oxford: James Currey, 1994), 217-39, at p. 220.
  10. Jan Nederveen Pieterse, ‘Sociology of Humanitarian Intervention: Bosnia, Rwanda and Somalia Compared', ****
  11. Pierre Clastres, The Archaeology of Violence (New York: Semiotext[e], 1994), 155, 157, 162.
  12. Clastres, Archaeology, 157.
  13. Clastres, Archaeology, 164.
  14. Michael Pugh, ‘The Social-Civil Dimension', in Regeneration of War-Torn Societies, ed. Michael Pugh, (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2000), 112-133, at 119.
  15. John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime and Militancy (California: Rand, 2001) 55.
  16. Robb, John, Brave New War: The next stage of terrorism and the end of globalization (New York: Wiley 2007).
  17. Osinga, Frans, ‘On Boyd, Bin Laden, and Fourth Generation Warfare as String Theory', http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/boyd/osinga_4gw_boyd_copyright2007.pdf accessed October 10th 2009; Hammes, Thomas, The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century (MN, St Paul: Zenith, 2006).
  18. John Paul Lederach, Preparing for Peace:  Conflict transformation across cultures (New York: Syracuse University Press 1995), 6.
  19. Lederach, Moral Imagination, 60.


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