State-building, Externalisation and National Interests: beacons of good governance or exporters of violence?
The post Cold War period has seen the unambiguous pursuit of the national interest increasingly moderated in foreign policy discourse, running in parallel – and frequently in tension – with collective goals not immediately linked to hard-power objectives. The prevention of conflict, for instance, its resolution, and the subsequent reconstitution of states and societies affected by it, are widely accepted as stand-alone policy priorities1. This has been matched by the mushrooming of theory devoted to describing and shaping conflict and post-conflict policy. There are a variety of terms in circulation, from humanitarian intervention to liberal peace-building and post-conflict reconstruction, and as many different policy prescriptions2.
The post-Cold War years have also witnessed a marked reduction in wars between states, and the perceived rise of intra-state violence – conflict inside state borders, involving at least one non-state armed actor, and sometimes no formal armed forces at all, most commonly caused by the failure, weakness or collapse of state authority. In these terms, it therefore follows that the (re)construction and strengthening of the state is the essential step to ending ongoing violence and preventing its recurrence. A well-governed state enables the provision of public goods and opens space for economic growth and job creation, lowering the incentives for poor individuals to involve themselves in violence. It manages finances and natural resources, lessening incentives to fight, and can regulate and control militaries and security services, providing protection to the population and effective action against spoilers. And it allows an area for non-violent allocation of scarce capital, allowing a shift from armed conflict to political competition. In these terms;
‘The only possibility to stop violence, to establish a society and create political order and stability is through state-centred governance’. (Kartas, 2007, p11)
It is an answer that seems to offer a parsimonious and effective solution to the various challenges presented by environments as different as Kosovo, Afghanistan, Somalia and the DRC. It is a view that, at least in policy circles, is now assumed to such a degree as to be almost unspoken. It has become reflected in language, legislation and institutional structures. And, like any other paradigm, it has its narratives of success; exemplars that prove the effectiveness of the concept. For state-building, primary among these success stories have been Ethiopia, Uganda and Rwanda.
They received significant support from the international community as they emerged from long-running conflicts in the late 1980s and 1990s, and have since made dramatic strides, notably in terms of internal security and stability, economic development, reconstruction of infrastructure and basic service provision. Figures demonstrate healthy growth-rates and consistent investment in the provision of education and healthcare, and there have been improvements across a range of indicators3. Despite ongoing severe poverty and concerns about democratic space and human rights abuses in each, all three remain the recipients of considerable international assistance. Though there are ongoing disagreements as to the impact of external agents on the process of post-conflict rebuilding in these states, they nonetheless do important symbolic work in underpinning the moral foundations of the post-Cold War turn in foreign policy.
There seems, however, to be something of an absence in state-building theory. Expectations for the internal behaviour of newly-built states are well articulated, from the rule of law to internal security for citizens, improvement in development indicators, free markets, democracy, truth and reconciliation and so on (see for instance DFID, 2010). It is less clear, however, how newly-strengthened or rebuilt states are expected to behave outside their borders4. Their foreign policy choices are neither foreseen in the academic literature, nor a major feature of policy discussions.
There instead seems to be a largely unspoken assumption running through the state-building paradigm. Namely, that after state-building has done its work, and a given state successfully rehabilitated, the resulting entity will sign up to international norms, take their seat at the UN, and join the ranks of the international community. These newly-minted good international citizens would, it is assumed, absorb the imprint of the normative aspirations that drove assistance to them, and follow their erstwhile benefactors in seeking to extend the ink-blot of state control further across the map. As a recent policy paper put it; ‘...most states have a strong interest in regional stability.’ (DFID, 2009). This comes into sharpest focus where rebuilt state actors are themselves on the front-line, confronted by zones of conflict or the chaos of weak or failed states. They have relatively efficient militaries, functioning government and clear channels of communication to the outside world. They are thus actors with which the international community can ‘do business’.
Indeed, the hope might be that these state-building success stories will function as ‘islands’ of stability in otherwise chaotic or lawless regions; acting both as a local police-force, able to fire-fight outbreaks of conflict on behalf of a grateful world, and as embodying a positive example to their neighbours of the manifest benefits of stability, democracy, markets and so on; what have been called ‘beacons of good governance’ (DFID 2009). Just as Cold War analysts feared Communism spreading across borders by political osmosis – the now-infamous ‘domino theory’ – state failure has likewise been conceptualised as ‘contagious’, capable of spreading chaos to a region (see for instance The Economist, 2005), or at the very least eroding the fabric of state authority in its neighbours (‘Conflict or weak governance in one country can also have a negative impact on the quality of governance in neighbouring countries’, DFID 2010). It is not therefore surprising that we can trace the outline of a largely unspoken mirror-image to this idea; that just as state failure can transcend borders, so successful state-building will likewise have an impact on its region, enabling and encouraging the gradual spread of the liberal peace across war-torn neighbourhoods.
On initial inspection, this aspiration seems to hold. The governments of Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia have moved over the past 15 years from international pariahs, notorious for the appalling excesses of Amin and Obote, the violence of Mengistu and the DERG or the horrors of the genocide, to respected international actors, increasingly active as partners in international efforts to prevent violence elsewhere.
Rwanda has supplied a large contingent to the UN peacekeeping effort in Darfur. Ugandan troops are currently holding the line for the transitional government in Somalia as AU-mandated peacekeepers, and Ethiopia is a key partner for the US in the counter-terrorism effort in the Horn of Africa. Their respective leaders are highly visible statesmen on the world stage, have close relationships with their counterparts in Washington, London, Brussels and elsewhere. They command considerable international respect and moral authority, and are regularly invited to represent their countries, regions and even the African continent on the international stage (See for instance The Australian, 2009; New Statesman, 2009). To casual observers, then, the hope of state-building producing good international citizens seems to be fulfilled.
But dig a little deeper, and expand the horizons of enquiry somewhat, and a different story begins to emerge. The situations in Eastern DRC, Somalia and what has come to be known as the ‘LRA-affected area’ of Central Africa – Northern Uganda, Southern Sudan, North Eastern DRC and the Central African Republic – are three of the worst ongoing conflicts on the African continent, indeed globally. They have triggered enormous humanitarian catastrophes and displaced hundreds of thousands from their homes. Each has directly cost thousands of lives, and indirectly been responsible for millions more through lack of access to healthcare, food or clean water.
Of course, the circumstances of each of these conflicts are very different. Their complex histories and dynamics, particularly the role of external actors, are subject to intense disagreements between observers and experts. There is no need – or space – to offer a detailed analysis here. One observation will suffice for the purpose of this analysis; namely that ongoing conflict in each is not purely local. The weakly-administered states of Somalia, the DRC, Southern Sudan and the CAR are now playing host to violence that is to some extent the product of political conflict in their neighbours; Rwanda, Ethiopia and Uganda.
This is most clearly the case for the LRA-affected region. The LRA is at heart a Ugandan phenomenon, born of a deep cleavage between the population of Northern Uganda and the Government in Kampala (see Van Acker, 2004, Boas, 2004 or Doom and Vlassenroot, 1999). Despite twenty years of effort, all attempts to achieve a complete military victory over the LRA have failed, though its strength has been somewhat degraded. Likewise, negotiations have faltered on distrust and a lack of political will on both sides (Conciliation Resources, 2002/10 offers a detailed history). The Ugandan authorities have instead contented themselves with pushing the LRA out of Uganda itself into the DRC, Southern Sudan and the Central African Republic, and numerous government sources, including President Museveni, have described the LRA as ‘defeated’ – in his state of the nation address in June 2006, for instance, repeated by a military spokesman in January 2010, who said that the LRA were ‘...already defeated’ and that the mission of the Ugandan army was ‘...to ensure that the problem of LRA rebels does not spill over into the north again’ (New Vision, 2010).
But despite an ongoing military campaign conducted by Uganda, the DRC and Southern Sudan with the support of the UN and wider international community, at the time of writing the LRA remains active, and its leader Joseph Kony at large. There has been a marked downturn in violence in Northern Uganda itself over the past three years, but LRA predation on civilian populations in the DRC and Sudan, including large-scale massacres and widespread abduction, has been well documented (Human Rights Watch, 2010, Enough Project, 2010).
The part played by Rwanda in the DRC conflict is more ambiguous. It invaded what was then Zaire in 1996, along with a number of other regional states, both to neutralise the threat of genocidal forces taking refuge in camps just over its border, and to remove the faltering regime of President Mobutu. It then joined forces with Uganda to invade again in 1998, only failing in toppling the new Congolese authorities due to an intervention by the newly-renamed DRC’s allies, Angola and Zimbabwe. Its overt involvement in conflict in the DRC ended with the withdrawal of its troops in 2002 (See for instance Prunier, 2008, or Turner, 2007, for an overview of the wars).
But it has continued to play an active role in the years since (Lemarchand, 2005; Stearns, 2008; UN panel of experts, 2008) , largely motivated by a perceived threat from the remnants of the genocidal forces, which have now evolved into a politico-military group named the FDLR, strongly opposed to the current Rwandan government. Though the FDLR has benefited from alliances with elements of the Congolese authorities, and has put down deep roots in Congolese communities, it remains at heart a Rwandan group. Though relatively poorly understood, it is likely that it is still at least to some extent motivated by Rwandan politics, albeit strongly tempered by profit-seeking and ethnic extremism (Rafti, 2006, Romkema, 2007). Yet the Rwandan government has consistently refused to make the political compromises that might assist in bringing the FDLR rebels back from the bush. Instead it demands a military solution to the problem, happy to welcome the trickle of defectors facilitated by a UN-run demobilisation program but unwilling to make the significant concessions that may be necessary to ensure the FDLR’s wholesale removal. It is widely acknowledged that the FDLR are the most important driver of ongoing violence in Eastern DRC and wider regional instability (International Crisis Group, 2009).
Likewise Ethiopia has in recent years played an ambiguous role in neighbouring Somalia. Driven by the presence of anti-Government rebels (the OLF and ONLF5) - products of internal Ethiopian political tensions - exacerbated by ongoing proxy conflict with Eritrea, a fear of the political and religious radicalisation of its significant ethnic Somali population, and the threat of terrorist attack by groups based in Somalia, Ethiopia has maintained a strong influence over events across its border, seeking to promote its allies and marginalise those actors and groups it considers threatening to its security (International Crisis Group, 2008). Some observers have alleged that it has pursued these ends at the expense of political progress in Mogadishu (Healy, 2008; Bradbury and Healy, 2010).
For instance, its most recent direct intervention, a full-scale invasion and occupation in 2006, drove out an Islamist government with considerable local authority and legitimacy and replaced it with a transitional administration that many observers consider to have been hand-picked by Addis Ababa, that was unable to establish meaningful influence outside the small sector of Mogadishu protected by African Union troops (Menkhaus, 2007). The militias that currently control much of South-Central Somalia are not unitary actors, and are likely motivated by a wide variety of factors, from religious extremism to clan politics. But they are also, at least in part, driven by the perceived manipulation of Ethiopia in their affairs (International Crisis Group, 2008), and are supported by regional governments that are themselves seeking to damage Ethiopia rather than achieve local goals.
The intention here is not to argue that Rwanda, Ethiopia or Uganda are responsible for ongoing conflict in Somalia, Southern Sudan or the DRC. As already stated, these are extraordinarily complex situations with a huge variety of cultural, political and economic drivers. Nor is it the intention to condemn the policies that they have pursued. Rwanda, Uganda and Ethiopia have been able to claim legitimate security concerns driving their foreign policy, countering the threat posed by rebel groups hostile to their governments and populations, and protecting their fragile post-conflict societies. It can certainly be argued that each has behaved perfectly properly in prioritising domestic security.
But nonetheless, it is possible to argue that conflict in their neighbours represents the externalisation of what would otherwise have been internal problems in Rwanda, Uganda and Ethiopia. It is a moot point as to whether this has been a deliberate policy choice – actively pushing political conflict over into the weakly-controlled territory of their neighbours – or simply as a bi-product of consolidating internal control. The point remains that one the key expectations of fragile, post-conflict states is the provision of security and control of national territory; in many ways externalisation could be argued to be one of the expected outcomes of successful state-building.
Of course, this is a limited analysis of a very small sample. It is beyond the scope of this paper to speculate as to whether these patterns might hold across a wider range of post-conflict scenarios. But three tentative observations may nonetheless be made.
The first is the suggestion that successful state-building may have unanticipated consequences. Increasing state capacity to meet internal expectations also gives the state in question the capacity to control its internal space, including the removal of undesirable or opposition elements from the domestic sphere, and influencing their regional environment to control perceived threats. It could even be argued that they have a responsibility to do so.
This may be even more acute in violent neighbourhoods, where a stable, effective state is bordered by dysfunctional, weak or quasi-states, which do not have the capacity to deter external influence or effectively complain in the event that it takes place. The role of weak states in acting as a medium for the spread of conflict is well established. But they could be argued to have a second aspect, as a convenient buffer zone, a hinterland where violent opponents to fragile post-conflict settlements can be quarantined. Rwanda’s ability to manage its internal political divisions is in many ways a function of the weakness of the Congolese state. Likewise Somalia for Ethiopia, and DRC or Southern Sudan for Uganda.
Thus while the unspoken aspiration of state-building successes acting as good international citizens may hold true for involvement in climate change negotiations, set-piece international diplomacy or peacekeeping activities outside their geographical sphere, it seems to break down in relation to their immediate neighbourhood, where issues of national security are at stake. And so not only might the aspiration of creating good international citizens be misplaced, or at least somewhat optimistic, but under certain circumstances, the state-building project might also have the serious unintended consequence of spreading violence in unstable regions rather than resolving it.
The second point of interest is what this may illustrate about state behaviour. The unambiguous pursuit of the national interest has become something of an unfashionable concept in thinking about foreign policy, and, as has been argued above, is increasingly influenced by normative considerations of human security, conflict resolution, development, and so on.
This should of course not be over-stated. States retain hard objectives, economic, political and security-related, and will revert to promotion of the national interest in situations that may have an immediate bearing on these priorities. But the policy dictates of what might be called the ‘normative turn’ have gained real political salience, particularly in relation to situations of lower importance in Western capitals; the space for morality is more immediately apparent in policy towards the Central African Republic, for instance, than relations with China.
It is probably most visible in policy towards Africa, where debates have tended to be most dominated by the state-building paradigm, and where post-Colonial sensitivities have made donors wary of expressing overt political goals. Discourse on Africa across much of the international community is now dominated by a paradigm that subsumes political goals, both of the donor community and African states themselves, to the normative aspirations detailed above.
But, as we have seen, the behaviour of the recipients of successful state-building don’t seem to provide evidence for this position. In fact, their foreign policy seems to fit the model that the international community aspires to transcend; the pursuit of goals defined by domestic imperatives, regardless of the costs that may be incurred elsewhere; ongoing conflict, humanitarian suffering and human rights abuses, and so on. Something, in fact, that looks a lot like the old fashioned pursuit of national interests.
Thirdly, it is worth considering what bearing this analysis has for ongoing efforts to end conflict in those areas bordered by newly-reconstructed states. To return to the examples used above, a great deal of time and resources have been spent on conflict resolution efforts in the DRC, Southern Sudan and Somalia, including peacekeeping missions, security sector reform programs and so on. The international community has repeatedly proved unable to deal with the armed groups driving these conflicts, through either military or technical means. Yet the obvious alternative – that of meaningful political dialogue with these groups – has not been pursued. It is likely that the primary reason for this is because such negotiations would upset the delicate internal balance of their still-fragile states of origin.
Thus Ethiopia has not come under sustained pressure to meet the demands of its internal dissidents; they remain active in Somalia, probably with Eritrean support, fundamentally undermining international and domestic efforts to reconstruct a meaningful Somali state. Likewise, Rwanda has not been seriously incentivised to come to a political deal with the FDLR, nor Uganda with the LRA.
This is not to say that the international community should necessarily attempt to pressure Rwanda to negotiate with its opponents, or Ethiopia to re-evaluate its politics. Such steps would be risky, costly and potentially ineffective; there should be no assumption that international wishes would be respected, regardless of the stakes. Reopening the Pandora’s Box of post-genocide Rwandan politics, for example, would be potentially catastrophic, and fiercely resisted by the incumbent government. But this should not be allowed to obscure the fact that not doing so also has costs; in human life, ongoing conflict and the resources wasted in attempting to ameliorate the worst impacts of conflict at the same time as being unwilling to address its ultimate cause. Crudely put, it is possible that progress in one state may be purchased at the price of ongoing chaos for another.
Finally, how should the international community respond to this dilemma? There are no easy answers. A first step might be simply to acknowledge it. The international community risks falling victim to a panglossian optimism – the idea that it is possible to change everything for the better, at the same time, if only we spent more, co-ordinated better or, this time, genuinely learned the lessons of past mistakes. There is some truth in this. Of course interventions could be better resourced, and better conducted. But space needs to be maintained in the formation of policy for the possibility that genuine trade-offs exist, particularly in a complex world of human failings and finite resources6.
However, it may be that there is little appetite for such complexity, or the moral conundrums that might result. Discourse on conflict, particularly in Africa, slips all-too-easily into moral absolutism. States and individuals are either held up as paragons of virtue or the devil incarnate, with order on one side of a border set against chaos on the other. This simplicity is seductive, offering compelling moral fables for politicians and headline-writers alike, at the same time as side-stepping the difficulties of navigating a complex and contingent landscape. When the alternative is moral ambiguity and distasteful dilemmas, it is all too easy to filter reality to fit.
To conclude, this is not a call for the state-building paradigm to be rejected wholesale, or replaced with a return to unmediated power-politics. Rather, simply that it be tempered with the knowledge that the state being built is unlikely to uncritically absorb the normative template driving the international community, particularly in relation to its immediate neighbourhood. It should come as no surprise that states, newly emerged from conflict or not, have political objectives, outside their borders as well as at home.
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1 For instance, the requirement for UK government departments to work to reduce conflict has been enshrined in formal auditing mechanisms, a stand-alone ‘conflict’ department has been established in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and a cross-government Stabilisation Unit founded.
2 For the purposes of this paper I will use ‘state-building’ as a collective term.
3 According the United Nations Development Program, between 1990 and 2007 Uganda's score on the Human Development Index (HDI) rose from 0.392 to 0.514 today, Ethiopia’s from 0.308 to 0.414 between 1995 and 2007, and Rwanda’s from 0.3 in 1995 to 0.46 at present. Detailed statistics are available from DFID at www.difd.gov.uk.
4 Paris, 2010, offers a useful survey of existing literature on state-building, from both proponents and critics; the foreign policy of recipients of state-building assistance is not mentioned.
5 The Oromo Liberation Front and Ogadeni National Liberation Front
6 The need for ‘dilemma analysis’ as part of the policy-making process has already been identified by Roland Paris and Timothy Sisk (Paris and Sisk, 2009), and is moving into discussions around donor policy (see for example OECD, 2010)
David Davies of Llandinam Research Fellow in International Relations
London School of Economics and Political Science, May 2010