X Welcome to International Affairs Forum

International Affairs Forum a platform to encourage a more complete understanding of the world's opinions on international relations and economics. It presents a cross-section of all-partisan mainstream content, from left to right and across the world.

By reading International Affairs Forum, not only explore pieces you agree with but pieces you don't agree with. Read the other side, challenge yourself, analyze, and share pieces with others. Most importantly, analyze the issues and discuss them civilly with others.

And, yes, send us your essay or editorial! Students are encouraged to participate.

Please enter and join the many International Affairs Forum participants who seek a better path toward addressing world issues.
Sat. May 25, 2024
Get Published   |   About Us   |   Donate   | Login
International Affairs Forum

Around the World, Across the Political Spectrum

Building the ‘Liberal Peace’: Contradiction and Conformity


By Ben Challis

The concept of the liberal peace has generated a “peacebuilding consensus”, which informs contemporary international intervention in post-conflict societies via liberal peacebuilding operations (Richmond, 2011, p.195). Whilst the liberal peace itself is associated with normative ideals of human security and supposedly universal liberal values, its praxis has often produced outcomes falling short of expectations. Given the intrusive nature of such interventions, it is essential to seek explanations for these shortcomings. Here, I will argue that a contradiction exists between the liberal peace concept and the practice of imposing its prescriptions through external intervention (Chandler, 2010). Moreover, I suggest that such interventions are conducted in order to perpetuate and expand liberal global governance (Duffield, 2001). I do not seek to evaluate the desirability of this particular system of governance, nor to dispute the apparent superiority of liberal institutions in managing conflict and providing normatively-desirable outcomes. Rather, I wish to demonstrate that contemporary peacebuilding is incapable of achieving the ambitious objectives which earn its apparent moral standing, and that their characterisation as neutral, technical endeavours must be problematized. I begin by outlining the roots of the liberal peace concept and situating it alongside its associated normative ideals. Next, I evaluate the success of liberal peacebuilding in respect of these ideals, and outline the accompanying literature. I argue that current critiques are insufficient and fail to uncover a deeper contradiction within the liberal peace framework, before finally offering a conceptualisation of liberal peacebuilding operations’ role in maintaining liberal global governance.

The concept of liberal peace provides the methodological framework for contemporary conflict management (Richmond, 2011). It has its roots in liberal intellectualism, assuming that individuals embodied with universal rights, particularly regarding equal participation in public decision-making, are the primary agent of political action. Importantly, the universal nature of these rights is thought to make the goals and values of liberalism applicable to all cultural contexts (Katzer, 2010). The state-society relationship is seen to be underwritten by a social contract, in which the state attracts certain obligations from its citizens in exchange for guaranteeing, inter alia, their individual rights, security and ability to pursue economic wellbeing (OECD, 2008). These obligations are thought to be best fulfilled through legal-rational institutions embodied in “a political structure that will moderate in a fair and transparent manner… divergent ideals and interests” (Begby and Burgess, 2009, p.93). The creation of such a structure has become the key objective of international engagement in post-conflict societies. The concept of the liberal peace thus gives rise to a rational-institutional approach to conflict resolution which is reflected in the goals of contemporary peacebuilding operations (Richmond, 2007).

Contemporary peacebuilding takes the modern liberal state to be the optimal political structure for achieving sustainable peace and human security (Paris, 2002). Indeed, it operationalises the “classical view that liberal states and people are effectively superior” (Richmond, 2011, p.9). The OECD, for example, describes the liberal democratic state as the “ideal state”, which encapsulates “widespread agreement about the idea of the modern state” (2008, p.70). Peacebuilding operations, therefore, take place with the explicit goal of combining conflict resolution with political and economic liberalisation to establish democratic government, market sovereignty and the protection of individual human rights (Goodhand and Walton, 2009). Since the early-1990s the absence in discourse and (ostensibly) in practice of alternative modes of social organisation has naturalised this structure, as most famously illustrated by Fukuyama’s end of history thesis (Duffield, 2001). Consequently, interventions are seen to accelerate a pre-determined process of state formation which leads inevitably to the formation of the liberal state, rather than as transformative ventures which preclude the potential emergence of alternative social arrangements (see, for example: Ayoob, 2007). As Goodhand and Walton put it, “the desired end state… is not open to question”, rather liberal peacebuilding is seen as being a politically-neutral task in which “the only choices left are technical ones” (2009, p.306). Thus, the export of the modern liberal state has been adopted as the blueprint for, supposedly neutral, intervention by a range of national, international and transnational actors in response to violent conflict in diverse cases (Paris, 2002; Richmond, 2011).

The absence of liberal political institutions is increasingly identified as a cause of conflict in its own right. Similarly, a symbiotic relationship between violent conflict and underdevelopment (the ‘security-development nexus’) has been adopted as the primary explanation for the continuing existence of widespread human suffering and poverty (Stern and Ojendal, 2010). The oft-cited Responsibility to Protect doctrine states that “root cause prevention” of conflicts may necessitate external intervention to support, inter alia: “democratic institution[s];… press freedom and the rule of law;… civil society;… economic reform [and] legal… institutions” (ICISS, 2001, p.23), all of which are central to the liberal peace. Through the identification of non-liberalism as a cause of conflict, liberal peace operations adopt a privileged moral position at the inverse of violent conflict. The liberal peace has thus situated itself as an element in the bona fide pursuit of human security’s normative ideals, which has imbued in liberal peacebuilding an assumed ethical mandate to conduct intrusive interventions in domestic political arrangements (Richmond, 2011). In some cases this has even led to a supposed moral imperative to conduct liberal peacebuilding. Feldman, who served as an advisor to the transitional authority in Iraq, asserted a “new and… ethical approach”, arguing that coalition forces had a responsibility to remain until a stable, liberalised modern state was secured (2006, p.2). Similarly, Dixon describes a global “moral obligation… to leave Afghanistan... [with] a strong, independent 21st century state” (2012, p.236). This moralistic association with normative ideals has granted liberal peace practitioners exceptional power projection, whilst maintaining a perception of political neutrality and desirability (Dillon and Reid, 2000, p.122).

Despite this promise, however, liberal peace praxis has rarely achieved its more ambitious normative objectives. Rather, the outcome of peacebuilding has tended to be the maintenance of “bare life” (Richmond, 2011, p.53), with stability often secured through the replication of decidedly illiberal power relations (Barnett and Zürcher, 2009). Using economic indicators, Easterly found that the largest recipients of international assistance were among the worst performers in terms of human security outcomes (2006). In Cambodia, the core tenents of the liberal peace settlement suffer from “paralysis” with a weak press, stagnant civil society and rampant corruption (Richmond and Franks, 2009, p.27). Bosnia was the target of perhaps the most extensive contemporary peacebuilding operation in a post-conflict society. Nevertheless, the process is widely seen as having empowered the nationalist factions who encouraged divisive ethnic conflict, who have in turn repressed the (re-)emergence of a multi-ethnic national identity, and have secured their authority in a neo-patrimonial state (Pugh, 2002; Bieber, 2004). Meanwhile, the wider population experiences poorer social welfare outcomes than under the old socialist system (Richmond, 2011). In Sri Lanka, an operation “emblematic” of contemporary intervention was unable to prevent the exclusion (and alleged massacre) of the Tamil community, and a general weakening of democratic accountability (Goodhand and Walton, 2009). In Afghanistan, despite international engagement, an increasingly criminalised state has emerged, with limited stability underwritten by warlords who have little interest in liberal concepts of legitimacy and human rights (Barnett and Zürcher, 2009). These cases reflect the growing prioritisation of stability as liberal peacebuilding’s practitioners have retreated from the challenge posed by achieving its more emancipatory objectives (Richmond, 2011; Barnett and Zürcher, 2009).

The difficulties experienced in reaching liberal peacebuilding’s more expansive goals have generated a substantial literature seeking to explain this shortcoming. This has largely, however, focused on implementation rather than the liberal peace project itself, leading Chandler to term it the “uncritical critique” (2010). This tends to attribute the limited achievements of peacebuilding to the complexities of the post-conflict context, or other local factors and cultural phenomena. The illiberal polity in Cambodia, for example, “stems essentially from an incompatibility between the tenents of the liberal peace thesis and the nature of [its] political, socio-economic and cultural system” (Richmond and Franks, 2009, p.44). Using Afghanistan and Tajikistan as examples, Barnett and Zürcher develop a model to demonstrate how well-meaning interventions have been co-opted by illiberal local elites, who subvert or undermine liberal reforms in order to further their interests (2009). Others argue that post-conflict societies may be too divided to cope with the demands of competitive democracy (Reilly, 2002), or that its introduction leads local politicians to “appeal to voters’ gut instincts of hatred, fear, nationalism or racism to win elections” (Easterly, 2006, p.113). Some have argued that the cultural ignorance of external interveners creates institutions which lack relevance to local customs, jeopardising the legitimacy of the liberal peace project (Richmond, 2011). These views retain a belief that “more knowledge of… local factors might improve the success rate… [by] allow[ing] us to tailor implementation to the specific needs and sensibilities of the relevant subjects” (Begby and Burgess, 2009, p.95). The key vein throughout this criticism is the maintenance of a perception of peacebuilding operations as a liberal endeavour which it fails to problematize (Chandler, 2010).

The supposed superiority and naturalisation of the liberal state inherent to liberal peace operations dramatically undermines their ability to build liberal policies. They rely upon the conceptual division of global society into a peaceful and liberal realm and the disorderly illiberal ‘other’ (Duffield, 2001). This binary is helpfully illustrated by Kaldor’s new war thesis which identifies a divide “between… cosmopolitanism, based on inclusive, universalist, multicultural values, and the politics of particularist identities” with the latter driving modern conflict (2006, p.6). State collapse and civil conflict are seen as “internal problems with external solutions” where “the roots of       the conflict lie in a complex mix of indigenous factors” (Goodhand and Walton, 2009, p.306). The identification of such factors is likely to embody a perception that existing actors and forms of political organisation are pre-modern, underdeveloped, irrational and lack the capacity for liberal governance (Paris, 2002). In Bosnia, the internationally-sponsored post-war constitution limits opportunities for indigenous peacebuilding processes owing to a perception that irrational hatreds preclude the possibility of ethnic reconciliation (Belloni, 2001). Indeed, it is the moralism and perceived superiority of the liberal peace’s practitioners which legitimates such interventions in the first place.  This was illustrated in UN peacebuilding operations in East Timor where it was assumed the “wide array of local actors…could not participate in governance or development because they did not have the skills or experience” (Richmond, 2011, p.86). This exclusionary instinct leads all “actors who do not subscribe to the liberal peace model… [to be] labelled as ‘spoilers’”, a designation which remains the sole responsibility of international interveners and pertains regardless of the local legitimacy of such actions (Goodhand and Walton, 2009, p.306). Thus, insofar as “local ownership of political processes… is, without a doubt, the supreme principle of liberal political philosophy” (Begby and Burgess, 2009, p.98), liberal peacebuilding renders itself incapable of building a liberal political structure. The justification for intervention inherently undermines the objective of intervention.

Attempts to overcome this paradox have focused on efforts to engage and strengthen the involvement of civil society in order to promote ‘local ownership’ of peacebuilding operations. Civil society is seen as being a crucial arena through which local actors can utilise the breathing room within the liberal peace project to shape and craft a locally legitimate mode of political organisation (Belloni, 2001). In Bosnia, however, efforts to engage civil society have failed as interveners have searched for “idealized” (read: liberal) civil society groups which do not exist in the Bosnian context (Belloni, 2001). In those instances where civil society has been engaged, however, it “has become a rather superficial melange of externally visible… normative advocates for liberal peacebuilding’s core values” (Richmond, 2011, p.29). Importantly, civil society engagement retains the binary conception through its desire to “hold back ‘uncivil society’… which it is feared lurks behind local politics… [awaiting] an opportunity to undermine the liberal state” (Richmond, 2011, p.29). This is unsurprising for two reasons. Firstly, the supposed desirability of civil society reflects liberal normative understandings “of what ought to be the relationship among the individual, the society and the state” (Howell and Pearce, 2001, p.13, emphasis added). The expectation of the role to be played by civil society, therefore, leads to assumptions regarding the nature of the individuals and organisations that are sought after. In reality, locally-legitimate civil society may possess alternative normative understandings of their own role and their relationship with the state. Secondly, the vast majority of international organisations represented by such interveners receive funding and direction from the governments of liberal democratic states, who are unlikely to sanction the use of their resources to support organisations they do not consider to be ‘liberal’, regardless of their local legitimacy  (Rieff, 2002). In this way, efforts to improve outcomes by engaging civil society is undermined by the preconceived nature of liberal peacebuilding’s goals.   

Given the exclusionary nature of liberal peacebuilding operations it is vital to subject the practitioners of the liberal peace to a rigorous examination of their interests (Goodhand and Walton, 2009). Sceptics of this kind of critique have pointed out that “peacebuilding missions have taken place in… countries that have little to offer international capitalists” (Paris, 2002, p.653). This fails to acknowledge that states and international actors may act in pursuit of long-run interests through the maintenance of structural stability, in defiance of the more immediate interests of national or transnational capital (Stokes, 2007). Duffield’s conception of the international system as a network of global liberal governance is helpful in this regard (2001). States form an essential node with which this network can interact in order to facilitate its ability to project power, regulate behaviour and manage the risks of instability which are diffused internationally by global interconnectedness (Duffield, 2001; Dillon and Reid, 2000). Halabi states that a key challenge to this system is the incompatibility of domestic institutions in some developing states with the liberal international system (2004). This is corroborated by Duffield, who argues that interdependent systems such as the global governance network, can tolerate difference and autonomy only “within defined limits”, and seek their own perpetuation and renewal (2001, p10). In this manner, political structures in certain states could be seen as threatening to the global governance system, requiring exclusion or, ideally, reform. 

This perspective allows one to suggest two ways in which liberal peacebuilding operations can be seen to further the interests of transnational actors operating within the contemporary global system. Firstly, as Halabi argues, a key challenge to this project is the fact that “global governance cannot overrule state sovereignty and impose its regulations on the unwilling state” (2004, p.33). Moments of crises, however, provide an “opportunity to discredit existing models and institutions” (Halabi, 2004, p.38). Although his discussion relates to economic rather than political crises, it is notable that intervention in response to the East Asian currency crisis “emphasized the supremacy of law and the protection of fundamental human rights” and so shares, to some degree, the concerns of peacebuilding interventions in political crises (Halabi, 2004, p.40). Moreover, peacebuilding undeniably overcomes the issue Halabi identifies with the barrier of state sovereignty, as most radically illustrated by cases of international trusteeship (Richmond and Franks, 2009). Secondly, whilst it is traditional to perceive violent conflict as inherently destructive, it is also a socially transformative process (Ramsbotham, Woodhouse and Miall, 2011). Indeed, the modern liberal state itself grew out of such violent but transformative processes (OECD, 2008; Ayoob, 2009). By intervening at the moment of violent conflict, transnational interests may seek to manage the transformative moment in order to avoid the emergence of alternative forms of social organisation which may challenge liberal hegemony. Richmond’s observation, that in the liberal peace concept “difference is only acceptable when it operates within the liberal framework” (2011, p.26), can be seen to support this proposition. Indeed, this is characteristic of the broader state failure discourse, which portrays the absence of the institutional state as being synonymous with anarchy, and so diminishes the viability given to alternative relationships which emerge to fulfil the obligations expected to be fulfilled by the naturalised state (Hagmann and Hoehne, 2009). In these ways the practice of liberal peacebuilding can be argued to act as a vehicle for transnational interests seeking to maintain the global governance system (Chandler, 2010) by precluding the emergence of alternative power relations which may rival its current liberal format. This is particularly important as this system entails a structure characterised by substantial power and wealth differentials, whose contribution to many contemporary conflicts may be substantial (Dillon and Reid, 2000; also, for example, see Reyna, 2008).

Liberal peacebuilding operations are informed by a concept which eschews the universality of liberal values, and assumes the superiority, inevitability and desirability of the modern liberal state. Despite this, interventions have rarely produced such states and tend to reproduce exclusionary power hierarchies. The complexity of these issues defies proper coverage of the many crucial themes surrounding them in such a short space. In particular, a more thorough analysis could explore in greater depth the nuances and developments within peacebuilding praxis, as well as providing an examination of disparate experiences of state formation, particularly in the post-colonial context. Nevertheless, it has been argued here that an inevitable outcome of the supposed superiority of the liberal state embodied by liberal peacebuilding, necessitates the exclusion of local political actors which, in turn, precludes the possibility of producing liberal outcomes. Moreover, the naturalisation of the liberal state as the modern political structure produces intolerance of alternative models of political organisation which makes this problem irreconcilable. As a consequence, it becomes vital to problematize the neutrality of liberal peace operations, and recognise their role in perpetuating the global governance system. This is especially important for humanitarian actors who increasingly find themselves in uncomfortable allegiance with militaries and IFIs, and for whom political neutrality is a core value (Reiff, 2006; Dillon and Reid, 2000). Moreover, it is important insofar as liberal peacebuilding precludes the emergence of alternative political structures which it cannot be assumed are inferior to the current system, given the structural violence which exists within it.

Ben Challis completed his undergraduate degree in Economics and Politics at the University of Exeter, for which he was awarded the Adam Smith Prize. He is currently pursuing MSc Defence, Development & Diplomacy at Durham University and is also the author of 'Building the Bomb: Nuclear Proliferation in Authoritarian States', published in the February 2015 edition of the Royal United Services Institute journal. 



Works cited

Ayoob, M. (2007), ‘State Making, State Breaking, and State Failure’ in Crocker, C., Hampson, F. and Aall, P. (eds.), Leashing the Dogs of War: Conflict Management in a Divided World, Washington DC: United States Institute of Peace

Barnett, M. and Zürcher, C. (2009), ‘The peacebuilder’s contract: how external statebuilding reinforces weak statehood’ in Paris, R. and Sisk, T. (eds.), The Dilemmas of Statebuilding: Confronting the Contradictions of Postwar Peace Operations, Oxon: Routledge

Begby, E. and Burgess, J. (2009), ‘Human Security and Liberal Peace’, Public Reason, 1(1): 91-104

Belloni, R. (2001), ‘Civil Society and Peacebuilding in Bosnia and Herzegovnia’, Journal of Peace Research, 38(2): 163-180


Bieber, F., Institutionalizing Ethnicity in the Western Balkans: Managing Change in Deeply

Divided Societies, ECMI Working Paper #19, European Centre for Minority Issues (2004)


[Accessed 14th January 2015]

Chandler, D. (2010), International Statebuilding: The Rise of Post-Liberal Governance, Oxon: Routledge

Dillon, M. and Reid, J. (2000), ‘Global Governance, Liberal Peace, and Complex Emergency’, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, 25(1): 117-143

Dixon, V. (2012), Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation, Bloomington: iUniverse Books

Duffield, M. (2001), Global Governance and the New Wars: The Merging of Development and Security, London: Zed Books

Easterly, W. (2006), The White Man’s Burden: Why the west’s efforts to aid the rest have done so much ill and so little good, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Feldman, N. (2006), What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation Building, Princeton: Princeton University Press

Goodhand, J. and Walton, O. (2009), ‘The Limits of Liberal Peacebuilding? International Engagement in the Sri Lankan Peace Process’, Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, 3(3): 303-323

Hagmann, T. and Hoehne, M. (2009), ‘Failures of the State Failure Debate: Evidence from the Somali Territories’, Journal of International Development, 21: 42-57

Halabi, Y. (2004), ‘The Expansion of Global Governance into the Third World: Alturism, Realism or Constructivism?’, International Studies Review, 6(1): 21-48

Howell, J. and Pearce, J. (2001), Civil Society and Development: A Critical Exploration, London: Lynne Rienner


International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (2001), The Responsibility to Protect: Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. [online] Available at: <http://responsibilitytoprotect.org/ICISS%20Report.pdf> [Accessed 13th January 2015]

Kaldor, M. (2006), New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era (2nd edition), Cambridge: Polity Press

Katzer, M. (2010), ‘The Basis of Universal Liberal Principles in Nussbaum’s Political Philosophy’, Public Reason, 2(2): 60-75

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2008), Concepts and Dilemmas of State Building in Fragile Situations: From Fragility to Resilience. [online] Available at: <http://www.oecd.org/development/incaf/41100930.pdf> [Accessed 13th January 2015]

Paris, R. (2002), ‘International peacebuilding and the ‘mission civilisatrice’’, Review of International Studies, 28: 637-656

Pugh, M. (2002), ‘Postwar Political Economy in Bosnia and Herzegovnia: The Spoils of Peace’, Global Governance, 8(4): 467-482 

Ramsbotham, O., Woodhouse, T. and Miall, H. (2011), Contemporary Conflict Resolution: Third Edition, Cambridge: Polity Press

Reilly, B. (2002), ‘Elections in Post-Conflict Scenarios: Constraints and Dangers’, International Peacekeeping, 9(2): 118-139

Reyna, S. (2003), ‘A Cold War story: the barbarization of Chad (1966-1991)’ in Ferguson, B. (ed.), The state, identity and violence: political disintegration in the post-cold war world, London: Routledge

Richmond, O. (2007), ‘Emancipatory Forms of Human Security and Liberal Peacebuilding’, International Journal, 62(3): 459-477

Richmond, O. (2011), A Post-Liberal Peace, Oxon: Routledge

Richmond, O. and Franks, J. (2009), Liberal Peace Transitions: Between Statebuilding and Peacebuilding, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

Rieff, D. (2002), A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis, London: Vintage

Stern, M. and Ojendal, J. (2010), ‘Mapping the Security-Development Nexus: Conflict, Complexity, Cacophony, Convergence?’, Security Dialogue, 41(1): 5-30

Stokes, D. (2007), ‘Blood for oil? Global capital, counter-insurgency and the dual logic of American energy security’, Review of International Studies, 33(2): 245-264

Comments in Chronological order (1 total comments)

Report Abuse
Wed, July 08, 2015 01:39 AM (about 77874 hours ago)
I met this young author once, he is a true inspiration.
Contact Us | About Us | Donate | Terms & Conditions Twitter Facebook Get Alerts Get Published

All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2002 - 2024