Failed Statebuilding versus Peace Formation: The Consequences and Implications over the Last 25 Years

By Oliver P. Richmond

Recent years have seen an abundance of foreign intervention to achieve peace and statebuilding. Below, Oliver Richmond discusses how statebuilding often fails to achieve its goal of long-term peace and a stable state, and questions whether peace formation should come from actors and institutions?


The Limits of Peacebuilding and Statebuilding

1.5 billion people are currently affected by conflict1 so all peacemaking activities impact upon a significant percentage (over 20%) of the world’s population. The story of the last twenty-five years of western interventionism to build a “liberal peace” and the modern neoliberal state within an international community characterised by law and rights, is one of great plans often going awry. Initially, the modern intervention narrative consisted of a mix of western triumphalism about liberal democracy and capitalism with cruder interests of the remaining major powers at the end of the Cold War. The defeated, vanquished, or merely poor were not treated with too much empathy or solidarity by the rich and powerful states of post-Cold War order, however, even in those heady days of the earlier 1990s, notably during the siege of Sarajevo from 1992-5.

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The new peace and liberal orientation in many conflict-affected states in the 1990s, however, seemed to mean it deserved the epithet of peace, even if the liberal peace and the state were far from perfect. Human rights, democracy, capitalism, and a reinforcing international peace architecture made up of liberal states appeared to represent the best hope for, and historically most advanced form of, peace ever seen (as the international officials, not a few from the global south, and many scholars from the world’s elite universities were fond of repeating).

The culmination of the history of intervention in order to maintain order and make peace, spanning a historical line of thought and practice from “Plato to NATO”, has, however, most recently led to relatively poor quality forms of peace. Note the fragility of the state and of social relations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Cambodia or Bosnia Herzegovina, where such policies have been deployed over the last two decades. Much of the hard data that exists on the stabilisation of thirty-plus conflict affected countries around the world, including the Human Development Index of UNDP, the Gini index on economic inequality, and various other indexes on the functioning of the state or the freedom of the press, show at best very limited improvements or more normally a very mixed picture in the various war-to-peace transitions of this period. A lot of anecdotal and ethnographic evidence confirms such views.

The era of liberal peace after the Cold War rapidly turned into an age of intervention, and perhaps a parallel age of resistance, as seen in Kosovo and Timor Leste in the mid 2000s, and more recently in Bosnia-Herzegovina, especially from social actors who wanted to defend identity, tradition, or who aspired to faster progress or a different ideological form of state than that presupposed by humanitarian or other forms of western intervention.

Contemporary peacebuilding and statebuilding are connected to older practices and thinking about global governance, modernisation, and development. Together they have come to represent political processes of intervention conducted by the global North’s dominant states and the institutions they dominate often aimed at countries in the global south. These tools and practices of the international community represent the technocratic “rule of experts”2 – aimed at building a new and less conflict-prone state through a form of unaccountable economic and political neo-trusteeship, often conducted in an authoritarian style. This form of state emphasises security and marketisation through power-sharing and internationally backed reform (often resembling the old structural adjustment programmes of the 1980s and 1990s).

After the more normative, institutionally and socially orientated peacebuilding approaches of the 1990s, which sought to persuade and induce new liberal norms across conflict-affected societies from Cambodia to El Salvador, this brusque form of statebuilding crystallised most notably in Iraq after the US-led invasion. It envisioned the complete dismantling of existing social, political, economic, identity, and religious power structures, and their replacement with a small but effective security and petro-orientated state, which would enable capital mobility. Much of the new state’s planning was ad hoc, often following US political and economic blueprints, preferences, and interests, and implemented mainly by the representatives of an occupying force (even if civilian).

It rapidly became obvious that this form of statebuilding was contrary to policy prescriptions emanating from key donors who were more concerned with peacebuilding, including, the EU, UN, AU, and many transnational organisations, aimed at promoting democratisation and human rights reforms through peacebuilding. Many personnel in the UN, unofficially at least, wanted as little to do with statebuilding as they did with the “war on terror”, preferring more social democratic understandings of peace and the state, and often pointing at the experiences of demobilisation, demilitarisation, reconstruction, and reconciliation after WW2 and the Cold War in Europe. Yet, to criticise statebuilding was very rapidly a “critique that dare not speak its name” (as with the war on terror) in the quasi-imperial policy and academic circles around the problem of terrorism and Iraq in the mid-2000s (until it became globally apparent what a fiasco the situation was as a consequence).

Statebuilding is based upon a negative understanding of the politics of historical and contemporary state formation: that is, states are formed mainly through violent struggles and so external intervention is sometimes necessary to mitigate the processes they unleash. The results of these interventions have been the creation of states that offer little sensitivity to their local or regional configurations of social power, identity groupings, justice or material aspirations, or positionality vis-a-vis the global political economy, nor to the historical struggles that may have taken place on their soil. Often the states that have emerged (and so valourised by international diplomats and officials) have been “virtual states” floating above, but hardly connected to, their populations, and have been barely able to provide security, a social contract, services, or material advancement. In other words, statebuilding has led to a situation where outside actors have to intervene to build states, often in response to perceived state failure, that are barely and paradoxically not at all able to deal with existing conflict issues such as the distribution of power and resources. Instead these states are supposed to support regional and global order as a higher priority than the condition of their own citizenry.

This contradiction in international policy meant to stabilise and improve failing states, international relations and world order, has undermined the legitimacy of the international community’s model for peace and the state, and in many cases has created new conflict fault-lines in conflict-affected societies. The model of the state, supposed to provide an accountable social contract based upon rights, democracy, and prosperity, is actually failed-by-design because it has mainly consolidated regional security, a stalemate between powerful elites, and mobile capital, with the acquiescence of the international community. In some cases any progress has been incredibly slow, hostage to a lack of resources, continuing deadlock between local political elites, and lacking international support or will. In all too many cases, many people fear a relapse into violence, or as in Iraq and Afghanistan, “backsliding” (to use a Kantian term) has been all too common, costing uncounted lives and livelihoods.

Add these cases to the frozen conflicts of the Cold War, from Korea to Cyprus and the Middle East, or the much “hotter” conflict in the DRC which is on-going and travelling through many permutations in time, and it is apparent that the international system faces deep structural problems. Add further to this list of continuing conflicts are the now stifled revolutions, from Syria to Egypt where diplomats, mediators, peacebuilders, or statebuilders, have little or no access at all, even in the name of peace. Add further consideration of the fact that global poverty and environmental problems are also linked to war, violence, and to the existing states-system’s short-comings, in order to see the scale of systemic failure.


What Has Gone Wrong?

These many problems have led to a rejection of the current international peace architecture, even amongst groups who may aspire to rights, democracy, and capitalism, as well as a race between emerging donors (such as some of the BRICS) to create a competing set of institutions and model of state. This is little more than a “great game” redux for influence, resources, and prestige in many cases. The international architecture for peace, both its institutions and its policies, is moribund. The model of state being proposed by key actors, or actually experienced by many societies emerging from conflict around the world, combines authoritarianism, old power structures, and capitalism, but does little to mitigate material, social, ethnic, or political cleavages.

Global poverty and environmental problems are also linked to war, violence, and to the existing states-system’s short-comings.

This process is far away from being progressive or improving the lives of post-conflict states’ inhabitants, and improvements in security are fleeting if at all present. What has gone wrong? And why have so many international policymakers, donor official, policy programmes, and academic advisors condoned these approaches, many of which are not anchored in historical evidence about peacemaking and statebuilding, for example, in what we know about successful diplomacy and mediation from global history, the experiences of statebuilding after WW2 in Germany and Japan, the agreements that eventually emerged between colonisers and colonial populations, the reunification of Germany, the peace agreements in Northern Island (one of the most successful, though not perfect, in recent times). Why their silence?

Partly, such amnesia has come about because intervention has become a complex mix of US hegemony, business interests, and liberal zeal on the part of many in the UN and donor system. Who could resist such power, who would risk their jobs, and do officials really understand the responses of intervention’s subjects (meaning the recipients of intervention, peacebuilding, statebuilding and development)?


Signalling Peace

Important lessons of history have been forgotten in the attempt to build a more stable international order since the end of the Cold War. Firstly, even benign forms of intervention will raise counter-questions of political autonomy, leading to resistance in a terrain where interveners are alien and know little. Secondly, many of the major progressive forces in state formation, and indeed in international history, have arisen from social rather than elite (even more rarely perceived occupier’s) struggles for rights, equality, identity, and material equality in complex and widely variegated formulations, across space and time. Thirdly, rarely has there been a consideration that there may exist in conflict-affected societies an internal and non-violent struggle for peace at the grass-roots level that has the potential to bring about a sustainable order.

The individuals, groups, and networks that form at this level may signal how peace and the state might be formed in ways commensurate with both local and international understandings of legitimate authority. From Timor-Leste to Israel-Palestine, and indeed in every conflict-affected country, such civil society and local movements exist, mostly ignored (and sometimes feared) by state elites and even by international actors and donors (who are preoccupied with their relations with elites and their own preferences). They may signal what power-structures would need to be replaced, what would need to be preserved, and what aspirations and claims would need to be met against the state coming into being.

In the end, the lesson of the last 25 years may well be that local process of peace formation, signalling both state and international reform, are more necessary for legitimacy and for order than previously understood, and they cannot be imposed externally.3 They seek to determine the terms of emancipation in the modern world, for which the state and the international community are also historically vital.

In this groundbreaking book, Oliver Richmond asks why statebuilding has been so hard to achieve, and argues that a large part of the problem has been Westerners’ failure to understand or engage with what local peoples actually want and need. He interrogates the liberal peacebuilding industry, asking what it assumes, what it is getting wrong, and how it could be more effective.

About the Author

Oliver Richmond is a Research Professor in IR, Peace and Conflict Studies in the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute at the University of Manchester, UK. He is also International Professor, College of International Studies, Kyung Hee University, Korea and a Visiting Professor at the University of Tromso, Norway. His publications include Failed Statebuilding (Yale University Press, 2014), A Very Short Introduction to Peace, (Oxford University Press, 2014).



1. World Bank DevelopmentReport, Washington D.C.: World Bank, 2011.

2. Timothy Mitchell. (2002), Rule of Experts, (Berkeley: University of California Press), p.15.

3. M. Foucault. (1980). “Two Lectures,” in Colin Gordon, ed., Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews, (New York: Pantheon). M. Foucault. (2003) Society Must Be Defended, (New York: Picador).

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Political Anthropologist.


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