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March 08, 2005

Building and Ending States: The Limits of Carl Bildt's Analysis

Posted by Brendan Simms

Last week Carl Bildt - the former Prime Minister of Sweden, EU representative at the Bosnian peace talks and the UN Secretary General's Special Envoy for the Balkans - delivered the Tanner lectures at Cambridge University on "State-Building: Peace After War". Dr Brendan Simms - fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge - analyses Carl Bildt's arguments.

If liberal democracy was once threatened by strong totalitarian states such as the Soviet Union, the greatest challenge to our freedoms today comes from weak or "failed states". This was very much the thesis of Francis Fukuyama's compact little volume on "state building" (State Buidling: Governance and World Order in the Twenty-First Century, Profile, 2004) which came out last year. Carl Bildt, sometime Prime Minister of Sweden, the EU representative at the Bosnian peace talks after Lord Owen, and later the UN Secretary General's Special Envoy for the Balkans, agrees. In his prestigious Tanner lectures, given at Cambridge under the auspices of Clare Hall last week, Bildt explored "State-building: Peace after War". In a vivid phrase, he dubbed the imperative to build viable states the "new nuclear deterrence". It would be on the success of this project, he argued, that the whole security of the west would depend.

Bildt elaborated "seven lessons of state-building". First, one must secure the environment very fast. He knew from bitter experience that the failure to do so in 1995-1996 in Bosnia had led to 100,000 fresh refugees in peacetime. Secondly, one should be aware that the central challenge was not simply reconstruction but state-building. Thirdly, before one can build a state, one should be clear about what sort of state one wished to build. Fourthly, there should be an early focus on the preconditions for long-term growth. In this context Bildt was particularly critical of economic sanctions, which he regarded not only as ineffective politically, but calculated to ruin legitimate business and promote criminality. Fifthly, there had to be a benevolent regional environment. Sixthly, the greater the international cohesion within the UN or some other multilateral framework the easier the process. Finally, he argued that state-building always took longer than expected, and consumed huge human and financial resources. One should therefore not always be looking for exit strategies from the outset. Sometimes, Bildt suggested, it was best to try to prevent state collapse from happening in the first place. This was very much the view of a recent High-Level UN Panel which had called for a mechanism to identify countries on the brink of collapse and prevent them from imploding.

Much of what Bildt says is uncontentious, but it is also full of ironies and possible subversive interpretations.

One cannot but be struck by the fact that while western governments and global institutions spent most of the 1980s trying to persuade Third World countries to "roll back the state", the current vogue is for more and stronger state. Also, much of what Bildt said was predicated on the assumption that states fail because of some sort of fatal internal flaw. Some do, but in the case of Bosnia whence most of Bildt's expertise stems the state was dismantled by external and externally-sponsored aggression. Here it would have been more sensible for the international community to take sides, rather than attempt "even-handedly" to construct something de novo. Conversely, and pace the High-Level UN panel, it is not clear that we would always want to prevent an oppressive state for example Baathist Syria - from collapsing. Nor is it possible to disentangle (bad) governments from (good) states here. Indeed, it has long been the mantra of oppressive states, especially in the Middle East, that they are all that stands between anarchy. If we are not careful, the High Level Panel's recommendation will simply become a device for shoring up corrupt regimes.

In his lectures, Bildt repeatedly said that military intervention was the easy bit; it was the aftermath which was difficult. Nobody who looks at Iraq today can gainsay this. And yet it is worth remembering here how far we have travelled: throughout much of the 1990s, the military constraints on intervention were taken very seriously indeed. It is not clear what we should conclude from this. Is it a matter of intervening in haste, and repenting at leisure? Or should we not perhaps counter-intuitively see this as an argument for more frequent interventions. After all, much of the damage to the fabric of societies where we have intervened has been done in the course of "peaceful" economic sanctions, which preceded military action "as a last resort": this is as true of Serbia as it is of Iraq, where in 2003 the coalition took over a country where the prospects for state-building on the western model had radically deteriorated since 1991. In other words: if we have the power to remove egregious tyrants, should we not do so more often and (sometimes) let the subsequent cards and shards fall as they may?

Of course, the list of tasks is long, while governmental resources are finite. When asked, Bildt seemed reluctant to consider the obvious solution: a regulated private sector in state-building and security. In his view, such forces violated the state's hallowed monopoly on the use of armed force. It is certainly true that this burgeoning area of provision contains many cowboys, but the Iraq experience has shown that governments cannot do without such organisations, especially such high-quality providers as Control Risks Group. It is certainly not clear what qualitative and moral difference there is between the private military sector and certain countries, which hire out often very ineffective forces to the UN in what is essentially a mercenary capacity. Experience in Africa has shown that UN forces are as prone as these "soldiers of fortune" to excesses against the civilian population. They would probably be more liable to some sort of legal sanction than national contingents, some of which have insisted on highly iniquitous exemptions from local prosecution.

Finally, Bildt's stress on the need for a benevolent regional environment is capable of both a conservative and a radical interpretation. Bildt himself seems to tend towards the former. In the Balkans after all, he sought to work with Milosevic to implement the Dayton Agreement; he would argue that circumstances left him no other choice. In Iraq today he favours working with Iran and Syria to establish stability in Iraq. But there is also a more radical and plausible reading, which hinges on (re-)shaping rather than accepting the regional environment. After all, it was only once the west realised that Milosevic was the root of the problem and could never be part of the solution, that the path was clear for long-term stability in the Balkans. Likewise, the prospects for democratic change in Iraq would be greatly improved by regime change in Syria. It may be that in order to build effective states we will have to end some others first.

Dr Brendan Simms is Newton-Sheehy teaching fellow in international relations at the Centre of International Studies and fellow in history at Peterhouse, Cambridge.

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