Holding nations in custody

Three new books consider trusteeship and other remedies for ‘failed states’.

David Chandler

Topics Politics

In his State of the Union address yesterday, US president George W Bush flagged up democracy-promotion abroad and military intervention in the cause of liberal values. Despite the debacle of Iraq, external interference in the affairs of non-Western states looks likely to continue unabated (1).

The report of the UN secretary-general’s High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change in late 2004 recommended a new Peace-Building Commission to coordinate external assistance and, where necessary, external administration in states held to be ‘under stress or recovering from conflict’ (2).

Indeed, some are even proposing the return of the policy of trusteeship as a solution to the problem of instability in the modern world. Non-Western states are alleged to have demonstrated that they cannot be trusted with sovereignty and political equality, and their punishment is held to be the return to more direct forms of Western regulation. This discourse is even couched in the language of old-fashioned imperialism’s ‘obligations of power’ – echoing the ‘white man’s burden’, the moral duty of those with the power/ knowledge/civilisation to assist the poor and down-trodden and enlighten them as to ways of good governance and civil society.

A number of recent books deal with the question of trusteeship and nation-building. Between Anarchy and Society: Trusteeship and the Obligations of Power, by UK international relations academic William Bain, is the intellectual heavy-weight, less concerned with guiding policy and more with investigating the trusteeship relationship itself. His title focuses on the nub of the problem; trusteeship is neither a relationship of empire nor of sovereign equality. The relations of power are blurred, with the parties relating on the basis of trust. Morally the legitimacy of trusteeship rests on serving the interests of the governed, yet the governed are held to lack the capacity to determine their own interests.

Trusteeships developed as an international mechanism of external rule as empire lost its legitimacy following the First and Second World Wars, and were seen as a way of smoothing the path from empire to state equality. Today’s resurgence of the idea of trusteeship seems to reflect a shift in the opposite direction, as the rights of sovereignty, taken for granted as the founding basis of international society (and international relations theory), are looking just as outdated.

Trusteeship lies between the ‘anarchy’ of sovereignty and the ‘society’ of a world superstate, and indeed contradicts both. It is anathema to the late twentieth-century international relations principles of sovereign state equality and non-intervention; this is anarchic because all states were formally considered to be equal sites of sovereignty and legal and political rights. But it is also in contradiction to the global ‘society’ of an overarching empire or world government, where individuals are the formal legal and political subjects rather than states. Trusteeship undermines the rights of the states intervened in – making their actions formally accountable to external institutions exercising trusteeship responsibilities. But it also undermines the rights of those individuals who are the objects of the trust, as they have no mechanism of holding these external bodies to account. There is domination but it is legitimated neither by the force of coercion nor by the consent of the will of the people.

In international relations, trusteeship attempts to mystify the power relations at work by cloaking them in a pseudo-legal form. With the development of empire, trusteeship was a way of government controlling the activities of private empire-building companies; and with the decline of empire, a way of postponing the transition towards self-government. In its first incarnation the notion of trusteeship was seen as little different to the noble mission of empire.

Bain points out that trusteeship was celebrated not by conservative thinkers, but by liberal enlightened ones. James Mill, the father of utilitarian thought, appointed to the India Office in 1819, understood poverty in India as the result of bad government and bad laws. Human rights abuses, such as sati – the practice of a widow immolating herself on her husband’s funeral pyre – were banned, good governance was installed and education became a central focus for reform. The nineteenth-century colonial reformers practiced the liberal science of social engineering and debates raged, little different from today’s policy discussions, among ostensible state-builders. They all had a remedy for the ills of India that could be engineered by external administrators, whether the remedy was based on religion, law, education, or something else.

The era of trusteeship reached its high point under the League of Nations mandate system in the interwar era, but 15 years after the end of World War Two the geopolitical map of the world had been transformed, with freedom and autonomy declared to be the core values of international society. The sovereign equality of states reflected a deeper critique of trusteeship – the idea of the political equality of individuals. Bain points out that the victory of freedom and political equality in the international sphere was to be short-lived. In the 1990s the focus shifted to state failure; the legitimacy of the states created in the post-1945 period was openly questioned, and once again trusteeship was put forward as the solution to a wide range of social, economic, political and security problems.

Today, Bain identifies a ‘new paternalism’ at work. Non-Western states are much more likely to be subject to conditionalities for loans or aid, which are presented as for the benefit of their citizens. Wars have been fought to install trusteeships, as in Kosovo and Iraq. And states such as Bosnia have formally signed away their sovereign rights and a direct relationship of trusteeship has been instituted.

Bain identifies the return of a more hierarchical international order where states are ranked according to their capacities for ‘good governance’, and intervention invited should they appear to be breaking the new norms of ‘sovereignty as responsibility’. The responsibility allotted to non-Western states is to allow external supervision, and the responsibility of Western states is to take on the ‘obligations of power’ and assume the burden of intervention. Bain concludes that this shift towards relationships of political inequality has ‘far-reaching implications’ which ‘have been left largely unexamined’. Foremost among these is the breakdown of consensual processes of diplomacy and collapse of international law, making interstate war more likely and resurrecting new and old relations of domination.

In Bain’s conclusion he raises the need for an alternative ethics to the ethics of trusteeship, and suggests an ethics of political autonomy that stresses that state sovereignty and individual sovereignty are not contradictory but in fact ‘imply one another’. He argues that the ethics of trusteeship stand ‘fundamentally opposed to the idea of human dignity’, the modern belief in the moral and political equality of human beings. For this reason he concludes that ‘the space between anarchy and society that trusteeship once occupied has been and remains closed’.

In fact the space of trusteeship – with all its inherent contradictions – is fundamentally open. This is because the second time around trusteeship appears as an attempt to preserve state sovereignty and relations of political equality, as ‘state-building’. The contradiction between relations of domination and those of equality is continually played out in current discussions of the export of democracy, state-building, human rights promotion and post-conflict peace-building. All these concepts involve the blurring of the relations of power, where external interveners act on the basis of the perceived interests or needs of those who are seen as unable or unwilling to help themselves. While Bain points to the fundamental contradiction in terms of political theory and ethics, other commentators have sought to ‘square the circle’ in terms of policy.

State Building: Governance and Order in the Twenty-First Century, by the US political scientist Francis Fukuyama, identifies state building as one of the most important issues for the international community in the wake of humanitarian crises and the threat of international terrorism. This short book powerfully reinforces many of the arguments forwarded by Bain. Organised in three chapters, the first considers the dimensions of state weakness, suggesting that international policy interventions have often tended to be counterproductive. The capacity of non-Western states was undermined in the 1980s and early 1990s by the twin forces of IMF measures to roll back the state in order to free market forces, and international donor aid stepping in to provide basic services outside the state sector.

The second chapter argues that there can be no pre-set solution to the problem of state weakness; there is no science of public administration that can be exported from Brussels or Washington. This is an important critique of advocates of the state-building ‘philosopher’s stone’, the search for the right sequence of external state-building initiatives. Fukuyama also usefully points to the inevitable contradiction between imposing outcomes from without and developing local capacity, and asserts that there is no purely technical solution to the management of state administration. If the state lacks popular legitimacy and the population doesn’t actively support state-building measures, there is only a limited amount that can be achieved by external technical advisers, regardless of their motivation or capability.

The third chapter is the most interesting, where Fukuyama suggests that state weakness is undermining the UN system of international law and equal reciprocal relations of sovereignty. Strong states are unlikely to be bound by the need for attaining the consensus of weaker states, posing the question of who decides whose sovereignty is violated and on what grounds.

However, he confuses cause and effect. It was the divisions among the major powers and fear of conflict that forced the compromise of the extension of sovereignty on to the agenda: the balance of power gave weaker states the capacity for independence during the Cold War period. Today, state-building reflects the end of this balance of power and the return of more open external engagement in the domestic affairs of weaker states, threatening to undermine the post-1945 UN framework of equal sovereignty.

Fukuyama suggests that although the mandatory system of the League of Nations is being recreated, the contemporary norms of political equality insist that any external relationship of trust is ‘temporary and transitional’. Fukuyama argues that state-building practices based on these norms will be unsuccessful because: ‘It is not clear…whether there is any real alternative to a quasi-permanent, quasi-colonial relationship between the “beneficiary” country and the international community.’

But the greater danger identified by Fukuyama is the vacuum at the heart of the state-building project in a world of trusteeships without empire. While there is an international consensus between the USA and Europe on the need to build states, there is very little to show for the international efforts so far. International intervention, guided by external dictates of ‘good governance’, has in fact often undermined state capacity rather than building it. He argues that state-building is a complex process, and that today’s Great Powers are not well suited to the task, having lost sight of the importance of the state for policy-making and social cohesion. In fact, Fukuyama sharply observes that the drive towards European integration is based largely on a rejection and discrediting of the state form in the West.

At War’s End: Building Peace after Civil Conflict, by another US political scientist, Roland Paris, affirms much of Fukuyama’s negative assessment of international state-building, but suggests that trusteeship could be a solution if it took on more of the facets of empire and became less ‘temporary and transitional’. This solution, of course, lies in relinquishing the idea of the importance political and moral equality. Paris’ support for the trusteeship relationship is an implicit critique of both the rights of states and those of individuals. Paris forwards a regulatory and authoritarian critique of liberalism, arguing that the individual freedoms of the marketplace and of liberal-democratic political processes are destablising for weak states.

He proposes ‘a new peace-building strategy called “institutionalisation before liberalisation”, which begins from the premise that democratisation and marketisation are inherently tumultuous transformations that have the potential to undermine a fragile peace’. The self-interest engendered in economic market relations or political party competition is seen as ‘pathological’ in the context of weak states where broader social ties and state legitimacy are lacking.

Paris’s authoritarian solution of trusteeship is not posed in the overt language of a return to empire, but instead as a radical critique of global capitalism and the current economic and political order. Instead of the market, he supports social investment to generate greater social equalities and opportunities, thereby undermining economic and social sources of conflict. Instead of competitive democracy, which is understood as reinforcing social, economic and political inequalities, there needs to be an empowerment of those who have least say in post-conflict societies, with an emphasis on civil society, human rights, education and cross-communal cooperation.

Traditional liberal conceptions of individual rights are seen as an obstacle to the development of a free and just society, rather than an indicator of its success. Trusteeship – the relationship of empowerment, of capacity-building and of therapeutic governance – is held to be an improvement on previous conceptions of individual and state rights of freedom and autonomy. Just as individuals in the state-building process have to submit to unequal relations of tutelage and dependency, so too do the states being empowered by their trustees. What starts as a Hobbesian peon to the strong state ends on the opposing note of support for ‘sovereignty’ held on trust, by international administrators acting as representatives of external institutions.

Paris forwards a theory of ‘stages’ where the denial of rights of self-government to individuals and states are essential only until the ‘pathologies of liberalisation’ are overcome. However, Paris’ work begs the question of why bother with the second stage of self-government? Why assert that the final goal of the process is market democracy at all? Surely there is no way of knowing when the threat of the recurrence of conflict has receded adequately, or whether the pathologies of liberalisation may re-emerge? If external administrators can solve the problems of post-conflict societies and create strong states with popular legitimacy, then surely there is no need for individual liberties or the restoration of effective sovereignty?

Even accepting that market democracy is ‘pathological’, there appears to be little evidence that trusteeship is the solution or by any means ‘pathology free’. At base, Paris’ argument is circular: that we could solve the political problems of conflicting interests if we could only abolish politics itself.

These three books capture important aspects of current discussions on the renegotiation of relations between the world’s nation states. Unfortunately, the return of relations of trusteeship does not rest on the strength of intellectual argument or the record of success of international state-building efforts, but rather on the inequalities of the current international order. The undermining of relations of political and legal equality today takes a historically specific form, one captured well by Paris’ postmodern critique of liberal individualism.

The projection of Western power and the return of relations of subordination are made easier if trusteeship is legitimised in the language of empowerment and capacity-building. While trusteeship seeks to obfuscate the relations of power, Bain’s call to recognise that the rights of individuals and states are not contradictory but mutually reinforcing serves to clarify these relations. The claims of state-building are exposed as hollow wherever democratic rights are suspended or held ‘in trust’.

Between Anarchy and Society: Trusteeship and the Obligations of Power, by William Bain, is published by Oxford University Press, 2003 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

State Building: Governance and Order in the Twenty-First Century, by Francis Fukuyama, is published by Profile Books, 2004 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

At War’s End: Building Peace after Civil Conflict, by Roland Paris, is published by Cambridge University Press, 2004 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

David Chandler is senior lecturer in international relations, Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. His most recent book is Constructing Global Civil Society: Morality and Power in International Relations (buy this book from Amazon(UK)), and he is currently working on a book on state-building.

(1) Bush sets out second-term goals, BBC News, 3 February 2005

(2) A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility, United Nations, December 2004

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Topics Politics


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