July 17th, 2012

The Problems of Iliberal Peace

David Ucko has a typically sound piece on Sri Lanka and the political implications of its counterinsurgency campaign a couple years on. However, I am dubious about the emerging idea of the “illiberal peace” as identified by David Lewis and others. Ucko correctly diagnoses the ways in which the Sri Lankan government has resisted the West, and I am not quibbling with his analysis. Rather, I am looking at the larger frame from which we think about liberal vs. illiberal modes of peacebuilding.

The problem is that while Sri Lanka certainly has illiberal politics and ethics, it is not clear how it—or any other state conducting an internal peacebuilding effort—benefits from these politics when trying to tamp down on violence. Second, it does not make sense to ascribe the methods—either in terms of military strategies or postwar policies—as necessarily liberal or illiberal.

First, to Sri Lanka. The government’s policy was that Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity be preserved and the privileging of the Sinhala over the Tamils continue. This political object is, undoubtedly, partially illiberal—but only the ethnic domination implied by restoring the status quo ante can be really classified as totally illiberal. Every state—liberal or otherwise—wants to preserve its territorial integrity and is willing to fight hard to do so. Preserving territorial integrity and preventing the secession of a armed minority can also have, after all, liberal political purposes.

The Sri Lankan strategy used military force to both disarm the enemy and shatter his will to continue fighting. Here is where the problem with the illiberal peace model really begins to intensify. Granted, the Sri Lankans operated against their opponents in the war’s closing offensive without considering even the most basic norms of noncombatant protection and also deliberately targeted noncombatants. But this has been true of their military conduct elsewhere in the war. Deliberate and indirect cruelty to civilians is peripheral to what ended the civil war: the material destruction of the enemy’s means of resisting and the concurrent political choices made by guerrilla leaders that they could not gain their political object because of the new reality force had created. This is basic Clausewitz.

One might also question the analytical problem that this poses for thinking about World War II. If a strategic approach with either deliberate or indirect cruelty as a prominent feature can make a war “illiberal” than what does Hiroshima and Nagasaki mean for the liberal ends pursued by the United States in prosecuting World War II? What does the destruction of the South’s civilian component of making war mean for the liberal end of preserving the Union, ending slavery, and creating a new democracy free of the South’s rural aristocracy? Roosevelt and Truman’s postwar vision of “Four Policemen” keeping the peace throughout the globe and the end of the old colonial order was liberal to the core. But they dropped two atomic bombs to realize it.

Finally, the insight that the Sri Lankan government has relied on coercion for state consolidation is rather banal. State formation in history is coercive. State consolidation involves many sophisticated means of managing and neutering violence and coopting or destroying competing centers of power within a state. Even what we consider to be “liberal” modes of peacebuilding rest on a hard core of coercion, applied by either a central government or its international backers. Finally, Bruce Bueno De Mesquita has also cataloged numerous means of how regimes can govern without achieving the kind of consensus-building, inclusion, and legitimacy often called for in liberal peacebuilding models. The term “legitimacy” also has strikingly different meanings across the world. We should not assume it always means what we want it to mean.

What is undoubtedly illiberal is that the Sri Lankan government has not addressed the grievances of the Tamils. But peace has often been created and maintained throughout history without addressing grievance. Perhaps a more relevant question for the Sri Lankan government is whether its power of coercion and ability to control the organizing capability of the Tamil diaspora is sufficient enough to justify the threat of renewed conflict from those grievances. Such a determination, however, would rest on an intelligence assessment over whether or not those grievances can be practically mobilized and converted into military power. Grievance itself does not equal conflict—it must be instrumentalized by elites who see some hope of achieving a realistic outcome. Anything less is a matter for gendarmerie to mop up.

If the idea of the illiberal peace merely focused on the illiberal politics involved in ventures like the aftermath of the Sri Lankan civil war—particularly its component of sectarian domination, it would be fine. There would still be a problematic idea that one can put ideological labels on things such as dominance of central governments and territorial integrity of the state—things that liberal and illiberal states both care about. But the conflation of a state’s illiberal political goals and character with its strategic methods is particularly troubling.

What is reflected through these discussions is a growing recognition that the post Cold War peacebuilding model itself has critical flaws. A certain set of peacebuilding norms appealed to Western states that had conveniently forgotten how their own states were formed and ultimately consolidated. Now that a variance in methods has been exposed, there is a temptation to categorize different modes of peacebuilding according to ideological boxes (“liberal and illiberal”) that are themselves incredibly recent in vintage when considered across the multi-millennial spectrum of military history.

Certainly liberalism has a lot to do with whether or not a state is ultimately successful and equitable. Eric X. Li and other apologists for China’s current regime overlook significant flaws that stem precisely from China’s form of government. But when it comes to waging war and consolidating government control easy distinctions between liberalism and illiberalism are difficult to maintain.

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A blog on states, communities, and organizations in conflict by Adam Elkus.

Portrait photo: Marshal Liu "One-Eyed Dragon" Bocheng