Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Paddy Ashdown goes to Crete

A little light holiday reading kept me entertained during the long, hard hours lying by the pool or on the beach in Elounda, Crete. I needed something to take my mind off the unending, unforgiving sun. So I took with me a copy of Paddy Ashdown’s Swords and Ploughshares.

Paddy is an interesting writer, though clearly not a great one. He uses the clipped sentences and direct speech of the soldier, yet at times he drifts into mawkish sentimentality (usually when writing about meetings with Bosnian villagers), a habit which the Economist suggests he may have “picked up during his two decades in Britain's third party, the Liberal Democrats.” (Sentimental? Us?!). His writing is also at times a little careless, a flaw which should have been corrected by his editors. In fact, a firmer editorial hand would have been useful all round; several of his anecdotes appear more than once. And there is no shortage of anecdotes – like many military men, he has plenty of good stories to share, perhaps, suggests the Economist, because he has kept the best back for a future set of Memoirs (Ashdown Diaries vol. 3, anyone?).

Nonetheless, it is a compelling book. Lord Ashdown has impeccable first hand experience of conflict prevention, peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction. He was involved (unsuccessfully) in efforts to avert a war in Macedonia (which mercifully proved successful in the long run). In the 1960s he fought in the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation, and in the past few years he was the UN’s proconsul in Bosnia. He explains early on that Swords and Ploughshares is not intended to be a blue-print for the “seamless garment” of prevention, intervention and state-building, but that is clearly what it is. How To Keep The Peace by Lord Ashdown. There’s a new sheriff in town, and that town is Norton-sub-Hamdon.

Ashdown’s justification for intervention is straight forward. While honouring state sovereignty should be the norm, intervention has always and will always occur, and for good reason. Even “internal” conflicts have external effects; threats to international peace and security. When an egregious regime or state collapse leads to mass bloodshed and displacement, the international community must act.

Where his basic justification is simple, his outline for implementation is detailed. It needs to be. The primary legitimising mechanism for intervention should be the United Nations (as it has the legal power to act), but where the UN is stymied by obdurate veto-wielders there are places for regional bodies or “coalitions of the willing” to act instead. International law has a common law basis; law is set as much by precedent as by agreement. Some interventions legitimise themselves, as was the case in Kosovo (which at the time, he noted at the book launch at the London School of Economics, was probably illegal in a strict reading of the law).

However, the UN should never become involved in actual peace-enforcement. It is hopelessly bad at war-fighting, so while it may have a role in permissive environments (Cyprus, Sierra Leone now), in non-permissive environments (East Timor, Sierra Leone in 2000) it should leave the fighting to the professionals (Australia, the UK).

Having to fight is a sign of failure. The international community needs to identify and move to avert conflicts much earlier. Usually, it is not until the villages are on fire that the press, and so the public, and so politicians take an interest in conflict. But by then it is too late – the refugees are already washing up on our shores and the costs of restoring peace to the country will be far higher. Far more effort needs to be devoted to preventing conflicts before they occur. This is the time for soft power, for massive amounts of development aid and offers of mediation, institution building, confidence raising and whatever help we can offer. But in the background a threat must lurk: if the offer of help is spurned and conflict does break out, action will be taken to restore peace.

Where armed intervention is required, the actual war-fighting phase will be brief and may not require much manpower. But the subsequent occupation will need enormous amounts: compare the 60,000 NATO troops that successfully occupied Bosnia, a country of 4 million, in 1997 with the 200,000 that have unsuccessfully occupied Iraq, a country of 27 million, since 2003. The first and most important priority must be to ensure security on the ground. Only once the security of the citizens is assured can any post-conflict normalisation and state building take place. The second priority then must be the rule of law; people must know that the police and judges are incorrupt, that criminals will be prosecuted, and that their families and their property are safe. After that economic reconstruction is the next step. Only much later come elections.

This is an interesting and crucial point. As Ashdown notes, as liberals we see democracy as vital, and democracy is synonymous with elections. But in fact elections are only one aspect of democracy, and one of the most easily corrupted. In post-conflict environments elections are all-too-easily captured by the former war-leaders (a leading UN policing expert once told a conference that I attended that the players in the post-conflict stage are usually not the former faction leaders, but their quartermasters – those who have the money, the networks and the knowledge necessary to transfer easily into politics). In fact, elections can be very divisive and so undermine the peace. They can also leave former warlords in power. In fact, elections should be left as late as is decently possible (in post-war Germany, elections did not take place for four years).

Once the conflict phase is over, the state can be rebuilt. Not, note, the nation. Nations cannot be built by outsiders; they must grow organically through a shared culture and sense of community within and among the people. But the international community can help rebuild the structures of the state: a functioning economy; public services; an impartial civil service not appointed by politicians; businesses free of political interference; a simple tax code; a law code that is fair, but that reflects local principles; media freedom; swift and proper justice, etc. This will be a long haul – politicians from intervening nations do neither their own people nor those on whose behalf they have intervened any favours by pretending that the boys will be home before we know it. Some presence may be necessary in a country for a generation. That is why it is better to prevent these problems before they occur.

Ashdown cannot stress often enough the importance of seeing the whole process as a “seamless garment” (he repeats the phrase so often I can be forgiven for using it twice!). Planning for the post-conflict phase should take place as the same time and on the same footing – indeed, with the same people – with planning for the war. The fact that force may be used to end a conflict must be a clear part of the prevention process (threat). And all of it needs a clear narrative from the very beginning. To generalise: “The international community will not tolerate this behaviour, if it continues these will be the consequences, if necessary we shall intervene with force to restore peace, and when we do so we will aim to ensure that this country can function independently as a viable state, in which all its citizens can enjoy peace and security. If at any time those conditions are met, the international community will acknowledge that this country is a functional member of the community and will leave the government alone to run its country in the interests of all its citizens.” The narrative should not simply reflect our prejudices, however: parliamentary democracy may be a wonderful thing, but it is up to the people to construct their own system of government; a market economy is a sign of freedom, but it must develop from the freedom that is given to people rather than be imposed by outsiders.

There’s a lot more to it, of course. In fact, Ashdown makes it sound deceptively easy (though I’m sure he would be appalled at the suggestion). He comes from a long tradition of Liberal internationalists who believe that there are universal laws that bind all mankind. It is a fine line between such high-minded visionaries and the fanatical saints that would impose their view of goodness upon the world. Ashdown himself notes that of the major international interventions that have taken place since World War II, half have gone sour. He thinks we need to do better. The truth is, we may not be able to; it may be that international intervention is so fraught with problems that we can never hope to get it right every time. But if anything can be done to improve our strike rate, Ashdown has probably put his finger on it. It would be well worth future interveners – liberals and saints alike – picking up a copy.


Alan Beddow [Political Blog] said...

Nice analysis.

a radical writes said...

agreed. did you see his interview on Iain Dale, he had some very interesting things to say about Afgahnistan