Between Anarchy and Society: Trusteeship and the Obligations of Power [Full Text]

William Bain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 224 pp., $72.00 cloth.

Between Anarchy and Society: Trusteeship and the Obligations of Power

Anthony F. Lang, Jr. (reviewer)

Trusteeship is alive and well, according to a new book by William Bain. When UN bureaucrats created governing structures in Cambodia, East Timor, and Kosovo, they argued that their mandate was part of a peace process-from peacemaking to peacekeeping to peace building. The final term, peace building, encompasses a range of strategies employed to bring about "good governance" in states torn by civil war. Using the term "peace building" makes what the United Nations does in these situations sound rather anodyne. But while few in its bureaucracy would admit it, the ways in which the UN has administered various postconflict regions around the world is not much different from the practices of the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century systems of trusteeships and mandates. More important than the actual modes of governance practiced during the colonial era and the current practices of the UN, Bain highlights the matching moral impulses that drove the British, French, and Germans at the Berlin Conference of 1884 and the UN Security Council's resolutions concerning war-torn regions. These impulses, while morally praiseworthy, undermine the very essence of an international society premised on the value of equality among participants.

Bain's short but insightful monograph contrasts the idea of trusteeship with liberty, both of individuals and of communities. This sets his work apart at the very outset, for most other analyses of trusteeship consider it in terms of civilization and barbarism. His method, borrowed from the British philosopher Michael Oakeshott, to engage in a "conversation" about trusteeship rather than to critique or explain it, results in a fairer treatment than most others of this idea. Along with meticulous historical descriptions, this conversational mode gives a deeper understanding of this practice than other historical or political accounts of it.

One of the most important contributions of Bain's history is his ability to connect the concept of trusteeship to a range of philosophical and theological ideas. For example, locating the initial debates in eighteenth-century England, Bain highlights the ideas of Edmund Burke, the British parliamentarian and political theorist, who forcefully argued against the East Indian Company's ability to govern sections of India without taking into account the welfare of those living there.

While the idea of trusteeship began as a paternalistic debate over how best to treat those whom Europeans considered unprepared to govern themselves, it took on an alternative moral meaning in the nineteenth century. As part of the discourse of the British anti-slavery movement, the justification for trusteeship included an appeal to responsibility:

British attitudes toward Africa at the turn of the 19th century were shaped to a considerable degree by an earnest desire to atone for Britain's role in purchasing and transporting slaves to work in the sugar and indigo plantations of the New World. (p. 53)

This notion of responsibility gave the concept of trusteeship an added purpose, moving it away from a simple paternalism to something that connects the moral responsibilities of the colonial powers. A further moral justification appeared in the late nineteenth century. In a move that might make environmentalists today uncomfortable, British theologians argued that the wealth of Africa should be "shared" because it was the bounty of God and should not be wasted on only one community! This justification was part of a larger "dual mandate" idea, one that posited benefits to both Europe and Africa if free trade were able to flourish-an argument reminiscent of some current theories of international affairs that seek to find peace among states that are democratic and economically interdependent.
In the Berlin Conference of 1884 and the Brussels Conference of 1890, which were organized attempts to make concrete the ban on slavery and to help Africa grow economically (largely for the benefit of European business), the great powers of Europe "internationalized" the concept of trusteeship. To contest Belgian governance of the Congo Free State, the British appealed to these protocols, which King Leopold had earlier used as a means to extract resources from the region without concern for the natives. Using the agreements from Berlin and Brussels as models, the post-World War I leaders of Europe developed the mandates system to further institutionalize the concept of trusteeship. While the mandates formally collapsed after World War II, the United Nations institutionalized an alternative model with the Trusteeship Council, which formally disbanded only in 1994 when the last UN territory, Palau, became independent.

As Bain demonstrates, however, the ideas underlying trusteeship continue to inform international politics, especially in the various UN missions that have engaged in peace building or attempts to create institutions of governance in areas torn by civil war. These missions, which often follow humanitarian interventions, have sought to bring some normalcy to countries ravaged by war and humanitarian disaster. Yet, as Bain so clearly points out, the urge to help these countries and the means by which the international community has undertaken these missions reflect the same normative impulses and methods employed by the British in India, the Europeans in Africa, and the League of Nations in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

With his sympathetic presentation of the idea of trusteeship, and by highlighting the links between trusteeship and peace building efforts, Bain surprised this reader by concluding with a forceful condemnation of the practice in his final chapter. Yet this critique makes his conclusions that much stronger. For while we begin to see this practice as one that arose from a positive moral impulse, one that continues to drive modes of global governance to this day, the fact that these practices undermine liberty and equality suggests a darker underside. As he states in the final sentences of the book:

The idea of trusteeship cannot escape its imperial past, no matter how enlightened or well intentioned it might be, because it belongs to a mode of conduct that is imperial by nature. It belongs to a mode of conduct that is fundamentally irreconcilable with the idea that we should respect the dignity of all human beings, not because it is conducive to peace, order, security, efficiency, wealth, happiness, utility, enlightenment, or some other interest, but because they are human. (p. 192)

Advocates of aggressive peace-building campaigns in various post-civil war contexts, while perhaps motivated by the right normative impulses, would do well to read Bain's book-if only to know the history of what they are proposing.

-Anthony F. Lang, Jr., University of St. Andrews

Read More: Justice, Intervention, Genocide, Ethics, Peacekeeping, Reconciliation, Transitional Justice

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