Ethics & International Affairs Volume 20.1 (Spring 2006): Book Reviews: International Governance of War-Torn Territories: Rule and Reconstruction [Full Text]

Apr 24, 2006

T. K. Vogel (reviewer)

Our post–Cold War world has seen a remarkable renaissance of the idea of trusteeship—the notion that the international community should administer war-torn territories until they can govern themselves. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Eastern Slavonia, Kosovo, and East Timor, the UN or international ad hoc bodies did not just keep the peace—not even according to more recent, expansive definitions of “complex” or “multidimensional” peacekeeping. Rather, they embarked on the formidable task of rebuilding political authority while acting as de facto governments until that goal was achieved. Indeed, as Richard Caplan explains at the outset of his comparative study, these and other international administrations have to various degrees gone beyond earlier peace missions to “make and enforce local laws, exercise total fiscal management of a territory, appoint and remove public officials, create a central bank, establish and maintain customs services, regulate the local media, adjudicate rival property claims, run schools, regulate local businesses, and reconstruct and operate all public utilities” (p. 2).

We are now sufficiently removed in time from the main phases of these projects—the international high representative in Bosnia is likely to depart in the second half of 2006, Kosovo may be about to be granted some sort of independence, East Timor has been fully sovereign since 2002, and Eastern Slavonia was handed back to the control of the Croatian government in January 1998—to assess how successful they have been in achieving their goals. But there is a serious difficulty any comparative study of these experiments in unorthodox sovereignty will encounter: the very definition of success tends to be far more ambiguous and complex than in the case of traditional peacekeeping with its more restricted mandates of monitoring ceasefires, demobilizing soldiers, or organizing elections. In Kosovo, for example, “end state uncertainty”—not just the currently prevailing legal fiction that the province continues to belong to Serbia-Montenegro, but also the irreconcilable claims made by its ethnic Albanian majority, its Serb minority, and the Serbian government—has hampered genuine progress in many fields, especially anything to do with intercommunal accommodation. Current conditions in Bosnia will also demand a still-intrusive international presence for several more years, but the liberal democracies that provide this presence are queasy about imposing their will on local politics in the name of democratic self-government.

Caplan is upfront about these challenges: if many of these operations have been but a qualified success, it is also true that the task before them was inherently more difficult than traditional peacekeeping. “Ultimately,” he writes, “it is for the local population and its leadership to decide whether to accept a peaceful accommodation of differences” (p. 255). Therein lies the paradox at the heart of transitional administration: its approach to building democracy has to deploy, by default, methods that are undemocratic, but it can only do so if a sufficient share of the local population accepts the mission as fundamentally legitimate. However, since transitional administrations are accountable not to the people they are mandated to serve but to the governments and institutions that have provided the mandate and the resources, the temptation exists to substitute a desiccated form of international legitimacy for the lack of local legitimacy. As Caplan rightly observes, this accountability deficit of peace missions creates incentives to pursue administrative efficiency at the expense of building up local capacity—in other words, an incentive to operate according to an international rather than a local agenda.

What distinguishes this novel type of international administration from traditional peacekeeping, then, is the inescapability of politics as a central component of international engagement. It is in this regard that the missions Caplan surveys fall far short of their ambitions. While the UN in particular has accumulated considerable knowledge in running elections, demobilizing soldiers, overseeing police forces, or setting up human rights mechanisms, the business of governing is rather murkier than these sectoral interventions. The restrictive mandates under which the UN operates and the world body’s institutional culture with its reverence for state sovereignty make it difficult for UN missions to get openly involved in politics, yet this is precisely what these post-conflict situations require. In consequence, too much attention has been given to problems for which technocratic solutions can be deployed off the shelf, while problems that are less amenable to technocratic solutions—for example, divisive school curricula or partisan media—have often been left alone. But without some sort of master plan to ensure the coherence of sectoral projects, international administrations will find all but the most concrete of their goals elusive. In this light, the September 2005 decision by the UN to set up an intergovernmental peacebuilding commission and a peacebuilding support office within the UN Secretariat appears to be a significant step in the right direction, even though the precise setup of these bodies remains unclear. In the explanation of Kofi Annan in the UN report In Larger Freedom, the peacebuilding commission would act as a “central node for helping to create and promote comprehensive strategies for peacebuilding both in general terms and in country situations. It should encourage coherent decision-making on peacebuilding by Member States and by the UN Secretariat, agencies and programmes.”

So what makes for a successful transitional administration? In the first part of his book, Caplan analyzes the conduct of transitional administrations in five functional areas: public order and internal security, refugee resettlement, civil administration, institution-building, and economic reconstruction and development. In the second part, he outlines the challenges inherent in transitional administrations—operational planning, the exercise of executive authority, accountability, and exit strategies. From this analysis emerge four key variables for success. First, favorable objective conditions, such as the military defeat of insurgents or a constructive attitude by regional powers, will facilitate the task of transitional administrations. Second, the clarity and appeal of operational aims will generate local legitimacy. Third, the type of the mission—whether it is supervisory or executive—will determine the extent to which the mission is vulnerable to local obstruction, though a balance needs to be struck between the competing demands of efficiency in obtaining results and local ownership. Fourth, the mission’s internal structure is a final variable in the equation: unified authority, strong coordination, and effective delegation to field operations all enhance the effective administration of a postwar territory. Caplan’s key point, however, is sobering: “Success, where it has occurred, owes as much if not more in some cases to contextual factors than to operational practices” (p. 13). It will often be the operating environment rather than any specific policy or action by the administrator that determines success or failure, as can be seen in the case of Bosnia: regime change in Belgrade and Zagreb and the pull of an increasingly credible prospect of eventual membership in the European Union have been crucial ingredients in the country’s recovery at least as much as anything the international high representative has done.

Nevertheless, having established the limitations of specific policies and actions, Caplan also lays out concrete measures to increase the chances that a transitional administration will in fact enhance local capacities for government while temporarily providing vital services to the population. Among the most interesting discussions is a section on the role of ombudspersons, who can provide a critical element of accountability and oversight without, in the end, taking away any of the transitional administrator’s much-needed sweeping powers. Indeed, far from being just the human rights mechanism as which it is usually seen, the institution of the ombudsperson has an important good governance dimension as well: it forces public institutions—national as well as, ideally, international—to adhere to certain standards of good conduct that would otherwise remain dead letter.

It is clear from this book—required reading for any presumptive administrator—that there are no quick or easy solutions to the challenges of administering postwar territories. While some institutional learning has taken place, this study provides many reasons to doubt the UN’s capacity to do a good job. Caplan’s analysis will help us understand better which challenges are inherent and beyond the control of the transitional administrator and which are questions of political, strategic, and operational leadership.

—T. K. VOGEL, Democratization Policy Council

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