Sunday, February 19, 2012

Peacebuilding and the von der Schulenburg Affair

New Imperialism? Ex-Envoy Called for Military-Style
Civilian Interventions in Post-War Developing Nations

As international agencies of one sort or another are so fond of digging for root causes to conflicts, it seems fitting to ask: What are the root causes of the von der Schulenburg affair? Is personality to blame? Is the sudden departure of Michael von der Schulenburg from Sierra Leone merely a case of bad behavior by a haughty diplomat? Or is there more to the matter?

This reporter thinks there is more--much more--to the von der Schulenberg affair. A doctoral thesis--or, at the very least, a serious magazine or journal of opinion article--could be written about the meaning and significance of the UN envoy's early exit and the mysterious leaking to the media (via Reuters) of his accusatory, almost threatening, missive to UN headquarters. Suffice it so say, this reporter hopes the information below will spur a more in-depth discussion of the relevant issues.

Foreign Confidential™ analysts believe that while character and personality must always be considered in attempting to analyze any controversy involving a prominent individual, the real root cause, so to speak, of what von der Schulenburg did or didn't do relative to his headline-making posting in Sierra Leone lies in his political outlook, or ideology--more specifically, in his approach to peacebuidling and the ways in which the concept has become emblematic of diplomacy's decline and the rise of a new kind of imperialism.

Peacebuilding is an overarching--and overreaching--term that is used within the international development community to describe the processes and activities involved in resolving violent conflict and establishing a sustainable peace. Transcending traditional peace preservation, or peace keeping, peacebuilding is an NGO/world body bureaucrat's delight in that it includes practically anything and everything related to peace, from conflict resolution to reconciliation, development and trauma healing.

A New International Idea

Promoted as a new International Idea, peacebuilding came into popular usage as a result of a 1992 report by Boutros Boutros Ghali, then Secretary General of the United Nations, in which he proposed responsibilities and responses for the UN and the international community aimed at preventing war-torn countries from relapsing into conflict.

The report, titled An Agenda for Peace, fit neatly into the expansion of UN peacekeeping missions to encompass a broad and seemingly ever widening array of political, economic, and humanitarian activities. Accent on political.

In other words, having failed time and again to prevent wars from breaking out in the first place, the UN at some stage sought to focus on the aftermaths of conflicts.

(It is this reporter's opinion that peacekeeping missions should stick to peacekeeping, that they are ill-equipped to handle peacebuilding, and that the activities that come under this progressive-sounding, deceptively appealing term belong to national governments and their citizens. At most, peacekeeping missions should lay the foundations for peacebuilding.)

The peacebuilding concept was enthusiastically embraced by the powers that control the UN. In 2001, the Security Council said that peacebuilding efforts are “aimed at preventing the outbreak, the recurrence or continuation of armed conflict and therefore encompass a wide range of political, developmental, humanitarian and human rights programmes and mechanisms.”

An Entire Field

Peacebuilding now refers to an entire field--peace practice--which may include socioeconomic development, reforming and even creating new governments, reconciliation, transforming social norms, teaching tolerance, you name it. Regime change could presumably be a so-called peace practice. Supporters of the field argue that direct external control, even if maintained militarily through imposition of a foreign civilian administration, is a necessary but temporary evil. In reality, foreign powers have used peacebuilding/peace practice to gain new forms of informal influence in the internal affairs of post-war states.

Which brings us to the issue of imperialism. Whereas this reporter prefers to use the term in its classical political realist sense--referring to a foreign policy that is committed to overthrowing the power relations among nations, or status quo--imperialism in the context of contemporary peacebuilding refers (a) to the 19th century term that described control by a greater power over less powerful territories or nationalities, and (b) to the notion of neo-imperialism developed in the 1960s, meaning a relationship of domination of one set of people over another.

While the old imperialism was all about controlling behavior, the new imperialism seeks to reconstruct social relations and change behaviour and attitudes through levels of international monitoring, intervention and regulation unprecedented since the colonial period.

It is in this context that von der Schulenburg can arguably be called a new imperialist and that his alleged interference in the internal affairs of a post-war West African nation should come as no surprise. He is, after all, a former official of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which groups 56 states from North America (Canada and the United States), Europe, and the former Soviet Union. The OSCE is a bastion of peacebuilding advocacy and theory; more important, the organization provided von der Schulenburg with a platform for peacebuilding promotion.

A Revealing Chapter

As one of three authors of Global Europe: Rescuing the State: Europe's Next Challenge, which was published in 2005, von der Schulenburg contributed the obscure tome's revealing peacebuilding chapter, in which he made the case for "civilian interventions" inspired by and modeled after military interventions. The term--civilian interventions--was used intentionally, he explained, "to draw attention to the similarities with military interventions."

"Recent military interventions in so-called failing states have brought back to us the old wisdom that peace cannot be won by military force alone," von der Schulenburg wrote. "Military interventions must be accompanied by civilian interventions that take over peace-building operations with the aim of re-establishing a stable new local government, viable state institutions and functioning public services. Civilian interventions are thus critical to winning the hearts and minds of the local population and so create stability and give peace a real chance. Yet we must ask whether international civilian interventions are up to this task."

After going on for pages about a need for "rapid response," "command and control" and "tool boxes"--his piece about peace is about as clear as mud--von der Schulenburg concluded: "Despite real differences, military and civilian interventions follow the same underlying logic and, as stated, civilian interventions could learn much from the military."

Really? Reading the above in light of recent events, one is tempted to think that in seeking to "learn" from the military, von der Schulenburg at some stage started to view himself as a kind of commando ambassador, an elite, special operations warrior for whom normal rules of engagement and codes of conduct don't apply.

At a minimum, his assignment in Sierra Leone proved that one should never send a bureaucrat--or a frustrated general--to do a diplomat's job.