Peacekeeping: The Formula for Failure


May 14, 2007: One thing the peacekeeping industry doesn't want to hear about is "failed states." These are countries that exist in name only. There are a lot of them. Always has been. Since the establishment of the UN, it's been fashionable to believe that such places don't exist. This is also a result of the European nations giving up all their colonies after World War II. Most of those colonies had been acquired in the previous two centuries, as the West sought to bring order to many parts of the world that were anything but. Conventional wisdom is that the colonial period was an unmitigated disaster for the colonized. It was actually anything but. Just take a look at the population figures for those parts of the world. They skyrocketed during the colonial period. So did economies, literacy rates and all manner of good things. That included law and order. These areas were usually in a constant state of warfare or disorder before the colonial troops arrived. While there was often great brutality used against the locals, it wasn't much different from what the locals had been doing to each other for centuries.

When the colonial powers departed, they left behind the semblance of a government. But the appearance was deceiving. The factionalism of these areas was largely unchanged. Most post-colonial African nations have dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of ethnic groups within their borders. These groups frequently feuded, or fought, with each other. The colonial governments established security forces (an army and national police) that kept the violence levels down after the colonial powers departed. But the new governments often did not work. That's because tribalism demanded that the senior officials favor their own tribe, usually to the extent that everyone else was noticeably shut out. This often created a lot of unhappy people, because no African nation had one tribe that constituted a majority. So you have all these minorities struggling with each other, against the one that is in power, and in control of the army.

You have similar situations in Asia, especially places like Afghanistan, and elsewhere in Central Asia. In the last few centuries, you had similar situations throughout the world, but you didn't have the modern communications and weapons that enable a small group to control a much larger population. In a word, you did not have the modern police state. You also didn't have mass media to remind everyone of what are ancestors were able to ignore.

The people in these countries may be loyal to their tribe, but they are not stupid. Half a century has gone by since the great decolonialization, and the former colonies have figured out that their problems are local, not the result of colonial oppression. Indeed, many people in former colonies (like Somalia and Sierra Leone) openly talk about how much nicer things were when they were a colony. Some colonies, when given the choice, choose to remain colonies, and have prospered as a result (of clean government, mainly).

All this brings us back to failed states, like Somalia, Afghanistan and west African places like Liberia and Sierra Leone. What's a peacekeeper to do? Sending in troops and police will bring peace for a while, but unless you can fix the underlying problems (corruption and ethnic favoritism), the violence will return once the peacekeepers leave. Haiti is a classic example of this. Here, the problem isn't tribalism (most of the population is descended from former slaves), but corruption, and the inability of enough honest and able politicians to be found. Haiti has been trying to get it together for over two centuries. They had three decades of U.S. peacekeepers early in the 20th century. Times were good while the marines were in charge. But once the marines departed, the bad guys, bad habits and bad times returned within a decade. Look at the historical record, and you will see that it takes several generations to move from chaotic tribalism to peaceful prosperity.

The peacekeeping industry (the UN, and other international organizations that organize peacekeeping missions, and the nations that pay for them) don't like to dwell on Haiti, or Somalia, or Afghanistan, or Iraq, or most of the countries in Africa. The peacekeeping crew doesn't like to look at the past either. For example, how did these situations resolve themselves in the past? With lots of violence, until people got tired of the killing and settled down for a generation or so. Eventually, the ethnic frictions would trigger another spasm of mass violence. The history books are full of these "wars." Archeologists are now finding that there were even more, largely unrecorded, wars in Africa and the Americas. The violence that calls forth peacekeepers, is nothing new.

So what is the formula for peace? No one has found one yet. In the past, peacekeeping, so to speak, was called "pacification" and consisted of a lot of actions that would, today, be considered war crimes. One crucial factor appears to be the money. Even a poor nation has some income, and foreign aid, for government officials to steal. If you can stop, or at least control, the stealing, and do those things that are known to create vibrant economies (education and a just legal system), you will get prosperity and a brighter future. This scenario has played out many times since World War II. Being poor and ignorant is not a permanent condition. But getting the locals to produce honest officials is, time and again, the key failing. It takes a long time, longer than proponents of peacekeeping are willing to admit. And it doesn't always work.

If you want to know if a peacekeeping mission will succeed, just follow the money. If the locals are more inclined to steal it, than invest it in things like education, health, infrastructure and a working justice system, you will fail. It's a message the peacekeeping industry does not want to hear, but cannot ignore.




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