Sunday, January 25, 2015

Liberalization before institutionalization: The case for autocratic democracy

In the course of reading Carsten Stahn's (pretty lumbering) book The Law and Practice of International Territorial Administration, the following excerpt is encountered:
What is needed, in the immediate post-conflict period is not quick elections, democratic ferment, or economic "shock therapy" but a more controlled and gradual approach to liberalization, combined with the immediate building of government institutions that can manage these political and economic reforms. (Roland Paris, At War's End)
...or, phrased more succinctly, "institutionalization before liberalization."

That, one is tempted to adjudge, sounds very reasonable in the first instance.  It is at once logical and legally sound.  It is consonant with the idea that democracy cannot be imposed but must perforce evolve: It has to be organic and autochthonous, and it can only develop as its foundations are gradually internalized among the dramatis personae (or, in modern parlance, the stakeholders).  Stahn not only criticizes some territorial administration projects for having failed to secure the locals' backing (which is "old news") but shrewdly distinguishes between domestic consent and domestic support.  He adroitly accentuates the importance of the latter as a conditio sine qua non for an international governance mission to stand any chance of success.

Yet, on closer inspection the above postulates can be descried as suffering from a number of deficiencies and assumptions.

For one thing, the reasoning is a standard Catch-22.  The naissance of democracy is contingent on strong domestic "ownership" and local "capacity-building" (the buzzwords of "good governance" de nos jours); but how are these possible without the existence of a environment of liberalism, pluralism, and--yes--democracy?  In other words, how can people freely decide what type of a government they wish to have (viz, internal self-determination) if there is no opportunity for them to express their views by way of a one-person-one-vote mechanism operating among a politically-educated electorate?

Attempts to reform or rebuild the economy in the administrated areas along the lines of the free-market laissez-faire model are also lambasted, on the grounds that doing so is contrary both to human rights standards (self-determination, again) and the laws of occupation.  That may well be correct.  However, territorial administrations are necessarily long-term endeavors (v. infra).  As such, they are also expensive endeavors.  Both the administration and the reconstruction (one will recall that such projects are most frequently undertaken in the aftermath of a devastating and destructive conflict) require a continuous inflow of exorbitant quantities of money.  Donor conferences and charity pledges only go so far, and mostly last until something more current (and bloody) grabs people's attention (another conflict elsewhere, perhaps).  Whence, then, are the funds to be procured?  The answer is: private investors, especially via F.D.I.  However, foreign investors demand stability, transparency, certainty.  They need some manner of guaranty.  An environment in which neither the political nor socioeconomic order is anywhere close to solidification does not lend itself well at all to inspiring investors.  Without such investments though, it is dubitable whether the administrators or the domestic decision-makers--such as there be--can foster a domain conducive to the emergence of a free, liberal, democratic society.  The whole exercise becomes a matter of petitio principii.

Next comes the no small matter concerning the timeframes involved.  Democracy does not evolve in a matter of years (q.v. the amount of time the South needed to accept desegregation); sometimes it does not evolve at all (pick many former U.S.S.R. states or any post-Arab Spring country, with the cautious exception of Tunisia).  Stahn and many others advocate a policy of "persuasion": convincing the local stakeholder to gradually internalize the ideals of democracy, etc.  They suggest the first step be the establishment of an independent and impartial judiciary.  Such a vision though is woefully divorced from the realities on the ground.  Brutal wars do not happen due to "misunderstandings" and "misapprehensions," but due to incompatible and frequently diametrically-opposing goals and objectives of the belligerents.  The ensuing war occasions thousands of fatalities, tens of thousands of wounded, hundreds of thousands of refugees, and millions of seething, livid people.  The proposition that such people will, within a few years, be able to identify and focus on commonalities, and give each other a group hug is ludicrous... - and that encompasses members of the judiciary who, ultimately, are members of the warring communities.  Moreover, the administrators do not have years on end to wait for a groundswell  toward amity and reconciliation: Territorial administrations are necessarily transitional and temporary.

The conclusion is hence insuperable: The precepts of democracy, liberalization and liberalism, tolerance, pluralism, rule of law, etc. must be foisted, with some measure of compulsion, on postconflict societies.  The approach does not have to be exclusive of continual efforts to coopt local stakeholders--indeed, doing so is indispensable to eventual success--but even medium-term results are impossible without a degree of coercion.

One argument frequently advanced against coercion is that local actors are better equipped to handle local problems.  They carry more gravitas with the local populace and are more cognizant of the local challenges, history, culture, values, etc.  That is very myopic and blinkered reasoning: It presupposes that the external administrators are complete neophytes.  The situation is rather the reverse, however.  The administrators have their own experience, whether they are Westerners who come from the history of centuries of conflict and bloodshed or whether they come from areas that experienced centuries of colonial turbulence and postcolonial strife.  In any case, the administrators are informed by first- and second-hand knowledge of events whose corollary has been the realization that representative democracy is the best form of government, that the rule of law, separation of church and state, separation of powers, etc. are the best form of governance, that freedom of conscience and speech and assembly are essential for a thriving society, that the free-market economy is the optimal catalyst for sustained prosperity, and so forth.  Such knowledge, experience, and expertise cannot be dismissed as inferior to the locals'; quite the contrary.

Furthermore, it is questionable to what extent local leaders possess genuine sway and respect.  After all, they are the very same ones who initiated, inflamed, and facilitated the destructive conflict in the first place.  Rather than defer to them and strive to mollify them through compromise, it might be more advantageous to circumvent them and appeal directly to the population.  That was the tactic utilized in e.g. Cambodia, Bosnia, and Afghanistan, and though it was (boringly predictably) criticized, it is difficult to envision an alternative course of action the respective administrators could have taken.

All this is a gamble.  Anything externally imposed runs the risk of encountering implacable opposition solely by virtue of being foreign.  Internal malcontents might possess the pull to constantly and effectively undermine even the most forcefully imposed initiatives.  Ultimately, contrary to the conventional wisdom, the population (or a belligerent community) might not, even latently, be favorably disposed toward prosperity and stability, but be interested in brute dominance.

An international territorial administrator does not have the luxury of investing decades into endeavoring to change the hearts and minds of the administrated population.  Moreover, such an approach elicits the difficult question of why several generations (at least two or three, possibly many more) of people should be subjected to continued repression, oppression, penury, and an overall lesser standard of life when it is possible to fast-forward the process of democratization and liberalization.  Tens of millions more Afghan women do not have to be subjected to a life of ultra-patriarchal tyranny and all manner of physical and psychological abuse merely because academics believe that equal rights should not be imposed and international politicians do not have the resolve needed to ensure that is accomplished as soon as possible.  The bulk of international polity is today more sensitized both to the value and transience of human life than ever before.  It is increasingly not anymore the question of the "less fortunate" (read: by sheer accident of birth) becoming empowered politically and economically, but their becoming empowered politically and economically right now (or, at least, as absolutely soon as possible).

"Institutionalization before liberalization" not only entails no guarantees that the "liberalization" part will ever be attained; it also requires considerable time for an outcome (either way) to emerge.  Reversing the principle necessitates determination, resources, and, frankly, "thick skin" (for one, there will be inevitable, though mendacious and selfserving, charges of neocolonialism leveled), but the millions of longsuffering and brutalized people to whose aid international administrators purportedly come deserve nothing less.

Thus, "liberalization before institutionalization," with the utmost resolve and uncompromising, long-term commitment should be the imperative in scenarios of comprehensive international territorial governance missions.

©2015 Michael L.S.