Can Intervention Work (Excerpts from the introduction)




Excerpts from the Introduction to hardcover edition of “Can Intervention Work”

Paperback edition just out (September 2012)

Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus



Intervention has been the most extravagant and noble, dangerous and ambitious part of Western foreign policy for twenty years. The U. S. government has spent over three trillion dollars; and more than a million soldiers have been deployed from over sixty countries. Many lives were saved in Bosnia through intervention; many lives were lost in Iraq through intervention. The Iraq intervention brought a million demonstrators into the streets of normally quiescent London and enflamed the suspicion and anger of hundreds of millions of Muslims. Intervention transformed the training, doctrine, and reputation of the wealthiest and most powerful military in the world. It took the United States, the United Nations, and the United Kingdom to a new pinnacle of international reputation and confidence and then heaved them into a humiliating mess.

Over the last two decades, intervention has been described, explained and criticized by political philosophers, civil servants, human rights activists, journalists, development workers, filmmakers, and ten thousand consultants. Parliamentarians from Edinburgh to Rio now refer confidently to the “Chapter VII resolutions,” “no-fly zones,” “the experience of the Kurds,” and “the responsibility to protect.” But the basic questions about intervention remain unsolved. People who cannot name four cities in Libya can deploy four arguments against or for an intervention there. These are the same arguments which crippled our response to Bosnia and Rwanda, emboldened us in Kosovo and drew us deeper into the indignities of Iraq and Afghanistan. They were used in the 1960s for Vietnam, the 1920s for Mesopotamia, and the 1860s for Afghanistan. And they still provide little help in understanding those actions which we dub, euphemistically, “intervention.”

Intervention—from the Latin intervenire, means roughly “to come between.” Inter/between does not reveal where you are, who or what is around or beside you, or the nature of your relationship with these people and things. Often, the word has a neutral sense of just being somewhere (as in the word interspersed) or of bringing things closer together (as in interweave or interconnect). The other half of the word intervention—venire—doubles the ambiguity. It is not clear how you are coming: running, walking, or driving in a Humvee. But when come is attached to a preposition (such as come between or come across or come by), it often carries a sense of arriving accidentally. And in its basic form come here—come implies welcome, an invitation from the person to whom you are moving. There are other words with which we could have defined the advents and adventures in Kosovo and Iraq. We could have said we had simply gone in—using the Latin-derived word invaded. Or if we wanted to convey the sense of not simply being in there but “between”, we could have specified the action with the Latin words for act between or go between, place between, throw between, speak between, break between, or strike between: interact, intercede, interpose, interject, interdict, interrupt, interfere. But just as we don’t call ourselves invaders, so too we don’t call ourselves interferers or interlopers. Instead, we choose to cloak our action in a Latin word, which, even if translated, admits to nothing more than coming into a new place and new relationships. It is silent on our right to be there, on whom we are meeting, on what exactly we are doing. But it implies that our movement may be gentle, driven by force of circumstance, and welcome. But in truth, when we intervene we are there neither by invitation nor by accident. We are not passively present. We advance soldiers and we drop bombs and we fight to separate different parties. We have chosen to go in against the wishes of the sovereign government. In short, we are not just interveners, not just “coming betweeners,” we are also interlopers and interferers.

The two essays on intervention in this book emerge from a course and a study group that we led at the Harvard Kennedy School in 2010–11. But they are not academic essays on intervention—such as are written by lawyers, philosophers, human rights activists, and professors of international relations …

We both agree that there are certain occasions—such as genocide—that justify an international intervention: that such horror imposes a form of duty on the international community, and that state sovereignty does not confer total immunity. There may be countries that are too powerful to be tackled, for example, China, but this does not excuse nonintervention in East Timor. We agree with the philosopher Michael Walzer that there are occasions when the international community should remain for as little time as possible after an intervention, “not to create a democratic, pluralist, liberal or (even) capitalist government: simply a non-murderous government,” but that in cases of mass extermination (such as in Cambodia), deep and enduring ethnic tension (such as in Rwanda), or total state failure, the interveners should not leave too rapidly. In other words, we accept the basic intuitions of most interveners around the world, and a worldview that seems to permit, for example, the intervention in Kosovo, even without the full legal sanction of the UN Security Council, and provides a decent account of our presence, for example, in East Timor and Cambodia. And we are comfortable with Bill Clinton’s motto from 1996: We cannot stop all war for all time but we can stop some wars. We cannot save all women and all children but we can save many of them. We can’t do everything but we must do what we can.

Our aim is to understand—not as academics but as international participants in the interventions of the last twenty years—what makes interventions work and fail. We are not interested in whether we have an abstract moral right or even duty to intervene, but whether and how to intervene in a particular country at a particular time. … The question of whether and how to intervene in Libya or Afghanistan is not fundamentally a question of moral philosophy. It is not a question of what we ought to do but what we can: of understanding the limits of Western institutions in the 21st century and of giving a credible account of the specific context of a particular intervention. Hence, our (unapologetic) focus on narrative—on the history of events, decisions, and individuals.

Each of these essays is driven by the contrast between our particular experiences on the ground and the rhetoric of the international community. Gerald began his career in Bulgaria in 1994, moved to Bosnia in 1996 and has continued to work in the region for the last fifteen years. The dominant international theory in Bosnia was that success had been due to a large foreign troop presence; that Bosnia was weakened by the international failure to confront war criminals and militias early and decisively; that it was endangered by elections held too early; that it was saved by charismatic foreign nation-builders with clear plans and almost limitless power; and that it is still in danger. This theory had a decisive influence on the way the West has conducted interventions from Afghanistan to Iraq. But Gerald’s work in international organizations in Bosnia and Kosovo and his research as the director of an independent think-tank (the European Stability Initiative) convinced him that this theory of what did or did not work in Bosnia was misleading. ESI’s detailed research revealed the surprising ignorance of the international community about the environment in which they operated, and highlighted the unintended consequences of their action . Some of his essays, such as one which argued that successive high representatives in Bosnia had established a regime of enlightened despotism similar to that of utilitarian imperialists in 19th century India—in Gerald’s words “a European Raj”—created controversy. His research ultimately convinced him that many of the lessons of Bosnia were almost exactly the reverse of those “learned” by the international community. The role of foreign troops in 1996 had been misunderstood – and what has often been perceived as their weakness, an initial reluctance to aggressively confront Bosnia’s warlords, appears prudent in hindsight. There were also positive effects of holding early elections. Delaying the confrontation with war criminals and allowing them to contest elections (while simultaneously strengthening the international war crimes tribunal) was also highly effective – if unexpected. The unlimited powers of international administrators soon created more problems than they solved. The most important institution in stabilizing the Balkans turned out to be one that was long considered one of the least impressive: the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). And despite the pessimistic prophecies of some foreign analysts, Bosnia had been secure since 2000. Thus, he concluded Bosnia was a success, but not for the reasons given by much of the international community.

Rory in Afghanistan

Rory’s first foreign posting, as a young British diplomat, was in Indonesia, and it finished with the referendum for independence in East Timor in 1999. His second posting was in the Balkans. There he quickly became convinced that the international community should have intervened earlier in Bosnia and that the Kosovo intervention had done some good. He had an equally positive impression of intervention when he was in Afghanistan in 2002. But his view changed entirely when he was posted to Iraq. He went in optimistic that the US-led occupation could create a significantly more stable, prosperous Iraq, but he quickly concluded that he was wrong: the international community should never have invaded. He returned to Kabul in 2005, convinced that the West should not send more troops to Afghanistan, but he found it very difficult to persuade anyone of this. Rory wanted to understand how he and others in the international community had been so wrong in Iraq, and why still others persisted in getting it so wrong in Afghanistan. Why had he—and others—been convinced that such interventions could work? Why did it take so long to acknowledge that they could not? Why did it take so long to withdraw? And what did this suggest about how we should do these things in the future?

Gerald’s essay, therefore, is about a triumph misdescribed and misunderstood; Rory’s is a story of failure, of a failure to acknowledge failure and the dangerous belief that failure is not an option. One essay explains how we got intervention right; the other, why we so often get intervention wrong. These different accounts reflect different temperaments, prose styles, backgrounds, education, and experiences. Rory warns against the almost irresistible—mesmerizing—pressures that lead to doomed and humiliating over-intervention; Gerald carefully records how the international community misinterpreted an intervention which worked. Given these different perspectives, how could we teach classes together, still less write a book together? The answer is that these essays, which have their roots in our common experience of the Balkans and were developed through joint research and teaching at Harvard, ultimately reflect a single worldview. We both believe that it is possible to walk the tightrope between the horrors of over-intervention and nonintervention; that we must avoid the horrors not only of Iraq but also of Rwanda; and that there is a way of approaching intervention that can be good for us and good for the country concerned.


The dominant positions for and against intervention

Some people, of course, argue that one should never intervene. A few believe that states should be entirely free to do whatever they wish within their own borders. But more commonly the arguments against intervention are prudential. They are neatly listed by Professor Albert Hirschman as arguments from “jeopardy,” “futility,” and “perversity”: an intervention will be dangerous (for the West or for the locals), or it will achieve nothing, or it will achieve exactly the reverse of what it intended (that is, create a more dangerous and unfriendly regime). Such arguments can be bolstered by the language of medicine or commerce (“first do no harm,” “it’s none of our business,” “we’re broke”). Or even culture. Thus the Irish public intellectual Conor Cruise O’Brien said in 1992, “There are places where a lot of men prefer war, and the looting and raping and domineering that go with it, to any sort of peacetime occupation. One such place is Afghanistan. Another is Yugoslavia after the collapse.” These arguments ignore not only the strong moral and instrumental justifications for intervention but also the fact that, not withstanding all these fears, intervention has in the past worked well: most notably (but not only, Gerald argues) in former Yugoslavia.

We disagree with such arguments but they are only tangentially the subject of these essays. Our essays, therefore, are directed not against intervention but against two traditional arguments which seek to provide a universal formula for success in intervention. They are “the planning school” (epitomized by RAND Corporation’s Beginner’s Guide to Nation-Building), which emphasizes the importance of a clear strategy, metrics and structure, backed by overwhelming resources; and “the liberal imperialist school” (epitomized by Paddy Ashdown, the High Representative in Bosnia), which emphasizes the importance of decisive, bold, and charismatic leadership. Each derives from and shares the language of business and military strategy. Each proposes a clear, confident, and unambiguous recipe for intervention. Liberal imperialists in particular like to portray the country into which they intervene as terrifying and tragic: a rogue state, or a failed state, or a threat to its neighbors or to our credibility. It is a place where “failure is not an option.” They generally claim that the cause of this tragedy is “ungoverned space”: dominated by destructive indigenous forces (extremists, militias, corrupt governments) and undermined by predatory neighbors and international neglect. They assert that the end to this tragedy lies in “governance,” “the rule of law,” and the other elements of a state. And that there is a path to this end through a decisive and well-planned international intervention (with generous resources, a coherent strategy, coordination, staffing, communication, accountability, research, defined processes, and clear priorities).

These schools are deeply optimistic. But they are not optimistic about local capacity: the local population is often portrayed in a negative light—as criminals or victims. Instead, they are optimistic about the international community and its ability to measure, quantify, or define the problems; make informed plans, predictions and decisions; and have the power and capacity to implement successful programs. The international community believes it is highly likely to succeed, provided it has the right strategy, resources, and imperial confidence. In the words of an eminent British general, intervention “is doable if we get the formula right and it is properly resourced.”

Such analyses imply that success in intervention is largely about the clarity of thought, the will, and the force of the heroic foreign intervener. Thus when in Iraq the deployment of more troops around Baghdad was followed by a decrease in violence, a strong causal connection was made. The drop in violence, according to the international community, was the result almost entirely of the foreign surge: not the internal features of the Iraqi government, Iraqi politics, or the region. The international community is generally less willing to take responsibility for failure. Thus, in Afghanistan, when the deployment of more troops into Helmand Province in 2006 was followed by a spike in the number of insurgent attacks, no causal connection was made. The insurgency, according to the international community, had apparently not been caused by the foreign surge: instead it had been caused almost entirely by the corrupt Afghan government, fragmented Afghan politics, and provocation from the region, particularly Pakistan.


Principled instrumentalism / passionate moderation

Our two essays reject the models of heroic international planners and heroic international leaders. We argue that the international community is usually much weaker than it imagines. The international community is inevitably isolated from the local community, ignorant of local culture and context, and prey to misleading abstract theories. It often lacks legitimacy and local support because it is unelected and foreign (although the degree to which an intervener is perceived as foreign also depends on the context). Local political leaders are often far more competent and powerful than the international community acknowledges. Local institutions are far more resilient than international theories of post-conflict societies as blank-slates suggest. Local and regional factors tend to be far more important determinants of success than the internationals acknowledge. International attempts to impose its will through overwhelming force—or ever more absolute legal powers—tend to make the situation worse not better.

All interventions are intrinsically unpredictable, chaotic and uncertain and will rapidly confound well-laid plans and careful predictions … Secondly, the international community is burdened and often crippled by the inherent problems of bureaucratic institutions in a foreign country. At home, mechanisms exist to prevent civil servants from wasting public money and ignoring citizens. Politicians cut budgets and set up inspections and performance indicators; the media and civil society criticize; and elections can dismiss the government. Not so in an intervention, where the international community is often awash with money and without the time to develop a complex system of inspections or performance indicators, and where there is neither robust civil society nor media to encourage accountability, nor regular elections.  International organizations whose legitimacy rests on their supposed superior knowledge of what is good for a society, and how to achieve it, also find it hard to admit to any mistakes. In the twenty-first century, as Rory argues, these problems are exacerbated by the extreme isolation of international lives, their surreal optimism, and their abstract jargon.

Third, as Gerald argues, the international community seems often unable to recognize or use the real strengths in local society and, therefore is reluctant to delegate. It underestimates the intelligence and competence of local politicians, overlooks their capacity to compromise, and cut deals with their armed opponents. A sustained intervention, therefore, often prevents local leaders from taking responsibility; does not put pressure on politicians to settle with their opponents, or broaden the kinds of deals they could offer. Instead, it sometimes strengthens the legitimacy and popularity of insurgents.

Fourth, interventions are crippled by the political aims of intervening governments, which change continually. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the goals morphed from toppling the old regime and leaving; to nation-building; to improving security through a surge; and then back to withdrawing. Sometimes all of these views exist simultaneously, as Richard Holbrooke, the US diplomat, later observed about Vietnam, the Balkans, and Afghanistan: “People sit in a room, they don’t air their real differences, a false and sloppy consensus papers over those underlying differences, and they go back to their offices and continue to work at cross-purposes, even actively undermining each other.” The problem is not that interveners adapt objectives in light of changing conditions, which would be a good thing: they change their priorities often independently of the local context. The international community has rarely articulated consistent views on how the security and interests of the West relate to the interests and rights of Iraqis, Yugoslavs or Afghans. When it managed to do so in the Balkans after 1999, holding out a credible vision of a future integration of all Balkan states into Euro-Atlantic institutions, it dramatically increased its influence …

All these factors create a contorted and destructive world-view. The international community often oscillates between exaggerated fears and an inflated sense of its own power: between paranoia and megalomania, reflecting in its lurches, its insecure half-awareness of its lack of power, knowledge, certainty and legitimacy. Being unwilling to acknowledge the absurdity of heroic international plans and leadership, the international community creates for itself a misleading picture of the crisis, its causes, its solution and the path to its solution. The international community traditionally describes the countries into which it intervenes as the quintessence of terror and tragedy, a unique existential threat, or inescapable obligation. This is true not simply of terrorism in Afghanistan, or weapons of mass destruction in Iraq but even of Balkan organized crime – which was presented as posing a huge threat to the rest of the world despite all evidence to the contrary. Such fears are almost always exaggerated: the country is only one obligation and one interest among many that must be balanced against other obligations and interests around the world. And neither Vietnam, nor Iraq, nor Afghanistan, ever justified or required such an extravagant investment of money, lives, troops and time.

Finally —and this is the most difficult truth for the international community to accept—intervention cannot always offer an end to suffering. A modern intervener does not have the power, the knowledge or the legitimacy to “eliminate all the root causes of conflict,” let alone fundamentally reshape the structures and cultural identity of a foreign land. Instead, intervention should aim to provide protection and relief at a specific time and place. And even such limited ambitions can often be defeated by a situation which is intrinsically unpredictable and uncontrollable. No crisis is fixed or permanent. But there are crises that the international community cannot address. Failure—however horrible—will always be a possibility: an option. Neither state-building, nor counter-insurgency, nor ‘inputs’, nor leadership, nor any other formula, fixed theory, or doctrine can guarantee success. RAND’s proposal that there is a standard formula that can generate a fixed proportion of troops, police, and money for a “hypothetical country with a population of 5 million” is absurd. The important questions cannot be framed in hypotheses because they are ‘Which country exactly? And when? And why? And who?’

These essays, therefore, recommend a theory of intervention, which Gerald calls “principled incrementalism” and Rory, “passionate moderation.” Intervention in our view it not viewed as a scientific method but a practical activity with a humanitarian purpose. Moral philosophy, theoretical models based on previous endeavors, and heroic leadership are only small—perhaps the smallest—parts of such an activity. The activity is inherently dangerous and unpredictable. We believe success is dependent on the exact location and nature of the crisis and the capacity of the interveners (which is always limited) and the role of neighbors, the regional context and local leadership (which is always more influential than is assumed). Our experience suggests the following rules of thumb: that an intervener must distinguish brutally between the factors they can control, the dangers they can avoid and dangers they can neither control nor avoid (whether permanent features of the place or specific to the crisis).

An outsider can—indeed, should—provide generous resources, manpower and equipment, and encouragement and support. Courage, thought, and pre-planning are relevant. But they are not enough on their own. The best way of minimizing the danger of any intervention is to procede carefully, to invest heavily in finding out about the specific context, and to define concrete and not abstract goals. This involves giving power and authority to local leadership as soon as possible, which is why elections matter. Only local leaders can ever have the necessary ingredient of knowing the situation well, over many years and in all kinds of conditions; only they can get around the dangers that cannot be avoided, and skillfully respond to the dangers that cannot be avoided. And the intervener should not be so obsessive or neurotic about the activity that they ignore the signs that the intervention has become too dangerous or the mission impossible and it is time to regroup, pause, or even withdraw.

Since intervention is a techne—to take a grand term from Aristotle—or, in more normal language, an art not a science, such advice will always seem underwhelming. Just as the military principle that “time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted,” is seen by soldiers as an insight of great life-saving wisdom, but by a civilian as a glimpse of the blinding obvious, so too such advice on intervention. Few would have any theoretical disagreements with our recommendations. Even fewer would be surprised by them. The challenge is not to lay out the principles; it is to convey just how rarely they are implemented and why, how much damage has been done through ignoring them, and how difficult they are to uphold. The difficulty is to show people how intervention—with its elaborate theory, intricate rituals, astonishing sacrifices and expenditure; its courage and grandeur and fantasy—can often stand comparison with the religion of the Aztecs or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; to show how bad intervention can be: how far more absurd, rotten, counter-productive, than any satirist could suggest or caricaturist portray. And that even when all the leaders have recognized that a policy is not working, how impossible it often seems for them to organize withdrawal.

An incremental approach may seem simply common sense. And yet over-confident policy-makers continue to be seduced repeatedly by the illusory promise of planning, resources, and charismatic leadership. Intervention may be a necessary, indispensable ingredient of the international system. It is certainly capable, as in the Balkans, of doing good. And yet how easily it falls into excess. This is why the ultimate focus of these essays is on the particular context, temptations, predilections and neuroses of twenty-first century interveners. Rory’s essay focuses exclusively on Afghanistan; Gerald’s largely on Bosnia. But we hope they carry broader lessons because these essays are designed to offer not an anthropology of the country into which the West is intervening, but an anthropology of the West – of ourselves.



Minna Jarvenpaa: Interventions from Bosnia to Afghanistan

Later this week – on Friday at 3 pm in Haus der Musik in Vienna – ESI and Erste Stiftung will organise a public debate on lessons from internationnal interventions.

One of the panelists, Minna Jarvenpaa,  is an ESI founding member who was already present at our creation in 1999 in Sarajevo.  She is also both a previous and future ESI senior analyst – but managed to squeeze in between time advising Martti Ahtisaari, Carl Bildt (in Bosnia), Michael Steiner (in Bosnia and Kosovo), the British ream preparing their Afghanistan operations and most recently UNAMA in Kabul.  Few people know more about state building efforts in the past two decades than Minna does, having worked on the issue in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.

This summer I was happy that Minna joined me –  busy drafting the outlines of a book on the subject of intervention that I am writing together with my friend Rory Stewart –  for a few days of brainstorming on the shores of the Bosporus.  In the end we hardly left the cafes along the sahilyolu, the coastal road, in Rumeli Hisari as we tried to make sense of our various experiences.  There and then we also refined ideas for a future ESI project on the subject with Minna back on board – how to learn some of the right lessons from the big interventions of the past 20 years relevant for the future EU foreign policy.

To participate in this exchange – in particular if you are unable to join us in Vienna later this week – please find below some thoughts which Minna prepared in anticipation of our panel.


Special contribution for Vienna Seminar, November 2010

The story from Bosnia to Afghanistan, over the last fifteen years, is of increasingly complex international interventions. The initial aims were simply to halt ethnic cleansing, remove abusive regimes and stop wars. But since the mid-90s the international community has struggled to build up state institutions and spread democracy and development in places like Afghanistan, Bosnia, Congo, East Timor, Iraq, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Sudan. Now, with the Afghanistan strategy in a quagmire, questions are being raised about the limits of international power. Calls to avoid foreign entanglements are growing louder, and the pendulum has started swinging back to a more isolationist position.

Despite good intentions – seeking to safeguard human rights and promote state structures that will serve the populations in war-torn countries – the international community has often made things worse. But not intervening can in some cases also be disastrous, as the dismal failure to stop genocide in Rwanda and Srebrenica in the mid-1990s demonstrated. Future foreign policies will need to strike a delicate balance, weighing the morality of preserving human rights against the unintended consequences of intervention. How are we to navigate a course between disastrous inaction and misconceived and sometimes equally disastrous action? What are the moral and ethical guideposts to follow? What can the experiences of intervention and state-building over the past fifteen years, from Bosnia to Afghanistan, tell us about how to act in the future?

The era of intervention

When the bipolar world of the Cold War collapsed, the majority of nations found themselves in agreement on a set of universal human rights. Yet the end of the Cold War also meant the end of simple answers, a lack of order and predictability in international relations. Who was responsible for protecting the human rights we all now claimed to value? How were these rights to be enforced? There was a need for a new narrative. This is when the narrative of humanitarian intervention was born, as well as the idea that the international community could keep countries from descending back into violence and launch them onto a path of stability through some form of trusteeship – or through what has come to be called state-building.

Some interventions in the 1990s succeeded beyond original expectations. After much hesitation in Washington and European capitals, the internationally brokered peace deal in Bosnia ended a brutal war, and the presence of international military forces restored a multi-ethnic democracy, without a single soldier being killed. In Kosovo, ethnic cleansing was reversed through a war that was fought solely from the air. In Afghanistan the original aim of toppling the Taliban regime was achieved within two months with small numbers of US special forces working together with the Northern Alliance, a loose union of Afghan commanders. In Sierra Leone, a limited British intervention led to the resumption of the peace process. These successes, coming after the paralysis in decision making in the face of genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica, led to the articulation of a doctrine of humanitarian intervention: the ‘responsibility to protect’. It was morally imperative and practically possible to intervene.

Fixing failed states

However, because of the ease with which these interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone fulfilled the original aim of ending war, it appeared to Western policy makers and thinkers that it was possible to do much more. There was a growing conviction that intervention should be followed by an all-inclusive state-building effort to transform the social, political and economic circumstances that had led to violent conflict. After 9/11 this view was reinforced. The fact that the Taliban government in Afghanistan had hosted Osama bin Laden was taken to suggest that failed and fragile states posed a direct threat to national and global security. To protect its own vital national security interests, the West needed to contend with state weakness far away from home

While ‘nation-building’ was initially mocked by the neo-conservatives in the US administration, an all-encompassing counter-insurgency doctrine that incorporated these ambitions was developed already under President Bush for Iraq and Afghanistan. The current strategy for Afghanistan, led by President Obama, requires tackling everything from building efficient institutions to upholding women’s rights to fighting the narcotics economy and supporting agriculture.

The rush to fix failed states has led to problematic ways of thinking about social change. It is assumed that countries are a tabula rasa where institutions can be built as a technical exercise on the basis of organisational charts and laws copied from other countries. Superficial lessons have been transferred across from one country to another. When Bosnians voted in nationalist parties in their first post-war elections, a general lesson was taken that the holding of elections should be delayed for some years after conflict. When the Kosovo Police School has hailed as a success the same curriculum was applied to Afghanistan. With General Petraeus at the helm, the military surge in Iraq is being replicated in Afghanistan, as is the search for tribal deals to turn the tide against the insurgency.

Even more worrying are the unintended consequences of deploying militaries and spending aid dollars that are also becoming increasingly apparent. In Iraq a brutal dictator has been removed at the cost of thousands upon thousands of civilian lives. Damaging war economies have developed around military deployments and aid flows, whereby Afghan, Congolese, Sudanese and other elites operate in a political marketplace where conflict is a lucrative business. To supply the NATO military bases in Afghanistan, trucking companies and private security contractors compete for patronage to gain access to multi-billion dollar contracts. Competition for access to foreign assistance projects and mineral resources fuels further conflict, as in the case of blood diamonds in Congo or inter-tribal skirmishes spurred by unequal shares in aid.

Lessons for future interventions?

As the international community stumbles along responding to crises, we have made some situations better and some much worse. Careful, prudent and limited missions to stop or contain conflict have worked, especially when carried out on the basis of political settlements or peace agreements. In other cases, with the best intentions, we have ended up supplying the resources that fuel the conflict, and have been manipulated by local power-holders who have pursued their own goals. Rather than focusing on the technical aspects of state-building, we would do well to increase our understanding of local politics. Democratisation is about power relations and about how the abuse of power can be prevented. Institutional reform can only take place if there is political will.

Instead of reaching for generic lessons, like those in “The Beginner’s Guide to Nation-Building”, published by the Rand Corporation in 2007, more time needs to be spent learning about the local context and thinking through the consequences of specific actions in that context. There is an argument that needs to be made for upholding democracy and human rights and containing conflicts, but with a realistic assessment of the opportunities and limits of international power.