Just and Unjust Postwar Reconstruction: How Much External Interference Can Be Justified?

By Recchia, Stefano | Ethics & International Affairs, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Just and Unjust Postwar Reconstruction: How Much External Interference Can Be Justified?


Recchia, Stefano, Ethics & International Affairs


The age of empire ought to have been succeeded by an age of independent, equal, and self-governing nation-states. In reality, it has been succeeded by an age of ethnic cleansing and state failure. This is the context in which the Empire has made its return.

Michael Ignatieff, Empire Lite

In recent years the world's wealthy and powerful nations have become increasingly involved in the reconstruction of failed states following violent conflict. This has led to the establishment of international peace operations in such diverse places as Cambodia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Liberia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, to mention just some of the better known examples. The many complex policy challenges resulting from these international involvements have been fruitfully discussed in the scholarly literature? However, there have been surprisingly few systematic analyses of the wide-ranging ethical dilemmas raised by such intrusive international reconstruction efforts. It is only following the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003) that a debate on jus post bellum--justice after war--has slowly begun to emerge; yet to date, the focus of this normative scholarship has been mainly on the aftermath of traditional interstate wars, with little attention paid to societies torn apart by civil conflict. (2)

Most jus post bellum theorists adopt an explicitly cosmopolitan standpoint, and several of them suggest that the overarching goal of human rights vindication justifies considerable, protracted interference in the domestic affairs of vanquished states. (3) Meanwhile, influential writers and pundits provocatively claim that the world's powerful nations should establish quasi-permanent trusteeship arrangements over deeply divided, war-torn societies for the sake of enforcing political stability, fighting terrorism, and protecting human rights. Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, for instance, proposes that "for some countries some form of imperial governance ... might be better than full independence, not just for a few months or years but for decades." (4) Against such views, I suggest that protracted international trusteeship over fragile war-torn societies is not only dubious from a strategic point of view, given that it might result in a dangerous culture of dependency among the local population, but is highly problematic from a liberal ethical standpoint as well.

This article seeks to reconcile a fundamental normative tension that underlies most contemporary international reconstruction efforts in war-torn societies: on the one hand, substantial interference in the domestic affairs of war-torn societies may seem desirable to secure political stability, set up inclusive governance structures, and protect basic human rights; on the other hand, such interference is inherently paternalistic--and thus problematic--since it deliberately restricts the policy options and broader freedom of maneuver of domestic political actors.

In the first part of the article I briefly discuss classical liberal attitudes toward international paternalism and colonial rule. I show that nineteenth-century liberals, in particular, made some useful conceptual claims on the admissibility of international paternalism in the face of structural impediments to self-rule. Yet we ultimately ought to reject the substance of these classical liberal arguments on the grounds of their flawed anthropological assumptions concerning the "barbaric" nature of non-European peoples. Paternalistic interference in foreign countries is acceptable today only to overcome political (as opposed to racial or cultural) impediments to collective self-rule and basic rights protection; that is, to neutralize dangerous centrifugal forces at the domestic level and (re-)establish strong and inclusive local institutions. Moreover, I argue that for paternalistic interference to be justified, it needs to be strictly proportional to those domestic impediments.

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Just and Unjust Postwar Reconstruction: How Much External Interference Can Be Justified?
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