Magazine article The Spectator

How to Build the Peace: The King of the Nation Builders Reveals All

Magazine article The Spectator

How to Build the Peace: The King of the Nation Builders Reveals All

Article excerpt

You send an ex-Lib Dem leader to the Balkans for three and a half years, and he comes back the King of Nation Builders.

Not that 'nation-building' is a term much liked by Paddy Ashdown, former High Representative of the International Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

'That's something you do to start a nation.

This is reconstruction: how do you reconstruct? And let's not talk about a "nation", either. Foreigners are not given to creating nations. There are exceptions like Simón Bolîvar, but by and large interveners can only create the state. It's only the people who can create the nation. So let's call it reconstruction after conflict. And the story -- post the second world war -- of reconstruction of states after conflict is the story of hubris, nemesis and amnesia. We have consistently failed to learn the lessons which we ought to have learnt about how to do it properly.' We are sitting in a small room just off the peers' entrance of the Upper House. The 65year-old Lord Ashdown of Norton-subHamdon is reclining on a sofa, suffering badly from a cough, but -- his craggy features make clear -- deeply engaged with the subject which, slightly to his surprise, has become the centre of his political life.

When he visited the Bosnian concentration camps of Omarska and Trnopolje in 1992, Ashdown could scarcely have guessed what lay ahead. A decade later, in May 2002, he was appointed High Representative by the Peace Implementation Council set up after the Dayton Accords. His unenviable mission was to bring together the Serbs, Bosnian Muslims and Croats in an institutional structure fit for entry to the European Union.

Military, police, intelligence, judiciary, customs office, war crimes chamber, public services: all had to be built from the ground up.

In peace, as in war, winning hearts and minds is of the essence, he says. 'The big thing that helped us in Bosnia was that everybody wanted to go into Europe, ' he says. 'So I was able to use that end-point to lead the people forward and I'd always have public opinion behind me if what they had to do was uncomfortable but led to that destination.' Ashdown cites a confidential MoD poll of opinion in Basra that he has seen. 'When the British troops went in there, there was something like 65, 70 per cent support for them.

There's now 95 per cent against the British troops staying there, believing that they've done nothing. Because they haven't given people the fundamental thing they need to give them, which is security. Reconnect their water supply. Now you cannot win if you have lost public support on the ground; there's no way you can build a nation by force.'

Ashdown defines success in reconstruction as 'the fact that within the following five years the state does not go back to conflict and that the end product raises the level of structures of a state to those which are consistent with that which exists in the region'. The criterion of regional comparison is critical, he argues.

Until Bosnia boasts a fledgling state on a par with, say, Macedonia or Croatia, he will not judge his work to have been a success.

Even so, there is no doubting the scale of his achievement in the Balkans. 'The transformation in him is remarkable, ' one very senior Tory told me recently. 'He has come home a real statesman.' What is more, Ashdown's new special subject -- how to build the peace -- has shifted to the very centre of geopolitical debate. The bloody mess that is post-liberation Iraq hovers over our conversation like a malevolent reproach.

Francis Fukuyama has written of the 'failure of institutional memory' in nation-building, and Ashdown shares this view. 'What's happened is that consistently we go in, we intervene in the country, we learn some lessons in a rather painful way and we fail to apply those lessons in the next stage, ' he says.

'I greatly fear that as a result of Iraq, and possibly as a result of Afghanistan, the international community will decide it's never going to intervene again. …

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