The Norms and Politics of Exit: Ending Postconflict Transitional Administrations

By Zaum, Dominik | Ethics & International Affairs, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

The Norms and Politics of Exit: Ending Postconflict Transitional Administrations


Zaum, Dominik, Ethics & International Affairs


Since the mid-1990s, Western states and international organizations have been deeply involved in the reconstruction of political and social institutions in postconflict societies. Whether through temporary international administration in Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor; transformative military occupation in Iraq; or in the context of peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, they have pushed for the transformation of political, economic, and administrative institutions to create the conditions for self-sustaining peace. As postconflict statebuilding operations normally compromise the sovereignty of the affected states, intervene in their domestic affairs, and, at times, even exercise comprehensive governmental authority, one of the most difficult issues that has arisen in the context of these operations is the problem of exit: When and how should international actors hand over political and administrative responsibility to local institutions? (1)

Postconflict statebuilding entails efforts by donors and international organizations to build and strengthen the capacity and legitimacy of state institutions, often (but not exclusively) with the aim of consolidating peace. International exit from such operations raises three distinct sets of questions. The first is operational: What is the best time and process for exiting to ensure that the gains made in security and development are not jeopardized by a return to conflict? Much of the literature on peacebuilding has examined these questions, focusing, for example, on the duration of international engagement to reduce the risk of conflict recurrence, or highlighting the problems of particular exit mechanisms, such as elections. (2) Thus, Benjamin Reilly and Roland Paris examine how elections might reignite conflicts (as in Angola) or entrench the rule of the war-time parties (as in Bosnia), and Richard Caplan shows how postconflict international administrations have increasingly abandoned elections as an exit mechanism in favor of "phased" exit strategies to further stabilize postconflict societies. (3)

The second set of questions is: What kind of normative considerations should guide the decision of statebuilders to exit? Ralph Wilde outlines two normative frameworks providing guidance with regard to exit: trusteeship (associated with contemporary liberal statebuilding efforts) and self-determination. (4) Under the trusteeship framework an international presence should come to an end when the local capacity to govern has reached a certain threshold, while the self-determination framework emphasizes the right to self-government irrespective of local capacities, arguing that any nonconsensual international involvement is illegitimate and that immediate exit is ethically mandatory. As Noah Feldman's work demonstrates, most efforts to develop an ethic of exit are likely to be located between these two poles, drawing on elements of the trusteeship framework (for example, establishing benchmarks for democratically legitimized government) as well as the self-determination framework (for example, emphasizing the importance of local consent for the presence of international statebuilders). (5)

The final set of questions asks how the normative framework that has shaped postconflict statebuilding efforts affects the actual practice of exit: What is the impact of the norms associated with statebuilding on the timing and process of exit? As a range of scholars have shown, statebuilding practices have been strongly shaped by liberal-democratic norms of democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and economic liberalism. However, the way in which these norms might also shape the exit from statebuilding operations has so far remained largely unexplored.

There are two reasons why such an inquiry can add to our understanding of exit practices. First, an account of exit relying on the material interests of states--arguing that the nature and timing of exit is determined by concerns about casualties and the cost of statebuilding on the one hand, and about the extent of the security benefits derived from such operations on the other--cannot account for the actual exit practices of a range of recent statebuilding operations. …

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