Going rate for democracy

This week’s NATO summit stood up to the challenge (or, depending on your school of thought, bowed down to the US pressure) and promised additional 7,000 troops to Afghanistan next year. Together with additional 30,000 US soldiers this will take the foreign contingent in Afghanistan almost to the 100,000 mark in 2010. That’s a lot of soldiers, a veritable flexing of military muscle meant to signal that the US and NATO mean serious business and are not to walk away and leave Karzai’s fledging government to their own devices. At the same time, when grudgingly signing off the troop commitments, all the states involved used the opportunity to do some finger-wagging towards the very same Karzai’s administration and stress that they must mend their ways and root out the corruption that’s plaguing the nascent democracy.

While everybody involved surely has nothing but best intentions in their minds, things are not quite as simple as they may seem. Alex de Waal has published a very interesting article in the Prospect Magazine on how trying to force what we believe is the integral component of good democratic governance on so-called fragile states is in fact likely to cause a lot more harm than good. He explains his views in a more thorough way in this article in International Affairs journal – a very worthwhile reading if you’re at all interested in peacekeeping and state-building in Africa.

In order to understand how the political process works in places such as Afghanistan or Congo, de Waal urges us to give up the notion of politics as a debating chamber of values (as it is in established democracies where different parties managing political conflicts have a substantial common vested interest in the state as going concern). “Fragile states”, says de Waal, “are typically defined by what they are not–they are not Weberian states in which autonomous state institutions administer the rule of law and regulate political conflicts, and not states in which governments deliver services on an efficient and impartial basis”. When we look at fragile or ‘failed states’, as they are also known (such as Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan or Congo), we should not assume that statehood is not ‘working’ in these places and should be somehow established through free elections and subsequent participatory government, supported by international peacekeepers until the new government gains legitimacy – after which the foreign troops can withdraw. This, says de Waal, is a formula for peacekeeping missions without end. Instead, he says, we should pay attention to how these states actually function – because they in fact do function, albeit differently from what we may be used to.

And the way they do function is, according to de Waal, as patrimonial marketplaces where loyalties are traded with violence as an implicit or explicit tool for bargaining. Any agreements hold only because, and until, the price is right. As such, any intervening international forces will only become a party to the same process, often unwillingly or even unknowingly, affecting the going rate of trade and tilting the balance of negotiating power toward one party (typically the central government). It should be understood, however, that this is not a fundamental change of how the politics is done – it is only a temporary balance that stands to get renegotiated as soon as the external force withdraws, and is therefore sustainable only through continued presence.

What this all means though, if de Waal is right, is that the current heavy-footprint Afghanistan mission has snowflake’s chance in hell to succeed, at least within the 1-2 year attention span of the international community, and the thing that actually could work (i.e. local elite buy-in to the political process) is ruled out as a corruption. It really is a catch-22 for Western leaders – even if they believed that what de Waal is advocating is the right approach, they could not opt for it in reality as this would effectively mean bribing one’s way to democracy – which is somehow a lot less conceivable route than dying and killing other people for it.

As a footnote it occurred to me that this sort of ‘marketplace of loyalties’ approach to politics is in no way limited to Africa or Central Asia alone. I am not familiar enough with European politics in general (although to think of it, the way how Eastern European states were cajoled into the “Coalition of the Willing” really does smack of patrimonial politics) to make this sort of observations on the EU level, but in Estonia this model is very much present – if not on the national then on the municipal level, where local elites auction off their allegiances to the highest bidder and where coalitions are formed that make absolutely no sense whatsoever on the basis of party programs, but make all the sense in the world when looked at from the market point of view. Apparently there is still, after almost 20 years of independence, a phase of primary accumulation going on.

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