Interview with Richard Caplan on Exit Strategies and State Building

In this interview, Richard Caplan, Professor of International Relations at Oxford University and the editor of the 2012 book Exit Strategies and State Building, said that decisions around exit strategies in statebuilding are “generally and fundamentally political in nature.” He cites a few mission exits that have useful lessons, such as from Sierre Leone, East Timor and Kosovo. “I think it’s useful to think of exit as a process, because exit shouldn’t mark the end of all international involvement in postconflict recovery,” he said.

On the question of the role of regional dynamics, Mr. Caplan said that in examining colonial administrations up through recent interventions, one finds that regional actors have always had an interest in other states in the region. "The regional dimension is a very important one in building peace,” he said. “What’s important is to bring regional actors into the equation to support peace, as I think was done successfully in the past in respect to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and also with Cambodia.”

Mr. Caplan said the European Union has been doing this very usefully in the western Balkans, “notably in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Macedonia, where it’s taken on much of the responsibility that the UN and NATO, another regional organization, had exercised.”

“But the EU is a special case,” he said. “The question is, how many other regional organizations are willing or able to undertake such extensive commitments.”

The interview was conducted by Maureen Quinn, Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview
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Maureen Quinn: Very pleased today to have the opportunity to interview Richard Caplan for the Global Observatory. He’s the editor of the recently published book, Exit Strategies and State Building. So Richard, thank you very much. Welcome to the Global Observatory.

I have two different questions that relate to regional dynamics as discussed in Exit Strategies and State Building. The first question relates to the influence of regional dynamics on exit strategies from colonial administrations. My impression from the book is that when exits occurred at the end of colonial administrations, regional dynamics, regional actors were nefarious. Are there lessons you would or could extrapolate from the end of the colonial era on the role of regional dynamics in statebuilding today? What lessons can you draw from those experiences for policy-makers and UN missions today?

Richard Caplan: I should first say that we included discussion of colonial administrations because allusions are often made to the colonial era and analogies to today’s international agents as neo-colonial interveners, and so we thought this is often invoked but never examined, so we included that in the book.

I think it’s fair to say that then, as now, regional actors had and have an interest in other states in the region, whether these were states emerging from colonial administration or more recently emerging from conflict and international peace and statebuilding efforts.

And this is only natural. That interest can take various forms, sometimes more, sometimes less helpful to the states in question, but the regional dimension–I think this is a lesson for the present–the regional dimension is a very important one in building peace. What’s important is to bring regional actors into the equation to support peace, as I think was done successfully in the past in respect to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and also with Cambodia.

MQ: The second question on regional dynamics is from the case of Haiti. The author Johanna Mendelson Forman suggests a hybrid regional model as a new approach to statebuilding. What do you think of her suggestion to use regional administrative hybrids to provide security that allows for development to advance, but also potentially represents a willingness to be in it for the long haul, something that the United Nations cannot afford and was not designed to do?

RC: Again, there’s a very general lesson here, which is that regional and subregional organizations can play a very useful role in postconflict statebuilding. To give an example, the European Union has been doing this very usefully in the western Balkans, notably in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Macedonia, where it’s taken on much of the responsibility that the UN and NATO, another regional organization, had exercised.

But the EU is a special case. The question is how many other regional organizations are willing or able to undertake such extensive commitments. So it is an open question really whether any regional organization would be willing to be there for the long haul. What makes the EU experience unique is that it’s involving itself in countries that it sees as potential members of the European Union, so it assumes a special responsibility towards those countries.

MQ: In William Durch’s chapter on exit and peace support operations, he talks about three different texts–works by others that define goals or priorities in postconflict governance. He mentioned Jim Dobbins’ book, The Beginner’s Guide to Nation-Building, Michael Doyle and Nicholas Sambanis’s seven-step program, and Graham Day’s peacekeeping model. Now, for practitioners in the field who sometimes just happen to be in place when conflict unfolds or a major political change throws out the old state structures, these types of guides can provide a reassuring framework – markers, to guide you through fast changing events. What are your thoughts on these guides?

RC: I actually don’t know how reassuring a framework these guides actually are, because what they do is to identify the tasks and sometimes the recommended sequencing of the tasks that postconflict governance entails. But these tasks are numerous and often difficult to execute well. It’s one thing to identify–as for instance Dobbins does–governance, economic stabilization, and democratization as priorities of postconflict statebuilding. It’s quite another thing to work out which specific measures are to be taken and how in a particular context. You look for instance at Afghanistan, you can see just how challenging the pursuit of these priorities have been there.

MQ: William Durch also talks about exit as a process rather than an event. And then in your conclusion, you, too, conclude that a key message of the book is that exit is a process, not an event. What key lessons, for example, would you recommend policymakers and military planners to take into account in the context of the exit of western forces from Afghanistan?

RC: I think there are a number of lessons here–two at least come to mind–in relation to exit as a process. One is that exits are to a large extent path dependent, so exits cannot for instance compensate for easily or at all the weaknesses or deficiencies of the statebuilding strategy–the strategy in the way it’s been executed. They inherit what has come before and they’re very much conditioned by what has come before.

So for instance, in the case of Afghanistan, there was a decision to work with regional strongmen in the provinces to assist ISAF, to assist the United States military, to pursue a counterinsurgency campaign there, and arguably, that has militated against some of the governance goals building effective and legitimate government institutions and centers. So in that sense, decisions that were taken earlier have had implications for the exit, and in another sense, I think it’s useful to think of exit as a process because exit shouldn’t mark the end of all international involvement in postconflict recovery. It’s important to take steps beyond drawdown and exit-formal drawdown and exit to either consolidate the gains, if there have been gains in statebuilding, or to take measures to mitigate adverse effects if the objectives of the mandate haven’t been met.

And I think that’s something that we are learning. We see evidence of that in peacekeeping and peacebuilding operations. A number of UN-led peacebuilding operations, for instance, have had successor missions that have been less ambitious in many respects but whose purpose and whose effect often have been to consolidate the peace in the aftermath of the withdrawal. I’m thinking for instance of the successor mission to UNAMSIL in Sierra Leone and the successor missions to UNTAET in East Timor, even if there was a re-eruption of violence in Timor in 2006. I think the continued attention on Timor helped to facilitate redeployment of forces to the country when violence did re-erupt and to maintain international attention on the country to the benefit of the Timorese.

MQ: Finally, a Ben Crampton study of the international administration in Kosovo, UNMIK, suggests that UNMIK had very limited influence on the timing of its exit because of the wider great power politics at play at determining Kosovo’s future status.

Given that exits in statebuildings are always political processes, is planning for an exit realistic? Do you know examples where a deliberate exit strategy succeeded?

RC: I think Kosovo’s an unusual case because the operation’s ultimate objective–independence or autonomy within Serbia–couldn’t be known, because it required agreement among the permanent five members of the Security Council, which was never forthcoming. And that hampered the UN throughout in its efforts to devise an exit strategy, because it just didn’t know what outcome ultimately it was working towards. Now, it’s true that exits in statebuilding are generally and fundamentally political in nature, which is to say that very often decisions that are taken with respect to the timing and nature of drawdown and exits are taken because of political decisions, either pressure within the country for more accelerated transfer of authority, or pressure for instance from troop contributing countries to redeploy their assets.

But, that doesn’t mean that planning of any kind is unrealistic, and that’s one of the basic premises of this book, which is to argue that while contingency is certainly a factor in all aspects of statebuilding, including exits, there is scope for more informed planning, and we see evidence of that in many of the cases that we examine. There’s also evidence of insufficient planning in these cases, as well.

But you asked about successful exits. Well, I think again Sierra Leone is such a case where the drawdown of troops was governed in part by very serious consideration of benchmarks that the Security Council adopted, and as a consequence of that experience, has required benchmarking for a number of other peace operations. And I think also the earlier closure of the UN Mission in Bosnia Hezegovina, UNMIBH, is an example in some respects of successful exit, with adoption of its mandate implementation plan, because this comprised of specific goals, projects, benchmarks, and timetables. So we do have examples of successful exits from which we can draw, I think, some very useful lessons.

MQ: Thank you, Richard, for being here with us today for the interview on the Global Observatory.  



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