Liberal Peace and Peace-Building: Another Critique

by Zenonas Tziarras

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Democratic Liberalism is based on the notion that liberal democracies are more peaceful and law-abiding in relation to other political systems. The liberal peace theory – or Liberal Democratic theory or Democratic peace – and therefore liberal peace-building, have become more prominent after the end of the Cold War because of the predominance of the western ideology. How valid are they though? The questions that this theory raises are not only related to how one defines democracy or peace but also to whether the model of liberal democracy is suitable for every society or every post-conflict state. Moreover, given the role liberal democracy plays in state/peace-building in fragile countries, it raises questions regarding the moral dilemmas of imposing liberal democracy as a form of neo-imperialism rather than development. In other words, even though the build-up of a democracy could – at least to some extent – benefit the recipient country, is it really something that is right to do considering that in the long term this model of development may institutionalize western interests or local problems?

This essay seeks, not necessarily to reject the concept of liberal peace(-building), but to challenge it. It sees liberal peace from a rather realist perspective and assumes that even though liberal peace-building could bring a certain stability and peace, as well as contribute to the idea of liberal peace for a world with less conflicts, it cannot successfully address the underlying causes and dynamics that create conflicts; it neglects the fact that the political system should reflect cultural elements; and it is not undertaken because of the altruistic and kind-hearted nature of the peace-builders, but it is rather used as an act of help toward the country in need, which at the same time serves the political and/or economic interests of the peace-builders thus making it a seemingly win-win situation.

The liberal peace theory will be addressed as a theoretical and philosophical concept and the basis of liberal peace-building. The first section briefly explains the fundamental aspects of the liberal peace theory and associates it with liberal peace-building. The second section looks at the critiques that have been made to liberal peace and peace-building overtime, leading to the third and fourth sections which elaborate some of those critiques about the liberal peace theory and the operational level of liberal peace-building respectively. The last and conclusive part reviews the findings and argues that emphasis should be given not on the “liberal”, but on the “peace-building” part of the theory and practice. If the “liberal” part of the peace-building operations were more flexible, that is, if it took into account domestic cultural, ideological, social and political dynamics in given cases, not only would it be more effective but it would also abolish its neo-colonial/imperial character – even if this does not seem likely to happen. If the true aim of peace-building operations is to build peace and not to serve the political interests of the interveners, then the best way to do so is to address the underlying causes of the problem and seek the best combination of bottom-up and top-down change while taking into account the local ideas and particularities.

The Liberal Peace and Peace-Building Thesis

The concept of liberal peace was firstly introduced by Kant[i] in the late 18th century and was mainly referring to democratic states – not necessarily democracies. More recently, the end of the Cold War which was in many ways a triumph for the liberal vision of democratic cooperation revived and strengthened this idea. As a result of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the EU, the Council of Europe and NATO had embodied this concept in their efforts to expand toward the East.[ii] Liberal peace as a political concept was also adopted in October of 1993 by the Declaration of Vienna – as the basis for democratic development and reservation of democratic human rights[iii] – and was based on Kant’s theory that democracies are unlikely to engage in a war between them and that democratic development reinforces peace and stability. Nonetheless, in order for liberal peace to be materialized, democracies have to be stable, while stability cannot be understood only in military or economic terms. The core of the liberal peace theory constitutes a definition of long-term peace and security which is based on the values of democracy and justice. This was (at least officially) the same reasoning behind the largest part of the help which was given for the promotion of democracy in Eastern and Central Europe during the 90s, and later in the countries of the Black Sea area.[iv]

The liberal peace thesis has a central position in liberalism theory and is driven by the notions of interdependence and democracy. Liberalism suggests that economic interdependence creates favorable conditions for international cooperation among governments and peoples; since their destiny is common, as it is defined from several mutual economic and political problems, states – as rational entities – realize that international cooperation is necessary for the management of their common fate.[v] According to the theory, the implementation of democracy functions as the basis for global peace; democratic states have limited freedom of movements since they have to act transparently and give explanations to the ones who voted for them. Therefore, it is less likely for them to practice secret policies, to pursue geopolitical deception of other states, or engage in war.[vi] Finally, through the creation of international law and international organizations for the regulation of the international interdependence, their good relationships are secured. After all, according to liberalism, in a world with gradually developing linkages, political power and the province of international organizations tend to be enlarging, while the prosperity and security of every local society is gradually more linked to the prosperity and security of the global society.

For liberalists, when the above conditions exist, there is peace. Therefore, they suggest that a process which includes ‘democratization, economic liberalization and pacification’ is ideal for building the peace,[vii] especially in post-conflict states or societies. Liberal peace-building associates the state security and peace with democratic development and institutions, the rule of law, human rights and market economy which are usually undertaken or established by international organizations or actors, mainly the United Nations and/or others.[viii] The idea is that if these post-conflict states manage to successfully develop and maintain a functional – at least to a certain extent – democracy, they will then become part of the greater family of interdependent democracies around the world thus having more chances for peace, security and economic growth, and less chances for instability and underdevelopment; therefore, the theory goes, this model works not only as a peace builder but also as a conflict preventer.[ix]


One of the main critiques to liberal peace theory is that its advocates do not present a convincing causal interpretation of this phenomenon; in other words they do not explain adequately why democracies are aggressive toward non-democracies and also why many democracies are not aggressive.[x] One could easily notice that threatening and nationalistic tendencies are no stranger to democracies. Maybe the key for finding the middle ground lies in a combination of democracy and satisfaction with the existing territorial borders, that is, the lack of tendency for territorial revisionism.[xi]

In terms of international human rights, the criticism concerns the principle of these rights as international and internationally consolidated. There is the notion that, human rights is essentially a western perception which is imposed to other cultures;[xii] this of course, suggests clearly that the developmental model of liberal peace-building does not always – if ever – agree with the cultural perceptions of human rights in countries whereat is taking place. In this regard, international human rights protection – and especially the foreign policy of western states – cannot but be unilateral or inspired by political expediencies.

When it comes to the comparison of democracies and autocracies, democracies could still engage in conflict; they usually initiate their wars with autocracies; and they tend to fight imperial wars,[xiii] while ‘liberal regimes [use covert actions] against other liberal regimes’.[xiv]

In addition to the above, critiques of liberal peace-building include:[xv]

  • Inadequate attention to domestic institutional conditions for successful democratization and marketization.
  • Insufficient appreciation of the tensions and contradictions between the various goals of peace-building.
  • Poor strategic coordination among the various international actors involved in these missions.
  • Lack of political will and attention on the part of peace-building sponsors to complete the tasks they undertake, and insufficient commitment of resources.
  • Unresolved tensions in relations between the military and non-military participants in these operations.
  • Limited knowledge of distinctive local conditions and variations across the societies hosting these missions.
  • Insufficient ‘local ownership’ over the strategic direction and daily activities of such operations.
  • Continued conceptual challenges in defining the conditions for ‘success’ and strategies for bringing operations to an effective close.

There are also, of course, more extreme critiques of peacekeeping and peace-building interventions which suggest that these operations instead of promoting peace, they prevent it.[xvi]

Critiquing: The Theoretical Level

Drawing upon the basic notion of liberal peace theory that democracies do not fight each other nor they experience civil wars,[xvii] it should be noted that depending on the definition of democracy this claim can be questioned. Based on the “Freedom House” NGO’s statistics,[xviii] every country is rated as “free”, “partly free” or “not free”, according to its democracy level. The evaluation is based on parameters such as political rights and social freedoms; but who can really establish a measure of how to identify or define a democracy? On the interactive map of the website “Democracy Web” (2010),[xix] countries like Mexico, India and Brazil are rated amongst the countries with the highest level of democracy (“free”) – like in Freedom House’s 2005 report – while it is well known that these countries face important problems such as social inequalities, insurgencies and/or organized crime. Moreover, the relations, for example, between countries like Turkey, Greece and Cyprus have also a problematic place in liberal peace theory. Cyprus, although a republic since 1960, it encountered an ethnic conflict during the 60s and an interstate conflict in 1974 with Turkey – which was first established as a republic in 1923. In addition, Greece and Turkey (a state-candidate for an EU membership) have found themselves on the brink of a war several times during the second half of the 20th century, while the two countries still have unresolved territorial issues. Cyprus and Greece are acknowledged as “free” democracies from the Freedom House website unlike Turkey which is characterized as “partly free”; nonetheless, it is a parliamentary republic, an Islamic democracy. There is no doubt that Turkey faces domestic and external problems regarding various issues but so does, let us say, “free” India; furthermore, Turkey has been undertaking important – EU backed – democratic reforms since 2002. Consequently, it is clear that the lack of consensus regarding the question of what model qualifies as a democracy remains and constitutes an important challenge to liberal peace theory.

In 1976, Small and Singer[xx] published their study on the relationship between democracy and war during the earlier historical period of 1816-1965, where through their findings they underpinned the argument that even though “bourgeois democracies” seem to not fight each other, they are both ‘participants and initiators in major international wars’; this in turn, along with the then recent developments of the 60s, led them to disagree with the liberal optimism which surrounds the relationship between war and democracies. Examples of wars ‘between or within democracies’,[xxi] are also used from Mearsheimer,[xxii] to challenge the liberal idea of universal peace, albeit with more emphasis on liberal institutionalism.

In the same context, Kacowicz[xxiii] explains the fact that democracies do not fight each other, based on ‘distinctive historical and geographical zones of peace’, while arguing that non-democracies are just as capable of establishing peace both amongst themselves and also with democracies.  It is worth noting that even though Kacowicz’s article is an attempt to explain the non-conflicting nature of the relationships between democracies, it is in fact a challenge to the universality of the liberal vision as well.  Apart from the different aspects of liberal theory that have been questioned, certain theories challenge its very foundations as well. For example, according to Marxist theory not only does the spread of the liberal/capitalist model not help resolving conflicts, but it rather exacerbates the vacuum between social classes and in the long-term triggers a different kind of conflict: the clash between the dominant economic classes and the low working classes.[xxiv]

From a more cultural or ideological perspective, the values that liberal peace-building operations impose, even though the latter claim a meritocratic system which comprises a ‘global culture’,[xxv] they are not universal but consistent with the ideological and cultural values of the internationally most powerful actors, usually the western ones.[xxvi] Moreover, the western model of peace-building – which is largely based on liberal peace theory – has turned into a panacea for international peace-making interventions and has thus become rather doctrinal instead of an easily adapting model; therefore, at both the operational and theoretical levels, liberal peace-building neglects ‘traditional and indigenous’ approaches that could improve or co-exist with the western model thus making it better and more effective by addressing the particular dynamics in given cases.[xxvii]

The controversial nature of liberal peace operations can also be found in objections from non-western countries – such as China -, regarding western military or peace interventions that have not been approved by the recipient countries; this also suggests that the international community should help the concerned actors to address their own issues without using these situations to promote certain ideologies or development models.[xxviii] These objections are not without justification since the selectivity of peace-building operations suggests the existence of goals beyond mere peace-building. Apart from the cases where the countries invite international help and ask for democratic reforms (e.g. Cambodia, Namibia, Sierra Leone), international organizations and the UN in particular have supported democratically elected governments (e.g. Haiti and recently Ivory Coast) but they have not done so in other cases such as Pakistan and Mauritania.[xxix]

But the self-serving character of the liberal peace promotion cannot only be found in peace-building operations but also in diplomatic programs and policies of cooperation such as the “European Neighborhood Policy” (ENP). Again, the benefits for the cooperating countries with the EU cannot be disregarded; however, the benefits for the EU are much greater. It offers a relationship which is based on a mutual commitment for democracy, human rights, justice, good governance, market economy and development.[xxx] In that sense the ENP essentially offers a deeper political and economic integration; it offers economic benefits and cooperation to its partners as the “carrot”, with the condition to improve their democratic institutions and provide benefits such as energy security. It is important, that ENP has nothing to do with the enlargement of the EU nor does it offer the prospect of accession into the EU.

To add a different perspective, in Greek, the term “liberal peace” translates to “democratic security”; although this term can be found in English as well, it is not being used very frequently. Thus, from the perspective of democracy as a security promoting model, initiatives like the ENP seem to seek the engraftment of democratic values in their neighboring countries in order to ensure stability and security in their ‘near abroad’. That is not for the sake of development in these countries but for the sake of sustainment and increase of the initiator’s economic growth; in this case, the EU is also trying to create propitious circumstances that will allow it to exploit its cooperation with its partners in the field of energy security, thus giving it energy alternatives to its energy dependency on Russia. This is neither colonialism nor imperialism; it is, however, the use of “soft power” and the exploitation of other countries’ weaknesses to make them “want what we want”[xxxi] without taking into account their particular political and economic needs or particularities. Imperialistic elements can be found elsewhere.

Roland Paris,[xxxii] in his effort to ‘critique the critiques’ of liberal peace-building and its equalization with imperialism or colonialism in particular, he argues that even though ‘UN-sponsored missions still reflect the interests of the world’s most powerful countries … they have not principally been motivated by efforts to extract wealth from their host societies’; instead, he argues, the interveners are the ones who pay nowadays. But if the extraction of wealth is nonetheless a motive, is it really a matter of priority, or principle? And what would the primary motives be? The identification ‘and support [of] structures that will tend to strengthen and solidify peace in order to avoid a relapse into conflict’?[xxxiii]

The fact that the international community spends a lot of money on peace-building operations is unquestionable. However, the benefits for the peace-builders are not direct but appear in the long-term. In other words, contributing in the state/peace-building operations based on the principles of liberalism, suggests that the new-born/rebuilt states curry a certain legacy and influence from its “creators”; this in turn allows the international community – which is at large the western community – to serve their interests more easily. After all, the selective nature of peace-building operations and interventions that take place in countries rich in natural resources, with a geopolitical or geo-strategic importance (examples have been mentioned earlier), does not seem to be accidental.

Paris also disagrees with the claim that peace-building is a colonial act by arguing that it has gradually become impossible for colonialism to justify or to be tolerated while he asserts that the fact that ‘there are echoesof colonialism in peace-building is quite different from asserting their equivalence’.[xxxiv] But from a philosophical and even evolutionary perspective, the current nature of peace-building may be the result of colonialism’s inability to justify, the result for its need to adapt to this ‘shift in the normative environment of international affairs’.[xxxv] Furthermore, the fact that peace-building is not an actual act of colonization does not mean that it should slip unnoticed and without evaluation or regulation.

Critiquing: The Operational Level and the Case of Kosovo

Despite all the above and the diplomatic ways of promoting liberal democracy, the liberal peace debate is not limited to theoretical and philosophical criticism but includes a discussion regarding the operational level of peace-building. In the case of Kosovo, the transitional administration model undertaken by organizations such as the UN, EU, OSCE and NATO, has had its own failures and weaknesses. The dependency of the economy on external actors; the high rates of unemployment; the organized crime; the ineffectiveness of the reconciliation processes and of the rule of law, reveal the weaknesses of the peace-building operations.[xxxvi] In addition, the effectiveness of the Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) has been questioned; there is the concern that peace does not really exist in Kosovo and that the ethnic divisions have been institutionalized; democracy has not been embraced by the whole of the society and the electoral participation is low.[xxxvii]

Furthermore, apart from the violent incidents of 2004 that showed how unstable Kosovo’s peace is, the little consensus regarding the nature of the project in Kosovo (i.e. contrary to the Serbs, Kosovo Albanians saw it as a state-building project) and the fact that the ‘internationals’ supported the Kosovo Albanian ‘exclusive ethnic agenda, exacerbated the ‘basic causal factors of the conflict’ by undertaking ‘top-down institution-building’.[xxxviii] In other words, the top-down institution-building along with the emphasis that was given on the state-building instead of on the peace-building, resulted in the operations concentrating on the creation of institutions and disregarding the complexities of the situation. Thereby, the liberal peace-building operations seem to fall short in examining and understanding the underlying dynamics in given cases – like in Kosovo – while they rush to implement certain reforms that would reflect the democratic transition of the state, although in reality, these reforms are only superficial.


We have seen that even though the notion that democracies do not fight each other is to a great extent accepted, there are a lot of issues that could be raised and undermine the idea of spreading liberal democracy through peace-building interventions and operations. The moral dilemmas; the discouraging record of peace-building operations results; the lack of consensus regarding the conceptualization of democracy, peace, war and success; and even some of the empirical data prevent us from being optimistic about the promoted peace-building model. Nonetheless, it should not be fully disregarded but decisively and effectively revised, even though this may seem impossible.

In sum, it is obvious that perhaps the most important problem of the liberal model of peace-building is that through its effort to present democratic elements and through its weakness to comprehend and address the particular issues of each case, it institutionalizes and exacerbates the already existing problems. As Franks and Richmond[xxxix] state, if liberal democracy in its effort to succeed out of ‘political necessity’ fails to serve its purpose, that is to be ‘inclusive and to create a multi-ethnic society’ while embodying the complexities of its people, then it essentially fails to resolve the conflict.

As has been noted in the introduction and underpinned in this essay, the only way for liberal peace-building to be more effective, is to move away from the doctrinal model of liberal development and to take under consideration everything that indigenous and other approaches have to offer in order to adapt and be implemented in its best form for each case. Furthermore, a model that combines bottom-up and top-down change and development should be considered, in order to include the domestic cultural, ideological, social and political particularities of given cases and thus address the underlying causes of each problem. After all, even from a sociological perspective, according to Max Weber,[xl] in every civilization the everyday practices, perceptions and religious values, constitute a set of ideas and values that are embodied in the institutions and reflect the particular qualities and essence of every civilization. In other words every political system should be a projection of the people and its distinct cultural elements; therefore, neglecting these elements – as liberal peace-building often does – could lead to failure.

In order for the liberal peace-building to change and abolish – as said earlier – the neo-colonial/imperialistic elements, there has to be a fundamental change in the policy-making of the western powers and organizations. However, it is hard to foresee such a change since world politics are defined by the existence of a fine line between politics and law; what should be done and what can be done; political interest and political help. Sincere aid – not from volunteers or NGOs but from states – is very rare. Sadly, it is obvious that political or economic interests are always more important than what must be done.

[i] Kant, I., Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch, 1975, at

[ii] Simmons, A. B. and Martin, L. L., “International Organisations and Institutions” In Carlsnaes, W., Risse, T. & Simmons, A. B. (eds.), Handbook of International Relations, 2002,SAGE, London, 2002, pp.199-205.

[iii] Schoiswohl, M., “What’s Law got to do with it? The Role of Law in Post-Conflict Democratization and its (Flawed) Assumptions”‖In Shahrbanou, T., (ed.), Rethinking the Liberal Peace: External Models and Local Alternatives, Routledge, New York, 2011, pp.112-113.

[iv] Cox, M., “From the Cold War to the War on Terror” In Baylis, J. & Smith, S. (eds.), The Globalisation of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations, Oxford University Press, New York, 3rd Edition, 2005, pp.134-135.

[v] Levy, S. J., “War and Peace” In Carlsnaes, W., Risse, T. & Simmons, A. B., (eds.), Handbook of International Relations, SAGE, London, 2002, pp.356-357.

[vi] Howard, M., War and the Liberal Conscience, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1981.

[vii] Kurtenbach, S., “Why is Liberal Peace-Building so Difficult? Some Lessons from Central America”, GIGA Working Papers, No. 59, 2007, p.7, at

[viii] Franks, J. and Richmond, P. O., “Co-opting Liberal Peace-Building: Untying the Gordian Knot in Kosovo”, Cooperation and Conflict, Volume 43, No.1, 2008, pp.82-83.

[ix] Ramsbotham, O., Woodhouse, T. & Miall, H., Contemporary Conflict Resolution, Polity Press, Cambridge, UK, 2nd Edition, 2010, p.116-117; Schnabel, A. , “Post-Conflict Peace-Building and Second Generation Preventive Action”, International Peacekeeping, Volume 9, No.2, 2002, pp.7-8.

[x] Brown, E. M., Lynn-Jons M. S., Miller E. S., (eds.), Debating the Democratic Peace, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1996.

[xi] Kacowicz, M. A., “Explaining Zones of Peace: Democracies as Satisfied Powers?”, Journal of Peace Research, Volume 32, 1995, pp.267.

[xii] Donnelly, J., Universal Human Rights: In Theory and in Practice, Cornell University Press, New York, 2nd Edition, 2003, p.62-63.

[xiii] E.g. Bennet  D. S. And Stam III, C. A., “The Declining Advantages of Democracy: A Combined Model of War Outcomes and Duration”, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Volume 42, No.3, 1998, pp.344-366.

[xiv] Doyle, M., “Liberalism and World Politics”, The American Political Science Review, Volume 80, No.4, 1986, pp.1166.

[xv] As noted in Paris, R., “Saving Liberal Peace-building”, Review of International Studies, Volume 36, No.2, 2010,  pp.347.

[xvi] Luttwak, N. E., “Give War A Chance”, Foreign Affairs, Volume 78, No.4, 1999, pp.44; Paris, R., “Saving Liberal Peace-building”, Review of International Studies,Volume 36, No.2, 2010, pp.347.

[xvii] Bellamy, J. A. and Williams, D. P., Understanding Peacekeeping, Polity Press, Cambridge, UK, 2nd Edition, 2010, p.23.

[xviii] Karatnycky, A. And Ackerman P., “How Freedom Is Won: From Civic Resistance to Durable Democracy”, Freedom House, 2005, at

[xix] Democracy Web, 2010, at

[xx] Small, M. and Singer, J. D., “The War-Proneness of Democratic Regimes: 1816-1965”, The Jerusalem Journal of International Relations, Volume 1, No.4, 1976, pp.67-68.

[xxi] Bellamy & Williams, Understanding Peacekeeping, p.25.

[xxii] Mearsheimer, J. J., “The False Promise of International Institutions”, International Security Volume 19, No.3, 1994, pp.5-49.

[xxiii] Kacowicz, “Explaining Zones of Peace: Democracies as Satisfied Powers?”,   pp.274-275.

[xxiv] E.g. Kiser, E., “War”‖In Borgatta, F. E. & Montgomery, V. J. R. (eds.), Encyclopaedia of Sociology, Macmillan Reference USA, New York, Volume 5, 2nd Edition, 2000, pp.3243.

[xxv] Bellamy & Williams, Understanding Peacekeeping, p.25-26.

[xxvi] Barkawi, T. and Laffey, M., “The Imperial Peace: Democracy, force and Globalisation”, European Journal of International Relations, Volume 5, No.4, 1999, pp.403-434.

[xxvii] Ginty, M. R., “Indigenous Peace-Making Versus the Liberal Peace”, Cooperation and Conflict, Volume 43, No.2, 2008, pp.139-163.

[xxviii] Morphet, S., “China as a Permanent Member of the Security Council: October 1971—December 1999”, Security Dialogue, Volume 31, No.2, 2000, pp.164-165.

[xxix] Bellamy & Williams, Understanding Peacekeeping, p.25.

[xxx] EU, “The Policy: How does the European Neighbourhood Policy work”,, 2010, at

[xxxi] See Nye, S. J., Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, Public Affairs, New York, 2004.

[xxxii] Paris, R., “Saving Liberal Peace-building”, pp.348-349.

[xxxiii] Boutros-Ghali, Boutros, An Agenda for Peace, UN document A/47/277-S/24111, 1992.

[xxxiv] Paris, “Saving Liberal Peace-building”, pp.350.

[xxxv] Ibid., pp.349.

[xxxvi] Bellamy & Williams, Understanding Peacekeeping, p.271.

[xxxvii] Franks & Richmond, “Co-opting Liberal Peace-Building: Untying the Gordian Knot in Kosovo”, pp.84-85.

[xxxviii] Ibid., pp.89.

[xxxix] Ibid., pp.90.

[xl] Webber, M., Protestantism and the Spirit of Capitalism, Routledge, New York, 1930, 2005.


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