Peacebuilding: The missing piece of the puzzle?

Richard Jackson

1 August 2016


It is nothing new to suggest that EU peacebuilding has, by and large, had limited success. From the rash of home-grown terrorist attacks across Europe in recent months, to the ongoing instability in former or current war-zones where EU peacebuilding efforts are taking place, there are few indications that all the money and effort put into peacebuilding is leading to the establishment of genuinely peaceful societies.

The scholarly literature argues that this is because peacebuilding, while fine in theory, is often poorly implemented in practice. In particular, it usually involves the implementation of a standardised peacebuilding blueprint, without taking into account local particularities and needs. Other criticisms suggest that the peacebuilding model is rooted in neoliberal assumptions about the pacific nature of free markets, free trade, and political liberalisation, and ignores the role of inequality, exclusion, and economic stress in intensifying social tensions and violent conflict.

Closer to the mark, some scholars have suggested that peacebuilding is in reality code for the state-building project – the process of creating powerful horizontal institutions capable of maintaining societal order so that capital and markets can operate smoothly. This is why so much emphasis in peacebuilding is put on top-down institution-building, security sector reform, market liberalisation, law and order and the like.

However, what all these criticisms miss is the contradictory role of political violence, euphemistically called force or security, in contemporary peacebuilding. Within the dominant peacebuilding paradigm – and broader notions of culturally-accepted common sense – it is assumed that social order comes from the state’s monopoly on violence, and that violence can be used for a variety of political ‘goods’, such as civilian protection, law and order, humanitarian intervention, security, and so on. In this view, societies require armies, weapons, arms trading and production, alliances, and cultural processes to ensure acceptance and respect for those who serve in the military – all the elements necessary to maintain military force as a viable policy option.

The problem with this is that it is based on a flawed assumption about the role of military force as an instrument which can be used for good or bad. Often, there is also the misplaced belief that military force equates to power, and that the application of military force can have predictable results. As social theory has told us for decades now, means and ends cannot be separated, and all social action is constitutive, not instrumental. That is, the means used in politics prefigure and create the ends towards which the action is directed. Using violence to try and build peace or create a peaceful society is therefore contradictory.

In fact, a growing body of research is now telling us that all forms of political violence, apart from being a self-replicating, constitutive social practice, is largely ineffective, no matter what ends it aims for. For example, there are bodies of research showing that: the great military powers are no more likely to win wars than weaker powers; that drone killings, torture and other forms of violent counterterrorism are ineffective in reducing rates of terrorism; that terrorism itself rarely works as a political strategy; that state repression of popular protest often fails; and that armed groups mostly fail to protect civilians in contexts of civil war – among others.

On the other hand, there are a growing number of studies, both quantitative and qualitative, which demonstrate how successful campaigns of nonviolent resistance are in overthrowing dictators or achieving political change; how successful nonviolent campaigns result in more peaceful and democratic societies afterwards; how effective unarmed peacekeeping can be in situations of mass violence; how nonviolent forms of counterterrorism can reduce rates of terrorist attacks; and how unarmed civilian-based forms of national defence have the potential to deter aggressors. Alongside this, new forms of political theory rooted in Gandhian realism are exploring how radically nonviolent political processes and institutions can be built. All of this is in keeping with the expectations of social theory, namely, that the ends are prefigured in the means: to build peaceful societies requires adopting peaceful political means.

The point is that we cannot expect peacebuilding to build genuine peace when it is based on the fundamental belief in the instrumental utility of force, and when it is prepared to use violence to achieve its goals. Such a logic can only result in the perpetuation of the broader cultural context which produces violence in the first place. As the last 15 years of the war on terror clearly demonstrates, it is a recipe for perpetual violence and a self-fulfilling prophesy of insecurity.

The missing piece of the peacebuilding puzzle then is the need to explore the realistic potentiality of nonviolence and pacifistic forms of political life. Central to this will be disarmament and the renunciation of violence in politics, and the serious exploration of civilian-based forms of national defence, the development of unarmed peacekeeping and civilian protection forces, alternatives to violence-based forms of counterterrorism and security, and the promotion of peace-based, as opposed to violence-normalising, national cultures.


About the Author

Richard Jackson

Richard Jackson is Professor of Peace Studies at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (NCPACS), the University of Otago, New Zealand.

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