Bringing the State Back In

I started my career as a political scientist and am now a peacebuilder. The two fields obviously overlap, but the nature of that overlap has not been obvious. However, after reading Rachel Kleinfeld’s wonderful new book, A Savage Order, I’m beginning to see not only where the connections lie but also where we need to (re)direct our peacebuilding work.

Thirty years ago, Theda Skocpol and others convinced a lot of political scientists that we had to “bring the state back in” to our research on comparative politics which was then focused on voting behavior and the like. They were right then. They are right for peacebuilding in other ways today.

Kleinfeld is but the latest in a string of researchers who have pointed out that the kinds of conflicts that drew us into peacebuilding in the first place—international wars—are rare these days. Instead, we have to deal with disputes that have deep cultural or identity roots, are domestic in origin, involve deep seated problems of governance (hence bringing the state back in), and impact the entire society. They are, as I go on and on about, wicked problems whose causes and consequences are so intertwined that they can’t be solved quickly, easily, or separately—if they can be solved at all.

For good or ill, most of the successes peacebuilders have had have started at the micro-level. We have done work in communities that “opted out of war.” We bring young people or doctors or other community members together. We work on projects that build toward reconciliation.

All of these initiatives are terrific and are reflect in our current fascination with local peacebuilding. My organization is among those that most strongly supports peacebuilding efforts that begin at the grass roots and draw on local expertise.

However, if Kleinfeld and her colleagues are right, we will never be able to take those initiatives to scale or produce game-changing initiatives unless and until we find ways of bringing the state into our own work. That means getting involved in the nitty gritty of political life. In other words, bringing the state back into our work, too.

Yes, we have to do what we can to forge reconciliation or what Robert Putnam calls bridging social capital in divided societies, whether the division is in South Africa or South Carolina, Burundi or Baltimore, and so on. But, we can only go so far until we begin to address what political scientists call governance which extends beyond the formal institutions of government to include all of the key decision makers.

Today, most peacebuilding organizations realize that, although that has not always been the case. Our bylaws kept the Alliance for Peacebuilding where I work from doing any advocacy work until the middle of the 2000s. We all do some of it now. However, as we do so, we have to come to grips with at least some of the conclusions Kleinfeld reaches.

  • There is no magic wand. It took decades (or longer) for the conflicts to develop. It will take about as long to truly end them, and patience is not one of our political strong suits.
  • They involve corruption and other abuses of power. In fact, we have to address what Kleinfeld (echoing Norbert Elias) refers to as the decivilization of collective life in countries as different as the United States and Yemen.
  • We have to build broad coalitions. That may sound nice. However, in the successful cases she refers to in the United States, Colombia, Italy, and India, all involved what she calls “dirty deals” in which those coalitions involved working with some less than perfect partners, including some of the people who were responsible for the corruption and abusese of power to begin with.
  • Patience matters. Once you make some progress—especially after using a less than ideal coalition–you have to keep going in what I’ve come to call a cumulative strategy that uses one set of accomplishments to set the stage for the next one(s), all the while paying attention to the real possibility that you can take steps backward, as countries around the world are clearly doing now, beginning with the United States.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members. 

Also published on Medium.