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Exit StrategiesProfessor Richard Caplan, of the DPIR, Oxford, and editor of the new book Exit Strategies and State Building, talks to Politics in Spires about the book itself, the practice of internationally-led state-building and strategies for exit. In this interview, Professor Caplan talks about the practical and normative changes that have taken place in the international arena which this book has responded to and deals with some of the most pertinent issues faced by the international community when attempting to undertake state-building projects.

When reading the book, what struck me was the extent to which the material appears to be responding to policy gaps rather than to gaps in the academic literature. Do you agree that this is the case?

The book is certainly a response to particular policy gaps as this is an area of policy that is underdeveloped for both multilateral organizations, such as NATO and the UN, and national governments. But there are also interesting and important scholarly questions that similarly have received insufficient attention previously. For instance, analysis of the modes and mechanisms of exit, the economic impacts of exit, and the norms that underpin the dominant paradigms of exit – these are just a few of the academic issues that we address in the book.

In what ways do you think the world has evolved over recent years in order that a book on “exit strategies” needed to be published? What do you think this says about recent practical and normative change in the world?

The practice of internationally led state-building is more widespread today and that has to do with shifts in IR and in conflict-management efforts. These developments are very closely related to trends we have seen with respect to post-conflict peace-building. We see much more intra-state conflict as a proportion of violent conflict overall, since the end of the Cold War, which has led to more opportunities for third parties to get involved in an effort to build peace. This has led to both modest and ambitious forms of state-building by external actors.

On the normative side, the increase in the practice of internationally-led state-building has also been a function, in part, of the relaxation of historic barriers to intrusion into the internal affairs of states. This normative shift can be overstated, however. Going back to the seventies and eighties, the IMF and the World Bank were already very intrusive in their efforts to improve governance. Nonetheless, it can be said that there is now a sense that interveners have a responsibility to rebuild – this idea has normative traction to it, a sense of obligation. There’s a general consensus now that you can’t intervene in a country, make a mess of things and just leave. This is what Colin Powell referred to as the ‘Pottery Barn’ principle: if you break it, you buy it.

In regard to the involvement of regional actors, it seems in the book that there are examples where the involvement of regional actors in the state-building process is highly beneficial and other times when it leads to worse outcomes. How do we think we can determine whether or not a regional actor should be involved in a particular state-building project?


There are two critical issues which should provide guidance as to whether involvement by a regional actor should be encouraged or discouraged. The first concerns capacity; for example, the African Union has had an interest in dealing with crises in Somalia and Darfur but it has lacked the strategic assets to do so and has needed NATO to provide it with strategic air- and sea-lift.

The second is interest, and this cuts both ways. If regional powers have a particular interest in the state in question that can be a bad thing – as in Syria’s involvement with Lebanon. However, the EU’s particular interest in the Balkans has been instrumental in ensuring successful engagement in part because it has meant that they are willing to stay the course. A state’s willingness to stay the course can be sorely tried by the complexities and cost of state-building – as demonstrated by experiences in Afghanistan.  However, had Afghanistan been in Europe’s back yard there would have been less willingness to withdraw.

State-building carried out or enforced by a third party obviously differs from state-building processes which are enacted solely by the citizens of that state. Do you think that third party intervention can ever be a real substitute for nationally controlled state-building?

In any state-building project there has to be a commitment to and support for the involvement of national authorities. However, nationally controlled state-building is not possible without adequately functioning political processes within the country. And where there has been violent conflict, political reconstitution may be difficult to achieve. The formation of a political system that is functioning sufficiently takes time to establish and may be difficult to realise without third-party assistance. However, third parties are often overly ambitious in terms of what they seek to achieve and their determination to meet their objectives quickly can come at the expense of developing national capacity.

There is also the issue of path dependency and the extent to which decisions taken on the part of the intervening party permanently affect the political trajectory of the state – for example in their choice of interim leaders or governing bodies.

Third parties are almost always constrained in terms of the leadership choices that they make. For example, in Iraq, the US favoured a political leadership drawn from particular Iraqis in exile but they found no political support for this plan from the Iraqi population so that option had to be abandoned. Since then they have agreed to work with al-Maliki who was not their choice but was instead the inevitable outcome of the political process that US state-builders put in place.

This issue is precisely where the UN feels uneasy – i.e., making critical choices that put it in the position of expressing political preferences. This is why they’re often very keen to hold elections, so that interlocutors with local legitimacy can be identified. But the danger is that elections can come too soon – elections can be very divisive and it may take time for the conditions to be ripe for the holding of elections. The UN feels uneasy about being in the position of making decisions, in the place of a democratically elected leadership, which will then lead countries down a particular path. For example, in East Timor the UN was uneasy about settling land disputes, critical though their resolution was to economic recovery. The UN said we simply can’t make these decisions as they are of a political nature and have to be made by the Timorese.

There is evidently often a tension between a commitment to state-building and a desire for exit. How do you think these tensions can be resolved?

Policy-makers need to have a clear idea of their priorities in undertaking state-building. For example, with regard to the intervention in Afghanistan, the extent of US commitments is still not clear. Is it enough just to keep the Taliban at bay or is it of vital importance that Afghanistan is a successful state rather than a weak or failed state?

The answer to this question will depend upon how a state defines its interest in another state. Broad acceptance of the importance of maintaining peace and democracy is what allows a state to maintain a commitment to state-building without there being a lot of pressure at the same time to leave. The determining factor is often the loss of life on the part of the interveners – it has to be clear that there are benefits that outweigh those costs.

Another frequent issue is that often interveners exceed their mandate. A time-limited commitment is a way of reassuring the public and Congress, in the case of the US, that it’s not an open-ended commitment. Yet this can also lead to problems down the line when, due to unforeseen complications, the time limit elapses without the necessary goals having been achieved.

One of the most important questions regarding exit strategies is whether planning for an exit is realistic, given the political nature of the process? Do you know examples where a pre-conceived exit strategy was successfully implemented without substantial revisions?

There is no question that politics overshadows all of this. Even the best conceived plans can be upset when, for example, states withdraw critical support from state-building operations at key moments – as troop-contributing countries did in East Timor in 2006, with adverse consequences. So politics is an over-riding factor; that is absolutely true.

The UN’s withdrawal from Sierra Leone is a good example of the use of benchmarking and shows that it is possible for missions to conform, by and large, to a pre-conceived exit strategy. It shows that it is possible that politics won’t necessarily interfere – but there is no guarantee.

The book ‘Exit Strategies and State Building’ can be purchased from Blackwell’s here.



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