Perspectives on postwar reconstruction and the purpose of theory

Kristin Gulbrandsen, Aberystwyth University, UK

Kristin completed her MA in Security Studies at Aberystwyth University in 2017 and previously obtained her BA in International Relations from the University of Leeds. She is currently a research assistant at Swansea University, where her research focusses on digitalisation and social exclusion in the European High North.


The practices around post-war reconstruction are contested in the academic literature. Distinguishing between problem-solving and critical theory, this article draws on Robert Cox’ description of the two purposes of theory to highlight different critiques of post-war reconstruction. Through a review of the literature, the article discusses liberal problem-solving, the contradictions of ‘good governance’, and governmentality approaches to the issue. The idea emerging from the discussion is that the conservative framework and purpose of problem-solving theory cannot deal with some of the inherent problems of post-war reconstruction. Thus, the role of critical theory is to reveal how current practices and logics of peacebuilding and statebuilding reproduce unequal structures of power, securing the interest of some actors at the expense of others.


Post-war reconstruction has a contested track record, partly due to the lack of consensus regarding what constitutes success or failure, and within what timeframe to measure it (Krause and Jütersonke, 2005, p.448). As a consequence, there are a range of views regarding post-war reconstruction as practiced today – understood broadly as the processes of statebuilding and peacebuilding after armed conflict – and its problems. To discuss these, the essay will engage with a number of critiques. It is necessary, in order to draw out some differences, to discuss a variety of arguments, including the stance that post-war reconstruction as practiced today is ‘working’ (Doyle and Sambanis, 2000; Paris, 2010). Between this stance and the complete rejection of post-war reconstruction are a number of critical perspectives engaging with an array of perceived problems of post-war reconstruction, of which this essay will outline two.

The essay will discuss the different strands of critique in the following order. First, in order to elucidate the liberal perspective, it will engage with the self-understanding of liberal statebuilding and peacebuilding and the problems that emerge from this. It will show how the liberal reflection on its practices is necessarily limited by its world view. Second, the essay will outline the stance that post-war reconstruction, and in particular the discourse of ‘good governance’, works to produce unsustainable arrangements wherein governments are stretched between irreconcilable commitments, and reproduce uneven power relationships that serve the interests of only a few actors. Lastly, the essay will discuss two critiques that employ the Foucauldian concept of ‘governmentality’. In so doing, the argument is that current modes of post-war reconstruction work to dispossess rather than empower local actors when overarching goals of neoliberal statebuilding are pursued.

The rationale of this essay’s discussion of both liberal and critical perspectives is that it believes this dual focus is appropriate in evaluating post-war reconstruction as practiced today. After all, 21st century peacebuilding and statebuilding practices are popularly labelled as liberal (Hudson, 2013, p.40), and we live in the age of western hegemony or dominance – though as many have noted, rising powers are exerting more influence, and power is perceived by some to be tipping eastwards (Lei, 2011; De Carvalho and De Coning, 2013). Given the status quo, it makes sense to include a discussion of liberal post-war reconstruction’s self-understanding. This makes it possible to not only address the broad scope of critiques, but also to illustrate the differences between problem-solving and critical theory.

As Robert Cox aptly noted in the 1980s, “theory is always for someone and for some purpose”; it is always contextual, deriving from a temporally and spatially situated perspective, and it is for this reason one must examine theory as ideology, to expose its hidden perspective (Cox, 1981, p.128). As such, Cox argued, theory may serve two purposes: on the one hand, “to be a guide to help solve the problems posed within terms of the particular perspective which was the point of departure”, or to offer “a perspective on perspective” through the deconstruction of its premises (Cox, 1981, p. 128). The first form of theory is problem-solving theory, which “takes the world as it finds it, with the prevailing social and power relationships and the institutions into which they are organised, as the given framework for action” (Cox, 1981, p.128). Its aim is to make the current order ‘work’ by solving issues that arise – since it does not call into question the prevailing pattern of relationships, it is able to narrow down its scope and parameters for problem solving without considering the broader context, while at the same time avoiding reflection on its own ideological bias (p. 129).

In the following analysis, the essay will address both types of theory. By applying Cox’s binary framework it will critique the inherent weakness of liberal problem-solving, because its purpose is conservative in the sense that it preserves the status quo, and argue for the necessity of critical examination of post-war reconstruction as practiced today.

The liberal self-understanding of post-war reconstruction 

Fundamental to the liberal stance on post-war reconstruction is the belief that there are no alternatives that do not take a liberal shape in one way or another (Paris, 2010, p. 340). Such is also the stance of for example advocates of the Responsibility to Protect principle: essentially reducing challenges to the proposed norm of humanitarian intervention to one of implementation and acknowledging that the principle is imperfect, but the best we can hope for (Bellamy, 2014, p.11). As a result, while proponents of post-war reconstruction may identify problems in the implementation of peacebuilding and statebuilding after conflict, they do not regard it as inherently problematic. It is therefore in true problem-solving fashion that Roland Paris outlines how the ‘liberal triumphalism’ of the early post-Cold War era has been chastened through the self-reflection of relevant actors upon their experience of the negative effects of liberal peacebuilding in its early phases (2010, pp. 341-342).

Similarly to the structure of this essay, David Chandler has identified what he terms problem-solving approaches to statebuilding, which culminate in numerous technical and depoliticised

“‘lessons learned’ reports which repeat generic nostrums of preparedness, early intervention, strategic planning, international coordination, the importance of the rule of law, the integration of military and civic agencies, the problems of relying overly on elections, the need to develop strategies to deal with ‘spoilers’ and to integrate and encourage more moderate political forces, to support civil society initiatives, establish early gains to win the confidence of people in international assistance, deal with health, education, HIV/AIDS awareness, post-conflict demobilisation, etc.” (2006, p. 5).

One ‘lesson learned’ from the experience of post-war reconstruction in the 1990s thus includes the move from shorter to longer term peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction missions, with more expansive mandates and less focus on quick exit (Hudson, 2013, p. 40). Yet this caused another dilemma regarding the strength of the interveners’ ‘footprint’, as these actors were on one hand “under pressure to expand the scope and duration of operations in order to build functioning and effective governmental institutions in war-torn states, and to avoid problems of incomplete reform and premature departure”, and on the other hand, “under pressure to reduce the level of international intrusion in the domestic political processes of the host states” as local ownership of post-war reconstruction was considered increasingly important for avoiding dependency and fostering self-government (Paris, 2010, p. 343). Indeed, operationalising principles of local ownership over peacebuilding remains a key challenge for practitioners (Donais, 2009, p. 3). The footprint dilemma, thus, on one hand regards a heavy footprint as damaging for the legitimacy and sovereignty of the state, which is seen to be undermined, and on the other, the lack of predictability through long-term strategic engagement is also seen to be damaging (Ghani, Lockhart and Carnahan, 2005, pp. 10-11); there is a perceived necessity of more intrusive and systematic approaches, as reflected in the former UN Secretary General Boutros-Ghali’s ‘Agenda for Peace’ report in the early 1990s (Helman and Ratner, 1992, p. 7). The trade-offs between long and short time scales, global and local ownership, legitimacy and efficacy, and exclusion and inclusion remain critical challenges in peacebuilding (Jarstad, 2008, p. 18).

As discussed with reference to Robert Cox above, the natural tendency of “problem-solving assumptions … give birth to technocratic, depoliticised statebuilding strategies and tactics of implementation” (Hudson, 2013, p. 39) rather than reflections upon the basis of these assumptions. Consequently, the conventional approaches to post-war reconstruction “often argue that the explanation for the failure to implement multisectoral policies and programmes is to be found in a lack of holistic planning, poor policy coordination and insufficient aid and assistance, as well as inadequate understanding on the part of international organisations about the complexities of the local context” (Hudson, 2013, p 37). These priorities are reflected in the UN Peacebuilding Commission mandate (2017), whose purpose is to secure funds, improve coordination, gather advice, raise attention from the international community, and establish best practices, all in order to create a stable foundation for future sustainable development through institution-building and reconstruction.

Thus the liberal perspective – while there are a number of problems in the implementation of post-war reconstruction as practiced today – poses a challenge of reform, not of replacement with an alternative vision (Paris, 2010, p. 362). In line with Cox’s (1981) differentiation between problem-solving and critical theory, this form of reflection on the problems of post-war reconstruction can only go so far since it is intrinsically limited by its acceptance of the world as it is. As such, the liberal perspective is unable neither to go beyond existing structures nor to envision alternatives, leading to a form of determinism regarding the possibility for change. Indeed, the best we can hope for is improved management of unsolvable dilemmas (Paris and Sisk, 2009, p. 18), a hope expressed in the emphasis of problem-solving liberalism on good governance.

Contradictions of good governance 

A salient critique of post-war reconstruction as practiced today is focused especially on the intervention in and restructuring of the economic sphere of states emerging from conflict. Cooper, Turner and Pugh, for example, criticise the view that there are no viable alternatives to capitalist development despite the acknowledgement of its destabilising effects. They argue instead for non-neoliberal modes of development and growth, pointing to China’s economic success as an example (2011, pp. 2003-2004).

Yet post-war reconstruction of states is concerned with the construction of a particular kind of state, one that is able to cope with the conditions of globalisation. Key to this process “is not just the creation of a monopoly over power in a territory; it is also to develop a particular form of authority that will fulfil specific, market-supporting tasks” (Robinson, 2007, p. 13). This, in Robinson’s view, necessitates a change in the preferred role of the state: development is to take place through the market, while government is reduced to ‘good governance’, a twofold function to at once facilitate stability for the private sector and provide accountability for the population through democratic institutions (Robinson, 2007, p. 11). Yet these are inherently contradictory goals, since they simultaneously seek to create stable foundations for market growth through the acceptance of the legitimate authority of the state (fostered by the promotion of good governance, accountability and transparency), all the while economic policy remains unaffectedly neo-liberal (Robinson, 2007, pp. 11-12). In effect, privatisation, cuts in welfare spending, and deregulation are seen as necessary policy changes, but in so doing weakens state-citizen relations (p. 12).

This tension between obligations of the state to its citizens and the state to implementing externally determined economic policy is a problematic aspect of post-war reconstruction which has been conceptualised as the creation of ‘choiceless democracies’ (Mkandawire, 1999) or the ‘disciplining’ of democracy (Abrahamsen, 2000). Mkandawire (2010, pp. 1159-1160), for example, has outlined how ideational, institutional, and financial strategies have been pursued to ultimately undermine the macroeconomic sovereignty of developing societies through the framing of neoliberalism as the only viable option and the empowerment of technocratic elites and institutions sharing this vision. In a similar vein, Rita Abrahamsen (2004, p. 16) argues “that development is an intrinsic part of the technologies of power employed in international politics, and that the way in which it constructs democracy is central to the maintenance of contemporary international relations and structures of power”, in so doing legitimising some practices and interventions while delegitimising others. She further argues that the discourse of good governance works to produce unstable democracies partly due to the dilemmas posed by the simultaneous pursuit of political and economic liberalisation, creating two ‘constituencies’ for governments which are irreconcilable in their demands: external donors and its citizens, none of which can be satisfied at the same time. The ultimate political consequence becomes its maintenance of existing structures of power; while subjecting some states to democratic scrutiny, others are exempt and their role as interveners is legitimised, while at the same reproducing an undemocratic world order (Abrahamsen, 2004, pp. 39-41). Another case that exemplifies this is the noted hypocrisy of prescribing economic policy in the global South that would be deemed politically unacceptable in the home constituencies of the interveners – as well as the framing of the ‘free’ market as free of government management in the form of subsidies and other interventions (Cooper, Turner and Pugh, 2011, p. 2004).

In short, the imposition of specific forms of governance and economic policy in the image of the liberal state has contributed to the creation of ideologically hollow states, caught between contradictory obligations and without any real choice. This critique offers a “perspective on perspective” (Cox, 1981, p. 128) in that it highlights the relations of power that work to reproduce instability, lack of choice with regards to domestic politics, and undemocratic international governance. The deconstruction of the liberal discourse on post-war reconstruction reveals the political consequences of the current framing of good governance and the relationships of power that underpin it. This will be further demonstrated in the following discussion of governmentality critiques.

Governmentality critiques 

Another strand of critical engagement with the practices and logics of post-war reconstruction is one concerned with the Foucauldian concept of governmentality. Governmentality, as used conceptually to explain the projection of Western power, sees these interventions as taking “forms which appear to be consensual rather than coercive, through which the technologies and practices of domination simultaneously produce or constitute the subjects being dominated through the discursive practices and frameworks of knowledge, meaning, norms and values” (Chandler, 2006, p. 15). Scholars such as Jabri (2010) and Campbell (2011) make use of this framework of analysis when theorising peacebuilding and statebuilding. Though there is debate in the literature regarding how appropriate it is to apply the concept of governmentality to non-western, non-liberal contexts, there is also the view that seeking to better understand the “mentalities or rationalities of government” is a fruitful exercise (Gabay and Death, 2012, p. 2). For example, “even for those using Foucauldian governmentality, differences of emphasis exist between those who regard governmentality as a historically specific rationality of rule associated with neo-liberal free market economics, and those for whom governmentality provides more of a general framework for analysing many historically and ideologically specific rationalities of rule” (Gabay and Death, 2012, p. 3). Jonathan Joseph (2010, p. 243), in his examination of how the concept of governmentality has been applied to International Relations, distinguishes between governmentality as a method of international institutions (globally) and governmentality as a reality (locally): “while these institutions may push governmentality, local conditions on the ground may not be conducive to such techniques”. As such, Joseph suggests that researchers using the governmentality ‘lens’ must remain sensitive to this distinction and to the possibility that governmentality may not apply in the neoliberal sense, and rather that other types of power are at play.

In her critique of what she terms the “liberal peace project”, Vivienne Jabri (2010) argues that the practices of governmentality associated with liberal interventionism and post-war reconstruction aimed at transforming postcolonial states fundamentally strip the intervened societies of agency. Indeed, Jabri calls it a “project of dispossession”, since these violent interventions are premised on a cosmopolitan understanding of universal human rights, an understanding that is necessarily a reflection of Western institutions and European Enlightenment, thus precluding political self-determination (Jabri, 2010, pp. 47-48). It is through the imperative of human security, she argues, that interventions in which the ultimate goal is to achieve the security of populations by way of transforming postcolonial societies into liberal states are justified: a goal which is achieved through implementing structures of governmentality – “a complex assemblage of policing practices and their associated knowledge systems” involving the employment of both pedagogical and military-carceral power (Jabri, 2010, p.54). For this reason, she argues, post-war reconstruction as practiced today cannot be emancipatory, since it reinforces a hegemonic, western conception of the self “as against others whose modes of articulation remain ‘other’”, and in so doing banishes the ‘right to politics’ (Jabri, 2010, p. 43). In practice, this means that the particularity of societies is reduced to a universal dichotomy of culprits and victims, simultaneously empowering the former by recognition as political threats, and the depoliticisation and deagentification of the latter by their transformation from potential forces of emancipation into masses to be protected (p. 56).

A further analysis of peacebuilding and statebuilding framed through the governmentality concept is provided by Stephen Campbell (2011), who argues that the co-option of peacebuilding from the bottom-up by local actors can best be understood through this framework. Campbell specifically looks at governments’ attempts to co-opt mechanisms for conflict resolution on the community-level to achieve “specific finalities [that] deviate from the expressed interests of those being governed”, often manifested as the “implementation of particular neoliberal policies which exacerbate the economic inequalities that lie at the heart of so much contemporary armed conflict”, thus seeking to (re)construct a neoliberal order in societies emerging from conflict (Campbell, 2011, p.  40). The governmentality analysis thus works to expose how “community peacebuilding, as one tactic within a broader post-conflict (re)construction programme, functions as a technical intervention aimed at ensuring social stability and acceptance of the larger project of neoliberal statebuilding” (Campbell, 2011, p. 45). It may however be that the practices of ensuring ‘local ownership’ should not be considered as mechanisms purely for the purpose of enforcing Western interests. Chandler suggests that these practices also function as ways for powerful actors, specifically international institutions and Western states, “to deny the power which they wield and to evade accountability for its exercise” (2006, p. 1).

Further, Campbell (2011, p. 54) argues that bottom-up community based peacebuilding strategies pursued today fail to live up to their transformative agenda, are anti-democratic in their outcomes, and exclude the potential for any transformation that would radically address the inequalities at the root of violence. In a similar vein, Chandler (2013, p. 284) argues that the discourse of resilience, framed as a bottom-up alternative to externally determined interventions, is in reality void of agency: the “framework is problematic in that it remains entirely within the world of superficial appearances and ideologically erases structural constraints and power relations from the picture”.

In summary, the analysis of post-war reconstruction through a governmentality framework outlined above show two critical insights into the workings of the neoliberal state. One is that liberal interventionism and post-war reconstruction in the western image has dispossessed local actors of political agency and the potential for emancipation, instead creating the need to secure populations. The other is that the practice of bottom-up peacebuilding has not empowered communities as much as it has facilitated the co-option of community practices for the broad project of constructing a neoliberal state, thus fundamentally failing to transform underlying conditions for conflict.


This essay has outlined three critiques of post-war reconstruction as practiced today in order to critically engage with different perspectives on peacebuilding and statebuilding, as well as to examine their purpose in accordance with Cox’s distinction between problem-solving and critical theory. First, it outlined the liberal self-reflection on post-war reconstruction, showing how it attempts to ameliorate the problems of peacebuilding and statebuilding, but does not go beyond this to acknowledge inherent problematics. Rather, it sees these problems as challenges for reform, since it cannot conceive of other viable alternatives and thus works to legitimise and reproduce current post-war reconstruction practice. Second, it outlined a critique focused on the contradictions within the concept of good governance, and its production of economic and political choicelessness, resulting in the creation of ideologically hollow states that are caught between irreconcilable obligations to the constituency at home and the international ‘constituency’. In so doing, this approach goes further than the liberal reflection in identifying the causes of inconsistencies within post-war reconstruction, found in the uneven power relations of international governance, and whose interests these serve. Lastly, the governmentality critiques outline how post-war (re)construction of neoliberal structures dispossess populations of their political agency through the discourse of human security on one hand, and the co-option of community practices on the other. Instead of empowering, these practices are seen to take away a community’s right to politics and particularity, subsuming it to the current agenda of peacebuilding and statebuilding in the image of the West.

In conclusion, this essay has shown how different perspectives on post-war reconstruction conceptualise and help understand its problems. What emerges from this discussion is that post-war reconstruction as practiced today has inherent problems that do not come to light through problem-solving theory because of its conservative framework and purpose. As such, it can only address problems within the frame of the status quo. It is therefore down to critical theory to elucidate how current practices and logics of peacebuilding and statebuilding reproduce unequal structures of power and work to secure the interest of some actors at the expense of others.


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