Current ambitions to stabilize and reshape fragile states are of very recent origin. Most of the techniques and tactics that are now fashionable were unheard of a decade ago, and virtually none of them predate the end of the Cold War. As author and researcher Graeme Smith has noted, that makes international development and security assistance akin to pre-modern medicine, “when the human body was poorly understood and doctors prescribed bloodletting, or drilled into skulls to treat madness.”
Of late, the patients of international intervention have not been doing well. In late 2012, a military coup in Mali made a mockery of long-standing foreign support to democratic governance there. Then, a coalition of Tuareg militants and Islamists swept the country, with only a last-minute French military intervention averting a total collapse. In December 2012, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) lost a major city to insurgents in the country’s east, while the most expensive U.N. peacekeeping mission in history looked on, a full 13 years after it was first deployed. A few months later, it was the Central African Republic’s turn. A fringe rebel group took the capital by force, with widespread communal violence and ethnic cleansing following in its wake. Next, South Sudan’s core political and security institutions imploded in the span of a few weeks. Finally, the rapid metastasis of the self-proclaimed Islamic State brought an end to the rhetoric of a “stable, prosperous and democratic” Iraq that had followed the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
A common feature of all these cases was sustained international engagement. Self-anointed experts drew up plans and programs to strengthen the rule of law, state authority, and effective and accountable institutions—all familiar buzzwords of stabilization and post-conflict recovery. High-level conferences moved money around, while attendees spoke of peace-building benchmarks and mutual accountability. Then, in each case, everything fell apart with stunning speed. The expatriate experts, despondent to be back at square one, streamed off to other crises to recharge their optimism. Locals, lacking that option, just put their shoulders back to the wheel.