The blue helmet and the olive branch

Daniel Golebiewski on the dealership in building democracy

The helmet and flack jackets of UN peacekeepers. Photo by United Nations Photo via Flickr.

The helmet and flack jackets of UN peacekeepers. Photo by United Nations Photo via Flickr.

To nurture peace and to build stable democracy in post-conflict countries, United Nations’ peacebuilders have stepped their boots into post-conflict soil with two supplies: an olive branch for peace and a blue helmet for democracy. Unfortunately, from the international community’s launching of twenty major peacebuilding missions after 1989, peacebuilders have produced plausible success in achieving peace but have also presented sobering failures in selling democracy to post-conflict leaders.

Why have post-conflict democratic transitions been difficult to establish? Answers may come from examining peacebuilding as a dealership, meaning peacebuilders and leaders of post-conflict countries sitting at a table and discussing the benefits and costs of a democratic reform package. On one end, post-conflict leaders, the buyers, see democratic transition through two lenses—either as providing benefits such as international recognition, financial resources, or as threatening their political seats. It is crucial to evaluate the motivations of these leaders when examining the success and failure of peacebuilding missions.

When local leaders meet with peacebuilders, an infinite number of concerns are on their minds. Some of these include how much aid the peacebuilders will provide, how strong the peacebuilding mission is, and even how will their neighbors react. However, two more important variables are security, and political appetite. Because democratization opens the door for elections and mass media, leaders may be afraid that democratic reforms will threaten their security by fueling mass movements, riots, or civil wars. Since norms of good government restrict the leaders’ ability to exploit state resources, many are afraid that their empires built on illegal economic activities such as drugs, arms, and humans will vanish. Fearing results from the ballot box, local leaders worry that democratic elections may cause them to lose their political seats. Finally, post-conflict leaders worry that by subscribing to the democratic package, this will disrupt the only bedrock on which their authority rests its shoulders on—the patron-client network where leaders hand out state jobs or public goods in exchange for political votes.

Taking into account these concerns, peacebuilding missions will be examined in three different political situations.

Afghanistan: unstable and undemocratic

Since 9/11, forces led by the UN have rushed to defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda, while putting into place institutions that could effectively rule the country based on laws, not on personal power. The international community tried to sell its democracy plan to President Hamid Karzai, head of the central government, but faced major opposition from former Taliban commanders, who threaten Karzai’s central state and who operate within their provinces. These local leaders feared that a democratic, centralized state would cut short their networks of power.

Fearing for his own security, Karzai was stuck between powerful provincial leaders and the pressure of the international community. He abandoned democratic reform and instead has strengthened the patronage network that is the standing support for his limited presidential authority, while provincial leaders continue to make millions from opium trafficking.

With Afghanistan plagued by massive poverty and the Taliban, its increasingly inefficient and shaky regime continued to be supported by the UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan. Peacebuilders are afraid that if they scare the leaders by further democratization, and threatening to remove troops and/or aid, Afghanistan’s security will worsen. With statebuilding for democracy standing to a halt, Afghanistan has, indeed, become what Freedom House labels as a “Not Free Country.”

Rwanda: stable and undemocratic

Between 1990 and 1994, Rwanda was entangled in a civil war rooted in economic and political crises but fought alongside ethnic lines. The overwhelmingly Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), who invaded from neighboring Uganda, hoped to overthrow the Hutu-led government. Although the UN tried to institute peace and democracy there, Rwanda’s war ended in military victory with the RPF assuming political power in July 1994, forming a broad-based government emphasizing national unity and ethnic inclusion.

To become credible in the eyes of the international community, RPF looked to consolidate peace, stability, and security. However, they worried that democracy would only threaten their country’s security, especially in the wake of the 1994 genocide. They also feared that they would lose their absolute military victory, which gave them political power in the first place, to another party. Furthermore, as long as RPF resist the peacebuilders’ deal towards democratization, RPF soldiers, who committed crimes during the 1994 genocide, cannot stand trial.

After RPF’s victory in 1994, the UN peacebuilders struck a deal with RPF that reflected, more or less, both of their wishes: peacebuilders accepted RPF’s security priorities while the RPF promised to adhere to the Arusha Accords, which ended the civil war. In agreeing to partial terms, the leaders were able to maintain links with donors, using them in the struggle to retain power. Between 1993 and 1997, 42% of Rwanda’s GDP came from outside aid. The international community fears that if they were to pull out their funds, Rwanda would have another outbreak of violence. By Freedom House’s terms, Rwanda, too, is a “Not Free Country.”

Mozambique: stable and democratic

When its sixteen years of civil conflict ended in 1992, Mozambique saw itself successfully transition into a peaceful and democratic state. This was in major part due to the partnership between the Mozambique Liberation Front, or Frelimo, and the Mozambique National Resistance, or Renamo. They believed that the only way to stop the conflict from continuing was to share their power between themselves.

Frelimo and Renamo went ahead with close talks with the UN operation in Mozambique, which acted as the referee of the peace process. By winning the founding election and becoming the running party to this day, Frelimo earned stable legitimacy. Renamo supported the democratic process as an opposing, legitimate party because the alternative was to become a marginalized contender in an unwinnable war.

Even though both parties understood the link between international aid and multiparty democracy, they embraced democracy quite differently, based on their own political appetites. The Frelimo government, who feared losing power, set its preferences to stability and sustaining power. After all, being the ruling party since independence, they had the resources, history, and experience to gain from a centralized, presidential system. But Renamo, the main opposing party, had their aims set to becoming a legitimate, formal political party. Renamo expected the international community to provide them with money in order to fund their goal of maximizing power within the Mozambican government.

Analyzing The Three Dealerships

To have success in postwar democracy, transition depends upon strong local leaders’ demand for democracy, which is a product of low costs to local leaders. Often the costs of democracy are too high, and peacebuilders do not end up swaying the post-conflict leader’s interest, whether that is by military power or by adding resources. Instead, peacebuilders often compromise with the leaders, leaving the country in the post-war status quo. While peacebuilders can bring combat to an end, they can rarely build a liberal, democratic, and self-sustaining government when the post-conflict leaders show no support for it.

This situation might be rectified if scholars and activists started to examine the many motives of post-war countries’ leaders that influence the democratic outcome. Then the peacebuilders, representing the international community, might sit down and rewrite the rules of the democratic game.

This article builds on original research, conducted by Christoph Zürcher, Carrie Manning, Kristie D. Evenson, Rachel Hayman, Sarah Riese, and Nora Roehner. See

Costly Democracy
Peacebuilding and Democratization After War. Stanford, Stanford UP, 2013


Daniel Golobiewski holds a BA from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, at the City University of New York.