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Book Review
Last Updated: 06/24/2003
Theory and Practice for Peacemakers
Matthew Norton

At its best Contemporary Peacemaking treads the uneasy terrain between theory and practice, forging the types of links that are absolutely essential for the comparative work the editors quite clearly believe is of use for peace processes. There is much work to be done in this zone between the comfortable categorizations of unimpeded theory and the at times ad hoc sensibilities of those used to getting things done in the field with a bit of duct tape and a wire hanger.

John Darby & Roger MacGinty (eds) Contemporary Peacekeeping: Conflict, Violence & Peace Proceses, Palgrave MacMillan, 2003, pp. 296 ISBN 1-4039-0138-4 (Hardback)


The question that this book revolves around is “how do violent conflicts end?”  and it offers a serious contribution to our understanding of the various answers to this question that exist.  After concurring on the sensibility of undertaking solid research and the development of a body of theory to contextualize and make sense of the inevitable particularist case studies often used to illustratively answer this question, however, readers will likely divide into two camps:  Conflict Resolution believers and skeptics. 

 

Conflict Resolution believers will likely find satisfaction here.  The chapters presented provide strong answers to the question that they will consider the natural follow-up to “how do violent conflicts end?”, that is:  “how do we bring about conditions conducive to the ending of violent conflict?”  It is not sufficient, after all, to stop at “how did this violent conflict end?” if we want to draw lessons for other violent conflicts that are different, but which could, perhaps, end similarly.  Readers of this persuasion will expect that Contemporary Peacemaking will contain insights into the heart of peace processes in their particularity and will then connect these specific details into a broader theory of peace processes.  In this way, the thinking goes, lessons of success and disaster will be learned, our knowledge will grow with regard to how these crucial political and social undertakings, which have taken on a unique permutation in our time, are conducted, who is involved, when they happen, and key details.  We will become better at pulling peace from the throat of violence through the development of a peace process praxis.  Readers in this group will not be disappointed.

 

Skeptics, however, will have fewer of their questions met.  For example, if we do not simply assume the goodness of peace processes, can an argument from utility be constructed?  That is, do peace processes and peace making efforts in general actually get results?  Do they push parties and situations towards an eventual peace?  Or do “successful” peace initiatives only casually correlate with the cessation of violence by parties too broke and exhausted to continue fighting?  Do we actually ever make peace?  Or does peace only move ahead when economic realities move inexorably in that direction?  There is a further methodological question skeptics would be quite right to raise.  In their introduction the editors write that, “there is no such thing as a typical peace process” (1), but if this is so, what is the exact nature of the lessons learned?  What is the theoretical superstructure that allows insights to be drawn from processes that are often more notable for their great differences than for any recognisable implementation of a standard operating procedure?  How do we transfer insights gained in one unique social and political context to another equally unique context?

 

With the exception of the final chapter, this book does not attempt to justify peace processes or even really defend its own comparative approach, and it does not need to.  That would be a useful text which the skeptics are surely waiting for, but it is not this one.  What this book offers is a series of keen looks at some of the core questions facing researchers and practitioners engaged in the concrete steps taken in pursuit of peace in diverse places whose only overriding commonality is its absence. 

 

The sections of the text have been organized thematically, a decision on the part of the editors that quite effectively ensures that this does not become a collection of loosely connected case studies.  Instead, the chapters are divided into five parts representing the different types of activities that take place under the banner of peace processes and the issues that those involved in a peace process are likely to face.

 

I.  Preparing for Peace

 

Articles in this section address issues and activities that are perhaps best thought of as “pre-process”.  There are apt analyses here of several typical challenges for those engaged in thinking about how to get the peace process started from the belly of a violent conflict.  There are apt entries exploring the particular challenges posed when a conflict has a serious ethnic dimension, and the redefinition of key conflict issues in the context of an evolving European Union which has opened the way for peace processes that were previously blocked by minority nationalism with its attendant political dilemmas.  Similarly strong articles address the question of the timing of peace processes, and the role of third parties in pushing for the initiation of peace efforts.

 

II.  Negotiations

 

An excellent article by Pierre du Toit on the various ways that rules and procedures for negotiations are derived as well as the varying impacts of their provenance depending on whether they have come from outsiders to the conflict or conflict parties is a good example of where Contemporary Peacemaking is at its strongest, dealing with a very focused issue through the use of a comparative approach to the analysis of several cases, ending with a section that summarizes the lessons learned from such comparison, and synthesizes them into a loose theoretical framework.  There are also articles in this section on mediation and the varying impacts of the media on peace negotiations.

 

III.  Violence

 

The serious potential impacts of renewed violence on peace processes, as well as the contribution that violence itself, past, present, or threatened future, makes to the context of peace processes would seem to give this topic more weight than the editors have given it, marking the only serious flaw in their selection of chapter topics.  Of the three chapters in this section, one, in fact, does not address violence as such, instead taking up the issue of demobilization and disarmament as a way to limit violence.  A good review of the sundry challenges posed to peace processes by violent behaviour by Stephen John Stedman goes a long way toward strengthening what should be a quite important section, however, and the chapter on spoilers offers a refreshing re-examination of this topic with a practicality of purpose that would do a realist proud.

 

IV.  Peace Accords

 

Entries in this section provide new insights on the usual suspects, but also confirm that the same topics haunt theoreticians and practitioners of peace processes the world over because they are such crucial dynamics in so many violent conflict.  Thus, entries examine various themes such as techniques for governing after violence, ethnic dimensions, minority issues, possibilities for resolving territorial disputes, and early phase democratization through peace processes themselves.

 

V.  Peacebuilding

 

A peace accord is worth only its capacity as document and as process to engage with the underlying issues of the conflict.  Very often these are varied, complex, and interconnected in the most insidiously difficult knots.  One of the themes running through this book is that a peace accord, shiny and new, is not the end of conflict in any real sense.  At best it is an opportunity to engage in the crucial issues that have produced the violence, but which have also been concealed by the violence as it becomes the headline problem, and covered by the new grievances that violence produces.  Unearthing the root causes of conflict and beginning to address them is work that only begins with the cessation of hostilities and the initiation of peacebuilding efforts that attempt to address these fundamental, and often structural, impediments to a process that leads to an enduring peace.  The topic of peacebuilding is the necessary conclusion to this book and it offers five strong chapters addressing this topic addressing longer term democratization, reform of the armed agents of the government, reconciliation processes, symbolic communication as part of peacebuilding efforts.  John Darby’s final entry on “Borrowing and Lending in Peace Processes” will be welcomed by readers of the second school of thought, the skeptics.  It examines the flow of information that has already occurred between participants in peace processes, and analyses where details about one process have usefully influenced another, as well as where the use has been less fruitful, thereby providing preliminary suggestions for what effects this borrowing can have, and how it ought be conceived.

 

Contemporary Peacemaking at its worst provides solid, well focused articles throughout the range of topics relevant to the construction and conduction of peace processes.  The book is too short to offer a definitive treatment of any one area, but is impressive in its ability to make significant contributions to the research in nearly all of the broader thematic areas that it contemplates.

 

At its best, however, the book treads the uneasy terrain between theory and practice, forging the types of links that are absolutely essential for the comparative work the editors quite clearly believe is of use for peace processes.  There is much work to be done in this zone between the comfortable categorizations of unimpeded theory and the at times ad hoc sensibilities of those used to getting things done in the field with a bit of duct tape and a wire hanger. 

 

Take, for example, the chapters by I. William Zartman and John Paul Lederach in Section I.  Zartman, purveyor of “ripeness theory” is at it again, making the case for the identification of certain moments in the life cycle of a conflict when the intractable momentarily becomes tractable, locked doors open, and death grips loosen.  These ripe moments are fleeting, at times existing only for the space of a handshake before dissolving into bloodshed again.  It is these moments that we must identify and capitalize on, says Zartman. 

 

Though not necessarily in opposition to this theory in general, or the influential contingency model that Fisher and Keashley have derived in part from it, Lederach has reservations.  His chapter is written from a practitioners perspective and raises questions from his experience of the usefulness and accuracy of the metaphor of ripeness.  Instead he suggests “cultivation”, “accompaniment”, and, interestingly, “naivety” as more appropriate metaphors for the use of the practitioner in their approach to peace processes.

 

No resolution emerges from this debate, but what does emerge is a potentially fruitful encounter between a theoretical abstraction – the “ripe” moment – and a practitioner who has clearly looked for such a moment on many occasions and has finally given up on the concept.  As Lederach notes, “[t]his chapter is not aimed at refuting the important research gained from the studies of peace processes in reference to criteria and patterns for successful intervention and negotiation in deadly conflict” (31).  No exercise in discarding babies with bathwater this, but rather an effort to re-conceive an old metaphor that no longer seems useful.

 

It is at this intersection of theory and practice that Contemporary Peacemaking is at its best.  For it is this uneasy but potentially fruitful encounter – where practice is strengthened by peace process theory, and theory emboldened as it is run through its paces in real world peace processes– that most needs to be recorded and read.

 

Matthew Norton lectures at the University for Peace in Peace Studies


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