Heavy hand

Nation-building is a fraught and messy business. Michael Ignatieff knows that well. As a journalist he has reported from war zones since 1993 and is the author of several books, Blood and Belonging, The Warrior’s Honor and Virtual War, on the nature of ethnic conflict and intervention. Ignatieff’s latest offering, Empire Lite, is a series of essays exploring the new global empire that is nation-building: the imposition of ‘order’ that follows humanitarian intervention in the ‘failed’ states of Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. Ignatieff manages to avoid the didactic and self-righteous style that characterises journalistic writing on this topic—the tirade against land cruisers and expensive hotels. He is more interested in exploring the paradoxes and contradictions in nation-building than in outright condemnation.

Ignatieff does not shy away from naming things. The language of nation-building hides the reality of imperialism in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. To describe nation-building as an exercise in ‘humanitarian intervention’ by the ‘international community’ is a fiction that obscures the fact that none of it would have happened without United States military power. Far from being motivated by humanitarianism, the nation-building exercises in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan are exercises in imperialism, interventions crafted to suit American objectives. They are imperial because their foremost purpose is to create order in border zones essential to the great powers. And while nominal power may return to the local capital, the real power remains in Washington, London and Paris. For Ignatieff the ‘Empire Lite’ is ‘hegemony without colonies, a global sphere of influence without the burden of direct administration’. With its rhetoric of democracy and humanitarian need, nation-building is the kind of empire you get in the human rights era.

Ignatieff exposes the million-dollar enterprise that nation-building has become. Now the cure of choice for ethnic civil war and state failure, the nation-building ‘caravan’ has moved from Cambodia to Angola, to Sarajevo, to Pristina, to Dili, to East Timor and then on to Afghanistan. The caravan’s most recent settling place, Iraq, is too recent to feature in Ignatieff’s study. Wherever the caravan settles it creates an instant boom town, but this boom eventually goes bust.

The bridge across the river Neretva in the town of Mostar, in south-western Bosnia, has come to symbolise the tragic absurdity of the nation-building enterprise. The bridge was built in 1566 to link the mosques and markets from one side of the city to the other and was a structure of exceptional beauty, crafted from white stone. It became famous in Tito’s Yugoslavia, bringing tour buses from all over southern Europe in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1992–93 violence between Muslim and Croat militias destroyed the bridge: an artillery unit from the Croatian side of the city brought it down. Ten years later the reconstruction of this historic bridge has become a metaphor for reconciliation, for building a link from the past to the future, for assisting former enemies to reconcile. But it turns out that everybody (the Europeans, the Turks, the locals) is more interested in the bridge’s symbolic value than in rebuilding it properly. The bridge must be rebuilt immediately, yet the engineer has not finished his studies.

His craftsmen are not trained. There is a danger the bridge will turn out like the nearby Criva Cuprija, a little bridge over a tributary of the Neretva that has been restored to become a Disney-like version of what an old bridge should look like. Despite the physical link, reconciliation hasn’t actually occurred. People continue to live completely separate lives and the bridge will come to provide a ‘substitute’ for reconciliation.

Yet Ignatieff’s view of nation-building is not a wholly cynical one. In bringing his attention back to the real nation-builders—the people of Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo—he finds hope. The real nation-builders include the Afghani refugees returning to Kabul in their brightly coloured Pakistani trucks and the women teachers who secretly taught girls during the Taliban years and have now established open-air schools for girls, most having their first-ever reading lesson. Ignatieff also finds he can believe in the Afghani brick-maker who has once again begun making bricks in downtown Kabul in the midst of desolate ruins. No-one bothered making bricks after the militia fighting in 1992. There was no point because the shelling might start again. When asked why he has started his business again, the brick-maker replies, ‘We have a government now. People need houses.’ The brick-maker does not embrace the Americans with open arms, but perhaps knows he needs them. It is an uneasy and pragmatic co-existence.

Ignatieff acknowledges that sometimes states do fail and that there is a role for the international community to assist in reconstruction. But he sees how difficult it is to exercise a genuine act of solidarity in these circumstances. The principles of imperial power and self-determination are not easy to reconcile. The empire wants quick results, at the lowest possible cost. This means an early exit. Nation-building and reconciliation are long-term processes. Phrases such as ‘capacity building’ and ‘empowerment of local communities’ sit uneasily beside the fixation of nation-builders with political timetables. For Ignatieff the task of the nation-builder should be to keep an area free of external aggression and internal civil war, and to support local political authorities to take over political rule. The ‘Empire Lite’ fails on both counts. It neither provides a stable long-term security guarantee nor creates the conditions under which local leadership may take over.

I found many echoes of the UN’s nation-building venture in East Timor in Ignatieff’s descriptions. While not an exercise in American imperial objectives in the same way as these case studies, East Timor offered an unsurpassed opportunity for nation-building ‘from scratch’. However, the impossibly short time frame imposed on the transition process was designed to suit the needs of the international community more than those of the East Timorese. Consultation and participation of the ‘East Timorese people’ in decision-making was often rushed and piecemeal, confined to the Dili-based leadership.

While all attention was turned to political self-determination, the World Bank called the shots on economic policy, wielding enormous power in the determination of funding priorities and promotion of a market economy based around privatisation and a limited role for state regulation. Nation-building created a fine veneer of democracy and human rights which only too soon has begun to unravel. But the caravan has moved on.

Lying somewhere on the boundary of politics and moral philosophy, the strength of Ignatieff’s writing lies in the moral questions raised rather than answers provided. Does the role of the West in nation-building tell us more about ourselves than about the places that we take up as causes? What is the role of outsiders in the healing and nation-building process? Ultimately, Empire Lite is itself a ‘lite’ read, a broad sketch rather than a rigorous study of nation-building in particular situations. There is much left untouched or merely alluded to, such as an exploration of the role of nations like the United States in contributing to unrest and state failure in those states now undergoing nation-building. After the most recent ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Iraq and as the caravan rolls in again, one can’t help but feel Ignatieff lets the nation-builders off a little too easily.    

Lia Kent was a human rights officer with the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor and is completing a Masters in International Law.

Empire Lite: Nation-building in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Michael Ignatieff.
Vintage, 2003. isbn 0099455439, rrp $22.95



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