The critical impasse of peacebuilding: Toward an analytically eclectic critique of liberal peacebuilding

Date01 December 2019
Published date01 December 2019
Subject MatterScholarly Essay
Scholarly Essay
The critical impasse of
peacebuilding: Toward
an analytically eclectic
critique of liberal
Cheng Xu
Political Science, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
In the decades following the Cold War, scholars of International Relations (IR) have
struggled to come to grips with how the fundamental shifts in the international system
affect the theoretical underpinnings of IR. The debates on peacebuilding have served as
a fierce battleground between the dominant IR research programs—realism and liber-
alism—as to which provides both the best framework for understanding contemporary
security challenges as well as policy prescriptions. I engage with the recent arguments
made by David Chandler and Mark Sedra, two prominent critical scholars of IR, and
argue that IR as a field would be best served to leave behind the ‘‘great debates’’ of the
different research programs, and instead focus on middle-range problem-solving and
analytically eclectic approaches. This essay further argues that the best way forward is
for critical theorists to take a conciliatory approach with the contributions from the
other research programs.
Peacebuilding, international relations, civil war, critical theory, realism, liberalism
The end of the Cold War injected renewed interest in the research agenda
on peacebuilding and conflict resolution in the two decades that followed. While
direct armed confrontation between the superpowers became increasingly unlikely
with the ascendency of liberalism and Western hegemony,
International Relations
International Journal
2019, Vol. 74(4) 581–599
!The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0020702019896302
Corresponding author:
Cheng Xu, University of Toronto, Political Science, 27 King’s College Circle, Toronto, Ontario, M5S 1A1,
1. John G. Ikenberry, ‘‘Liberal Internationalism 3.0,’’ Perspective on Politics 7, no. 1 (2009): 71–87;
Carla Norrlof, American’s Global Advantage: US Hegemony and International Cooperation
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
(IR) scholars flocked toward the study of civil wars and intrastate conflicts.
journals on peacebuilding and peacekeeping emerged, and established journals
such as The Journal of Peace Research and The Journal of Conflict Resolution
saw a swell in their submissions and impact factors. Despite the plethora of
research, the practical applications of peacebuilding projects across the globe pro-
duced outcomes that ranged from limited success to abject failures. Critics from
across the discipline diagnosed the problem as the result of the peacebuilding
agenda being rooted in essentially ‘‘liberal’’ ontological, epistemological, and meth-
odological assumptions.
As this review essay will demonstrate, David Chandler’s Peacebuilding: The
Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1997–2017
and Mark Sedra’s Security Sector Reform in
Conflict-Affected Countries: The Evolution of a Model
represent some of the
recent critics of peacebuilding deriving from the scholarly lineage of critical theor-
ists in the IR discipline. They present a distinct and vocal opposition to the posi-
tivist-dominated research agenda, challenging the fundamental normative premises
of peacebuilding and suggesting that existing debates have all but recycled and
reproduced existing power structures and outdated paradigms. The grave implica-
tion of these critiques is that the peacebuilding research agenda is in a state of
theoretical decay. While addressing different aspects of liberal peacebuilding and
the realist response, both Chandler and Sedra argue that the existing literature and
debates have missed the mark. Couched in positivist and normative assumptions
about the functions of the state, the nature of peace, and motivations of the
stakeholders, mainstream peacebuilding research agendas end up reinforcing
Western biases and reproducing Western power and hegemony. The ultimate
objective, it seems, is an attempt to push forward a liberal agenda through peace-
building, and save liberalism from itself.
While critical theory contributions to peacebuilding scholarship can compel-
lingly expose the shortfalls of the existing debate as well as the practice of peace-
building, their categorical dismissal of existing perspectives makes them difficult to
reconcile with established knowledge and evidence, as well as successes in imple-
mentations of peacebuilding and conflict resolution. The result is a balkanization
of the scholarship into different camps while scholars talk past one another.
Through a review of both Chandler and Sedra’s works, this essay argues that
critical scholars on peacebuilding should not categorically reject all peacebuilding
practices as ideological projects of liberal internationalism. To do so not only
ignores the wealth of evidence to the contrary, but also limits the possibility
for future scholarly discourses. Moreover, the peacebuilding research agendas
can benefit from conciliatory stances between different research traditions.
2. Roland Paris, ‘‘Broadening the study of peace operations,’’ International Studies Review 2, no. 3
(2001): 27–44, at 27.
3. David Chandler, Peacebuilding: The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1997–2017 (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave
MacMillan, 2017).
4. Mark Sedra, Security Sector Reform in Conflict-Affected Countries: The Evolution of a Model
(London: Routledge, 2017).
582 International Journal 74(4)

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