Daisaku Higashi, Challenges of Constructing Legitimacy in Peacebuilding (New York, NY: Routledge, 2015), pp. 230.

Reviewed by:  William J. Durch (Distinguished Fellow of Stimson’s Future of Peace Operations program)

Challenges of Constructing Legitimacy in Peacebuilding uses 2000s Afghanistan as a case study in post-conflict peacebuilding and examines how to address some serious dilemmas that externally-supported peacebuilding poses. In particular, the book focuses on the legitimacy of both intervenors and post-conflict governments. The author takes a practitioner-researcher approach to the problem that, at times, gives a reader the feeling of walking through a social science engineer’s workshop. It is chockablock with survey results, programs, and the clutter of institutional acronyms, partly because the author is that rare academic who pursues his findings into applied programs and also gets to manage their implementation. A stickler for methodological rigor might query the grounds for comparative case selection, but this is primarily a single case study with mini-cases added at the end for a preliminary validation of the theory that the author is building. One might also expect greater emphasis on the peacebuilding and statebuilding literature as a pushing-off point, as opposed to the realist international relations and democracy building literature, but the author is, however, most  interested in demonstrating the utility of liberal internationalist institutions, like the United Nations (UN), and what he sees as the UN’s contributions to greater legitimacy and inclusiveness, which are, he concludes, just as important as “guns and money”  (pp. 18-24) for building sustainable peace in post-conflict environment.

Daisaku Higashi brings an unusual resume to bear on the problem of legitimacy in peacebuilding. He moved into political science after a decade of documenting conflict and peacebuilding on film, doing his doctoral field research in Afghanistan and Timor-Leste, and then having the opportunity to implement his findings, first as a part of the UN political mission in Afghanistan and then as a part of Japan’s Mission to the UN in New York. He returned to the University of Tokyo in mid-2014 and has since been appointed associate professor at the University of Sophia, Tokyo.

The author highlights a theoretical gap between two groups of scholar-theorists. On the one hand, he argues, international relations scholars emphasize international legitimacy of states, but (the realists, at least) care much less about governments’ sources of domestic legitimacy. On the other hand, while almost all complex UN peace operations are mandated to support national elections, democracy scholars emphasize domestic sources of legitimacy for fledgling governments but give less attention to outside sources that support development of democracy (pp. 5-6).

The author aims to build a better theory of the role(s) of external actors in enhancing the domestic legitimacy of post-conflict governments, by supporting democratic processes (input legitimacy) and by increasing post-conflict security and local capacity to provide public services (two elements of governmental output legitimacy). The author adopts Ian Hurd’s formulation of legitimacy as “a normative belief that a rule or institution is to be obeyed.” (p. 12) As such, legitimacy is one of the three tools of social control, the others being coercion, which “does not, in general, provoke voluntary compliance,” and material self-interest, read as economic well-being as well as enjoyment of public goods and services. (p. 13) Legitimacy—which may be burnished by a consistent provision of security and services—promotes repetitive, voluntary compliance with public policy more efficiently than the other tools. Higashi takes both of these framings forward, observing that international efforts designed to help resource-poor, post-conflict governments rebuild input and output legitimacy can simultaneously undermine them because those efforts are externally sourced. The book seeks to “articulate how both domestic and international peacebuilders can tackle this fundamental dilemma” (p. 17).

Higashi argues that “four critical factors” are involved in building the legitimacy of newly formed governments: the role of international organizations (IOs), especially the UN; the inclusiveness of a new government; the level of resource distribution (peace dividends); and the level of force controlling dissident political groups, especially insurgents (pp. 17-18). He acknowledges that some level of force and some level of resource distribution are both necessary to build state legitimacy, but emphasizes that “the social contributions of IOs… and the inclusiveness of newly formed governments are crucial in inducing compliance and building legitimacy in the long run.” (pp. 18-20) The UN, specifically, has an advantage over other international actors in “fairness and impartiality.” Its credibility “as an impartial third party helps generate compliance with local political processes.” (pp. 23-24)


Afghan Students, April 29, 2009 photo credit: UN photo/Fardin Waezi

The author defines government inclusiveness after Keohane and Tyler (citation unfortunately missing), as “dignity, respect and fairness in the political state-building processes … critical to creating legitimacy in the eyes of local people.” (p. 24) He advocates inclusivity without prejudice—provided actors promise to renounce violence—as a way of “avoiding premature diagnosis,” such as that which ruled out efforts to reach out to the Taliban during the early post-Bonn agreement period (2002–2003) when the group was at a low ebb (pp. 25, 80-82).

On the question of peace versus justice, he suggests focusing on peace initially and addressing the legality of wartime activities later, as doing otherwise “shut[s] down the possibility of reconciliation.” (p. 26) But for peacebuilding (as opposed to enforcement), he argues, those who dispatch forces to sustain the peace matter more for local acceptance than the amount of force that is deployed (pp. 29-30). Weighing the extra motivation of national interests driving coalition forces against the value of impartiality brought by UN operations, he comes down in favor of the latter.

On the distribution of peace dividends, Higashi agrees with Frances Stewart on the corrosive effects of horizontal inequality. His research reinforces her conclusion that equity in distribution of economic and social benefits is as important as the level of resources distributed (pp. 27-28).

His most detailed case study, Afghanistan, begins with the Japanese-government-financed Disarmament of Illegal Armed Groups (DIAG) program, launched in 2005. It promised district-level economic benefits in exchange for warlord/militia disarmament. Commanders who complied cited UN involvement as the “main reason why they trusted the promise[s] of the government.” (p. 49) But DIAG disarmed less than half of the groups targeted by the program, in large part, Higashi argues, because ceilings on district development rewards were not publicized. Therefore, compliant districts’ requests were routinely rejected in Kabul for excessive costs, often after many months of credibility-destroying delays. By August 2008, only 2 of 40 DIAG-compliant districts had completed development projects. Over the six-year course of the program, only 103 of 402 districts in Afghanistan were in compliance with DIAG, and only 33 enjoyed completed development projects. By 2008, however, when the author conducted his field research, compliance had already begun to tail off as the Taliban returned (pp. 45-47, 55-58).

UN Human Security Trust Fund Mission

Jalalabad, Afghanistan, illicit weapons destroyed, May 21, 2006. photo credit: UN photo/Eskinder Debebe

Reconciliation efforts with the Taliban were sporadic until the change of the US administration in 2009. When a National Reconciliation Committee (known by its Dari initials, PTS) was created in 2005, it aimed at foot soldiers more than leaders. The PTS required enormous faith in the government (namely, that it would not kill or detain participants if they remained non-combatants) and offered no alternative livelihood (or, for leaders, removal from the UN sanctions lists). US forces “did not cooperate with PTS” and under the Bush Administration. Afghan officials who considered meeting with insurgents under color of PTS reported fearing capture by US forces (pp. 84-89).

Early in his Administration, President Obama endorsed reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan. The author briefed Administration officials on his recommendations for an improved reconciliation process in September 2009. He won the support of the new Democratic Party government in Tokyo and, by December, was UNAMA team leader for a new reconciliation and reintegration effort in Kabul (pp. 90-92). The author surveyed UNAMA’s regional offices in March 2010 to develop a reconciliation plan that embodied political inclusiveness (reaching out to both top-level and mid-level commanders), economic inclusiveness (community projects for both fighting and non-fighting areas, and vocational programs for both former insurgents and ordinary villagers), and implementation of community reintegration projects only in “politically stabilized” areas (lest new resources worsen conflict). In June 2010, 70 countries met in Kabul and endorsed an Afghan Peace and Reconciliation Program embodying most of the principles in the UNAMA plan (pp. 94-96).

The goal of a “credible mechanism to sustain political dialogue” was, unfortunately, not realized. The author lays blame on Afghan leadership, especially on President Karzai, and on the Taliban. He suggests that three wasted years could have been avoided if a trusted third party such as the UN had been empowered to run the mechanism for dialogue rather than leaving the parties to maneuver for bilateral advantage (pp. 101-102, 104-105).

The concluding chapter incorporates mini case studies from three additional countries where peacebuilding interventions occurred: Sierra Leone (a strong, integrated UN presence with initial great power assistance); Iraq (a strong coalition presence with subsequent UN political assistance but no UN military role); and Timor-Leste (initially integrated, temporary UN governance role; and a subsequent UN political and policing role after a governance crisis, with parallel international military support). One can quibble with the case selection and the author acknowledges this. Many details are perforce glossed over, but the mini-cases serve their purpose of illustrating—for the purpose of theory development—the importance of inclusiveness to the peacebuilding progress and the utility of a mediating third party with a reputation for fairness, for working one’s way out of unwinnable wars.