David Cortright, Conor Seyle, and Kristen Wall, Governance for Peace: How Inclusive, Participatory and Accountable Institutions Promote Peace and Prosperity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 302 pp.

Reviewed by: Herman T. Salton, Associate Professor of International Relations, International Christian University (ICU), Tokyo, Japan

What is the role of governance in preventing armed conflict and in fostering sustainable peace? This is the key question underpinning this stimulating and highly readable book. While its central argument—that “…peace and prosperity are advanced through accountable systems of governance and effective institutions of mature democracy” (p. vii)—will hardly come as a shock to peacebuilding experts, the systematic approach of Governance for Peace, its readiness to acknowledge the limits of its own arguments, and its topicality in an age of resurging authoritarianism, are noteworthy. ‘Mature’ democracies, if they exist, are under stress, with progress towards political freedom stalling globally and authoritarian regimes being consolidated. A surprising number of people around the world—including 62% of Europeans and 65% of Americans (p. viii)—seem to be losing faith in their systems of democratic governance, a situation that has facilitated the rise of ‘illiberal democracy’, as the experience of Eastern Europe indicates.

Afghanistan Observes 2007 International Peace Day
Photo Credit: UN Photo/Helena Mulkerns

For the authors of this book, these trends—and the constitutive elements of ‘illiberal democracy’—are common across the world. “We argue that systems of ‘good’ governance are essential conditions for reducing the risk of armed violence” (p. 4), they write in the introduction, while noting that “consolidated forms of democratic governance that deliver public goods equitably are capable of preventive war and maintaining stability” (p. vii). These are bold (and broad) claims that use contested terminology and that consequently require careful unpacking, and the authors do this throughout the book. Providing definitions and clarifying the ambiguity of some of the terminology involved in the minefield that is known as ‘peace studies’ is one of the book’s strengths. These definitions are important, for ‘peace’ and ‘governance’ are notoriously slippery concepts. As far as the former is concerned, the authors limit their analysis to ‘negative’ peace—defined as the absence of armed conflict—as opposed to ‘positive’ peace, which also involves issues of human rights and social justice. Nevertheless, they are quick to point out that the two types of peace are interdependent and mutually reinforcing, for “[t]he conditions of positive peace lead to the avoidance of armed conflict” (p. 5). As for ‘governance’, although the authors define it—in somewhat standard fashion—as “the means of making and implementing collective decisions” (p. 6), they note the centrality of an integral but often neglected feature of governance, namely, power. “Governance is about power”, they write. “It is about how decisions are made, by whom, for what purpose, and for whose benefit” (p. 6).

CHALK4PEACE Joins Student Observance of International Peace Day
Photo Credit: UN Photo/Laura Jarriel

This power dimension is critical to the book’s claim that, for a society to be peaceful, governance must be participatory and must emerge ‘from the bottom up’. Indeed, this is what separates ‘good’ and ‘bad’ governance: “We consider governance ‘good’ if it ameliorates the conditions and grievances that cause people to fight, and provides mechanisms for resolving and transforming disputes without violence”, they write (p. 29). In focusing on governance as “…consent-based forms of integrative or ‘soft’ power that derive their authority more from society than the state” (p. 25), the book identifies three ingredients for sustainable peace, namely, inclusivity, participation, and accountability (pp. 8-9). Using the epidemiological parallel, the authors see armed conflict as a disease that must be prevented and cured. Forms of governance based on ‘peace through strength’ and coercion are seen by the authors as an expensive and ineffective path toward social cooperation. Nevertheless, governance is not always ‘good’ and neither is the presence of a legal system, since authoritarian regimes are adept at turning the ‘rule of law’ into the ‘rule by law’.

Here, however, a dilemma arises, for one can think of plenty of systems of authoritarian governance that have also brought peace. China comes to mind and is duly mentioned by the authors as an exception—admittedly, a massive one—to their interpretation of democratic governance, not only because of its size and population, but also because stability has been the pivot of the Chinese Communist Party since the end of the civil war and the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. Smaller but still significant ‘deviants’ include—but are not limited to—Singapore, which like China has been strikingly successful in combining economic liberalism with political authoritarianism. On the other hand, there are plenty of examples of what could be referred to as DINOs (‘democracies-in-name-only’) that have the façade of inclusive procedures, such as elections, but that are unable to provide stability or even the most basic of services. Nigeria, Haiti, and Afghanistan are mentioned in the book, but there are many others.

International Peace Day Ceremony
Photo Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

What, then, are the antidotes against the ‘disease’ of armed conflict? This book identifies a number of possibilities. The first, ‘social capital’, can be defined as the ability to create bonds across ethnic and other social divides and is, according to the authors, important but not sufficient to bring peace. While it can indeed connect groups, it can also reinforce exclusivist identities. In interwar Germany, for instance, the fragmented associational nature of the Weimar Republic contributed to its downfall and provided the basis for the highly regimented Nazi Party, while Rwanda and Cambodia show that exclusive forms of social bonding can exacerbate extremism and even lead to genocide. In this respect, the book notes that it is ethnic exclusion, rather than ethnic diversity, that more easily leads to war, for there is no causal link between ethnic variety and armed conflict. A second, important ingredient of sustainable peace is ‘social capacity’ and the provision of social services such as health and education; defined by Steven Pinker as an “escalator of reason”, they encourage stability and peaceful coexistence within a state (p. 75). Third, political grievances must also be addressed if armed conflict is to be avoided, because feelings of humiliation and exclusion can motivate people to engage in violent confrontation. Fourth, gender equality is also seen as an essential ingredient of peace, with a number of studies pointing to the status of women as a reliable indicator of the likelihood of peace within and between states. The fifth ‘antidote against war’ mentioned by the authors, ‘mature democracy’ is arguably the most complex of them all. Democracy is no panacea when it comes to peace, they note. Indeed, democratic systems can exacerbate divisions and are susceptible to demagogic appeals to confrontation and intolerance. At the same time, the democratic character of a society is intimately connected to peace; “Democracy”, the authors argue, “is an essential quality for peace when it is fully developed institutionally and linked to effective governance capacity” (p. 156). This means that even the much-vaunted Western concept of ‘liberal democracy’ is hardly enough to bring peace, because “The internal democratic peace effect…exists only when states have reached a high threshold of democracy. It does not apply to partial and incomplete democracies, referred to as anocracies” (p. 167).

Despite the authors’ best efforts to assess the merits of the various viewpoints, a number of questions go unanswered in the book, both at the level of terminology and of empirical applicability. In addressing them, the use of case studies may have helped; while the authors do mention several examples of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ governance, they do so en passant and at times the book reads more like an extended literature review than as an original contribution to a vital topic. Case studies may have also assisted in addressing what the authors refer to as ‘The China Exception’, especially since they see Beijing as “the poster child of poor governance” (p. 210). Despite these limitations, this is a stimulating book and the authors offer a balanced view of how inclusive participatory, and accountable institutions can contribute to peace.