- Armament and disarmament
- Conflict, peace and security
- Peace and development
The liberal peacebuilding model has unquestionably been one of the primary approaches to building peace in the post-cold war era. It is founded on two ideas: that conflicts are less likely to occur in liberal states that uphold democratic systems, minimize state intervention and support individual freedoms; and that the path to sustainable development involves strengthening the interplay between peace, democracy and a market economy. Can any insights from its application be useful for Ukraine’s stabilization and recovery once the war there ends?
When we reflect on the lessons of history, certain conversations tend to stand out more prominently. These discussions leave a lasting impression on us due to the quality of the engagement, the depth of connection between participants and the significance of the outcomes.
For me one such conversation took place in 2015, involving Ukrainian stakeholders and monitors from South East European countries who were part of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine. It delved unexpectedly deep, transcending boundaries, ideologies and historical divides. What made it particularly poignant was the shared experience of war, displacement and human suffering, and of the profound effects these things have on every facet of life. At that time, the possibility of Russian tanks advancing towards Kyiv was a distant yet hauntingly plausible scenario, a shared fear that resonated with some. Looking back, the conversation echoed the words of Yugoslav writer and Nobel laureate Ivo Andrić: ‘Between the fear that something would happen and the hope that still it wouldn't, there is much more space than one thinks.’
Eight years later, in May 2023, at the Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development, this lived and shared experience served as the starting point of a panel discussion hosted by the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation titled ‘Ukraine and Lessons Learnt from the Western Balkans’. The discussion included researchers, policymakers and practitioners from South Eastern Europe. By this time, more than one year had passed since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, leading to an ongoing war with far-reaching global repercussions. In this conversation, a vibrant debate emerged about the concept of liberal peacebuilding.
The liberal peacebuilding model, which was shaped by the United Nations Secretary-General’s 1992 report An Agenda for Peace, has become one of the dominant approaches to promoting peace over the past 30 years, extending its reach around the world. Its effectiveness has largely hinged on factors such as the acceptance of its principles by local stakeholders; the careful consideration of cultural, historical and sociopolitical factors during international interventions; and a willingness to adapt based on feedback and results. Additionally, the geopolitical context has played a crucial role in determining its success.
Dilemmas, limitations and controversies have, however, emerged regarding the model’s effectiveness and legitimacy; for example in Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Sri Lanka. In these and several other places, Western norms of democracy, good governance and market economics did not align well with local dynamics and historical contexts, resulting in a lack of local ownership and the exclusion of marginalized groups—exacerbating existing social divisions and inequalities.
In 2023, as we witness the erosion of democracy and the rules-based world order and a world increasingly divided and polarized due to tectonic geopolitical changes, the future of liberal peacebuilding appears uncertain. The UN Secretary-General’s 2023 New Agenda for Peace, which supports a broader UN reform agenda, still promotes the liberal peace theory, but its applicability in these new realities remains a topic of debate.
The dissolution of Yugoslavia and the conflicts in the Balkans during the 1990s presented the international community with the challenge of addressing conflicts, managing crises and understanding the various phases of the conflict cycle in a post-cold war environment. At that time, there was a spirit of cooperation and solidarity, and the central theme was that building liberal states would bring enduring peace to the war-torn Balkan regions.
What is the result nearly 30 years down the line? A mixed picture. While conflict has been reduced, ethnic tensions and nationalism persist in some areas, flaring up frequently and very recently in Kosovo’s flashpoint Mitrovica/Mitrovicë area. The region has not reverted to war, but significant shortcomings remain. The focus on what type of states to build has often overshadowed addressing the root causes of conflicts. Rapid elections were prioritized over their long-term consequences, reinforcing elites being perceived as corrupt and ethno-nationalist. Rapid reforms were carried out within a weak rule of law and legitimized by these elections. Quick economic reforms took precedence over the potential consequences of privatization, dismantling public goods and assets, impeding progress, perpetuating inequality and contributing to social tension and unrest, as seen for example in the 2014 protests in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Despite democratic progress, challenges related to the rule of law and corruption persist, and economic progress remains uneven to date.
While the prospect of European Union integration has driven reform and development in the region since the 2000s, progress has stalled in recent years. Croatia and Slovenia are the only countries with full EU membership, and negotiations with North Macedonia only began in 2022. The EU Commission has only recently, in its 2023 Enlargement Package and Growth Plan for the Western Balkans, recommended that the Council opens accession negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovina, offering the same path in parallel to Moldova and Ukraine and candidate status to Georgia. In the Western Balkans, while trust in the EU remains strong (except in Serbia), fatigue and scepticism about membership itself is growing, providing space for other actors like Russia to strengthen and China to exert influence.
In Ukraine, the liberal peacebuilding approach was in play between 2014 and 2022. This period saw a gradual partial transformation of the institutional, social, political and economic landscape as Ukrainian citizens rebuilt their lives and communities. To some extent, it was a rehearsal for a similar transformation at a much greater scale that will inevitably happen when there is peace again. When peace becomes a more tangible goal, it is essential to ensure that efforts to achieve short-term stability do not overshadow long-term peacebuilding efforts that consider the diverse needs of communities affected differently by the prolonged conflict.
What can the international community do? It should continue to stand in solidarity with Ukraine, offering support to local stakeholders. At each step, it must question how pre-existing methods of operation will impact Ukraine’s long-term roadmap. Set at the intersection of cultures and paradigms mirroring global agendas, the question arises: How far can the liberal peacebuilding model be extended within Ukraine? Furthermore, how far east of Ukraine and how far south, globally? And if it does not prove effective, what alternatives exist?
Lessons provide insights, but their real value lies in the questions they generate and the impact these questions drive. Where do the countries of South Eastern Europe see themselves in the next 30 years? Where will Ukraine be in the next 30 years? Will there be a continued commitment to the ideals of liberal peace, the liberal world order and, consequently, liberal peacebuilding interventions? Meanwhile, the conversation continues. In the words of Dag Hammarskjöld: ‘The pursuit of peace and progress cannot end in a few years in either victory or defeat. The pursuit of peace and progress, with its trials and its errors, its successes and its setbacks, can never be relaxed and never abandoned.’
SIPRI is pleased to share a series of guest blog posts from partners of the 2023 Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development.