On Selling ‘Principled Pragmatism’ in Transitions from Violent Conflict

Army Photography Contest – 2007 – FMWRC – Arts and Crafts – Barrel of Light. Picture: flickr user U.S. Army, CC BY 2.0.

In this contribution, Jan Pospisil and Christine Bell address some of the questions their concept of formalised political unsettlement raises.

Some time ago, we (Christine Bell and Jan Pospisil) suggested that it was useful to think about post-conflict situations as ‘formalised political unsettlement’. We have found that this description of post-agreement landscapes has a resonance with people living and working in them. However, we have been asked first about the usefulness of the concept when designing concrete modes of engagement, and also how to ‘sell’ this concept and its implications to policy makers who tend not to want ‘concepts’ but ‘things to do differently’. In this blog, we address these questions.

In a nutshell, our approach starts from the assumption that international efforts of peacemaking regularly fail to settle the conflict at stake. While they may succeed in ending the violence, the aim to establish a resilient political settlement often remains elusive. Instead, the existing political unsettlement becomes formalised and even institutionalised in a peace process and its aftermath. This outcome is clearly not satisfactory for liberal peacebuilders. Yet, we suggest understanding and accepting formalised political unsettlement can point the way to avenues of constructive engagement for ongoing struggles for inclusion using the existing political discontent and the institutional fluidity as entry-points.

This suggestion seems to reject the idea of any ‘grand vision’ for where peacebuilding should lead. The practical implication of working with ‘formalised political unsettlement’ is indeed pragmatic in nature: instead of aiming at a utopian top-down goal, it suggests an approach of useful, concrete engagement that is not part of a big plan, although still aspires to produce principled outcomes.

Such a pragmatic approach provokes two challenges: what is to be done in practice if not linked to a grand plan for producing a peaceful democratic polity? And how can such an approach ever be embraced by decision makers and high-level policy practitioners – particularly ones like those in the UK – with strong political commitments to democracy promotion at home and abroad?

Answers by policy actors involved in conflict resolution and peacebuilding commonly rely on evidence-based approaches that work along linear cause-effect relationships, combined with a strong commitment deeply embedded in liberal peacebuilding to inclusion. The recent HMG ‘Building Stability Overseas Strategy’, for example, interprets ‘political inclusion’ as ‘essential for peace’, and wants to build ‘democracy and civil society’ as its two main conceptual angles. Better intra-government coordination, monitoring, evaluation and the unavoidable strengthening of the evidence-base are all invoked as necessary to making this happen.

Complexity approaches, however, have increasingly put such a ‘new public management’ approach into question. Recent years have seen a number of accounts that approach state- and peacebuilding with a complexity approach, and from a pragmatist stance. Particularly interesting is the recent suggestion to found policy making on ‘pragmatic complexity’. What are the main insights from this suggestion applicable to working with ‘formalised political unsettlement’?

  1. Policy ends and policy means interact, and are not in a hierarchical relationship. In complex situations such as (violent) political unsettlement, setting top-down policy goals (such as ‘democracy’ or ‘liberal statehood’) are highly unrealistic, if not naïve. These top-down goals are, in fact, partly responsible for producing ‘unsettled’ outcomes in which local actors and international actors all work to achieve competing visions of their ideal political settlement, through the new institutions established.
  2. Situations of (violent) political unsettlement are complex, and can be understood, in the matrix of Ralph D. Stacey, as intractable problems with weakly ordered goals. Such a constellation involves radical disagreement that is difficult to overcome so as to enable the pursuit of a mutually beneficial common interest. Clear causalities for ‘what works’ are difficult to establish even with the best research and evidence. It is therefore difficult to find a technocratic justification for any prioritisation of policies.

In contrast to a lot of the current literature on conflict resolution and statebuilding that focuses on the causal links between particular practices and peaceful outcomes, we suggest that it might be more fruitful to acknowledge that this level of complexity requires political choices at least as much as policy making based on ‘evidence’ that is often, misleadingly, approached as something that has to create causalities where there are none. Research can perhaps then best focus on the known risks of political choices, and how to mitigate them, or how to turn them into opportunities.

(3) The political push to ‘solve things’ and make them understandable in a causal logic will remain a constant challenge. Good policy-making has to accept this condition and to adapt accordingly. The often-cited ‘problem at the political level’ is not a legitimate excuse for continuing to act as if a linear plan to peacebuilding will work. Particularly problematic is the assumption that violent conflict could be solved by successfully addressing ‘root causes’. Often different parties to the conflict – including international actors – have different ideas of what these ‘root causes’ to the conflict were, and this disagreement itself needs to be addressed, if a common way forward is to be found.

While these insights may resonate with many policy makers and peacebuilding practitioners, how to use them to inform a different approach to policy has not been sufficiently addressed. Critical approaches such as the ‘local turn’, which aim to overcome peacebuilding by focusing on locally contextualised engagement understood as a mutual enterprise of discovery, have provided a partial response. However, there is little follow-through advice for policy design on what local processes to support and why. Combining pragmatism with acknowledgment of complexity in peacebuilding seems to challenge not only the trajectory of liberal approaches, but of critical approaches to peacebuilding as well.

As a provocation, three statements that wed ‘doability’ and ‘complexity’ shall be made:

  1. Rehabilitate ‘conflict management’. The chances of a political settlement in a peace process are low. This needs to be reflected in political agendas. A conflict management approach focuses on stopping fighting and bloodshed, often in a purely realist and stabilisation-centred manner. It rejects the liberal claim that only a just peace will be sustainable, in favour of shorter-term projects mainly focused on ending the violent fighting. We do not suggest this as an end point, but we suggest that a focus on conflict resolution and renewed conflict prevention needs to be understood as an ongoing processes of conflict management rather than as the elimination of conflict and its root causes.
  2. Refocus policy aims along ‘principled pragmatism’. There is a need to acknowledge and work with the local political marketplace, but without capitulating to it. One approach is to focus on pragmatic interventions, which use the opportunities of the ‘formalised political unsettlement’ and the possible openings it provides in the existing discontent and institutional fluidity for agendas of transformative change. This approach must accept the risk – and even likelihood – that engagement may fail in the moment. Norms are always instantiated locally and incrementally, and more importantly they are given their content through practice, rather than encapsulating static commands to behave in a certain way.
  3. Consider and accept post-liberal ways of state configuration. In the process of engaging with ‘formalised political unsettlement’, which is a likely post-conflict order, and would seem to be the best that can be achieved in ongoing conflicts such as Syria or Yemen, there is the need to make better use of existing creative possibilities. For example, it is worth thinking about separating the ideas of demos (the people), polis (the political community), and territory, and the ways in which these elements can be disaggregated to provide creative ways to address radical disagreement in innovative constitutional frameworks. This may require understanding post-conflict polities to function as ‘disrelated communities’ who navigate their co-existence, rather than unified polities working on the basis of one social contract.

This pragmatic approach to peace engagement may render many of the substantial distinctions we currently discuss pointless: liberal versus critical peacebuilding, interventionist versus post-interventionist approaches. All of these binary ‘choices’ very much involve articulating a relationship – positive or negative with liberal agendas for institution-building. It may prove more fruitful to accept the complexity of the interaction of liberal agendas with local contexts, and focus on strategies of ‘principled pragmatism’ in engaging with the ‘formalised political unsettlement’ that emerges from peace processes.

This article has originally been published on here on December 18, 2017.


Jan Pospisil is Senior Researcher at the Austrian Study Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Vienna Bureau, and teaching fellow at the University of Vienna. He has published extensively on peace- and statebuilding, security policy and resilience.

Christine Bell is Chair of Constitutional Law at the University of Edinburgh. She heads the DFID-funded Political Settlements Research Programme (PSRP), www.politicalsettlements.org, and develops the PA-X peace agreements database, www.peaceagreements.org.