The Trouble With the Rule of Law

Another concern I have with the Cordesman piece is the offhand reference to the idea that “a significant number of such U.S. reinforcements will have to assist in providing a mix of capabilities in security, governance, rule of law and aid.”

I sometimes get the sense that people from a military background believe that the United States government, or perhaps some other government, has acquired some time-tested and proven methods of creating the rule of law in anarchic, multi-ethnic, impoverished states and that if only we put smart counterinsurgency generals in charge who realized the importance of unleashing the rule of law then we could lick that corruption problem. In fact, the problem with promoting the rule of law is that we have basically no idea how to do this. Thomas Carothers oversees the Carnegie Endowment’s “Democracy and the Rule of Law” program, so I always think it’s sobering to recall that he’s pretty skeptical about the prospects for promoting the rule of law. Check out his recent article, not particularly related to Afghanistan, called “Rule of Law Temptations”:

In this context of ever-increasing interest and often enthusiasm for rule-of-law development among Western policymakers and aid practitioners, a tendency exists toward uncritical and sometimes wishful thinking about the subject. Some of these lines of thought represent what can be described as temptations, to believe certain things about the rule of law and its place on the international stage that are misleading and sometimes unhelpful. At least four such temptations — concerning consensus, reductionism, sequencing, and ease — are identifiable and deserve attention.

In other words, buyer-beware about strategies that casually toss off the idea that we’re going to put the rule of law in place somewhere and that’s what’ll make our strategy work.