The First Failure of the Liberal Rules Based Order


“Twenty years ago it might have seemed as if Cambodia lay in a democratic slipstream. Now it seems like the dream of a half-forgotten age.”

—Sebastian Strangio, Hun Sen’s Cambodia (2013)

Two years ago I described Sebastian Strangio’s 2013 book Hun Sen’s Cambodia as one of the  best books I had read that year. A few months ago a newly revised version of the book, which brings the story up too 2020, was published under the title Cambodia: From the Pol Pot to Hun Sen and Beyond. This week Palladium published my long review essay of the book.

Most of the new content in the book, which has to do with Cambodia’s growing relationship with China, is not included in that review (I have written about that topic for other publications). However, Cambodia’s cozy relationship with the PRC fits in nicely with the broader thesis of my piece. I suggest that Cambodia holds a dark mirror up to the existing “liberal” international order. The history of this order can be traced through Cambodia’s journey through it. Cambodia was the subject of the very first nation-building intervention of the post Cold War world. This intervention was conceived, like the contemporary First Gulf War, as an explicit attempt to to use multilateral institutions to redefine the nature of the new post Cold War order. This effort would fail. The failure to make a liberal democracy out of Cambodia presages America’s later failure to do the same in Iraq and Afghanistan the next decade. 

Here is how I frame the problem:

To build peace in Cambodia, the UN planned on staffing a full-sized interim government, pouring money into development and state capacity projects, and arranging a fair election to decide who would govern the country after the UN mission had departed. For the UN, this was a high stakes endeavor. As Sebastian Strangio describes it in his newly revised book, Cambodia: From Pol Pot to Hun Sen and Beyond, this was an opportunity for the body to finally “fulfill its foundational promise as the embodiment of a singular ‘international community’” and set the tone for a new era where “peace could be engineered, democratic institutions molded, and human rights implanted in the DNA of nations emerging from bloody conflict.”

…The key moment in this transition fell between the years 1991 and 1992, when George Bush articulated his vision of a “New World Order,” the Soviet Union fell apart, and UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali presented his report, “An Agenda for Peace.” The world was hurtling towards a new liberal consensus: with America as its leader, an international concert of powers would devote itself to maintaining the common peace, open up the globe to joint trade and shared development, and use the machinery of multilateralism to strengthen democracy and human rights across the world. 

The martial aspect of this new ethos found its expression in the first Gulf War. Using multinational forums like the UN, America built a vast international coalition to contain the aggression of Saddam Hussein. That war was explicitly conceived as an attempt to use military force to set the ground rules for the new post-Cold War order. The flip side of that coin—Boutros-Ghali devised the neologism “peacebuilding” to convey it—faced its first test in Cambodia. Just as the international community had built a broad-based coalition to fight a war, now a similar coalition would come together to end one. Arms had played their part in crafting the new order; now, peace-building would be given the chance to do the same. 

From the viewpoint of 2021, the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) foreshadowed the more familiar Coalition Provisional Authority that governed Iraq a decade later. But in contrast to the invasion and occupation of Iraq—the illustration of American arrogance and unilateralism par excellence—the 1992 intervention that produced UNTAC was done the “right” way. The intervention was the product of two years of diplomatic negotiation, a consensus agreed to by all five permanent members of the UN Security Council and all of Cambodia’s neighbors. It was not only conducted under the auspices of the UN but employed 20,600 UN personnel from over one hundred countries. The UNTAC chief was not a white man, but a fellow Asian—Japan’s Yasushi Akashi. This $2 billion dollar mission was then the largest peacekeeping operation the UN had ever conducted. From the beginning, Akashi was given a clear mandate to use that $2 billion dollars to bring stability, democracy, and human rights to Cambodia. 

When Akashi left Cambodia in 1993, he declared that UNTAC was “a striking demonstration to the world that an intractable conflict can be resolved and seemingly irreconcilable views can be reconciled.” Unfortunately, Akashi was lying through his teeth.[1]

 Most of the essay narrates the story of UNTAC’s failure, and then the later trials of Westerners who searched in vain for a liberal alternative to Hun Sen. I conclude the essay with some thoughts on how the Cambodia intervention compares to other attempts to make democracy in foreign lands:

In those heady years, it was easy to believe that liberal democracy was both a historical inevitability and a moral necessity. This strange cocktail of determinism and moralism would not only set the terms of Cambodia’s engagement with the “international community”—but also undermined that community’s attempt to remake Cambodia in the liberal image. 

Cambodia exited the Cold War a poor and broken country, economically isolated from the wider world, scarred by forty continuous years of war, unable to exercise sovereignty over its own territory, and still suffering from the depredations of the totalitarian experiment that killed around one-fifth of its people. Bringing this country in line with the purported international standards of democratic liberalism was a titanic task. It could never have been accomplished except through colossal expenditures and unceasing attention on the part of liberal powers. 

But in a world where liberal democracy was an inevitable product of history itself, that sort of investment was never thought necessary. The guardians of the liberal order were caught in a trap: driven by moral strictures to support Cambodia’s liberal development, liberal powers could not accept a Cambodia that fell below their standard. When presented with the actual costs of bringing the kingdom up to this standard, they balked and looked for ways to remove Cambodia’s problems from the agenda. Confident that history would do the job they could not afford, the “international community” uncritically accepted and paid for any faux-reform or fake democrat that made it look like Cambodia was finally moving towards liberalism. A more recent equivalent to their mindset might be found among 2000s-era Bush administration officials who believed that an extended American presence in Iraq was necessary because of the local readiness for a democratic regime. Yet, in both cases, history never did its part. The illusion would soon pop, and the whole cycle of moralism, hypocrisy, delusion, and waste would begin anew.

The failure to remake Cambodia into a peaceful, prosperous democracy contrasts sharply with past experience in liberal nation-building. The process of developing the German, Japanese, and Italian empires into a network of democratic, U.S.-aligned states was the unspoken template for many of the nation-building projects of the last three decades. But those interventions were unusual. They followed a destructive war that discredited existing ideologies and elites; in contrast to Cambodia, where the UN tried to build a coherent political system out of an artificial ceasefire, the devastation of the Second World War and the uncompromising terms forced on the Axis in surrender had genuinely wiped the old slate clean. The threat posed by the Soviet Union, in turn, forced the Americans to compromise on ideological purity: they were willing to tolerate distinctive models like Europe’s Christian Democratic parties or Korea’s state-led development of markets if it brought stability—and thereby, legitimacy. 

Most important of all, however, was the commitment Americans brought to the task of building a new order. The American post-war intervention in East Asia and Western Europe were open-ended commitments to rebuilding the pillars of the old order on American lines. Having just suffered from the failures of interwar diplomacy, American statesmen were not afraid to ask their leaders—and even their populations—to shoulder the terrific responsibility of ensuring that those failures did not recur. The stakes were never so high in the Cambodian case, and the international commitments were correspondingly low. From the beginning, UNTAC was designed as an interim solution to Cambodia’s problems. In contrast, American forces still garrison bases in Germany and Japan some 75 years later….

When placed against these examples, what seems most distinctive about the international community’s intervention in Cambodia was a strange intolerance for illiberalism married to a general unwillingness to shoulder the true costs of liberalization. The closest parallel to Cambodia’s post-Cold War development is thus America’s ill-fated attempt to remake Iraq and, especially, Afghanistan. There too, a liberal power sought to transform lands torn by war and state terror into model democracies. There too, we find well-meaning Westerners assuming that historical necessity would do most of the hard work of liberal development. There too, we find outsiders passing off Potemkin reforms as moral victories. There too, we find foreigners unwilling to accept illiberal realities caught in a cycle of delusion.[2]

Read the full thing here.

To read more of my writing on Cambodia, you may find my posts What do Cambodians Think About China?,” “The Cambodian Tilt Towards China,” “The CNRP Won’t Save the South China Sea,”  and “There Will be No Cambodian Springof interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.
[1] Tanner Greer, “The Forgotten U.N. Intervention to Build Democracy in Cambodia,” Palladium (20 January 2021).
[2] ibid 

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As a old (Great Depression era) distinguished economist once remarked to me: the reason the Marshall plan worked is because the allies were rebuilding countries that had already previously been developed countries.

Excellent and very on point analysis, which leads me to wonder what a more realistic intervention and more realistic objectives would have looked like back in the early 1990s. Let's imagine a pragmatic American statesman of the time who wished to stabilise Cambodia without aspirations to transform it and with an aversion for unrealistic commitments. What would such an intervention have looked like? Attempt at even-handed brokerage between the warring parties? State capacity building through the training of bureaucrats no matter their political allegiance? Conditional aid as an incentive to avoid violent political tactics but accepting that it would be used for patronage?
My point is, is there a way for the "international community" to take seriously the mission of maintaining international stability without the baggage of liberal aspirations and illusions? Or should it just throw the towel and focus on preventing spillover from domestic conflicts across borders and just let those conflict play out as they will?

Writing from Italy I can say that stating that WW2 "wiped the slate clean" in Italy is far far from the truth: the whole state structure, bureaucracy, judiciary, military, police, the press and the whole education system (from primary school to elite universities) were transplanted wholesale from the Fascist regime to the new Democratic regime. The success of this last cannot be explained by that premise

The Allies did Denazification in Germany. Had something like ~400,000 people in interment camps. But it was ditched for being unpopular with both the Allies (except USSR) and the West Germans. That combined with a general and growing fear of the Soviet Union seemed to have done the trick of getting the elites to work together.

I don't know about Cambodia, but in Afghanistan and Iraq, we were always picking sides in the conflict, sometimes without much coherence. So long as US troops were there, there wasn't going to be a threat of invasion, so that reduced the need to unite against an outside opponent.