The current conflict in South Sudan has generated some debate about whether the country should have been placed under a type of UN trusteeship at its inception, or still should be today. Hank Cohen and G. Pascal Zachary argue for this type of external intervention, noting that new states are likely to have trouble creating and maintaining good institutions on their own. (This is one reason why new states are so prone to lapse into civil war, because arguments over the distribution of power aren’t constrained by political institutions which all actors view as legitimate.) Chris Blattman finds support for both sides of this argument, and Ken Opalo feels that trusteeship would only delay conflicts instead of preventing them.
The basic question here is about where durable political institutions come from. Ken makes the excellent point that “the building of institutions, unlike learning a language or programing, is not something that you are taught and then left on your own to practice. Institutions only work if they reflect the de facto balance of power, something that trusteeship would necessarily not provide.” Put otherwise, desirable institutions like democracy or ethnic power-sharing are only viable if all the major political actors in a state agree to them, or if the state or its leaders have the ability to constrain actors who disagree from attempting to overthrow the system. Both of these conditions are hard to come by, and it’s clear that even sustained international support for states transitioning to new institutions can’t always generate them.
That said, there’s enormous diversity in the ways that institutions are born and become durable, and it’s difficult to predict when domestic political conditions are right for an institution to stick. The international community pushed Rwanda to end its civil war with a power-sharing agreement between Hutus and Tutsis in 1993, but the country returned to war and genocide less than a year later. The international community also pushed Burundi to end its civil war with a power-sharing agreement between Hutus and Tutsis in 2000, and it’s more or less held up since it was implemented in 2005. Today, both countries are at peace, albeit with significant political volatility beneath the surface.
Trusteeship is essentially an amplified version of this type of international involvement in the institutional development of post-conflict states. It’s obviously a larger infringement on the “entrusted” state’s sovereignty, and ought to be considered very skeptically for this reason. But it seems that rather than seeking to answer whether trusteeship is helpful or harmful on average, we should be trying to answer the same boundary questions we would pose about other types of international intervention, namely under what circumstances we expect them to be successful. There’s some good research along these lines on other types of international intervention, like Barbara Walter’s work on when peace agreements hold, Page Fortna’s on whether peacekeeping is generally successful, and Monica Toft’s on how security sector reform promotes peace.