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The Role of International Actors in Domestic Politics and Institutions: An Interview with Aila Matanock

September 02, 2020
Aila Matanock


In this interview, IGCC associate director Lindsay Shingler talks with Aila Matanock, an associate professor of political science at UC Berkeley and member of the IGCC steering committee, about her latest research on why—and how—international actors can help enforce domestic bargains, and why states sometimes delegate management and reform of security institutions to external governments.

Your latest work looks at how international actors can help enforce domestic bargains after conflict. When does this happen and how does it work?

In some contexts, after conflict, a government will want to strike a deal with members of the opposition. But incumbent governments often renege on their promises and violate the terms, reverting to something closer to the status quo than what was agreed.

One of the ways deals like this are enforced is through international actors. Sometimes they send in troops to enforce a peace agreement. But, in many cases, enforcement is done through monitoring—of electoral processes, of trade agreements—to make sure both sides respect the deal they agreed to. Those “systematized spotlights” can be really important in highlighting when one side or the other is going off the rails. And then conditioning incentives on compliance—aid, preferential trade terms, or something else that makes it beneficial for the government to stay committed to these bargains.

Can you give an example of where this has worked?

In El Salvador, as part of the peace process, the government agreed to allow the rebels to participate in the elections in the early 1990s. But the government didn’t proceed with voter registration at the appropriate pace, a move that would have disenfranchised mostly rebel supporters. The rebels brought the issue to the UN, and the UN sent personnel into every district in El Salvador to check that what they were reporting about voter registration was accurate. They agreed with the rebels about the problem, and the U.S. was one of the countries that suspended its aid to El Salvador until the government started registering voters at a much quicker rate.

International involvement has been a really good mechanism for some domestic actors, helping them forge deals that are really productive for their societies in terms of securing peace and growth and development.

When might this mechanism not work?

International actors have to be willing to use these tools in ways that support the agreement the domestic actors actually want. If the international actor is seen as partisan towards the government, for example, they’re not going to be a credible guarantor.

Another of your projects looks at why weak states delegate security to stronger states. More than three-fourths of all African states invite intervention in their security institutions, including police and judiciary. Why would states ever do this?

In some cases, the external actor—often a former colonial power, or a neighboring country—is just coming in to back the state. Those make up about half of these interventions, in this initial data, and are a little easier to explain. In another set of cases, though, the missions include reforming institutions. They’re not just state-backing, they are state-building, in that the host state is committing to allowing external actors to operate directly in their security forces and change them from the inside out.

To explain statebuilding, I argue that, for whatever reason, the government wants to commit to a set of reforms, and it is willing to invite the external actor in for that reason. In most of these cases, it’s an outgoing leader who’s concerned about their successor, so they want to tie the hands of the government to make it harder for them to use the security apparatus of the state; or they want to strike some sort of deal with their own opposition.

Are there examples where it’s gone terribly wrong?

Sometimes these deals just can’t be reached. But the cases I know the best are the ones that worked, at least on some dimensions. One example is a 2003 mission in the Solomon Islands. The Solomon Islands had had a coup and was bankrupt. The government invited an Australia-led mission through the Pacific Islands Forum to take over the police and reform institutions. The top commander of the police force was Australian. Crime dropped off immediately. The country is still grappling with the longer-term reforms, though, after the mission left.

Guatemala is another example, but in the judicial sphere. A UN mission brought foreign prosecutors and investigators into Guatemala to run their own investigations and then jointly prosecute, together with Guatemalan prosecutors, cases that involved state corruption. They operated in the country for over a decade and had major successes. For instance, they brought a huge case against then-sitting president Otto Pérez Molina and some of his top officials. He resigned and faced charges. They also managed to reform some institutions within Guatemala, introducing practices like better witness protection, for example. Their mandate was not renewed, though, in 2019, so there, too, we will see how well the changes stick.

Your work centers on fragile and failed states. Recently, George Packer in The Atlantic called the United States a failed state. Do you agree?

Since I don’t study U.S. politics, I can’t say much about our institutions—at least not more than others who pay attention to the news. There are a lot of very smart scholars right now thinking about this, though.

I can offer a couple of thoughts on fragile or failed states. One of the things we think about when we think about fragile states is institutions, and specifically how objective they are in terms of the policy put into place. There is a big debate, though, about what exactly “rule of law” versus “good governance” means. The rule of law threshold would be much higher in terms of democracy and openness rather than just a good governance threshold where, for example, there is consistent security.

There are definitely differences between the U.S. and most states designated as fragile or failed by one of the existing definitions. The level of development is often lower in fragile states, and that has huge implications in terms of what the state can do. In most fragile states, there’s an important constraint on capacity in addition to a potential constraint on will.

What about research resonates with you?

I am a very puzzle-driven person. If I don’t have an answer for something, it bothers me. Until I know the answer—or at least a satisfying explanation—I want to keep reading about it and measuring it and trying to understand it better. And that is what research allows me to spend time doing.

I thought that in research there are no definitive answers.

Any piece of a problem that you feel satisfied that you know something about just raises other research questions for you to work on. Curiosity brings up a puzzle, and then that same curiosity brings up a whole new set of puzzles even as you’re answering the first one. That makes it really fun to be an academic.

Can research make a difference in the world?

I hope so. Before I fell in love with research, I thought about working in policy. Research should inform good policy, and that is part of what motivates me to do research. We’re still searching as academics to find the best ways to do that—how to best communicate our long-term systematic research on big problems so that it can help inform important day-to-day policy decisions.

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