The Trouble with the Congo suggests a new explanation for international peacebuilding failures in civil wars. Drawing from more than 330 interviews and a year and a half of field research, it develops a case study of the international intervention during the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s unsuccessful transition from war to peace and democracy (2003–2006). Grassroots rivalries over land, resources, and political power motivated widespread violence. However, a dominant peacebuilding culture shaped the intervention strategy in a way that precluded action on local conflicts, ultimately dooming the international efforts to end the deadliest conflict since World War II. Most international actors interpreted continued fighting as the consequence of national and regional tensions alone. UN staff and diplomats viewed intervention at the macro levels as their only legitimate responsibility. The dominant culture constructed local peacebuilding as such an unimportant, unfamiliar, and unmanageable task that neither shocking events nor resistance from select individuals could convince international actors to reevaluate their understanding of violence and intervention.
Why do international peacebuilders fail to address the local causes of peace process failures? The existing explanations of peacebuilding failures, which focus on constraints and vested interests, do not explain the international neglect of local conflict. In this article, I show how discursive frames shape international intervention and preclude international action on local violence. Drawing on more than 330 interviews, multi-sited ethnography, and document analysis, I develop a case study of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s transition from war to peace and democracy (2003-2006) I demonstrate that local agendas played a decisive role in sustaining local, national, and regional violence. However, a postconflict peacebuilding frame shaped the international understanding of violence and intervention in such a way that local conflict resolution appeared irrelevant and illegitimate. This frame included four key elements: international actors labeled the Congo a “postconflict” situation; they believed that violence there was innate and therefore acceptable even in peacetime; they conceptualized international intervention as exclusively concerned with the national and international realms; and they saw holding elections, as opposed to local conflict resolution, as a workable, appropriate, and effective tool for state- and peacebuilding. This frame authorized and justified specific practices and policies while precluding others, notably local conflict resolution, ultimately dooming the peacebuilding efforts. In conclusion, I contend that analyzing discursive frames is a fruitful approach to the puzzle of international peacebuilding failures beyond the Congo.