International Organization

Research Article

Hobbes and the Congo: Frames, Local Violence, and International Intervention

Séverine Autesserrea1

a1 Barnard College, Columbia University, New York, E-mail:


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.


My most heartfelt thanks go to my interviewees. I also thank Michael Barnett, Alexander Cooley, Kevin Dunn, Daniel Greenberg, Robert Jervis, René Lemarchand, Kimberly Marten, Philippe Rosen, Ingrid Samset, Jack Snyder, Stephen John Stedman, Timothy Mitchell, Jean-Claude Willame, Elisabeth Jean Wood, the editors and reviewers for International Organization, and the participants of the various conferences and workshops at which I presented this article, for their very helpful comments on its various drafts. Finally, I am greatly indebted to the teams of Action Against Hunger for their help during my fieldwork. This research was financed by a Peace Scholar award from the United States Institute of Peace, two Mellon fellowships from the Inter-University Consortium on Security and Humanitarian Aid, a McCracken fellowship from New York University, a postdoctoral fellowship from Yale University, and a faculty fellowship from Barnard College, Columbia University. The views expressed in this article are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of my donors or my interviewees.