Inventing East Timor

James Traub. Foreign Affairs. Volume 79, Issue 4. July/August 2000.

Test Case

U.N. officials in Kosovo used to refer to the bombed-out territory they administered as “the empty shell.” Then many of them were moved to East Timor, the U.N.’s latest hardship case, where they discovered the true meaning of emptiness. East Timor lacks the most basic necessities: not just doctors, dentists, accountants, lawyers, and police, but also tables, chairs, pots, and pans. Even in Dili, the capital, stop signs, traffic signals, and streetlights are nowhere to be found. It would not be far from the truth to say that East Timor has no economy. Projected government revenue for 2000 is $16 million, and most of that will come from duties on the liquor, cigarettes, cars, and other commodities consumed by foreign U.N. officials, journalists, and the employees of nongovernmental organizations.

Yet today this impoverished island is the laboratory for an experiment in what is known at the United Nations as “nation-building.” The U.N. Transitional Administration for East Timor (UNTAET)is not just helping the new country’s government–it is that government. UNTAET issues postage and UNTAET signs treaties. At the airport in Dili, a Timorese in a U.N. uniform puts an “UNTAET” stamp in each passport. In a fine if unintended piece of symbolism, the U.N. now occupies the “Governor’s House,” a lovely, colonnaded structure facing the ocean that served as the headquarters for both the Portuguese and then the Indonesian colonial administrations. Sergio Vieira de Mello, a Brazilian U.N. official who functions as the “transitional administrator,” works from the same second-floor office that once housed the Indonesian governor.

The U.N. plays a similar role in Kosovo, and in the last decade it has taken on many national responsibilities in Namibia, Cambodia, Mozambique, and Eastern Slavonia. But until East Timor, the U.N. had never taken over the administration of a country with no preexisting institutions whatsoever. Nor has the organization ever enjoyed the kind of free hand it exercises in East Timor. Both the political elite and the militias that carried out its will have fled. And the Security Council resolution that established UNTAET has effectively granted it absolute power, although it makes clear that the rationale for that power is to give birth to a freestanding and democratic Timorese state.

UNTAET, then, is an exercise in benevolent colonialism. But although there is no question of the U.N.’s benevolence, its competence as a colonial master is open to question. Nor is it obvious that UNTAET’s goal is even attainable. Is it possible, in a few short years, to found institutions and infuse a set of values and habits that normally accrete over generations? The idea sounds slightly fantastic, although vastly preferable to the obvious alternatives. The East Timor project rests on a wider, and welcome, recognition by the U.N. that political reform and institutional stability are the best guarantees of long-term economic development. And East Timor is the rare client that is eager to embrace such reforms. On the other hand, East Timor has no experience of democracy, or even of self rule. The U.N. may find it easier to physically rebuild this shattered country than to turn it into a democratic state.

The Fire Last Time

Timor is a tiny island located 1,300 miles east of Jakarta, 150 miles northwest of Darwin, Australia, and 200 miles south of the equator. It is ringed with lovely beaches, and the interior is lush, mountainous, and thickly forested with eucalyptus, bamboo, and teak. The Portuguese colonized the area in the sixteenth century, and it slumbered in peaceful seclusion for 400 years until the mid-1970s, when the newly democratic government of Portugal shrugged off its colonies. The western half of the island had been transferred by the Dutch to independent Indonesia in 1949, and in 1975 the Portuguese withdrew from the eastern half. The Indonesians overran the region, forcibly annexing it the following year.

The Timorese now speak nostalgically of the era of Portuguese rule. An old man in the coastal town of Liquica talked passionately about the “traditional values” the Timorese had adopted from the Portuguese, by which he meant hard work and self discipline. The Indonesians, he said, were modern, flashy, and vulgar. Portugal may have been one of Europe’s least-enlightened colonial nations, but the Indonesians, who themselves had groaned under the burden of Dutch dominion, were worse and kept the Timorese in a state of virtual peonage. The poverty rate there was twice that of Indonesia proper, while the rate of maternal mortality was among the highest in the world. The Indonesians took all the good jobs for themselves. Elementary school teachers were Timorese, for example, but high-school teachers were Indonesian. Police clerks were Timorese, but the officers were Indonesian. East Timor was permitted neither a professional class nor a political one. An independence movement was brutally suppressed between 1975 and 1983, and the region was effectively sealed off from the outside world until 1989. During this period about 200,000 people died from violence, hunger, and disease-out of a population of fewer than a million.

But the East Timorese independence movement was never fully extinguished. In 1996, the Nobel Peace Prize went to Carlos Ximenes Belo, the bishop of Dili, and Jose Ramos-Horta, who had spent years advocating the cause of East Timorese freedom in the world’s capitals. But Ramos-Horta might have gone on advocating in vain for many more years had Indonesian President Suharto not been forced from office in 1998. Suharto and his military had dealt ruthlessly with independence movements throughout the archipelago. The new president, B. J. Habibie, was far more preoccupied with shoring up his own fragile support. In January 1999, Habibie agreed to let the Timorese hold a referendum on autonomy He was apparently unaware of the depth of anti-Indonesian feeling in East Timor or of the violence that the prospect of independence would provoke on the part of the militias-made up of anti-independence locals, although armed, funded, and controlled by Jakarta and his own military.

A new campaign of terror began in April 1999. At dawn on April 4, a militia group, joined by police and Indonesian soldiers in civilian clothes, drove much of the population of Liquica into the city’s main church. Two days later they stormed the church compound and began firing. Their objective was apparently to exterminate the local political leadership. Father Raphael dos Santos, the local priest and a wellknown critic of Indonesian human rights violations, said that he and other political figures took refuge in the rectory at the back of the church compound. “The militias broke into the house and began hacking at people with their machetes,” he recalled. “Then the police threw tear gas into the house, and those of us who were still inside had to leave.”

Father Raphael himself was saved when he ran into a military officer who knew him. For the next several hours he listened to gunshots and screams from the safety of the police station. When he was finally allowed to leave, he returned to his home to find the walls and hallways bathed in blood. The bodies had been taken away Father Raphael knows of 20 citizens of Liquica who were killed, but he estimates that many more from outside of town were also murdered.

Although no country save Australia had ever recognized the legitimacy of Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor, the U.N. Security Council had always treated it as an internal Indonesian problem. U.N. officials understood the consequences of the referendum much more clearly than Habibie apparently did, and in the spring of 1999, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan asked Jakarta to disarm the militias and permit foreign troops to supervise the voting process. When the Indonesians refused, the U.N. acquiesced and sent in 300 unarmed police officers instead. Violence grew over the summer, and the U.N. was forced to postpone the vote twice.

On August 30, an astounding 98 percent of registered voters went to the polls. When almost 80 percent voted against a continued relationship with Indonesia, the militias struck in full force. Moving from town to town and village to village, they looted and burned virtually every house. Until mass graves are investigated, no one will know how many people they murdered as well. Virtually the entire remaining population fled into the hills or across the border to West Timor. Villagers outside the mountain town of Aileu said that all but four of the dwellings in their village had been destroyed. A young woman in Liquica said that when she returned after three weeks living in a cave, her entire neighborhood had been incinerated. And four former bank tellers who work with the U.N. in Dili said that their homes had been looted of every article and then burned down. In two and a half weeks, almost every shred of personal wealth in East Timor was stolen or destroyed-cattle, chickens, motorbikes, phones, furniture, and books. “And the principal weapon was gasoline,” notes Brynjar Nymo, spokesperson for the U.N. peacekeeping force. “That’s pretty impressive.”

East Timor provided fresh evidence of the limit of U.N. peacekeeping: the Security Council cannot or will not forcefully intervene until catastrophe strikes, even when it has good reason to anticipate such catastrophe. What was true in Rwanda in 1994 remained true in the summer of 1999. But in East Timor the violence produced a different response. Both the Portuguese and the Australians demanded Security Council action, and the Australians offered to lead a multinational force-a “coalition of the willing,” in the new U.N. phrase. The Security Council authorized a fact-finding mission to rebut Indonesian lies about the violence. President Clinton, after temporizing for several days, threatened to veto new loans to Indonesia from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. On September 13, Habibie told Annan that he would accept the Australian– led force. On September 15, the Security Council authorized the force, and the soldiers put ashore five days later. This was not only perhaps the swiftest response in the history of U.N. peacekeeping, but it was the first time in the post-Rwanda, post-Srebrenica era that the Security Council met an emergency head-on. Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N., described the operation as the textbook realization of Churchill and Roosevelt’s dream when they laid out the principles of the U.N. “It only took twenty years, a staggering number of wasted lives, and pillaging and rampaging by the Indonesian military,” Holbroke grimly added.

By the time the Australian soldiers arrived, the militias had destroyed or stolen practically everything that was worth destroying or stealing. After a brief show of resistance, they melted away across the border into West Timor. East Timor became a genuine U.N. peacekeeping operation in February 2000, when blue-helmeted troops replaced the Australians.

There are now 8,500 well-armed U.N. soldiers in East Timor, with very little to do. Several weeks after the soldiers arrived, General Jaime de los Santos, the Filipino head of the peacekeeping force, seemed to have an alarming amount of time on his hands, and the atmosphere in his office was downright torpid. The general explained that his soldiers spend much of their time building bridges, fixing roads, and reassuring the Timorese that all is well. The militias have remained behind the border, harassing refugees but otherwise posing very little threat. At some point they are likely to test the resolve of the U.N., but they are not the danger they used to be. The militias appear to have lost the support of the Indonesian military now that Abdurrahman Wahid, a long-time supporter of Timorese independence, has replaced Habibie as president.

Burnout

The militias Wrecked East Timor in a very distinctive way the country was burned, not bombed. From the street, whether in Dili or the smaller provincial towns, concrete slabs of foundations are still visible, as are the side and often the front and back walls of buildings but no windows, doors, or roofs. The houses are hollow, scorched clean of paint, wiring, or fixtures of any kind. In some neighborhoods, the dwellings are intact; in others, every house has been gutted. The militias were especially thorough in destroying worthwhile institutions. At a walled compound in Aileu where a cluster of school buildings used to stand, almost nothing was left but the sign indicating what had once been there. Outside the center of town, with its market and its throngs of people, reigns a ghostly quiet.

And yet East Timor is not Rwanda. The militias killed hundreds of people, perhaps even thousands, but not hundreds of thousands. Most Timorese are now back where they were in August, albeit living under plastic sheeting or in tents. Although a crop cycle was skipped when the entire population fled, the two main staples, rice and corn, are quickly returning to pre-violence levels of availability. Nor is East Timor like Kosovo, with its poisonous spirit of vindictiveness and hate. When Luis Soares, a wiry farmer in a red T shirt who was using a hoe to clear a mountain road, was asked whether he felt that young men who had served in the militias should be accepted back, he said that he did. What if the person who looted and burned his own house came back? Soares smiled and said, “My own nephew was one of the militias. I saw his sister in the market yesterday, and I told her that I accepted her. So I would accept him, too.”

In Aileu, further up the road, Domingos Costa Mota-the head of “civil security” for the National Council for East Timorese Resistance (CNRT), the political body that had sponsored the independence struggle-was processing a truckload of returnees from West Timor. He separated out young men whom he suspected of involvement with the militias-about a quarter of the total. “The village chiefs come and tell us whether they have engaged in violence,” he said. “Most of them go back. The worst ones we give to the Civ Pol.”—the U.N. police—”and they are brought to Dili.”

Costa Mota said that he, too, did not see the point of vendettas. That is the CNRT party line, and only a few ex-militia members have been lynched. (More have been beaten.) The Timorese actually seem to be less angry than they have a right to be-making them very unusual victims. This magnanimity may also explain why donors have so far had a better record of delivering on their pledges than in Kosovo. Change does not seem impossible.

The Timorese who hid in caves and forests returned to their homes once the militias fled. And only half of the approximately 200,000 who crossed the border remain in West Timor. It is estimated that about 25,000 of the remainder will never return; they are Indonesians or Timorese who do not want to face the consequences of their actions. Other Timorese have been intimidated into not returning by the stories circulated by militias of rape and pillage by the Australian and U.N. peacekeepers. But these rumors cannot last forever, and there has been a steady flow of Timorese coming back across the border.

The A-Team

The U.N. is fully aware Of East Timor’s importance as a test case and has sent out a kind of A-team of international technocrats. Most of the top people in UNTAET speak four or five languages, have extensive experience in Bosnia, Kosovo, Cambodia, and elsewhere, and seem appropriately daunted and bemused by the magnitude of the burden they have been handed. Hans Strohmeyer, a German legal scholar, is the counsel to the transitional administrator. His job is both to invent a Timorese legal system and to help devise a body of laws for this embryonic country. It is an extremely peculiar and urgent situation: UNTAET could not pay its Timorese employees, for example, until it had devised a banking law and settled on a currency It could not punish lawbreakers without a body of criminal law The alternative would be to rule by decree, but this would violate the spirit of its mission and undermine the U.N.’s larger goal of fostering democratic values. And so the first statute the transitional administration passed was one that delineated its own authority and stipulated that Indonesian law would remain in force unless it conflicted with U.N. human rights standards or with the UNTAET mandate. The second new law set up a “National Consultative Council” to give the Timorese a say in the legislative process (although the transitional administrator remains free to ignore its advice). Other laws established a judicial system, a fiscal authority, a tax regime, a civil service, and a currency (U. S. dollars).

It is tempting to view East Timor as an intriguing exercise in applied political philosophy In fact, however, it is an exercise in adapting ideals to painful realities. “Between the picture that we want to project of ourselves as these U.N. people who possess the highest standards,” Strohmeyer said, “and what we’re actually required to do, there’s a huge gap, and we have to come to terms with that.” He pointed out that it would be noble but ludicrous for Timorese law to enshrine the principle of the universal right to counsel, or of a defendant’s right to a hearing in 48 hours. The roads in the country are so bad and transportation so limited-there are hardly any Timorese-owned vehicles of any kind outside Dili-that it will be years before defendants can expect to see a courtroom within two days of being charged.

It was Strohmeyer who talked about the “empty shell.” He had served in Kosovo with Vieira de Mello and described the difference between the two missions by saying, “In Kosovo, we had judges, lawyers, prosecutors; the trouble was finding one who didn’t have a Yugoslav past or a Serbian collaborator past. Here you don’t have a single lawyer.” Strohmeyer tracked down all 70 law-school graduates in East Timor; not a single one of them had been able to practice law under the Indonesian dominion. (There are, thanks to a 25-year diaspora, Timorese lawyers in Portugal and Australia, as there are Timorese doctors and academics. But it will be a long time before many of them will be tempted to leave their paneled offices for life in Dili or the provinces.) It did not help matters any that the militias had burned or stolen every single law book in East Timor; Strohmeyer had to travel to Jakarta to beg legal texts from law firms there. The Dili courthouse had been utterly trashed, but not burned, and the U.N. spent a small fortune installing wiring, plumbing, and floor tiles. And then Strohmeyer tried to get a justice system going. He appointed some of the law-school graduates he had tracked down as judges, some as defense lawyers, and others as prosecutors, and told them to get to work. But the wheels of justice are grinding slowly. By February, the new legal staff had been on the job for about a month, and they had worked their way through 4 of a backlog of 350 cases. The courthouse was a blinding stretch of fresh white tile, untrod by human foot-only one courtroom was in use. Strohmeyer had originally planned to bring in non-Timorese judges to advise the local ones, but he now thinks that the foreigners might, in fact, have to do some of the actual judging.

The new bureaucrats of the East Timor Authority, as the state administration is called, work out of an auditorium located right behind the Governor’s House. They sit on a raised gallery around the rim of the building, and one can see the names of the nascent ministries taped to the back of computers: Civil Service, Water Supply, Agriculture, Judicial Affairs, and so on. Their job, like Strohmeyer’s, is to supply the Timorese with what they dorit have, but also to train them to take over the work themselves-to distribute drugs, but also to create a network of pharmacists and pharmacies (of which East Timor currently has zero).

Andrew Whitley, the head of the civil service, is a scholarly Briton who practiced journalism with the BBC and the Financial Times before joining the U.N. Whitley has established a Public Service Commission, with five Timorese members and two foreigners, whose job will be to set standards and pay scales and then to recruit and train future bureaucrats. Whitley is looking at the examples of Mozambique and Eritrea, where the U.N. also more or less invented a civil service. But his biggest problem is finding warm bodies. So few Timorese have the minimal credentials necessary for middle- and upper-level jobs that Whitley has decided to advertise in Indonesia and to accept applications from anyone who has not been “formally accused of a major crime”-like burning a neighbor’s house down.

At such times this whole massive project of uplift seems faintly utopian. The U.N. has everything, East Timor has nothing, and what East Timor needs the most the U.N. may not be able to give. And the new country’s needs are more than material. Fabrizio Hochschild, de Mello’s chief aide and another Kosovo alumnus, says, “In Pec [Kosovo], people started rebuilding two weeks after the bombing finished. They would take some timber off a destroyed house to put a beam in their roof, or they’d get material in Montenegro. They would reach under their pillow for savings. Here people don’t have a savings base, and they’re incredibly far from everywhere. You’re just getting shops coming up now after five months. In Kosovo, it was a few weeks.” The Dili marketplace had, in fact, reconstituted itself by late February, but it consisted of blankets spread out on the sidewalk in front of the old marketplace. Most of the cars in Dill were U.N. Land Rovers. A favorite restaurant, the Dili Cafe-a kind of lean-to made with sheets of corrugated metal-was owned by Rui Goncalves, a Timorese who had fled to Australia after repeated failings by the Indonesians. He had returned after the violence, bringing with him a mobile espresso truck. All the customers were, of course, foreigners. Dili appeared to be a wholly owned subsidiary of the international development community.

In some ways, in fact, the new colonialism looks and feels powerfully like the old. The most logical target of resentment in East Timor these days is not the militias, which are gone, but UNTAET, which is omnipresent and well-nigh omnipotent. Practically the only people in East Timor with jobs are the ones who work for the U.N. or the international nonprofits, and if you do not speak Portuguese, that option is essentially closed. The streets of Dili are lined with young men who have nothing to do. U.N. officials drive around in big, late-model Land Rovers while the Timorese walk along the cracked sidewalks or the decaying wharf. It is a combustible situation, and sparks are starting to fly In February, a brawl broke out on the docks when a group of Timorese demanded payment from U.N. officials unloading cargo. (Since there are no available jell cells, there is not much to deter someone who wants to take a swing at an unarmed U.N. police officer.) A fight between Timorese youth at Phil’s Grill, a restaurant near the airport, ended with one of the combatants brandishing a machete over a British humanitarian worker. And the situation is almost certain to get worse.

It is not clear whether the local political elite will continue to accept its nonage. “You can tell that they feel subjected to our collective brain power,” Strohmeyer says. The Timorese think of the problem in slightly different terms. Ramos-Horta, the Nobel Prize winner, complains bitterly about the incompetence of the U.N. police. “Our people are supposed to be assisting some policemen from Gambia,” he said. (Gambia was obviously his idea of a genuinely underdeveloped country) “We have some very senior people. The idea that they should be assisting the Civ Pol. is like asking me to be an assistant to one of these junior UNTAET people; it is stupid and insulting.” Asked if he could think of anything good that UNTAET had done, Ramos-Horta pondered for a very short moment and said, “In terms of anything visible so far? Nothing.”

UNTAET has, in fact, been slow in providing jobs and housing, and the combination of bureaucratic sluggishness and growing frustration may yet prove the mission’s undoing. And yet this is one case where the U.N. has the right to expect patience. UNTAET has been operating in East Timor for only a few months, and the actual process of local recruitment and training is only beginning. It will take several years to produce enough local police officers, judges, and bureaucrats to take over from UNTAET.

And it will take longer still for East Timor to become a stable country. East Timor is a tiny dot of an island, and yet the U.N. will have to spend lavishly, in both time and money, to ensure a successful transition there. International donors have already pledged $55 million, and more will be needed. If the international community wants to entrust such ambitious tasks to the U.N., it will have to get used to paying for them.

The New Colonialism

EAST TIMOR is technically a peacekeeping operation. De Mello reports to Undersecretary-General Bernard Miyet, the head of U.N. peacekeeping. Indeed, one reason for UNTAET’S bureaucratic problems is that the peacekeeping division has neither the staff nor the experience to manage so massive and complex an operation, either there or in Kosovo. U.N. peacekeeping has changed drastically over the last generation, and the organs of peacekeeping created in the era of Dag Hammarskjold, the U.N.’s second secretary-general and an early advocate of such missions, have scarcely caught up.

Traditional U.N. peacekeeping operations, whether in Cyprus or the Golan Heights, involved standing between two sets of belligerents exhausted enough to accept outside intervention. The U.N. remained scrupulously neutral and respectful of the sovereignty of the contending nations. Such missions worked as long as the two sides wanted an excuse not to fight. They failed, as in southern Lebanon or Kashmir, when that was not the case.

Today countries do nor fight wars with each other nearly as often as they did when the U.N. was founded-something for which the U.N. takes credit, although without much evidence. Conflict has not diminished, however-it has merely changed shape. The face of modern warfare is a machete-wielding Rwandan mob or a band of Serbian irregulars. War today is often a symptom of a failed state, which lacks the power to adjudicate among, or deliver goodies to, various factions. Peacekeeping is a necessary but not a sufficient answer to the problem of the failed state; the peacekeeping mission is meant to be the thin edge of the wedge of large-scale political change.

Compared to traditional peacekeeping, nation-building is a much more complicated and gradual process. It cannot work at all absent a political culture that is open to, even eager for, the kind of transformation the U.N. brings. Witness the failure of the U.N. mission to Cambodia, where the Vietnamese-backed Hun Sen has undermined open elections. Political values cannot simply be transfused or imposed, as the mission in Kosovo, among many others, demonstrates. There is a very real danger that the U.N. will define missions for itself—or, more likely, be handed responsibilities-where its failure is almost foreordained.

In some ways, however, East Timor is almost ideally suited to the new generation of peacekeeping missions. There is no dictator determined to cling to power, and the country has a political culture that survived a quarter-century of Indonesian dominion. Indeed, the one functioning institution in East Timor is the CNRT, which has representatives in every town and village and whose authority appears to be unquestioned. Its military wing, known as the Falantil, is also highly respected-the question of its demobilization is so thorny that the U.N. hasn’t even approached it yet. The former chief of the Falantil, Xanana Gusmao, spent much of the last quarter-century either in the jungle or in prison and is now the undisputed leader of the CNRT. Gusmao is a charismatic and thoroughly charming character: a poet, trim, bearded, and wry if there is a megalomaniacal Fidel Castro or an autocratic Hun Sen lurking inside him, it has yet to surface. Gusmao has consistently preached a doctrine of reconciliation and is widely credited with the relatively low levels of vindictiveness that reign within the CNRT. He now functions as an unofficial co-president with the U.N.’s de Mello, and is almost certain to become the new country’s first official leader. Here the contrast with Kosovo works wholly in East Timor’s favor: the country is peaceful and unified, and although that will change as the afterglow of the independence struggle wears off, there is no inherent impediment to a democratic future.

Also unlike Kosovo, East Timor’s future status is unambiguous. The U.N. resolution governing Kosovo respects the former Yugoslavia’s claims of sovereignty over the region, and thus every nation-building initiative there raises an unanswerable question about the exact status of the nation being built. But East Timor will be a country as soon as the transitional administration is finished, and UNTAET and the CNRT have agreed on a road map to independence. The process will begin with a mass convocation of Timorese in late 2000 or early 2001 to debate constitutional principles. This will be followed by a meeting with international legal experts to draw up a draft constitution and by the election of a constituent assembly. Then, in what is expected to be late 2001 or early 2002, the assembly will sign the constitution, the country will declare its independence, and UNTAET will get a new name and mandate.

Hard Case

East Timor is clearly some kind of a test case, then. But a test of what? Holbrooke includes the country in his list of peacekeeping operations where the U.N. must succeed if it is not to be consigned to irrelevance. But the peace being kept in East Timor is too unproblematic to serve as a useful test of peacekeeping per se. Sierra Leone, where the U.N. is trying to pacify a land that has been tortured by a monstrous rebel force for a decade, is a much better test of the limits and the possibilities of peacekeeping in a world of bandits and warlords. The Democratic Republic of the Congo will do just as well, if and when the peacekeeping force recently authorized by the Security Council is actually deployed. These are the hard cases of peacekeeping, East Timor is an easy one.

East Timor actually poses a different question: Where peace or at least relative calm has been achieved, can the U.N. foster political stability, economic development, and reliable and responsive democratic institutions? Nation-building is an ambitious project, quite different in magnitude from other, more traditional U.N. tasks such as encouraging “sustainable development” at the village level, curbing population growth, or reducing the incidence of infectious disease. The U.N. has been in the nation-building business only since the late 1980s, when it established a transitional administration in Namibia. Since then, the U.N. has functioned as a government in absentia only a few times. But in a growing number of countries the U.N. and the nongovernmental organizations it works with are now training or rebuilding the army, the police force, the civil service, and the judiciary

These efforts raise a question that goes beyond the U.N.’s technocratic competence, or the patience and pockets of donor countries, or even the organic nature of political development. Nation-building involves the U.N.’s telling countries how to govern themselves-and many of those countries are a good deal more self sufficient than East Timor. This project stands at the shifting frontier between the universalism that the U.N. embodies and the sovereignty of its individual members. It is not at all clear that when push comes to shove and these two imperatives clash, the newer and more intrusive doctrine will win out.