New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era

Mary Kaldor, 2012, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era (3rd Edition), Cambridge: Polity Press

New and Old WarsMary Kaldor’s New and Old Wars invites us to consider the changing logics, practices, and geographies of violence. Since the seminal “new war” of Bosnia-Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995, Kaldor argues that international violence has shifted from primarily state-oriented conflicts, involving a mass of soldiers and centralized “top-down” planning, to a series of hybrid or “low intensity” conflicts that involve private contractors, paramilitaries and illegal sponsors. Crucially, civilians are rational targets for such new wars, instead of being unintended “collateral damage”, and this is because new wars are driven by exclusive and often extreme forms of identity politics. Failure to recognize this shift, warns Kaldor, means that policy makers are bound to repeat mistakes of the past. In place of old war thinking, she proposes “humanitarian law enforcement” as a model for intervention in failed states across the globe.

The book begins by mapping the terrain of her central argument. During the last decades of the 20th century in Africa and Eastern Europe, a new type of organized violence has developed in concert with globalization: one the blurs the distinctions between war and peace, is fuelled by organized crime, and leads to large-scale violations of human rights. Indeed, globalization is a key force to understanding Kaldor’s argument—it has connected the planet at the same time as it has resulted in myriad disconnections and alienations, leading to an emerging global class based on the ability to travel freely (and those that are left behind). With advances in technology and mobility, small-scale conflicts thus rapidly connect a variety of communities and supporters instantly.

The second contextual force that operates in Kaldor’s argument is political economy. Financial security is a key driver in shoring up the state’s authority, and by implication, its legitimate monopoly of state violence. Without this autonomy, a corrupt political oligarchy aggrandizes its position through illegal means, and a decaying social support system throws a mass of unemployed people into the arms of increasingly nationalist (or identitarian) causes.

In her words, “The new wars occur in situations in which state revenues decline because of the decline of the economy as well as the spread of criminality, corruption and inefficiency, violence is increasingly privatized both as a result of growing organized crime and the emergence of paramilitary groups, and political legitimacy is disappearing” (p.7). The result is a profound blurring of the roles of soldier and criminal. Territorially-based state sovereignty is therefore under threat if the new wars thesis holds. For Kaldor, a disintegrating monopoly of legitimate organized violence is eroded from “above” by the transnationalization of military force and the institutionalization of the “bloc” system, and “below” by the privatization of security in a whole manner of arenas.

There are three main characteristics of the “new wars”. (1) They are driven by exclusive forms of identity politics. (2) The conduct of warfare has changed: from territorially-based battles to politically-based manoeuvres that sew “hate and fear”. (3)  A globalized war economy that is decentralized and predatory, financed through crime, remittances, and raids.

Before discussing these in more detail, what exactly is an “old war?”

What we imagine an old war originated in Europe somewhere between the 15th and 18th century alongside the evolution of the modern state. Clausewitz defined war as “an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will”. But in this particular case, the “wills” were lumbering nation states with soldiers as their sovereign protectors. For example, Napoleon introduced conscription, the levee en masse in 1793, and in 1794 he had 1,169,00 men under his control – the largest military force ever before created in Europe.  And so the notion of war as state activity, conducted between states, was firmly established towards the end of the eighteenth century. By this time it was possible to define the state with the following characteristic distinctions: public/private, internal/external, economic/political, civil/military, soldier/criminal, war/peace. All of which is to say that war was defined as a discrete event between nation states. In the 19th century this discrete event would increase in size and scale dramatically, with an ever increasing need for “rational” organization. This would transition to the “total wars” of the twentieth century that mobilized national energies, wherein the public sphere incorporated the whole of society in the war machine, directed towards an “external enemy”.

Conversely, in new wars, the target is not an external enemy and the battlespace is fragmented.

Political goals of the new wars are claims to power based on identity. Labels (especially religion and ethnicity) are used as a basis for political claims based on fragments and inward looking communities, and located within the hollowed structure that the state once occupied. This has two main drivers: (1) a reaction to the growing impotence and declining legitimacy of the established political classes; (2) the insecurity associated with the process of globalization. Combined, this “is a recipe for new closed-in statelets with permanently contested borders dependent on continuing violence for survival” (p.91).

The political economy of war has similarly changed.

The war economy used to be centralized and autarchic, with a mass of people mobilized for the war effort. The new type of war economy is based upon decentralized states, fragmented financial sources, and low levels of (public) participation. Indeed, the continuation of war has a distinct economic logic, as opposed to a singularly geopolitical logic.  There are four key facets to this globalized war economy:

1. The privatization of military forces. The loss of control over the state’s monopoly of physical violence, as in so-called “failed states”, leads to a reduced ability to collect taxes and strengthen social cohesion. This leads to a concomitant privatization of violence: the most common forms are paramilitary groups, often autonomous armed men centered on an individual leader, which can be used as proxies by governments for extreme forms of violence. They rarely rely on heavy weapons, and lack the vertical command systems common with guerilla warfare.

2. Patterns of Violence. Revolutionary warfare, as articulated by Mao Tse-tung and Che Guevara was designed to find ways around large-scale concentrations of conventional forces. The central objective was gaining and controlling territory through the support of local populations, rather than through capturing territory from enemy forces: “winning hearts and minds” so the guerrilla can operate “like a fish in the sea”. On the other hand, counter-insurgency seeks to “poison the sea” by deliberately targeting the population and civilian infrastructure. The new wars borrow from both revolutionary warfare and counter-insurgency. The result is a war based on controlling territory through fear, hatred, and humiliating the civilian population.

3. Financing. The erosion of the tax base leads to all kinds of “asset transfers” – i.e. the redistribution of existing assets to favour the fighting units (looting etc). New wars are also funded through external sources of funds, such as remittances, diaspora support, foreign governments, and humanitarian assistance. In short, the informalization of war is paralleled in the informalization of the economy. War provides a legitimization of various criminal forms of private aggrandizement, as the formal political economy withers. New wars are thus difficult to stop unless democratic negotiations take the underlying social and economic relations into account (instead of treating the various factions as proto-states).

4. Propensity to Spread. This new type of warfare is a predatory social condition with a propensity to spread and suck in regional actors, through displaced peoples, lost trade, the spillover of identity politics, and direct conflict.

The Future?

Kaldor ends her book by asking “So what is the future?” The implication of her argument is that it’s no longer possible to contain war geographically. Zones of war and zones of peace will continue to exist side by side in the same territorial space. She lists three scenarios:

The Clash of Civilizations (Samuel Huntington): “war on terror style” civilizational blocs, fault-line wars where different civilizations collide based on cultural norms (primarily religious).

The Coming Anarchy (Robert Kaplan): a decomposing polity has led to civil disorder on a global scale, and there is a “return to nature” and “Hobbesian chaos”.

Cosmopolitan Governance (Mary Kaldor): Kaldor proposes that we break with the assumption of territorially based political entities, and instead construct alliances of “islands of civility” and transnational institutions, underlined by cosmopolitan law enforcement that would fill the security vacuum inherent in contemporary peacekeeping.

Of course, one of my thoughts while reading this book is where to locate U.S. drone warfare in the picture? She describes the Rumsfeld-era “Revolution in Military Affairs” as a technologically advanced form of “old war” – and does an excellent job of showing how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were failures precisely because of “old war” thinking (and not humanitarian law enforcement that engaged with civil society).

Drone warfare is certainly composed of different military and state elements compared to the labour-intensive wars of the past: its kill chain links together White House officials with covert and clandestine operatives in the CIA and Special Operations. And so too is the logic of territory and sovereignty challenged and reworked in many different directions: targeted killings in Mogadishu, Sanaa, and Miranshah are asymmetrical conflicts that do not involve “boots on the ground” (at least not directly). But there is a fundamental unevenness to all of this. The U.S. “Homeland” is hardly fragmented and territorially inconsequential—just witness the rise of walls, barbed wire, and drones all along its borders with Mexico and Canada. Perhaps, then, Kaldor is right: drone warfare does not really bring anything new to the table—Empire is just Empire 2.0.

And yet, drone warfare does not seek to secure territory in the traditional geopolitical sense. Nor does it seek to win the “hearts and minds” of populations that are on the wrong side of Death TV. In this sense, it is very much in-line with a new wars modality. Extending this further, we might say that drone warfare (especially in Pakistan) has indeed worked to terrorize civilian populations in ways that are similar to the guerrilla-cum-counter-insurgencies that Kaldor ascribes to Serbian violence in Bosnia. While their (techno) materialities may be different, it is the “environment” that is captured and targeted in both instances—placating entire populations with “fear and hatred”.

And if recent history has taught us anything, nothing resembling “success” can emerge from this form of state violence. While I am uncertain, suspicious even, of “humanitarian law enforcement”, it is far better than the logic of “death as success” that reigns today, sewing decades of blowback in the shadows.

All said, Kaldor’s book is a must-read for grasping the broad historical and contemporary contours of state violence.

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