To What Extent Does the ‘New Wars’ Thesis Capture the Changing Nature of Contemporary Warfare?
It is important to define and categorise wars because this can facilitate a break down and analysis of them; which in turn is a step closer to understanding them. Once understood, one can work on strategies to prevent them. This is why the establishment of a ‘new wars’ thesis is important; it allows us to grasp what is occurring in contemporary warfare. A good way to begin to unravel and understand the concept of ‘new war’ is to contrast it with the notion of traditional warfare. However, as with all academic theories and debates, there are criticisms to be made regarding the validity of the thesis, and how well it encapsulates the realities of modern warfare. From the outset, it is worth bearing in mind whether or not ‘new wars,’ is the best label under which to encapsulate such an expanse of social activity; and if so, whether or not this necessarily covers the changing nature of modern warfare.
‘New War’ Thesis in Contemporary Warfare
As Kaldor explains, a ‘new war,’ is a type of organised violence that developed in Africa and Eastern Europe during the 1980s and 1990s. It is often a low intensity conflict, with the political aim of population expulsion. Tactics that were once not used in conflict are unfortunately becoming commonplace within these wars, in turn creating a ‘new‘ phenomena.
More specifically, “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 privatised, both as a result of growing organised crime and the emergence of paramilitary groups, and political legitimacy is disappearing.” Although this is a long quote its use is necessary to capture the essence of Kaldor’s argument.
Whilst being intrastate wars rather than interstate, and taking place in the context of a state failure, which leads to the blurring of public and private combatants, these wars also entail a much higher civilian death toll because of the increased violence usually combined with ethnic or religious connotations. This paper will break down what defines a ‘new war’ as such and then critically evaluate the academic worth of the thesis, in the context of contemporary warfare.
‘New’ vs. Old Wars
One should question what makes these wars so ‘new’? Kaldor argues that they are different by way of conduct and nature. This argument is based on an unsteady premise; the mere advancement of modern technology should not differentiate them. The Napoleonic Wars that were fought in the early 1800s, when Clausewitz was writing, were carried out in a strategically different manner to the World Wars of the 1900s. This is not to mention the different artilleries used, and the increased capabilities of troops; yet the differences in these wars did not allow for them be to categorised differently to any war that had occurred previously.
Kaldor emphasises that her use of the word ‘war‘ in this context is “to emphasise the political nature”of these ‘new‘ types of conflict. This in itself is problematic. Carl Von Clausewitz, in his traditional war theory writings, consistently reiterated that “war is a continuation of politics by other means.” This can be taken in one of two ways. Firstly, that Kaldor’s notion is not in fact ‘new,’ as it can be traced back to academic literature that was published as far back as 1832. Or, one could suggest that due to the change noted within the international community, that in fact Clausewitz’s theories have come back to life within this thesis that aims to explain ‘new wars.’ Clausewitz concentrated his theory upon strategy; academically this was then largely ignored. This could be another explanation for the lease of life that has been given to the ‘new wars’ thesis; it brought back to being, an academic debate regarding strategy that had fallen off out of favour with many academics.
There are further similarities between the ‘new wars’ thesis and the work of Clausewitz. Unfortunately, this prompts further critique of the thesis itself; as in turn it presupposes that it is not therefore adequate in capturing the nature of contemporary warfare, due to the similarities in past writings.
Similarly, Sheehan recognises a form of modern warfare and distinguishes it from old warfare. This appears, on the face of it, to run parallel to a ‘new wars’ thesis, but in actual fact, it does not. This enforces Clausewitz’s relevance today, he expressed an understanding of the changing nature of warfare, and made this apparent within his work.
Moreover, the fact that “war … is inherently unpredictable,”is a further theme that runs through Clausewitz and has been highlighted by the more recent ‘new wars’ thesis. Again, the criticism that the theory is not therefore ‘new,’ can be made.
Globalisation, Modes of Warfare and the Social and Economic Effects of These
The globalisation that brought about the onset of some of these changes we now see in warfare occurred in the 1980s and 1990s. As Newman and Barkawi agree, this discussion of the effects of globalisation, further erodes the ‘new wars’ philosophy. War is not “associated with globalisation, but with nation-states and their borders.” Even to accept the notion of globalisation, as Kaldor sees it, would mean that the whole world was changing; so what makes these ‘new wars’ stand out from everything that was happening in society at the time? Newman argues that we are experiencing a difference in the international attitude towards warfare, rather than ‘new’ warfare. This is an important point; if war is a way of enforcing political ideologies that cannot be settled through amicable agreement, it is therefore an integral part of society, so war will inevitably be affected by social changes. Waltz discusses the problems encompassed when attempting to separate man from state and a single state from a society of states in attempting to establish why wars occur.
Whilst Kaldor accepts that there are criticisms to be made of the ‘new war’ thesis in respect of certain aspects that may be witnessed in previous conflicts, arguably undermining her whole thesis, she uses the critique to reiterate that what defines these conflicts is the nature of them. Such brutally cruel types of conflict, “that disregard basic humanitarian principles to be observed during warfare,”require a type of international humanitarian response, not experienced in previous types of warfare. This is indubitably true. The intrastate conflicts that have been witnessed over the past three decades, have led to failings of the international community, to protect citizens of the human race. It is the brutality of the conflicts and the non-discrimination of non-combatants that has shocked the world.
Further, Betts suggests that not only have patterns of warfare changed, but the way that they are studied has changed and developed, bringing attention to this anomaly. So, although this is a non contentious claim from Kaldor, it came at a time when the international community was already beginning to put individual human rights at the forefront of international policy making. This somewhat undermines her whole argument; the attitude of the international community was changing anyway, not only in connection to, or as a result of the intrastate atrocities that had been occurring. So one must question whether or not these atrocities required the international response that Kaldor discusses, or if they happened because of the change within international thinking. Potentially, this is further criticism of the validity of the ‘new wars’ thesis.
Moreover, the mode of warfare that is now being used is certainly a change from conventional war. Rather than traditionally using battle to capture territory, or using guerilla warfare to capture hearts and minds, these new wars are much more akin to counterinsurgency, where destabilisation is the key to success. Whilst certain aspects of this can be seen within historical wars, for example, in the Nazi regime of the Second World War, where there was a large rate of displacement and of course, the spreading of fear through the use of violence; on the large part, these are modern tactics. Whilst this is an accurate way to underpin the core of what is occurring within these contemporary conflicts, it does not necessarily distinguish them from previous wars.
Furthermore, the long established rule within international law, jus in bello, that regulates conduct within war, is largely being ignored by the conduct of these ’new’ modes of warfare. The simple existence of the rule shows that it must have been respected and states must have abided by it, in order for it to maintain its standing within international law. There has clearly been a change here, and the ‘new wars’ thesis captures the essence of what has altered. For example it is a crime under international criminal law to target a person knowing that they are ‘hors de combat.’More generally, it is also illegal to “direct attacks against the civilian population,” or to commit “acts or threats of violence, the primary purpose of which, is to spread terror among the civilian population.”The occurrence of these acts and the lack of respect for international law is a strong indicator that Kaldor is right in her assertion that what we are witnessing is a ‘new’ phenomenon, and the thesis certainly captures this element of it.
A further point of discussion comes in the form of funding these ‘new’ wars. Kaldor suggests that they are largely funded by decentralised groups, by way of organised crime and by utilising the black market. For example, “illegal trade in arms, drugs” or other commodities such as diamonds. Despite the evidence for the existence of such, this again is not a ‘new’ occurrence within conflict. Moreover, Newman argues that this does not explain the conflicts in places such as Chechnya and Sri Lanka where post Cold War ideologies have been a strong force within the war.
Future Conflicts – New, A Return to Tradition, or Something Else?
The fact that wars tend to reflect the era in which they occur, is particularly worrying for the future of conflict. In current times the civilian death toll has increased in ratio from 1:8 to 8:1. Further developments and technological advances are likely to increase this. Terrorism and the growth of organised crime also increase concern, due to the definition that is used by Kaldor that encompasses all possible notions of warfare. Simply, the future of warfare looks bleak.
Garnett discusses Huntingdon’s rather controversial claim that all future wars will be between civilisations rather than between states or ethnic groups. Despite such a controversial claim, it is worth pointing out that this poses a further problem for the upkeep of the ‘new wars’ thesis. The thesis does not lend itself to any future predictions or analysis of what these ’new wars’ may develop into. Although most theories do not attempt to predict future events, they do, however, attempt to suggest what may happen by way of explanation and analysis of current and past events.
Upon analysis, whilst it does seems that the ‘new wars’ thesis does account for current trends within conflicts, it does not go far enough in distinguishing and differentiating these patterns that are also visible in pre Cold War conflicts, to adequately capture the changing nature of contemporary warfare. It may perhaps be better to give these ’new wars’ a new title, which will hopefully be more widely accepted and in turn subject to less criticism. Although Kaldor defends her reasons for the uses of the words ‘new’ and ‘wars,’ as such well known terms that come with long established definitions, it would be better to avoid this terminology and use something less controversial such as ‘twenty-first century conflict.’ This would avoid the controversies attached to ’new,’ yet at the same time would capture the contemporary way of international thinking, the advancements of modern technology, and would not attempt to be completely different to all previous conflicts.
Barkawi, T. ‘Globalization and War,’ (Rowman and Littlefield: 2006)
Betts, R. ‘Should Strategic Studies Survive?’ World Politics, 50:1 (1997), 7-33
Beyerchen, A. ‘Clausewitz, Non-linearity and the unpredictability of War,’ International Security, 17:3 (1992/3)), 59-90
Cassesse, A. ‘International Criminal Law,’ (Oxford UP: 2008)
Chesterman, S. ‘Civilians in War,’ (Lynne Reiner: 2001)
Clausewitz, C. ‘On War,’ (Oxford UP: 2008)
Dannreuther, R. ‘International Security: The Contemporary Agenda,’ (Cambridge, Polity: 2007)
Fearon, J. ‘Rationalist Explanations for War,’ International Organization, 49:3 (1995), 379-414
Garnett, J. ‘The Causes of War and Conditions of Peace,’ in Baylis et al (ed.), Strategy in the Contemporary World, 2nd ed. (Oxford UP, 2006)
Huntingdon, S. “If Not Civilisations, What? Foreign Affairs Vol. 1: 89 (2010) – Summary available at http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/49414/samuel-p-huntington/if-not-civilizations-what-samuel-huntington-responds-to-his-crit?page=show – accessed on 15/01/2010 at 18.50.
International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty Report – available at http://www.iciss.ca/report-en.asp – accessed on 16/01/2010 at 10.35.
Kaldor, M. ‘New and Old Wars’ (Polity, 1999)
Lynch, M. “Mao,” (Routlegde, New York: 2004)
Newman, E. ‘The New Wars Debate: A Historical Perspective is Needed,’ Security Dialogue, 35:2 (2004), 173-89
Rodriguez, A. “Burning, Looting and Terrorizing Georgians,” August 14th 2008 – available at http://stateminister.blogspot.com/2008/08/burning-looting-terrorize-georgians.html – accessed on 17/01/2010 at 12.15.
Snow, D. “Uncivil Wars: International Security and the New Internal Conflicts”(Lynne Reiner, US: 1996)
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), ‘The State of the World’s Refugees,’ (Oxford UP: 2000)
Waltz, K. ‘Man, The State and War’ (Columbia UP, 1959)
Williams, P. ‘War,’ in Williams (ed.), Security Studies (Routledge, 2008)
For further explanation of the ‘political’ context see page 3 – ‘New’ vs. Old Wars.
Such as atrocities against non-combatants and the destruction of historic monuments. For further on these, now essential components of contemporary warfare, see pages 6-7 of this paper and Kaldor, M. ‘New and Old Wars’ (Polity, 1999) – Chapter 1.
For further description about exactly what is meant by ‘new war’ see Williams, P. ‘War,’ in Williams (ed.), Security Studies (Routledge, 2008) pg. 165.
Kaldor, M. ‘New and Old Wars’ (Polity, 1999) pg. 2.
Clausewitz, C. ‘On War,’ (Oxford UP: 2008).
“Military theorist, Clausewitz, said that the prevailing form of war always reflects the era in which it occurs, and this is certainly the case with modern warfare.” Sheehan, M. ‘The Evolution of Modern Warfare’ in Baylis et al ’Strategy in the Contemporary World’(Oxford UP: 2010) pg. 44
Beyerchen, A. ‘Clausewitz, Non-linearity and the unpredictability of War,’ International Security, 17:3 (1992/3), pg.90.
Barkawi, T. ‘Globalization and War,’ (Rowman and Littlefield: 2006) pg. 25.
Newman, E. ‘The New Wars Debate: A Historical Perspective is Needed,’ Security Dialogue, 35:2 (2004) pg.285.
For further reading see; Fearon, J. ‘Rationalist Explanations for War,’ International Organization, 49:3 (1995), 379-414; who discusses the abnormality that is war, due to states willingly engaging in such an economically and morally draining activity.
Kenneth Waltz, ‘Man, The State and War’(Columbia UP, 1959) pg. 71.
Dannreuther, R. ‘International Security: The Contemporary Agenda,’ (Cambridge, Polity: 2007) pg. 121.
Kaldor, M. ‘New and Old Wars’ (Polity, 1999) pg.3.
The most infamous examples of such conflicts are the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, the 1995 Srebrenica Massacre, and the troubles in the Darfur region of Sudan, brought to the attention of the West in 2003.
Betts, R. ‘Should Strategic Studies Survive?’ World Politics, 50:1 (1997), 7-33.
For further on Kaldor’s claim about the different approach required to these ‘new wars’ see Kaldor, M. ‘New and Old Wars’ (Polity, 1999) – Chapter 6, pg. 119 – ‘Towards a More Cosmopolitan Approach.’
For example, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty Report was released in 2001, following Kofi Annan’s speech. Available at http://www.iciss.ca/report-en.asp.
Newman, E. ‘The New Wars Debate: A Historical Perspective is Needed,’ Security Dialogue, 35:2 (2004), pg.181.
For more on the winning hearts and minds philosophy, followed by Mao Tse Tung, see Lynch, M. “Mao,” (Routlegde, New York: 2004).
Kaldor, M. ‘New and Old Wars’ (Polity, 1999) pg. 9.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), ‘The State of the World’s Refugees,’ (Oxford UP: 2000) – Chapter 1, discusses the changing nature of conflict and how the tactics now used are having a detrimental effect on civilisation.
As stipulated by The Statute of the International Criminal Court, Article 8 – War Crimes.
Cassesse, A. ‘International Criminal Law,’ (Oxford UP: 2008) pg. 90.
For a recent example of where these sorts of acts have been carried out see case studies from the South Ossetia War. For example, Rodriguez, A. “Burning, Looting and Terrorizing Georgians,” August 14th 2008.
Kaldor, M. ‘New and Old Wars’ (Polity, 1999) pg.10.
See footnote no.7.
Chesterman, S. ‘Civilians in War,’ (Lynne Reiner: 2001) pg.2.
See definition and explanation on pg.1.
Garnett, J. ‘The Causes of War and Conditions of Peace,’ in Baylis et al (ed.), Strategy in the Contemporary World, 2nd ed. (Oxford UP, 2006).
Huntingdon, S. “If Not Civilisations, What? Foreign Affairs Vol. 1: 89 (2010).