New Wars, New Actors: conflicts in the post-Cold War era
Considerations about the changing nature of warfare (actors, outcome, technology, etc.) were always present during different periods of time in history. Nonetheless, in the last fifteen years, three specific notions have appeared as analytical tools for analyses: total war, spectator-sports war and new wars. The latter one is a concept first used by Mary Kaldor to describe a new type of warfare developed after the Cold war. According to her, the classical distinction between war (interstate), large-scale violations of human rights (against individuals) and organized crime (violence by private actors) does not exist anymore, due to the globalization.
This term of ‘new wars’ can be summarized by four essential characteristics: 1) conflicts happen between various combinations of state and non-state actors, 2) they are driven by identity politics rather than ideology, 3) the aim is no more a physical but a political control and 4) they are privately financed. That said, this thought of ‘newness’ in the nature of warfare is also widely criticized by scholars. So, one might legitimately ask the following question in order to understand this debate:
Is the nature of warfare really changing as Kaldor suggests?
New wars vs. Old wars: legitimate distinction?
The first set of criticism addressed to the idea of ‘new wars’ concerns the real ‘newness’ of it. Some scholars argue that several characteristics of new wars can also be found in early modern period conflicts and phenomena such as mass rape, forced migration and civilian deaths are very old. For example, some searchers showed that the human impact of civil wars is considerably lower after the Cold War period. The general response of Kaldor to these critics is that the adjective of ‘new’ is mainly misunderstood by scholars. Put otherwise, she claims that this etiquette ‘does not have to do with any particular feature of contemporary conflicts […] but rather it has to do with the model of war and how the model I spell out is different from the prevailing models’. Even though it seems a bit confusing, concretely she argues that one needs to think about ‘new wars’ as a model to analyse the reality; this analytical tool must not correspond exactly to the real world itself. This being the case, one might counter this idea by saying that a model which core assumptions do not fit the reality cannot be considered as a good model. Apart this semantic problem, regarding the empirical side, she responded to critics by asserting that quantitative data used to falsify new wars’ existence is generally constructed on ‘old assumptions about conflict’. Consequently, one needs to be cautious when using these old data for a new concept. As a matter of fact, she especially demonstrates this problem in two cases; causalities and forced migration. The former is miscalculated because 1) numbers on civil deaths are not exact, 2) it is difficult to distinguish combatants from civilians and 3) it is also difficult to know if the civilian is dead because of direct, indirect or deliberate effects of war. Data with respect to forced migration is also inaccurate because it is cumulative and does not consider people who are not returning home.
There is one other critic for which Kaldor did not formulate any response yet: the role of globalization in the changing nature of war. Unlike her, some contends that globalization is not a new fact and connections between civilizations have already existed in the past. They add that war in itself was a force for globalization. So, one might deduce that globalization is not an explanatory variable for the changing nature of war but war itself contributes to it.
Are all conflicts ‘wars’?
The second set of criticism towards new wars is about the categorization of contemporary conflicts as wars. Some searchers posit that contemporary battles are essentially conducted by private interests and therefore cannot be understood as wars. John Mueller for instance argues that what is called warfare today is most of the time opportunistic private fights for interests, even if ‘many of the perpetrators do cagily apply ethnic, national or ideological rhetoric to justify their activities because to stress the thrill and profit of predation would be politically incorrect’. The point they want to make by this distinction is that a ‘state of violence’ which is not a war can be seen as illegitimate and must be resolved by policing measures, not by politico-military ones. Stathis Kalyvas partially responded to this criticism. He states that civil wars are characterized by the ‘joint action’ of public and private, local and supra-local actions even though they have diverse goals. A clear divide between political and private spheres does not exist. Kaldor made quite a similar argument supporting the idea that political motives serve as a kind of legitimate motivation for private violations.
This ‘joint action’ argument sounds satisfying for civil wars. However, what about other types of conflict, dispute? For instance, the proposal of political/private distinction has also been pointed out for terrorism. A lot of legal and political experts, academicians have been criticizing the term of ‘war on terror’ owing to inaccuracy of this vocabulary. A ‘war on terror’ refers to and necessitate the use of military solutions while policing and intelligence means would be better adapted. If we think seriously about this conceptualization, can we say that the ‘war on terror’ also implies a joint action of political and private, collective and individual actions? This is not entirely convincing as in the civil war case. Terrorism has its own and distinct dynamics — global, not territorially based, more individual actions, etc. — which render very difficult to find political motivations sometimes.
To conclude, given the current state of the debate, the proposal of a changing nature of conflicts seems to be plausible. Perhaps the vision of Mary Kaldor understanding new wars as a conceptual model contributes to the strength of her argument. At the end, she is not asserting to describe each characteristic of a real-world war. Furthermore, she raises a very fair point when arguing that existing databases are not adapted yet to analyse some dimensions of new wars. The only doubt about new wars is their place in temporal historical context. How can we know exactly if these wars are part of a cyclical pattern or a radical diversion from the past? It would certainly be a good idea to insist more placing them on the chronology of military history.