MM 2001: War without risk

December 21, 2000

Modern warfare can be a 'political entertainment' in which little is chanced, or a hell where civilians, not armies, are targeted. Mary Kaldor explains

The 18th and 19th centuries were periods of optimism, when people believed that the application of human reason would lead to emancipation. Science and technology would increase productiveness and make it possible to overcome want and privation. The modern state associated with the rule of law and the rise of civil society would lead to the elimination of violence in relations between human beings.

Indeed, the achievement of "civil society" was synonymous with the establishment of a peaceful domestic order based on the state's monopoly of violence. War was increasingly confined to conflict between the armies of different states and, in the late 19th century, codes of conduct in war were gradually codified in the laws of war. "Glory is more successfully obtained by saving and protecting, than by destroying the vanquished, and the most amiable of all objects is attained," wrote Adam Ferguson in 1767. These assumptions were dispelled by the "short 20th century" (from 1914 to 1989). The world was engulfed by two terrible wars involving whole societies and, for more than 40 years during the cold war, the world's inhabitants had to live under the threat of nuclear destruction. At the end of the 20th century, the mood is of pessimism and uncertainty. Is it possible to revert to the expectations of the 18th and 19th centuries and the construction of what Immanuel Kant called a "universal civil society"?

The real significance of the 1989 revolutions may be the end of inter-state war. There are a number of reasons for this. One is the sheer destructiveness of modern military technology; it is very difficult nowadays to capture territory militarily, as the Russians are finding in Chechnya. A second reason is the extension of international norms -the prohibition against war was first codified in the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 and then in the United Nations charter. The Tokyo and Nuremberg trials after the second world war made wars of aggression a criminal offence. These legal norms are also increasingly upheld by international public opinion. A third reason is the interconnectedness of armed forces, through alliances, joint exercises, military assistance, equipment procurement and so on. Today, perhaps only the United States has the capacity to fight a war unilaterally over a prolonged period. But this does not mean wars have come to an end. There are "enforcements" or "spectacle wars" - a degenerate form of modern warfare undertaken by western powers in places such as Iraq or Serbia, making use of modern technology and providing a form of political entertainment, which helps to sustain governments. Largely dominated by the US, spectacle wars are based on the assumption that there will be a future global clash, a "peer competitor" or an "asymmetric enemy" and that the new threats can be countered by long-distance warfare, without involving any risk of casualties.

And there are also "new wars", as in the Balkans or Africa, which represent the unravelling of the modern state and the civilising process. New wars constitute the underside of globalisation - particularist, disconnected, informal. They are a mixture of wars (organised violence for political goals), massive violations of human rights (organised violence against individuals) and organised crime (private organised violence). They are wars in which political identity is defined in terms of exclusive labels - ethnic, linguistic, or religious. Violence is directed mainly against civilians and not another army. The aim is to capture territory through political control rather than through military success.

And political control is maintained through terror, through expulsion or elimination of those who challenge it, especially those with a different label. Indeed, the strategies of such wars directly violate both human rights and the laws of war. And they are wars in which the various parties finance themselves through loot and plunder and illegal trading, and thus are closely linked into and help to generate organised crime networks.

One option for the new millennium is a continuation of the present trend - a world in which spectacle wars and new wars feed off each other.

Spectacle wars provide an opportunity for new technology to be displayed, and they give public opinion the impression that something is being done without involving any risk. But they are much less successful at containing new wars - indeed, they may stimulate fragmentation, criminalisation or a scapegoat mentality. New wars have a tendency to spread - through refugees and asylum seekers, through transnational organised crime and through identity-based networks. Thus a world of spectacle wars will also be an anarchic, violent, unequal world, in which the pressures of war, migration and various forms of deprivation are to be found globally, even within the urban conglomerations of the advanced industrial West. Some argue that inter-state wars may take place in Asia. One cannot rule this out, but if they do take place, they are likely to be short or take the form of new wars, as seems to be happening in Kashmir.

The other option is the extension of the civilising process, a global rule of law, in which violence is used only for "the obtaining of justice and for the preservation of natural rights". Humanitarian intervention would thus be quite different from a spectacle war. It would aim at the enforcement of the laws of war and of human rights legislation. It would involve the direct protection of individuals. It would require a new type of global policeman ready to risk death in the cause of humanity. And it would have to take place in the context of a range of economic, social and institutional policies at a global level aimed at dealing with the extreme consequences of globalisation.

Above all, it would require a cognitive change - in which the tribalist assumptions of the nation-state era are supplanted by a genuine comprehension of the implications of human equality, as Ferguson put it. Have we learned enough from the horrors of the 20th century, from Bosnia and Rwanda, to construct this kind of civilised world order?

Mary Kaldor is principal research fellow and programme director, Centre for the Study of Global Governance, London School of Economics.

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