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How Persuasive is Mary Kaldor’s Account for New Wars?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: International Relations
Wordcount: 2853 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Focusing on the severity of the wars and the number of civilians killed, new war theorists point to a dynamic shift in the nature of war which is different from the old wars. In her account, Kaldor captures the views of the new theorists who argue for the new nature of the contemporary conflicts. Mary Kaldor’s account of “new wars” and “old wars” aims to differentiate between the two.

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There are notable differences between “old wars” and “new wars”. Firstly, while the old wars were fought between states by opposing uniformed soldiers, “new wars” today are fought by a combination of state and non-state actors, therefore the line is blurred between civilians and the actual combatants. In some cases, such as armed militias, the combatants are civilians. Another difference is that while old wars were fought for the reasons of state and ideologies, the new wars are fought for sectarian identities (Berdal, 2003), this complicates the conflicts as there are no clear conditions for a victory. In. new wars, battles that characterized the old wars are rare and violence is directed against civilians compared to the old wars that were fought to strengthen the state and were fought between combatants, Kaldor’s account of new war advocates for the disintegration of states in order to gain personalized interests through conflicts. This means modern conflicts are fought to achieve political or economic gain rather for the control of the population in the old wars. Another difference is that these conflicts are no longer between major powers either in terms of finance or aims, rather mostly between non-state actors. Kaldor’s account explains the factors at play in these wars and digs deeper into the motivations behind the stakeholders. In this essay, I will attempt to illustrate her view by using the cases of the war on drugs and conflicts in the developing countries as examples.

                     (Melander, 2009) claims that the weakening of the state and the rapid development in technology coupled with the subsequent advancement in technology have revolutionized war, this has allowed war to become a globalized occasion between state and non-state actors. With the weakening of the state, deregulation and liberalization, war has moved from states fighting each other and turned into a competition between non-state actors competing for scarce resources which has created the new wars. Compared to the old destructive wars, the new wars are designed to cover illegal activities allowing certain actors to benefit from them (Melander, 2009).

According to Kaldor, actors in the new wars go to war to win power which requires the creation of an atmosphere of fear and terror. To illustrate this view, Kaldor uses the example of the Iraq war which the US has been unable to control. The Iraq war was started in 2003 by the US to overthrow the government of Saddam Hussein under the claim that the Iraqis have a “weapon of mass destruction” in their possession. Through a long campaign, Saddam was eventually captured and executed, however, the conflict did not end as sectarian violence arose through the Shias and Sunnis. This fits the criteria of a “new war” as through the creation of sectarian identities, non-state actors created vested interests and manipulated identity politics in order to gain power. This led to a civil war making it impossible for the US to end the war even after the Iraq Army was defeated.

Compared to the old war where an invading state engaged uniformed opponents in violent and brutal attacks which involves physical attacks and territorial invasion, new wars focus on the benefits that can be gained from the unarmed opponent, sometimes through diplomatic and economic methods to threaten enemies. With stakeholders’ vested interests, new war conflicts impacts those not only in the fighting countries and factions but to neighboring territories and even further (Melander, 2009), this is evident in the Iraqi war as there are other factions besides the Sunnis and Shias that reside in the area who suffered casualties and other negative effects in the following conflicts.

 This is also evident in humanitarian aids; the spread of war eliminates neutrality making it impossible for those involved in humanitarian aid to distinguish between the combatants and the civilian. In the old wars, the conflicting sides could be easily differentiated, with new wars this is almost impossible.

Compared to the old wars, the new wars approach conflict as an opportunity for internal violence, insurgence and other destabilization activities (Berdal, 2003). Conflicts at the international level have become excuses for internal violence where non-state actors are busy appealing to the particularistic tendencies of civilians to exploit war for economic gains. In her argument, Kaldor is no longer interested in the number of combatants killed or displaced by this war but the civilians either directly or indirectly involved in these wars which are fueled by religion, racism or other forms of ideologies. While there are limited direct confrontations, people are still suffering the collateral consequences of the new wars through disruption of functional systems and institutions that are targeted by internal conflicts (Chin, 2002). In the pursuit of political and economic gain, non-state actors promote sectarian identities to fuel fear and hatred in the entire society. For instance, in Nigeria, the Boko Haram for instance has been responsible for a national wide enmity between Christians and Muslims. While the Boko Haram is limited to a handful of radical Muslims, their ideologies have segregated an entire country forcing Christians to live in fear of their Muslim brothers because of a few instances of “new war” violence that is directed against civilians.

Moreover, new wars often lead to political destabilization and large-scale civil violence (Berdal, 2003). This mostly happens in third world or other less developed countries or puppet states where major powers are using to fight proxy wars. These conflicts often benefit the major powers yet causing conflicts in the developing countries. An instance of this might be Indonesia. In the 1960s, Japan ( under control of the US at the time ) began to make frequent contact with ASEAN in terms of trading and economic activities as war compensation to countries in the Southeast Asia. Since ASEAN controls most trading policies, tariffs and economy in Southeast Asia, they steered their economy to rely heavily on export-oriented manufacturing in order to react  to massive foreign investment flowing into the market of Southeast Asia in the 1980s. However, since Indonesia has a lack of infrastructure and heavy corruption, instead of benefitting from the situation, they encountered financial and political problems following those events. Inequality present in Indonesia coupled with globalization of economy caused Indonesia an increase in income disparity, it also caused social and economic tensions as well. As a result, the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis broke out and caused large inflation, bankruptcy, and lead to the devaluation of the local currency – rupiah. In 1998, a massive riot forced the president to resign. This fits the criteria for Kaldor’s new war – state disintegration that involves open economies and transnational crime.

To illustrate how in new wars, violence is among combinations of state and non-state actors, the war on drugs can be used as an example. While the war on drug has made little to no progress on the problem of drugs, it has been instrumental in promoting the disenfranchisement of the Black minority in the US  (Knapp, 1992). The government not only failed in the war on drugs but instead promoted racial segregation in criminal justice. The war on drugs has led to discrimination against the African American minorities while drug trade remains untouched and thriving in the country. While both African Americans and Americans are involved in the trafficking and use of drugs, the legal system has been harsher on the former rather than the latter.

New war theorists claim that the human impact of civil conflict has worsened which is the thesis of Kaldor’s account. (Melander, 2009) identifies increases in number of civilian victims killed and displaced and the change in ratio of civilians to combatants killed in conflict. This data supports the view that there is a fundamental shift in the nature of warfare in the sense that there is no direct participation by the state. In her account, Kaldor evaluates the nature of war in the post Second World War in a period where battles have been replaced by low-intensity conflicts (Melander, 2009). Across the globe, while peace has seemingly managed to overcome the threat of war between countries, violence still exists. These “new wars” are more dangerous in the sense that they are fought close at home where there are no clear conditions for “winning”.

Another way Kaldor differentiates “new wars” from “old wars” is the identity of the actors involved in the wars, their means of finance, military conduct and goals. With the introduction of non-state actors in wars, most of these details have already been blurred. While the old war stressed the importance of a powerful state, the new wars mostly ignore the state. In the new wars, there are little to no conflicts between major powers which has paved way for the confusions that are the modern war. The new wars can be seen as a type of organized violence that deviates from the old war militaristic approaches and instead encourages violence within the state. They are mainly designed to destabilize states and create new orders, or to attain victory of religion, language and ethnicity or other forms of social organization. While old wars emphasize stabilization approaches of socialism, democracy and nationalism as common post-war goals, there are no clear goals in the new wars. To summarize, with the introduction of non-state actors, details such as their identity and the way they are financed are not clear anymore, this also serves to blur winning conditions as the motives for war are not as clear, this serves to make conflicts more complicated and difficult to end and for any side to achieve “victory”. This holds true for both the Iraq War and the war on drugs.

In the war on drugs, the US government has been misguided into believing that they can win the war on drugs which has created an atmosphere of fear and thus allowed the illegal narcotics trade to thrive. There are also been allegations that the US itself assisted with the narcotics trade, which might be to create an illusion of a common enemy with its citizens and helps to foster a sense of patriotism. While there is no conflict at the international level, the US is involved in an ongoing internal conflict characterized by racism and discrimination, hence the government has yet to make progress toward the supposed “victory”.

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While the war on drugs has no effect on the availability of drugs in the US, Whitman Knapp reports that it has had devastating effects upon a whole generation. This is due to the large amount of young people convicted with drug crimes which negatively affects their ability to gain employment, education or other opportunities in the future. This fits with Kaldor’s view that civilians and commoners are more affected than actual combatants. While drug dealers and users are being sent to jail on a daily basis, the lifestyle and material resources displayed by the drug dealers keeps luring more members of the community into the trade which complicates the war on drugs. This inspires the less fortunate to turn to the wrong side of the law for a fast track to these riches, which bolsters the drug trade. This also fits with Kaldor’s view that conflicts are no longer financed through the state, but through other indirect means. The government had already labelled the drug dealers as public enemies because of harming harmony in the society.

Moreover, the justice system denies judges a wider discretion when it comes to the rehabilitation of the drug offenders because the statutes related to drug crimes specifies a minimum sentence to drug offenders. In line with the views of modern war theorists, the sentencing guidelines impose unjust sentences to drug offenders who are drawn from specified ethnic minorities (Chin, 2002). In new wars, such occurrences are referred to as the un-building of the state which Kaldor explores in her account. In reality, the war on drugs does more to disrupt certain communities without addressing the root problems that persist in the community. Such examples of this might be indirect reasons such as the pressures of society or other social problems with forces citizens to turn to drugs for a psychological escape, or in regard to drug dealers, they might not have access to opportunities whether it be financially or through discrimination, which forces them to turn to the illegal drug trade to make a living. With increased prices and supplies from the war on drug efforts, the drug dealers have access to better resources to intensify their narcotics operations and launder the illegal gains without attracting the attention of the authorities (Knapp, 1992). As explained by Kaldor, the new wars involve open economies and the disintegration of state apparatus and employ transnational tactics which make them impossible to overcome.

The US government who are still stuck with mindset of fighting an old war assume that direct confrontation will bring an end to the conflict without realizing that all this achieves is disrupt the targeted minority communities, while the drug trade adapts appropriately and remains untouched. The drug problem persists despite the resources and legislative efforts at convicting the offenders and handing down harsher consequences, the society is exposed to collateral consequences that are common in the new wars.

An example of this is when they incarcerate a convicted felon. With the existing criminal justice system, felons are denied opportunities to join the work force, advance their education, and engage in business or even start families (Chin, 2002). When the state enacts legislation to register offenders and exclude them from federal benefits after an extended stay in prison, they set them up for more missteps in the future which encourages recidivism leading to harsher sentences. Excluded from accessing professional license, grants, loans, aid or affordable housing, war on drugs victims are forever crippled by their conviction which invalidates the rehabilitation purpose of justice, hence the situation with convicted African Americans who are denied the opportunity to reintegrate back into the society once their sentences are complete which increases the likelihood of arrest and conviction in the future. This also fits the new war criteria – in that a large number of people who suffer are not the actual combatants at all, the abovementioned situation forces a lot of convicted felons to become repeat offenders.

The correct direction to tackle this problem is to address the root issues instead, as with basic economics – without demand there will be no supply. Therefore, if citizens do not feel the need to purchase and consume drugs, the drug problem will cease to exist, however since the US government still subscribes to the “old war” way of thinking, there will be continued meaningless direct conflicts that does not improve the situation.

In conclusion, through the two case studies of the Iraq war and the drug war, there is a clear differentiation between “old wars” and “new wars” and that the above modern conflicts meet the criteria of a “new war”. The direction of Kaldor’s argument and the rationalization she applies makes her argument highly persuasive.

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  • Berdal, M., 2003. How “New” Are “New Wars”? Global Economic Change and the Study of Civil War. Global Governance, 5(4), pp. 477-502.
  • Chin, G. J., 2002. Race, the War on Drugs, and the Collateral Consequences of Criminal Conviction. The Journal of Gender, Race & Justice, Volume 6, pp. 253-248.
  • Knapp, W., 1992. The War on Drugs. Federal Sentencing Reporter , 5(5), pp. 294-297.
  • Melander, E. Ö. M. a. H. J., 2009. Are ‘new wars’ more atrocious? Battle severity, civilians killed and forced migration before and after the end of the Cold War. European Journal of International Relations, 15(3), pp. 505-536.


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