New Wars and Old: An interview with Mary Kaldor

Metta Spencer phoned Professor Kaldor on September 3. They chatted while Kaldor’s dinner was kept simmering on a back burner.

By Metta Spencer (interviewer); Mary Kaldor (interviewee)

METTA SPENCER: So you’ve been hiding out in France to write a book?

MARY KALDOR: Yes, two books. One of them is with a colleague. It’s about new wars and international law.

SPENCER: Good. I want to ask you about your theory of “New Wars.” You’ve been talking about that for ten years but I haven’t talked to you about it. And I want to ask your thoughts about what to do about Syria and ISIS.

KALDOR: The new book is about how international law is related to the use of force, how it is changing, and how we think it ought to change. And it’s connected to the crisis in Syria.

I started writing about New Wars after my experience in Bosnia, which wasn’t what I imagined war to be like from my pictures of World War II. The point is not whether they are empirically “new” but that they are different from our notion of war. The key thing about New Wars is that they have a different logic than Old Wars.

Old Wars, if we think of the European wars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Clausewitz was the great theorist), were contests of wills, in which both sides wanted to win. They had beginnings and endings. With New Wars the various warring parties are more interested in the condition of war than in winning or losing. Such a war is like a mutual enterprise that’s very difficult to end—like a social condition, rather than like a contest of wills.

Who are the warring parties? It’s often said that they are non-state actors, but they are usually mixtures of state and non-state—the kind of networks that involve regular forces, militias, mercenaries, warlords, etc. and that are also global. The war in Syria is a good example of that because what the government does is shelling and bombing at a distance. The actual fighting is done by a range of militias—the Shabiha, who are the Alawi militia, or the National Defence Forces, which have been created and trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. So instead of the old hierarchical armies, there are networks.

Also, more than fighting for territory or ideals, identity is incredibly important. Most New Wars are fought in the name of ethnic or religious identity, which is different from ideology only in the sense that it’s their feeling they have a right to access to the state. So in the case of Northern Ireland, for example, it was a conflict between Catholics and Protestants, but it had absolutely nothing to do with whether Catholicism is a better form of Christianity than Protestantism. It’s all about whether Catholics should be treated the same way as Protestants. It’s the same with Shia and Sunni. It’s about identity, but really about labels.

SPENCER: And you view identities as constructed, not essentialist.

KALDOR: Indeed, and one way you construct these identities is through war. In Bosnia, people said, “We’re a mixed, cosmopolitan community. We couldn’t care less whether we’re Muslims, Serbians, or Croats.” It’s exactly the same in Syria. Everybody said, “It’s ridiculous to say we’re Shia or Alawite. We never even thought about it. We’re all inter-married. We live in one of the most cosmopolitan societies in the world.” But what happens when people start to kill you because you’re Sunni or Shia or Croat or whatever? Identity becomes important. War becomes a way of constructing identity. People are sort of forced into the arms of these groups. This is the first way in which it becomes a mutual enterprise. People acquire a political identity or ideology through fighting. The more they fight, the more people care about identity and the more they are likely to support these guys.

Another difference has to do with tactics. In Old Wars they engaged in battle in a field in the countryside, with the forces arrayed against each other. But in New Wars you extend your territory, not through fighting the other guy, but politically. We see that in Ukraine and Syria. You take over the administrative buildings, and you either kill or expel anyone who doesn’t agree with your political control. So violence is being directed through established political functions.

They are also explicit that the main aim is displacement—getting rid of people so they can control the territory. They destroy historical and cultural buildings. If you have visible atrocities, your opponents are more likely to run away. I’ve been arguing for years that everyone tries to count casualties, whereas—quite apart from the fact that the figures are very bad—the real risk in the New Wars is displacement. That’s a much better indicator, as we’re seeing now with the migrations. They are deliberate.

SPENCER: Why is migration happening so much right now? The war has been going on for years in Syria but just now everybody has decided that this is the time to go.

KALDOR: Well, I think they have been leaving all along. The number of refugees and displaced persons has reached about eight million.

SPENCER: But why now into Europe?

KALDOR: It’s probably the growth of the people-smuggling business. But it’s also the spread of New Wars in Libya, Mali, Afghanistan.

Anyway, we’ve been doing a lot of work in Syria about how these wars are financed. Typically a New War starts with an authoritarian government that starts neoliberal economic policies. You saw it in Bosnia, in Ukraine, in Syria. And the result is a dramatic fall in the economy and high levels of unemployment, even in societies that didn’t have unemployment before. And so the money for these wars comes from extortion, ransoms, smuggling drugs, smuggling antiquities, smuggling human beings. They engage in war for all these economic activities. There’s an absence of law. So, again it is a mutual enterprise among bandits or rebels who do these things.

SPENCER: Are you suggesting that in the war in Syria, say, most of the weapons are not supplied by other states? That they are supplied more by thugs?

KALDOR: I wasn’t referring to the weapons. I was talking about the money they require. Some of it may be supplied from outside, but much of it is gained internally by predatory activities. They need the weapons to make the money, and they need the money to buy equipment. It’s a self-perpetuating system.

So for both economic and political reasons, it’s a perpetual war. It’s more like a social system. Also, it’s something that spreads—through the refugees and displaced people, through the smuggling routes and trade routes. You can see the effects. Mali was a spill-over from Libya.

SPENCER: You were describing a phenomenon that was new when you started talking about it, but the subsequent cases have matched your description. You predicted very well.

KALDOR: Right. And afterward there were endless arguments about whether New Wars are new or not. People said they were rather like the warfare in the early modern period. I felt that the argument about whether they were new missed the point. What really matters is that they are different from what we think of as war. They have a different logic. Most of our methods for dealing with these conflicts are traditional. We tend to think that the choice is between military intervention and talks. In either case, we are assuming that it’s an Old War, so military intervention would be on one side—one country—and with talks you get the two sides to compromise. But if it’s not really a contest of wills, then military intervention is just going to make things worse, which is what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq, and it’s going to justify it and allow it to spread. And political talks? In Bosnia, they did reach an agreement, but only by entrenching the warring parties and allowing the predatory economy to continue. Even if that were possible in Syria (which I don’t think it is), it wouldn’t be a solution but a disaster. It allows human rights violations and violence to continue. So neither of the traditional options works any longer.

SPENCER: So what do you think should be done now about such cases as Syria and ISIS?

KALDOR: You have to tackle the logic. You have to tackle identity politics and the war economy. You need a much more granular approach on the ground. It’s what we were doing in Bosnia. There, as in Syria, the war was very uneven. There are safe areas, such as Tuzla, where people try to negotiate local ceasefires. They try to keep on providing local services. And the answer, it seems to me, is to try to work with those people, try to expand the safe areas. Yes, you need negotiations from above, but in Bosnia the negotiations were in a completely opposite direction from civil society because the negotiations were about how to create ethnically clean territories. They actually were undermining what civil society was doing. Instead, the negotiations should have been about how to defend Tuzla—very concrete things. How to stop ethnic cleansing. How to stop the war economy. That’s the practical approach. It’s complex and difficult, but it’s basically a combination of bottom-up and top-down.

SPENCER: Meaning what?

KALDOR: It means supporting civil society groups on the ground from above. So when you have talks with the leaders you say, for example, “What we want to discuss is how to lift the siege of Ghouta.” How to deal with the humanitarian issues, not how to carve up Syria.

SPENCER: Is anything left in Syria that could be treated as such an enclave?

KALDOR: Yes. We just completed a study of the war economy. We looked at local areas. They differ enormously. Some of them are relatively safe. Some local people have really resisted ISIS. We came across one area where the women just surrounded a building that the Jabhat al Nusra (which is the Al Qaeda militia) had occupied. The women said, “We won’t move until JaN goes, and eventually—”

SPENCER: Jesus! Really! That’s gutsy. Wow.

KALDOR: Exactly. Lots of things like that happen all the time. Nobody is aware of them because they focus on the violence.

SPENCER: And what happened? Did the militia leave?


SPENCER: Wow. That’s civil resistance, isn’t it?

KALDOR: Exactly.

SPENCER: So there are still places in Syria that could be protected as enclaves. What would you do? Fly in peacekeepers?

KALDOR: You wouldn’t have to fly them in. There are large areas that are very safe where you could move an international presence inside from Turkey. But we’ve come up with a whole lot of suggestions that sound ridiculous. One of the issues is the price of diesel. ISIL and the government have a monopoly on the provision of diesel, so people are paying huge prices, which go directly to ISIL. The prices are so high that they can’t afford to do agricultural production any longer, so they turn to these war economy activities. A very simple thing would be to provide cheap diesel in opposition areas.

SPENCER: Really.

KALDOR: If you study what’s going on in various areas you can come up with specific ideas, rather than having a canned recipe.

SPENCER: Yes. Thirty years ago we talked about “non-provocative defence,” or “defensive defence.”

KALDOR: Yeah, we did, didn’t we?

SPENCER: It seems to me that the notion never penetrated military thinking. So, for example, if they wanted to protect the people in Benghazi, the only way they could think of doing it was to launch an aggressive action against the regime in Tripoli.

KALDOR: How interesting that you should say that! When that happened in Benghazi I argued that instead of saying they were going to bomb Ghadafi, they could have declared Benghazi a safe area and protected it.

SPENCER: Yes, they could have interposed peacekeepers and said: Now, neither side gets to kill the other. Unfortunately, they’d still be there, frozen in place, the way Cyprus remained.

KALDOR: Surely that’s better than now! And inside Benghazi you could have ensured that the militias didn’t acquire arms; established a monopoly of violence inside Benghazi; and had a regular economy and law and order. Now it’s going to be incredibly difficult.

SPENCER: So you’re talking about international law in connection with this human security approach?

KALDOR: Yes, we’re saying that the human security approach is a global extension of the rule of law. The problem is that international law is different from domestic law. In international law it is actually legitimate to have war. But New Wars not only are human rights violations but they also violate international humanitarian law, so they are totally illegitimate. But if we are going to have a human security approach, how do we deal with such things as Obama’s claims that the drones are legal, or Putin’s claims that annexing Crimea is legal? There are ways of interpreting international law that allow you to do that.

SPENCER: How so?

KALDOR: For example, when Bush invaded Iraq, which I think was clearly illegal, he argued that this was preventive self-defence. So Christine Chinkin and I are looking at the laws relating to the use of force and showing what international law might be like in a human security approach.

SPENCER: Isn’t international law just a fig leaf now? I think often governments don’t give a hoot what international laws say they may or may not do. That applies both to Putin and, as you said, the US. Are they really concerned?

KALDOR: If not, why do they use that language? Putin, more than anybody, is terribly fond of explaining everything in terms of international law. And Bush went to great lengths to show that what he was doing in Guantanamo was legal. So I think international law is very important—partly, as you say, as a fig leaf for the great powers to do what they like, but also because they do think law is important. I think the development of human rights law has allowed people to challenge what is being done. It’s also an opportunity for resistance. For example, because Britain was a signatory to the European Human Rights Convention, Iraqis challenged the behavior of the British in Basra—took them to the European Court of Human Rights and won the case.

SPENCER: I don’t know about that case.

KALDOR : It’s called Al-Skeini. A guy was killed when detained by British forces in Basra. They were accused of violating human rights and the case went up to the Court of Human Rights, and they won it. It means that foreign troops can’t behave with impunity. Similarly, the Srebrenica women have finally won a couple of cases in the Dutch courts. These cases are few and far between, but still, there’s an argument. Of course, the Americans are not signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights.

Our book is not primarily about such instances. It’s about how international law is different from domestic law but how it’s changing. The differences are less great than they were in the past, precisely because human rights law is more important than before. And also, war was formally prohibited after the Second World War.

SPENCER: Are you taking heart from these developments?

KALDOR: No, we’re not taking heart at all. The situation is depressing because international law is often moving in the wrong direction. You see it in the war on terror, and in the way the meaning of self-defence is being stretched. International law, as it currently stands, doesn’t fit New Wars. It is based on an Old War conception.

SPENCER: Are there any exceptions to the New War category? Do any recent wars not count as New Wars?

KALDOR: That’s an interesting question. In some ways ISIS is interesting because they’ve been imposing state-like structures.

SPENCER: Yes. Fishing licenses in Mosul, I think I read. And parking tickets. You say you’re not taking heart. I’m not either. I can’t imagine what to do about ISIS or Syria. I can more easily imagine solutions to Eastern Ukraine, but I don’t think they will be adopted.

KALDOR: I think that for anything to work it will be necessary to commit huge amounts of resources—not just money, but thought. Nobody’s doing that now.

SPENCER: The great increase in migration issues in Europe may lead people to conclude that they have to do something at the other end.

KALDOR: Yes, I think we do have to link the migration issues with these inter-connected crises. We should call those people “refugees” instead of “migrants.” But now I should go look at my cuttlefish!

SPENCER: Okay. Thanks, Mary.

Mary Kaldor is Professor of Global Governance at the London School of Economics. Metta Spencer is editor of Peace.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2015

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2015, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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