Peacemaking in an Era of New Wars.
Fleeing people locked up in camps along the US–Mexico border or drowning in the Mediterranean Sea; trucks driving into crowds of people; mass shootings in schools; violent storms, floods and fires caused by climate change; seemingly never-ending wars in places like Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen or the Democratic Republic of the Congo; the spread of extremist fundamentalism: all these phenomena are what the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci called “morbid symptoms.” They appear in situations where “the old is dying and the new cannot be born.”
Here, the “old” is the system of states associated with modern industry, mass production, mass media and dependence on fossil fuels. But, this system is out of step with today’s interconnected and complex world that is defined by the revolution in information and communications technology. In similar grand transitions of the past, war played a critical role in constructing and reconstructing the state apparatus. But the type of war through which this occurred has become too destructive to be fought. Instead, contemporary wars could be described as state ‘un-building’. So, how is it possible to construct the kind of institutions that would enable us to lay the basis for the “new”?
The Changing Character of War
In this write-up, the terms “old” and “new” wars have been used to describe the difference between the wars of the modern period—from 17th to 20th centuries—on the one hand, and contemporary wars, on the other. Old wars include both interstate wars and classic civil wars between governments and rebels, where the rebels were organized, in effect, as a state in waiting. Indeed, the English Civil War of the 1640s could be described as the first modern war, in which Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army offered a template for the future organization of the state.
Old wars, at least in theory, were contests of wills. Carl von Clausewitz, the iconic strategist of the modern period, defines war as “an act of violence designed to compel our opponent to fulfil our will.”
New wars, like those in Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Somalia, are better described as a social condition or even as a mutual enterprise in which numerous armed groups gain more from violence itself than from winning. They gain politically through the construction of extremist identity politics based on hatred of the “other”—along the lines of ethnic sectarianism or religious fundamentalism. And they gain economically through loot, kidnapping, extortion and other criminalized activities that take place under the cover of war. In new wars, battles between armed groups are rather rare and most violence is directed against civilians. These wars are difficult to end in time or space; they tend to persist and spread rather to extremes.
Old wars were an essential element of state-building. “War made the state and the state made war,” said Charles Tilly. Wars were the ways in which first monarchs and later republican governments established order and built a state apparatus. Modern wars centralized power, mobilized the population and encouraged economic self-sufficiency. To raise money for wars, governments increased and improved the efficiency of taxation, increased borrowing, regularized banking and established central banks. In Western countries, this involved an implicit bargain, in which the population gained increased rights in return for paying taxes and fighting in wars. In Eastern Europe and Asia, by and large, funds for fighting wars were extracted through increased repression rather than through a bargaining process, so the repressive capacity of the state was also developed. Wars also produced technological and organizational innovations that contributed to the transformation of both the state apparatus and the broader socioeconomic context. Wars, moreover, opened up new forms of communication and social organizations; thus, newspapers were first published in the English Civil War, while many new social movements, such as humanitarian groups or women’s groups, gained traction in times of war.
Contemporary wars are almost exactly the opposite. They disassemble the state; participation is low and they are decentralized and globalized. They involve the disintegration of federations, such as the former Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union. They construct new, unstable, inward-looking sub-state entities like the Republika Srpska in Bosnia, South Sudan or the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics in eastern Ukraine. Taxation is low and finance comes from war-related activities. State services such as health, education, police or courts are decimated. They produce fragmented and often transnational extremist political identities. They lead to waves of forced migration. They also give birth to new transnational assemblages of security and humanitarianism formed to tackle their problems; that is to say, external interventions by the United Nations and other multilateral institutions and by a whole array of international NGOs and private contractors.
Rethinking the Meaning of Peace
Philosophers and political thinkers began to develop schemes for perpetual peace during the Enlightenment era. This period saw the rise of secular intellectuals associated with an enlarged merchant or capitalist class—consisting of growing numbers of teachers, doctors, writers or lawyers—that developed alongside the traditionally dominant warrior nobility and clergy.
Most of these schemes were based on the assumption that war was between states, and they proposed to end war through proposals for some form of league or federation of nations based on a permanent peace treaty. Immanuel Kant, whose pamphlet “Perpetual Peace” is probably the best-known example of these suggestions, created a scheme that involved a permanent peace treaty, republican constitutions (with checks and balances), and the idea that cosmopolitan rights (human rights, as understood now) need only to be confined to the right of hospitality, that is to say, treating strangers appropriately. Peace movements developed throughout the nineteenth century with regular pan-European congresses that put forward peace schemes designed to end conflict between nations, aimed at establishing instruments of international arbitration such as the court established at the Peace Palace in The Hague. It was this version of peace that was championed by Andrew Carnegie.
This idea of peace, as synonymous with “peace between nations,” became the dominant conception of peace up to 1989. The Soviet Union espoused this understanding of peace as peace from above, negotiated among states and associated with non-interference in internal affairs. This was reflected in peace research databases of war established during the Cold War period, such as the Uppsala Conflict Data Program that defined war as interstate or intrastate and involving a certain number of battle deaths. Wars that involved networks of state and non-state actors that were both global and local and where most violence was directed against civilians were simply not captured by the data.
For these old-fashioned advocates of peace, the main method of peacemaking was top-down diplomacy among states. Yet in new war contexts, this understanding of peace has turned out to be counter-productive. The various armed groups are not states in waiting; rather, they represent a combination of gangsterism and political extremism. Since the end of the Cold War, there have been literally hundreds of such agreements negotiated by international agencies, mainly the United Nations but also the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the African Union. Only about half can be said to have succeeded in reducing violence. Because violence is directed against civilians, it is rather easy to halt it between the groups or to separate the warring parties. These agreements, basically, freeze the social condition of a new war.
While these agreements have a legalistic veneer on the model of peace treaties in the past, they are better described as mafia truces. As armed groups multiply, it becomes ever harder to bring them together, except through promises of positions and money. Indeed, there are cases where peace groups have been formed in order to participate in peace talks. If peace talks do succeed in reaching agreement, the main effect is to legitimize the participants, thereby entrenching the toxic combination of political extremism, social and economic predation, and the disassembled state.
Bosnia-Herzegovina is often touted as the model for this type of agreement. The Dayton Agreement is hailed as a success story for ending three years of war. Yet this Agreement also divided Bosnia into three entities ruled by ethnic warlords. Despite a large international military presence and very high levels of funding—more money per head than the Marshall Plan delivered to Western Europe after the Second World War—Bosnia remains a dysfunctional society, where the threat of renewed war is ever present.
An alternative conception of peace requires a very different set of assumptions in which peace is imagined not as the absence of war between states, but as a social condition experienced in societies governed by rights-based law. The world of states was characterized by what international relations scholars call the “great divide” between “outside” relations of power based on war and diplomacy and “inside” relations based on politics and the rule of law. Instead of peace between states, the new peace is about the spread of the “inside” outward. It is constructed on the basis of the globalization of politics and law. Peace could be described as a civic social condition that can be counter-posed against the social condition of a new war that crisscrosses national boundaries. Peace can only be achieved by reversing or countering the new war social condition. That is a much more complex undertaking than merely top-down peace talks. It requires a simultaneous, multilevel combination of building legitimate institutions, countering sectarian and fundamentalist narratives, investing in value-adding economic activities, establishing the rule of law, and creating effective justice mechanisms. This approach does not replace peace talks. But peace talks aimed at reversing the social condition of new wars would be constructed very differently from peace talks aimed at reaching agreement among the warring parties.
The last three decades have been a learning process. The transnational security assemblages formed in the wake of top-down peace agreements to deal with post-conflict situations have grown in size and scope. There is a much greater understanding of the multidimensional requirements that are needed to address the new war social condition. But the efforts of many dedicated international officers and volunteers are often subverted by the gap between the actual situation on the ground and the conceptions of how to achieve peace at the level of high politics, which means, by and large, the level of old-fashioned states with built-in old- fashioned ideas of war.
Giving Birth to the New?
New wars are an expression of the way in which states have become increasingly dysfunctional in contemporary society. The morbid symptoms to be observed worldwide are the symptoms that can be observed in new war contexts. They include the neoliberal hollowing out of states and the rise of crony capitalism or what Alex de Waal calls the “political marketplace,” where money replaces public deliberation as the currency of power. They also include the rise of extremist populist ideologies directed against women and minorities and fomented through new digital methods of spreading lies and propaganda. States no longer have the capacity to address the everyday problems that individuals face because their capacities are hollowed out by spending cuts and contracting out, because problems like climate change are bigger than the state, and because of embedded “old war” ways of thinking and doing.
Even in the so-called advanced countries, hate crimes, terrorist attacks and mass shootings are already rising. A possible, indeed probable, scenario is a global era of chronic new warfare. This does not mean increased war between states, but a new dark age where all these morbid symptoms of societal breakdown contribute to and are compounded by climate change.
If we conceive of the new peace as the spread of the inside outward, it should be noted that there are different models of the inside, some of them characterized by repression and surveillance. The growing weight of China in global affairs, for example, may betoken a model of world order based on extensive global surveillance and the imposition of stability from above. Rather, a new conception of peace should be based on an inside that is characterized by a rights-based rule of law.
This kind of peace would need to express a broad social narrative about how to adapt political institutions to a different development paradigm that makes use of new digital technologies to save resources and transform lifestyles in a way that is just in both social and climate terms and addresses all levels of governance. Earlier peace proposals for federations or leagues of nations need to be replaced by new models of global governance in which states are no longer the pivotal element of the global system. Local and regional levels need to be empowered to address local and regional complexities. And regional and global political institutions need to be more than intergovernmental institutions, able to act politically and accountable to citizens.