Page 1 of 2 SPEAKING FREELY The re-politicization of violent conflict
By Andreas Herberg-Rothe
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The ending of the Cold War between 1989 and 1991 re-activated regional rivalries, lifted the restraints on latent mercenary entrepreneurs, and forced participants in existing low intensity, privatized or civil conflicts around the world to seek new financial backers.
The proliferation of such conflicts has prompted many commentators, recognizing also that states have lost their monopoly on military force, to discover a new type of war with each "new war". But, apart from it being too soon to tell if these
new wars are only a temporary phenomenon, or are restricted to certain parts of the world, what is much more important and even essential is the political and moral framework through which we interpret these developments.
In an attempt to capture the unexpected forms taken by excessive violence since the epochal years 1989-91, Robert Kaplan has argued that these developments are indicating a coming anarchy, which has of course to be prevented. In Yugoslavia, Kaplan saw the impending collapse of nation states and the rise of a Hobbesian jungle of gang wars, tribal slaughter, and ideological jihads.
His statement is based on the assumption that the level at which wars are being fought has shifted from the level of the state to a "lower" level. It is argued that in most of these conflicts, non-state actors are involved on at least one side.
This is seen to lead to the conclusion that the motivation and goals of these non-state actors no longer follow political or ideological imperatives but have other sources which may be ethnic, economic, or the fact that violence has become an autonomous force. This view leads directly to recent concepts such as the idea of a liberal American empire, because this is seen to be the only principle that can guarantee a minimum of order as a defense against the approaching anarchy.
Things would look different, however, if this diffusion onto the level of conflict "below" that of the state were no more than a transitional phase, or if this development (which cannot be disputed in general terms, because there is a lot of evidence for it), were restricted to certain parts of the world - such as Sub-Saharan Africa and the traditional lines of conflict on the fringes of the former empires. Additionally one may take into account the possibility that some aspects of future conflicts will be politically determined even though the parties involved are non-state actors (as Hezbollah, Hamas).
The paradigm of these wars would not be determined by the order/anarchy antithesis, but by the antithesis between different conceptions of order in the minds both of the actors themselves as well as of "interested third parties", public opinion, to which the various conflict parties refer and appeal. Ideas of a "liberal empire", which may still be relevant to an antithesis between order and anarchy, would be especially likely to aggravate conflicts over the politics of order.
Unlike a state with a democratic constitution, which rests on both fundamental rights and the state monopoly of the use of force, the idea of a liberal empire is almost a contradiction in terms. It is true that ideally, such an empire can guarantee individual human rights, economic freedom, and legal security, but it is simultaneously associated with a claim to power that cannot be abandoned.
The limits placed on this claim are not set by the possibility of participation in political rule and the shaping of order, as in the case of a democratic state, but frequently by their very opposite - violent resistance. One historical example of this problem is the violent export of the code civil by Napoleon Bonaparte and the violent resistance against it.
Robert Kagan argued that the antithesis between thinking in terms of power and of order is congruent with the differences between current American and European thought, but he admits that this has not always been the case.
As he himself explains, for a long time these roles were reversed: up to the time of Woodrow Wilson in the early 20th century, Americans were attached to thinking in terms of order and global idealism, while Europeans remained in thrall to thinking in terms of pure power right up to the Second World War. If we take Kagan's analysis seriously, though, we must ask why he never poses the question of where the Europeans' pure power thinking eventually led them.
The answer, of course, is that the reduction of politics to power politics resulted finally into the disasters of the first and second world wars. Hence the conclusion is that politics must not be reduced to either power politics or a kind of politics which could be understood as seeking a compromise by all means, but as Peter Paret emphasized: The readiness to fight and the readiness to compromise lie at the core of politics.
The order of the Cold War
During the Cold War and the arms race between the superpowers, the world stood on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe on several occasions, but violence and conflicts seemed to fit into clear categories of interpretation: East versus West, or imperialist aggression and the economic interests of the military-industrial complex (as one side saw it) versus totalitarianism in the form of the evil empire (as the other side saw it). These interpretations conflicted with one another, but because they seemed to offer a rational explanation they were able to limit and contain violence in people's minds as well.
Although the world lived on the brink of the nuclear abyss during the East-West conflict and although the world was divided along the lines of this conflict, the conflict was very effective as a way of providing political order in both realms of the opponents, both in terms of Realpolitik and in relation to the real or apparent possibility of explaining violence and wars.
The new forms of violence that have made such an impact since the end of the East-West conflict, and which have also to some extent been consciously presented as new by the mass media, seem to have removed war and violence from a sphere in which they could be easily comprehended before any new ordering framework had been found.
The way in which the Cold War functioned as an order affected not only the direct confrontation between the superpowers and their alliance systems, but also the conflicts that were labelled surrogate wars. This has become especially clear in the debate about how new the "new wars" really are.
Those who have argued against the view that there has been a fundamental change in the form of war do so on the basis of a longer time period, and include conflicts such as the Chinese civil war of the late 1940s, the Russian civil war which continued into the 1920s, and the first genocide of the 20th century perpetrated against the Armenians, in order to demonstrate that there is nothing genuinely new about "new wars".
Those who favor the concept, on the other hand, see a break in 1989-91. They compare the civil wars immediately before this break with those that came immediately after it, and see this as confirmation that a fundamental change has indeed taken place.
After the worldwide East-West-conflict came to an end, numerous conflict parties in civil wars found that they were no longer receiving support from the superpowers in the shape of weapons and economic assistance, and to an increasing degree they had to rely on their own efforts to get hold of the necessary resources.
This led in many cases to typical civil war economies, involving illegal trafficking in diamonds, drugs, and women, brutal exploitation of the population, extreme violence as a way of drawing in assistance, which could then be plundered, and the violent acquisition of particularly valuable resources.
To this extent it was only to be expected that, after the dissolution of the Cold War order, a considerable number of "private" actors and armed groups would initially appear in weak states and in those traditional centers of conflict, the fringes of the former empires (the British, the Ottoman and the Habsburg Empire).
Looking back at developments in warfare since 1989-91, we can already distinguish two separate phases. The 1990s were, as far as public awareness of these issues was concerned, characterized to a great extent by such new wars, as low intensity conflicts, excessive violence in the "markets in violence" that came into existence in Africa, civil wars in the former Yugoslavia, privatized violence, and wars associated with state disintegration. However, since the rise of the Taliban another form of warfare has emerged: the world order war, which is characterized by a fundamental repoliticization of warfare.
The re-politicization in Afghanistan
One can point to developments in Afghanistan as an example of this repoliticization. After the victory over the Soviet army, a civil war between warlords and tribes began at the end of the 1980s in Afghanistan. The conflict was reideologized, and the Taliban seized power.
We can see here that civil wars do not always become increasingly privatized until the smallest possible communities wielding Kalashnikovs, communities, which are only held together by the violence itself, and in which fighting is becoming independent from any purpose. There have also been a number of cases in which civil wars have been ended by reideologization and repoliticization.
Afghanistan is a good example because one can use it to illustrate the new quality of privatization of war and violence, and at the same time it reveals very clearly the reideologization and repoliticization of the conflict with the rise of the Taliban. Claiming that the privatization of the war in Afghanistan proves the new quality of the "new wars" in general therefore leads to the paradox if the claim has to be restricted to the period up until the Taliban seized power in 1996.
This case therefore cannot be used to demonstrate a general shift towards the privatization of war. In fact, what it shows is that this development, though genuine, lasted for only a limited period (at least in this case). A new phase, the phase of world order wars, began in 1996.
The new global players and the small wars
The decline of the state and political order is only inevitable (and has historically often been observed) after the breakdown of any preceding empire and any kind of preceding world order, as happened recently following the breakdown of the former USSR and the end of the Cold War.
However, my main thesis is that in the long run there will nevertheless be a repoliticization of war and violence, conflicts over the world order and the political shaping of the world. This expectation not only applies for the only superpower at present, but perhaps even much more for the former empires up to the 19th century, such as China, India, Russia, the former Muslim empires in India and Iran, former empires, which have been gaining a lot of new power resources and which are trying to regain their former status and political recognition.
Even a state like Iran is trying to be recognized as a regional power, challenging the current superpower by developing missiles, launching satellites and nuclear weapons. In the second half of the 1990s Russia stood on the brink of a civil war and was expected to break apart, just as India was mostly expected to become a failing state.
Now both are at least great powers. Although it may be doubtful when China will become a superpower similar to the United States, it is nevertheless becoming a global player with the ability to pursue its own interest even against the will of the United States. It must be recognized that the tendencies to small conflicts and anarchy in parts of the world is at the same time accompanied by the rise of new great powers and global players.
Even in most actual "small" conflicts, it is not difficult to recognize the political, and even the very traditionally political. Take for instance the Palestinian Intifida, which was the key inspiration for van Creveld's predictions about future war: but what was the Intifada other than the violent expression of a Palestinian state-building project.