Reaction to Mary Kaldor’s New Wars

Peace & Security01 Jun 2009The Broker

When the Cold War ended, Mary Kaldor (along with several other scholars and analysts) was right to intuit that this momentous development was likely to impact decisively on the landscape of conflicts. Now, with the benefits of ten years of hindsight we can turn to these claims and assess them. It is, perhaps, important to stress here that this is not a simple academic exercise as claims about the character of global armed conflict are usually followed by specific policy recommendations.

Is global armed conflict more prevalent after the end of the Cold War? The end of the Cold War was followed by a spike of civil wars, most notably in multinational states that broke down, such as the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. This conflict spike led many analysts to surmise that we were entering in an era of international anarchy. However, this spike proved short-lived. Most of these conflicts ended quickly and once they did, conflict scholars discovered that the rate of civil war onsets had subsided to unprecedented levels. Ten years after the end of the Cold War, we can observe a decline rather than a rise of global armed conflict. Indeed, it looks like the Cold War had contributed to a net increase of civil wars; its end naturally brought up a correspondent reduction. Although all trends are reversible, there is nothing presently to suggest that the world is moving in that direction. What is clear, however, is that the alarmist predictions of the early 1990s have been falsified.

Is global armed conflict different after the end of the Cold War? Many of the same scholars who predicted an explosion of armed conflict following the end of the Cold War also claimed that their character had been fundamentally altered compared to past conflicts. Ten years after the end of the Cold War, the empirical evidence fails to support such a claim. Yes, intrastate conflict has replaced interstate conflict as the dominant form of armed conflict; but this change took place following the end of the Second World War, not the end of the Cold War. Yes, intrastate conflict is typically associated with high levels of civilian victimization and related atrocities, state weakening and sometimes collapse, irregular actors, various sources of financing extending beyond the state, destruction, and contagion; but one finds all these features in most civil wars that took place during the Cold War, not just in the post-Cold War civil wars. In fact, the post-Soviet civil wars that played such a central role in the formulation of the new wars argument proved to be remarkably short-lived rather than “never-ending.” To be sure, many post-Cold War civil wars do diverge from past conflicts, most notably because of the absence of a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist outlook and massive Soviet support. But this key difference does not lead to the type of implications assumed by new wars claims.

Finally, are the responses to global armed conflict driven by Cold War perceptions? Kaldor argues that we need to develop a “human security approach” to deal with global conflict rather than rely on a counterinsurgency logic reflective of the Cold War, as the US seems to be doing. Perhaps–but in spite of their real counterinsurgency component, peacekeeping operations hardly match the counterinsurgencies currently under way in Iraq and Afghanistan. Seen from this perspective, and whatever one thinks about its prospect of success, the current US focus on counterinsurgency (the so called “Petraeus doctrine”) is not a relic of the Cold War but a reaction to real on-the-ground challenges. As such, current US counterinsurgency practices should be understood as a response to specific, local challenges rather than global conflicts in general.