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A Critique Of The New Wars Concept Politics Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 3357 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In this essay, I attempt to explain and give a critique of the new wars concept. My main objective is to discuss whether of new wars concept is relevant in understanding contemporary war. Various scholars have written on the concept of New Wars or something similar (Creveld 1991, Fleming 2009, Rice 1988, Holsti 1996, Munkler 2005) but my essay will focus on Kaldor’s thesis for two main reasons. First, although the works of others contributed to Kaldor’s concept, she was the first to coin the term “New Wars”. Secondly, Kaldor’s concept of news wars is the original concept. However, I also acknowledge that a critique on Kaldor’s concept is a partial critique on the entire New Wars school of thought. My essay is structured in two parts. I will first present Kaldor’s main arguments of the concept. Then I will give a critique of the concept, structured around these arguments. There have been many critiques on New Wars (Fleming 2009, Henderson and Singer 2002, Kalyvas 2001, Newman 2004). My essay will aim at incorporating some of these main criticisms as well as some of my own.

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 New Wars Thesis – main arguments

Kaldor seems to think that the development of New Wars have something to do with the impact of globalization. (Kaldor, 2001:106, Kaldor 2009). Mary Kaldor came up with this concept of new wars by observing the wars in the former Yugoslavia and Nagorno-Karabakh. She believed these wars, including those in Africa (as she would later on discover) were similar. These wars, Kaldor argued were of a new type or category of war (Kaldor, 2001:1). According to Kaldor, three main characteristics distinguished these New Wars from the Old Wars. 

The first characteristic was Identity Politics. The political goals in New Wars Kaldor argue, is more about identity politics. (Kaldor, 2001:6). By identity politics, she means “the claim to access to power and to the state apparatus on the basis of a label, be it ethnic, tribal or religious (Serb versus Croat, Sunni versus Shi’ia, and Hutu versus Tutsi)”. (Kaldor 2009, 2001:4).These goals are different to those of Old Wars which are “geopolitical (control of the seas or access to oil) or ideological (to promote socialism or democracy).”(Kaldor, 2009).In New Wars we see some kind of new nationalism which is a modern construction. (Kaldor, 2001:155).

The second characteristic is changed mode of warfare. Strategies in waging new wars are different from the Old wars.

Kaldor argues that in ‘new wars’ battles are rare, and most violence is directed against civilians. (Kaldor, 2001:8). This violence against civilians can be deliberate, as in wars of ethnic cleansing (Bosnia and Kosovo, Nagorno-Karabakh and Baghdad) or in genocides (Rwanda and now Darfur). (Kaldor, 2009). She argues that the expulsion of people with other identities is “the goal of these wars.”(Kaldor, 2001:8)  The parties at war consist of warlords, militia and civilians all mixed together. (Kaldor, 2001:8).This makes it “impossible to distinguish combatants from non-combatants (as in counter-insurgency wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya and Kashmir)”. (Kaldor, 2009).In New Wars, instead of establishing control by winning the hearts and minds of the population, fear is used to control the population. In New Wars, control of territory is not gained by popular support but based on a strategy of displacing those that cannot be controlled; like some sort of cleansing. Most of the time this “cleansing” is based on ethnicity. (Kaldor, 2001:98).These techniques used in New Wars Kaldor argues, “Directly violate international humanitarian and human rights law”. (Kaldor, 2009).

The third and final characteristic is the establishment of a Globalized War Economy. The characteristic mainly touches on how New Wars is financed. Kaldor claims that “a ‘new war’ economy that is exactly the opposite of the ‘old war’ economy – one that is globalized, decentralized, criminalized and in which employment is very low.”(Kaldor, 2009).New Wars are often financed through criminal activities.(Kaldor, 2001:6).The economy of Old Wars like the two world wars  were structured and centralized as opposed to New Wars which are decentralized.(Kaldor,2009). She further goes on to say that “in ‘new wars’ taxation falls, and the wars have to be financed by a variety of methods that are dependent on violence. These include looting and pillaging, kidnapping and hostage-taking, skewing the terms of trade through checkpoints, the ‘taxation’ of humanitarian aid, outside support from the diaspora, smuggling of valuable commodities such as oil and diamonds, and other transnational criminal activities. Whereas ‘old wars’ were state-building, increasing the revenue base and the power of the state, ‘new wars’ are ‘state-unbuilding’.”(Kaldor 2009).

Kaldor also claims that our understanding of war is based on a stylized description of Old Wars. By stylized description, she means states waging war against other states. Where the military of states fight each other until one of the states surrenders or is defeated. (Kaldor, 2001:15-30). It think it is also important that I mention that Kaldor concept does not seem to suggest New Wars have replaced Old Wars. She claims Old Wars and New Wars coexist. She tries to support this claim when giving an analysis of the Kosovo War. During the Kosovo war, there were two wars in one. NATO’s Spectacle War against Milosevic’ regime (Old War) and Milosevic New War against the Kosovo-Albanians inside Kosovo. These two wars “fed off each other”. (Kaldor, 2001:154, Jorgen 2010)

The second edition of Kaldor’s book contains no radical change in material from the first. In the new edition, she adds a new chapter titled “The New War in Iraq”. This chapter is an analysis of the Iraq war in which she concludes that like the war in Kosovo, the Iraq war is two wars in one. The first war being the Old war, which was a Spectacle War with the invasion of Iraq in a couple of days. This war was swift, with low casualties, high technology etc. (Kaldor, 2001:155, Jorgen 2010). The second war being the New War showing the three characteristics. Identity politics (between the Sunni and Shiites), changed mode of warfare (between insurgents and coalition forces) etc. In this chapter, Kaldor tries to explain why Iraq war fits her New Wars theory. (Kaldor, 2001:155).

The critique

Identity Politics

Several areas of Kaldor’s book show lack of clarity and coherency of kaldor’s concept, which I would not have expected of a well-defined concept. Kaldor in her book mentions often that, not all new Wars are contemporary wars and that New Wars are a category of contemporary war. However, she is not precise as to which wars are new wars. In her book, she only goes into detail about the war scenes she visited which are Bosnia and Nagorno-Karabakh wars. She later on discovers the wars in Bosnia and Nagorno-Karabakh had similar characteristics to wars in Africa and “perhaps also other places, for example South-Asia” (Kaldor, 2001:1) but she fails to give concrete examples of these New Wars in Africa and South Asia. Neither does she analyze these other new wars using her own framework as she did with the war in Kosovo. On reading her book, it looks like her entire concept of new wars is based on a detailed analysis of just one war and that is Bosnia. If this is the case, it explains why she dedicates an entire chapter on Bosnia, titled “Bosnia-Herzegovina: A Case Study of a New War”. Given that she knows the war in Bosnia best (Kaldor, 2001:6), I still find that her analysis of the war using the new war concept lacks some detail. Discussing the three characteristics, Identity politics was treated detail but I would not say the same was done for the other two characteristics (changed mode of warfare and globalized war economy). Reading this chapter was like reading a story of the Bosnian war, not an analysis of the three characteristics, which one would expect of a case study. The argument I am trying to make here is that Kaldor seems to create a new category of war based upon an analysis of one war; the Bosnian war, which I find empirically rather thin.  

This is lack of coherency and clarity is further exemplified in her new chapter “The ‘New War’ in Iraq” where Kaldor, I find tries her best to fit the Iraq war to suit her new wars theory in vain. When she talks about Identity Politics and Iraq, one can clearly understand how Iraq with its three ethnic groups: Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis could match Kaldor’s first characteristic of New Wars. However, when she goes on to explain that the changed mode of warfare characteristics, the deliberate attack on civilians, ethnic cleansing, (Kaldor, 2006:162-164) Kaldor’s analysis here is a bit problematic and weak. Iraq may be made up of people of various religious and ethnic backgrounds but as Jorgen argues, “it is difficult to see that there has been much ethnic cleansing or displacement of peoples on the basis of identity.”(Jorgen, 2010:10).

Some of the statistics in her book on the Iraq war even contradict her new wars theory. Her figures on the Iraq war indicate that the main targets of the new war in Iraq have been the coalition forces in Iraq and not civilians. Jorgen as well argues, “Only small portions of the attacks are directed towards the civilian population per se (less than 10 percent). Around 70 percent of the attacks in the periods September 2003 – October 2004 and January 2005 – July 2005 were directed towards the Coalition forces”. (Jorgen, 2010:10). Kaldor also mentions that “population displacement has begun to take place in parts of Baghdad”.(Kaldor, 2006:165). If this statement is true then it also seems to contradict the new wars theory. Displacement of civilians (Kaldor, 2006:162-164) is at the heart of the new wars theory not something that begins according to kaldor’s statement, three years after the war has started. My argument here is that when one uses Kaldor’s framework of analysis, it is understandable and clear how identity politics in Iraq fits the new wars theory. The other characteristics; changed mode of warfare in particular does not seem to fit Kaldor’s theory. 

Changed mode of Warfare

Statis Kalyvas argues, “Contrary to what Kaldor argues, mass population displacement is nothing new as suggested by such classic wars as the Russian, Spanish, and Chinese Civil wars.”(Kalyvas, 2001:110). Edward Newman in his article claims that there has been population displacement in almost every war be it civil war or wars among states. To support his claim, Newman goes on to use the Second World War as an example. Quoting Anthony Beevor, (Beevor, 2002:37) Newman argues that during the Second World War 8, 5 million people from eastern Germany were displaced when the Red Army was advancing. (Newman, 2004:178).This displacement according to Newman was the “largest panic migration in history”. (Newman, 2004:182-183).

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Relying on Dan Smith’s research to support her argument on new wars, Kaldor claims that at the start of the twentieth century, 85-90 % of casualties in war were military. (Smith 1997) Since then the figures have changed with the proportion of civilian to military casualties in war constantly increasing, and is now at approximately 80 % of all casualties in war. . (Kaldor, 2001:100, Jorgen, 2010:11). I find this argument problematic. Edward Newman points out, relying casualty figures of older wars can be risky because it is impossible to ascertain if these figures are right. (Newman, 2004). Kaldor uses Dan Smith as her source for these older figures to claim that “at the beginning of the twentieth century between 85 and 90 percent of war deaths were military”.(Smith 1997:14).however Smith in his work does not provide any evidence to support such a claim. Melander, Oberg and Hall on this argument also argue that these sorts of claims cannot be ascertained due to lack of accurate data. (Melander et al, 2009:507). This makes one question if Smith could be considered a reliable source. For Kaldor to rely on Smith to support her theory raises questions on her new wars theory as well.  Counting casualties whether civilian or military is not an easy task. Dan Smith even admits, “Data on war deaths are supremely unreliable.”(Smith, 1997:101).There has been debates amongst scholars on how to count war casualties, which just goes on to show how relying on older war figures can be problematic.(Spagat et al, 2009, Obermeyer et al, 2008).  According to Spagat et.al, “Estimating the number of fatalities caused by wartime violence remains an extraordinarily challenging task whatever methods are used.”(Spagat et al, 2009:946). One could also add the increasing problem of distinguishing civilians from combatants as a reason for caution when relying or creating trends on casualties in war. (Jorgen, 2010:12).

Kaldor’s in her thesis claims that New Wars are much more brutal than Old Wars. This I would argue needs to be further substantiated. Some old wars were brutal. The Holocaust is a very good example. The siege of Yang-Chou in China in 1645 by the Manchus, which left about 800 000 dead is another example. (Melander et al, 2009).So for Kaldor to claim that new wars are more brutal is ahistorical. (Jorgen, 2010:13).

Globalized War economy 

Kaldor claims the New War economy is decentralized as opposed to that of the old wars, which are centralized. Her claim is based on her comparison of the World wars (old wars) with minor wars of the twentieth century (new wars) .However; I find this comparison a little bit unfair or unbalanced. Fleming as well also questions the appropriateness of comparing major wars like the world wars to minor wars. (Fleming, 2009:224).The main reason is the difference in scale when comparing any war to both world wars. According to Kaldor, New wars developed from Guerrilla tactics during the Cold war. (Kaldor, 2001:7-8). I would suggest a much better comparison of Old and New wars would be for her to compare New Wars to guerilla wars of the Cold War. (Jorgen, 2010:14).

Clausewitzean conception of war

Another main argument of Kaldor’s concept seems to be based on the fact that we have the wrong conception of war. She argues that we continue to see war as it was during the First and Second World Wars when militaries of states fought each other until one surrendered or was defeated. This stylized conception of war according to Kaldor has now changed.(Kaldor,2001:59).Martin Van Creveld seems to make the same point.(Creveld,1991).Chapter two of Kaldor’s book is all about the stylized conception of war. I disagree with kaldor’s statement. As Jorgen argues ” it is hard to believe that our conception of war, let us characterize it  the western conception of war, is informed  not by the practice of war itself, but more by the  theories of a well-known but little read Prussian strategic thinker  of the early 19th  century.”(Jorgen,2010:18).It is difficult to imagine that given the various terrorist attacks, uprisings, insurgencies that have occurred in this century, our conception of war could still be limited to just states fighting each other. What if Kaldor’s assumption is wrong? What if the way we understand war is not just limited to states fighting each other? What if her stylized description of Old Wars is wrong? If this is the case then this makes her argument and concept flawed.



To conclude I would say Mary Kaldor’s New War concept could not be used to understand contemporary warfare as a whole. New Wars is just a category of contemporary war. They coexist alongside other wars. To be fair to Kaldor, her thesis did not seek to prove otherwise. What Kaldor’s concept has succeeded in doing was to merely group wars that exhibited similar characteristics together. However, for Kaldor to suggest that this group of wars indicates some sort of shift and should be in a separate category is somewhat premature. As Newman’s article suggests; a historical perspective is needed.(Newman, 2004).As Jorgen notes in his article, ” One has to believe in the possibility of war developing in somewhat chronological  trends to believe that the development of war follows such global patterns  as Kaldor believes, the theory of New Wars is dependent upon such trends.”(Jorgen, 2010:19).  Newman also says that “At least throughout the 20th century, it would be more accurate to conclude that the presence or absence of certain factors is best explained by the peculiarities of specific conflicts rather than linear historical changes.” (Newman, 2004:180).

Kaldor seems to be in a rush to create a new category of war but she is not the only one. Quoting Jorgen, “Most militaries …spend much energy in trying to create new categories of war. The main reason for this urge is of course that they want to create doctrines and recipes for handling the challenges created by the wars they face. But, if one faces something that one finds unfamiliar, that does not mean that it is unfamiliar in history, and that it therefore needs a new category to become understandable.”(Jorgen, 2010:19-20). I agree with the notion that to understand wars better we need to categorize them but if there are too many categories the aim becomes pointless. What could done instead is to re-examine and develop existing categories of war rather than creating new ones every time we come across something unfamiliar. Kaldor tried to do something similar when she on analyzing the wars in Chechnya, Kashmir and the Israel-Palestine conflict concluded that they did not fit her new wars theory.

Henderson and Singer are quite right is suggesting that Mary Kaldor’s new war thesis looks similar to Low Intensity conflicts.(LIC)(Henderson and Singer,2002:171-172).Kaldor’s experience of war in former Yugoslavia and Nagorno-Karabakh has made her see and understand war in a different light . However, this does mean that war has changed to the point of being given a new category. Her three characteristics of the New Wars concept when applied to any analysis of contemporary wars prove to be weak and incoherent. Quoting Henderson and Singer “Stripped of their lexical veneer, Kaldor’s “new wars” are not much different from the LICs from which she admits they derive.” (Henderson and Singer, 2002:172).

The News Wars theory has served a purpose in understanding contemporary warfare in that it has stimulated debate on contemporary war. By creating a New Wars category, Mary Kaldor has invigorated discourse on contemporary warfare. Her concept also gives further insight when one tries to understand the causes behind some wars of the twenty first century .By her own admission he says that “What many of the critics of the  ‘new wars’ thesis miss is the policy implication of the argument. By describing the conflicts of the 1990s as ‘new’, I wanted to change the way policy-makers and policy-shapers perceived these conflicts.”(Kaldor, 2005:210).If this was her main aim, I would argue that her thesis was successful in drawing attention to these wars. However if her aim was to create a concept for an academic analysis of contemporary wars, her concept and characteristics of New Wars do not merit to placed as a separate category from the other wars.


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