Winning a New Kind of War

Nowadays, as September 11 demonstrated only too graphically, we live in an interdependent world, where security cannot be maintained merely through the protection of borders. A world where nations no longer control what happens within their borders. A world where old-fashioned war between nations has become anachronistic. National states are still important today, but they operate in a world shaped less by traditional military power and more by a complex political process that involves multinational corporations, international institutions like the U.N. and World Bank, citizen groups, and, yes, fundamentalist terrorists.

Unfortunately, the end of old-fashioned war between states does not mean the end of violence. We’re witnessing new types of violence, justified in the name of fundamentalism of one variety or another and perpetrated against civilians. This new kind of war has to be understood in the context of globalization. It involves wide-reaching international networks pressing political causes based on religion or ethnicity, through which ideas, money, arms, and mercenaries are organized. These networks flourish in parts of the world–the Balkans, the Middle East, Africa–where states have imploded as a consequence of globalization bearing down on formerly closed, authoritarian societies.

Combatants in these new wars include criminal syndicates, refugees, exiles, and local warlords, as well as what’s left of national governments. Battles are rare and violence is usually directed against civilians. The strategy is to gain political power by sowing fear and hatred, creating a climate of terror, eliminating moderate voices, wiping out any sense of tolerance.

Extremist networks want economic power as well as political domination. They flourish in countries where taxation has collapsed and little new wealth is being created. They raise money by illegal trading in drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, and immigrants; by ‘taxing’ humanitarian assistance; and by looting and plunder. They also depend on support from sympathetic nations and money sent from supporters working in Western countries.Once they erupt, these new wars are very difficult to contain or stop. Any hope of peace depends on political rather than military intervention–a strategy of winning the hearts and minds of average people in these lands to counter the strategy of fear and hate spawned by the terrorist networks. Anyone working to bring an end to this violence–activists as well as governments, must offer an alternative vision, based on tolerance and opening up opportunities for democratic participation.

In violence-torn regions like the Middle East, there also needs to be real support from Western nations for democratic and moderate political factions and serious attention to overcoming social injustice. In many of the areas where extremist networks pick up new recruits, becoming a criminal or joining a paramilitary group is literally the only opportunity for young men lacking formal education. Where some progress has been made against terrorism, as in Northern Ireland and the Balkans, what made a difference has been support for democratic society, efforts at economic reconstruction, and plans to restore peace in the streets.

Military action may sometimes be necessary to create the conditions for an alternative kind of politics. But in these new wars there is no such thing as military victory. Instead, the military’s task resembles police work: to catch war criminals, protect civilians, and establish areas where individuals and families feel safe and do not depend on extremist networks for protection and livelihood.

Unfortunately, in the case of the current war on terrorism the Bush Administration is still emphasizing military action and alliances with national states. The war is shaping up as a conflict of America and its allies against Islamic fundamentalists. But we must remember we live in a globalized world, and the effects of frustrations in repressive societies (which are often Western allies) cannot any longer be confined to particular territories. And those frustrations will not always be expressed as democratic demands. They will be expressed in the language of extremes and in the acts of nihilistic terrorism that characterize these new wars. The approach now deployed by the U.S. and Great Britain might work for a few years as known terrorists are hunted down. But if the United States continues to act as an imperial superpower, wielding its military might to satisfy public demands for quick responses to acts of terrorism, the danger is that we will see a ‘new war’ on a global scale–a sort of Israel/Palestine conflict on a global scale.

A new sense of global politics–which seeks justice, not just for the victors but for all the people struggling within repressive and impoverished nations–is the only way we can begin to win the ‘new war’ in which we find ourselves.

Mary Kaldor, professor at the London School of Economics, is the author of New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era (Stanford) and co-author of a new report, Global Civil Society 2001 (Oxford). From the progressive political weekly The Nation (Nov. 5, 2001). Subscriptions: $52/yr. (47 issues) from Box 55149, Boulder, CO 80322

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