The nature of war has undergone a profound change over the course of history, particularly during the twentieth century. Power conflicts, pitting the armies of developed states against one another, have all but disappeared with the setting up of a legal framework limiting governments’ recourse to force to resolve their differences. This has not prevented military expenditure from increasing, nor has it stopped the major powers from intervening in local conflicts. This development goes hand in hand with a tendency to privatize war, and the emergence of companies providing mercenaries is one of its most spectacular symptoms.
War is an armed conflict between social groups, taking place over a time period and with a political objective: resolving a dispute (ideological, religious, etc.), conquering a territory, appropriating resources, etc. In the line of thinking inherited from Clausewitz (19th century), war is the paroxysmal but natural culmination of rivalries between states ; it arises from the normal interplay of relations between states because no supranational authority can limit one state’s sovereign decision to use force to safeguard its interests. Peace, negatively defined as the absence of war, is merely an exceptional state of affairs.
This Eurocentric understanding of war, perceived as a clash between inevitably rival powers, has lost relevance in today’s world due to the way military capabilities have evolved and the regulation of warfare by collective institutions and international law. While wars themselves have not disappeared, those arising exclusively from a confrontation between national armies are rare.
War’s legal framework
Rules to regulate the conduct of warfare have existed since antiquity (Olympic truce, etc.), yet it was not until the 16th century that the concept of a just war emerged in Europe, developed in particular by the School of Salamanca and Hugo Grotius. Drawing on Thomas Aquinas (13th century), they established the foundations of international law, i.e. the rules governing reasons for declaring war (jus ad bellum) and its conduct (jus in bello), including the principle of proportionality in the use of force, respect for civilians (thus making a distinction between civilians and military personnel), etc. Initially a matter of convention, the rules governing warfare were progressively codified in international treaties. After the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 were swept away by the First World War, various texts and treaties (including the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols) established the current foundations of international humanitarian law protecting civilians and prisoners, forbidding the use of torture, prohibiting certain types of weapons (biological weapons in 1972, chemical weapons in 1993, cluster munitions in 2008, etc.) or specific practices (enrolment of child-soldiers in 1989, etc.).
Institutions were set up in parallel which, while not actually preventing wars, tend to render them illegitimate. Since the Congress of Vienna (1815) the great powers have been agreed on needing to limit the right to resort to war. Then the First World War acted as a catalyst: condemned by public opinion, and depicted as a moral and civilizational breakdown, it led to the creation of the League of Nations and then, after the Second World War, to that of the United Nations Organization, charged with maintaining peace and security. Now the practice of war is justified only by self-defense or by collective decisions (via the Security Council) in cases where peace is endangered. The almost universal disapproval of the coalition led by the United States in Iraq in 2003, without a UN mandate, illustrates this key development over time: in order to be legitimate, the use of force requires endorsement by the international community.
Increasingly sophisticated weapons
Even as inter-state wars have become rare, paradoxically, state military budgets have been steadily increasing, especially among emerging countries and regional powers. China’s military budget has increased ten-fold since 1998, creating a security dilemma situation that in turn prompts significant increases among its neighbors (Vietnam, etc.). A similar trend is apparent in the Persian Gulf, and in Saudi Arabia in particular, where arms purchases from the great powers serve both to bolster states’ military capabilities and to enhance their influence and serve diplomatic ends. Because if states no longer engage in war directly, they continue to intervene in peripheral conflicts, even though they have less and less control over the consequences of doing so (Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Mali, etc.).
This surge in military expenditure is also driven by the growing sophistication of weapons systems. Given public opinion’s rejection of war, the aim of the major powers, going forward, is that weapons development by the military-industrial complex should enable them to avoid losses in their own ranks (zero casualty doctrine). For centuries, military technology saw little change and the key factor in victory was the number of men mobilized. The arrival of gunpowder in the 15th century, and above all the growth of aviation in the 20th century, were game-changing developments, permitting bombardments on a massive scale (including nuclear bombardments in 1945). The development of ballistic missiles and more recently of drones completed this military revolution: now conflict participants can avoid exposure and personnel numbers are relatively insignificant. The deployment of armed robots, capable of deciding to kill autonomously, is currently giving rise to unprecedented ethical debate.
Comment: The United States is the main user of military drones to carry out bombings. Since 2001, there have been many American attacks on Afghanistan, despite the lack of information, but Pakistan, the Yemen and Somalia have suffered bombings (graph) as well. Because governments are opaque about these types of attack, consortiums of journalists report the victims of these strikes from a distance. Countries that possess these devices are known thanks to observers of this high-tech industry (map).
Toward a privatization of violence?
This trend goes hand in hand with the rise of mercenary operators (euphemistically known as Private Military Companies – PMCs), used by governments (Western and Russian governments in particular) to intervene in conflicts without being directly exposed to them. Offering a broad range of services (from security to heavy weapons combat), they are tending to privatize security, transforming war into a commercial activity while profiting from the legal uncertainty within which they operate, outside the scope of the international treaties which define combatants’ obligations. A chasm is opening between the wealthy, over-armed North which is safeguarding its own population to the extent of delegating war to private armies, and the South where widespread violence seems to be devaluing individual lives.
Comment: The Uppsala Conflict Data Program compiles a register of “events” – that is cases of violence leading to death – from multiple sources. These estimates can sometimes be lower than they are in reality, since not all cases are reported. The circles on the map show the number of deaths since 1989 on the basis of a 100x100 km grid. The deadliest areas are found in Africa (the central strip in particular), the Middle East and Afghanistan/Pakistan. Other violent areas also appear, with fewer or more localized total numbers: Colombia, Peru and Mexico, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and the Indian subcontinent, Yemen, the Caucasus and the Balkans.
Comment: The Uppsala Conflict Data Program compiles a register of “events” – that is, cases of violence leading to death – from multiple sources. These estimates can sometimes be lower than they are in reality, since not all cases are reported. The graphs show the chronology of numbers killed in states where more than 10,000 deaths have been recorded since 1989. The scale of the Rwandan genocide (1994) is striking. Some states display numerous deaths throughout the period (Sudan, Somalia, India, Afghanistan); other conflicts seem, in principle, to be resolved (Angola, Bosnia, etc.), while yet others are more recent (Nigeria, Yemen and Syria).
- There is no universal understanding of the notion of religion, nor is there any clear distinction between a religion and a sect. Generally speaking, a religion is a system of beliefs that makes a distinction between the sacred and the profane, manifested in a set of ritual actions that give reality to this distinction. Individuals may be described as religious if they practice or claim to belong to a religion, or if they have made religion their profession and devoted their lives to it.
- Surface area occupied by a human group. This term has different meanings in different social science disciplines. For geographers it is a socialized, constructed space in which distance is continuous, with more or less defined borders, such as, but not confined to, states. For sociologists and political scientists, a territory is a socially constructed space confined by borders which provide the structuring principle for a political community and enable a state to impose its authority and control on the population. It is linked to the context, history and actors of its construction. For Max Weber, the modern, rational and legal state is closely linked to territoriality.
- The state is a political system that is centralized (unlike the feudal system), differentiated (from civil society, public/private space), institutionalized (institutions are depersonalized), territorialized (a territory whose borders mark the absolute limit of its jurisdiction), that claims sovereignty (holding ultimate power) and that bears responsibility for ensuring its population’s security. In public international law, the state is defined as a population living on a territory defined by borders subject to a political authority (the national territorial state).
- This political idea was formed in the Middle Ages in order to legitimate the independence of emerging states (France, England) from the Pope and Emperor, and taken up by many thinkers (Bodin, Grotius, Schmitt). It refers to a state’s claim to recognize no authority above itself on its own territory and serves more to justify political and legal representations than to describe existing power relations. As a fundamental notion of the international system and the principles of equality between states and non-intervention in internal affairs, it is the opposite of interference. In democratic states, it is attributed to the “sovereign” people, whose votes give legitimacy to institutions and governments. Processes of regional integration involve delegating elements of state sovereignty.
- The definition of peace is much debated. A restrictive definition sees peace simply as an absence of conflict (negative peace). Peace Studies reinterpreted this definition to include the conditions necessary for peace – positive peace must be an integral aspect of human society. Combined with the concept of structural violence, positive peace was then defined more broadly to include social justice. Among the different theories of peace, the sometimes criticized notion of democratic or liberal peace asserts that the liberal democracies do not go to war with each other and only fight against non-liberal states (this approach qualifies Kant’s postulate in Perpetual Peace, 1795).
- Ability of political actors to impose their will on others. Comparable to the notion of authority within a nation, power is never absolute but has its existence in a relationship, since power relations are a matter of each actor’s perception of the other. Power is key to the realist approach to international relations, where it is understood in geostrategic terms (hard power is based on force and coercion, especially of a military nature). The transnationalist approach offers a more diversified vision including factors of influence (Joseph Nye’s soft power exerted in economic, cultural and other terms) and emphasizing the importance of controlling different orders of power, from hard to soft (Susan Strange’s “structural power”).
- The term institution refers to social structures (rules, standards, practices, actions, roles) that are long-lasting, organized in a stable and depersonalized way, and play a part in regulating social relationships. An institution can be formalized within organizations (international or otherwise). In political science, institutionalism tackles the objects of political analysis by studying their structural basis and their organizational model rather than thinking about how they relate to society.
- Political community based on an awareness of shared characteristics and/or a will to live together. It is common practice to contrast political and cultural concepts of the nation – which in practice are mutually influential and tend to converge. In the political concept, the nation is invented and produced by a state: the territory precedes the nation and defines its contours (this is known as the French concept, based on the republican melting pot and jus soli, right of the soil). In the cultural understanding of nation, a shared common culture produces the nation. The national project consists in bringing this population together on a single territory (the cultural or romantic or German concept of the nation, based on jus sanguinis, right of blood). The latter concept intrinsically produces conflicts and can lead to ethnic cleansing or genocide (Nazi Germany, Greater Serbia, etc.).
- international humanitarian law
- This seeks to mitigate the suffering of victims of armed conflict and to protect civilian populations, imposing obligations on states toward one another and toward their populations. It is also called the “law of war” or the “law of armed conflict” and has evolved along with the changes in these. Codified by the International Committee of the Red Cross (created in 1863) and the first convention in 1864, it is based on the principles of neutrality, the prohibition of certain inhumane weapons, and immunity for non-combatants. The 1949 Geneva Conventions (protecting the sick and wounded in the armed forces, prisoners of war and civilians in times of war) were completed by Additional Protocols in 1977 and 2005. The International Criminal Court (ICC) judges war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.
- public opinion
- This term refers to all socially constructed representations expressed by the media, in surveys and by members of the elites, conveying what the population is said to think about current issues. Public opinion may also be expressed on international matters. Many actors, including NGOs, charities, companies and international organizations, refer to “international public opinion,” and in so doing give it a degree of social existence. However, transposition to the international level of a concept already contested at the national level is problematic. The rise of transnational activism and solidarity, expressed through protest movements and lobbies, does not necessarily express global public opinion.
- The notion of civilization appeared in the eighteenth century. It must be used with caution as it is often exploited and generally used to discriminate by being contrasted with non-civilization. In the way it is currently used today, it denotes a very large-scale collective identity, a system of social, economic and political organization shared by a substantial number of societies and characterized by specific achievements designed to control living conditions (techniques for governing nature, writing, arts and sciences, organization of society, and so on).
- A set of representations and strategies developed by an individual or collectivity to reduce the threats to which they feel exposed. At the international level, security may consist of: 1) an unstable, precarious balance between the security of different nations, underpinned by their degree of power; 2) the concerted organization of this balance (international security); 3) the establishment of a security regime imposed on all states that have signed up to it (collective security). Above and beyond any tangible threat, the language of security tends to represent objects or groups of people as dangers for the security of states, notably in order to justify particular security policies (state of emergency, military action, closing of borders, etc.).
- Security Council
- According to the United Nations Charter, the Security Council has main responsibility for maintaining international peace and security. It is composed of five permanent members (China, United States, France, United Kingdom, and Russia), who can each quash a resolution plan with a negative vote (right of veto), and ten members (six until 1965) elected by the General Assembly for a two-year period that is not immediately renewable. Its resolutions are legally binding upon member states.
- international community
- According to the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies (1855-1936), community (Gemeinschaft) is the opposite of society (Gesellschaft) and denotes any form of social organization in which individuals are linked by natural or spontaneous solidarity, and driven by common goals. According to current usage, it applies to any social grouping that appears to be united, whatever its mode of integration (international community, European or Andean Community, or adherents of a religion). The ambiguous term of international community describes an ill-defined set of political actors (states, international organizations, NGOs, individuals, etc.) based on the idea of that humanity is united by common objectives and values or an allegiance to central political institutions, which is far from being the case.
- emerging countries
- This term arose in the 1980s among economic and financial actors, who used the adjective “emerging” to describe markets where investment was risky but profitable. With its emphasis on growth and suggestion of rising movement, it reflects a linear, Western-centered understanding of development. As adopted and challenged by political actors, the label refers to the international, economic, political and/or diplomatic integration of some countries. It invites us to interrogate the way it is used both by actors who adopt it and those who reject it.
- For James Rosenau, intervention is a break with the conventional mode of relations which aims to affect the political authority of the target actor. For Hedley Bull, it refers to the coercive interference, by an external actor, in the affairs of a political entity. Pascal Vennesson draws on both sources when he sees international intervention as a coercive action undertaken by one international actor which affects the political authority of another. International interventions can be direct or indirect, overt or clandestine, and can involve armed force or other types of force (economic sanctions). Interference is a specific case of intervention without the consent of the authorities on whose territory the interference occurs.
- privatize security
- Refers to the contemporary erosion of the monopoly of legitimate physical violence, traditionally devolved to the state (Max Weber), in a broader context of the privatization of the state’s sovereign functions. The inability of some states to ensure their own security leads to the replacement of an inadequate police force by private militias and self-defense groups. When conflicts erupt within the state, competition for power and/or the control of resources leads to the formation of paramilitary groups, the involvement of mercenaries and the rise of local military leaders known as warlords, who take advantage of the sociopolitical instability of the state to increase their own political and territorial domination. Private security operators sell their services to states and companies (interventions, surveillance, information, etc.).
- The individual, as a basic social actor, is playing an increasingly important role in the processes of globalization for multiple reasons, including the ever-faster circulation of ideas, values and information; the ability to build networks for sharing and solidarity without physical proximity; the networking of international expertise; and human rights movements and demands for democracy.