The contemporary mode of warfare? Mary Kaldor’s theory of new wars, 2000

Posted: December 13, 2009 in war reviews
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Martin Shaw

The contemporary mode of warfare?

Mary Kaldor’s theory of new wars

Review essay from Review of International Political Economy, 7, 1, 2000, 171-80.

Contents: The theory of new wars; The understanding of ‘old’ warfare; The absence of the larger context; Genocidal war as the problem; Bibliography

  • Mary Kaldor and Basker Vashee, eds, New Wars, London: Pinter, 1997
  • Mary Kaldor, Ulrich Albrecht and Geneviève Schméder, eds, The End of Military Fordism, London: Pinter, 1998
  • Mary Kaldor, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era, Cambridge: Polity, 1999

These books provide the most comprehensive, illuminating analysis yet of the most widespread contemporary forms of war. They are informed by a political-economic approach – indeed they were presented at the 1998 RIPE-Sussex conference – and establish Mary Kaldor, long one of our most important theorists of war, as the foremost authority on ‘new wars’. Her core argument, outlined first in the introduction to New Wars, is developed considerably in New and Old Wars, the fullest statement and principal basis of this discussion. (Discrepancies arising from the less developed character of the earlier work will not be explored, while the edited books will be referred to chiefly where the contributions of other authors add to Kaldor’s argument.)

The theory of new wars

At the heart of the latest book, three chapters which stand out as particularly original and reflect Kaldor’s unique qualifications. Chapter 3 is a case study of Bosnia-Herzegovina, in, on and for which Kaldor has worked extensively both as activist and researcher; chapter 4 examines the politics of ‘new wars’, and chapter 5 the ‘globalized war economy’. Although in some quarters Kaldor’s combination of roles is apparently seen as problematic, this work is its clearest possible vindication. Her engagement with cosmopolitan political practice – chiefly in Bosnia but also in other European zones of war – not only enables Kaldor to produce the most incisive, balanced short critique of the Bosnian conflict, but also informs the more general analyses which follow.

Against the grain of widespread assumptions that most wars of the 1990s are merely ‘civil’ wars produced by ‘ethnic conflict’, or that what we are seeing is a simple ‘privatisation’ of violence, Kaldor clearly demonstrates that Bosnia and other conflicts were political conflicts, involving state power as well as various ‘private’ forces, in which ‘identity politics’ is a means by which political elites reproduce their power.

She shows how this is part of a new political economy of war, in which a range of new militaries – the decaying remnants of state armies, paramilitary groups (often financed by governments), self-defence units, mercenaries and international troops – engage in new forms of violence. These include systematic murder of ‘others’, forcible population expulsion known as ethnic ‘cleansing’ (linked ironically to electoral legitimation), and rendering areas uninhabitable – all of which are genocidal. It is estimated that 80 per cent of victims in current wars are civilians; over 80 per cent were military in wars earlier this century.

These forms of violence are reproduced through an ‘extreme form of globalization’ in which production collapses and armed forces are sustained via remittances, diaspora fund-raising, external governmental assistance and the diversion of international humanitarian aid. The global context is crucial to understanding this new political economy of war: globalized arms markets (analysed by Schméder in Military Fordism), transnational ethnicities and internationalized Western-global interventions are all integral to new wars.

Unlike the classic modern war-economy of the total-war nation-state – which was mobilising and production-oriented – the new ‘globalized’ war economy is demobilising and parasitic: ‘The new type of warfare is a predatory social condition.’ It damages the economies of neighbouring regions as well as the zone of warfare itself, spreading refugees, identity-based politics and illegal trade. It creates ‘bad neighbourhoods’ in world economy and society – regional clusters like the Balkans, Caucasus, Horn of Africa, Central Africa, West Africa, Central Asia and of course Middle East.

The new warfare, Kaldor argues, is above all a political rather than a military challenge. It is about the breakdown of legitimacy, and we need a new cosmopolitan politics to reconstruct this in the zones of war. Cosmopolitanism here is a set of principles and a positive political vision, tied to the rule of law. Cosmopolitans are to be found within the local communities at the heart of the violence – particularly in ‘islands of civility’ where identity politics has not taken full hold – as well as in the West. Genuine cosmopolitanism does not mean negotiating truces between warring ethno-nationalists but building up pluralist democratic politics.

Kaldor refocusses the categories through which we think about the international or Western role in zones of war. It is not a question of intervention or non-intervention, humanitarian or otherwise: in the globalized new wars, thinking based on ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ has less meaning. It should be, she argues, a question of cosmopolitan law-enforcement rather than peacekeeping or peace-enforcement, and of reconstruction – understood in terms of political legitimacy as much as economic rebuilding – rather than humanitarian assistance (necessary as that may be).

Kaldor offers us an understanding of some of the most troubling of all contemporary phenomena – the deeply destructive, genocidal forms of violence which accompanied not only the break-ups of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union but also the fragmentation of many states, especially in Africa, since the end of the Cold War. The understanding is empirically rich – based on a broad comparative approach – analytically satisfying and politically inspiring. It is complemented by the papers in the two edited collections – especially New Wars, in which Alex de Waal on warfare in Africa and Richard Falk on the United Nations and humanitarian intervention make particularly interesting contributions.

The understanding of ‘old’ warfare

The problems of Kaldor’s account come in its articulation with the historical understanding of war in general and changes in war and politics as a whole in the current period. Clearly some will object that new wars are not so new; but even if most features are anticipated in earlier periods, Kaldor is right because the combination in new wars is highly distinctive. Nevertheless it is clear that defining the novelty precisely is important, and Kaldor addresses this in Chapter 2, ‘Old Wars’, in New and Old Wars. Here modern war as a whole is defined as Clausewitzian: tending towards the absolute; based on the trinity of state, army and people; and reaching its culmination in the decisive battle. This war is seen as modern because it reflects the key distinctions of modernity: between public and private, internal and external, economic and political, civil and military, combatant and non-combatant.

Kaldor recognises the historicity of Clausewitz: its articulation of Napoleonic-Wars experiences; its predating of the industrialisation of warfare, modern alliances and the codification of the laws of war. In particular, she recognises that ‘Clausewitz could not possibly have envisaged the awesome combination of mass production, mass politics and mass communications when harnessed to mass production.’ Thus the total wars of the twentieth century went far beyond Clausewitz’s model. In the developments of the Cold War period – nuclear weapons, the permanent state of war without actual fighting (except by proxy), the alliances with their pooling of states’ monopolies of violence, the development of transnational civil society – there was an ‘erosion of the distinctions between public and private, military and civil, internal and external’ as well as of war and peace.

So far so good, although it is all rather brief – because designed to set off the detailed exploration of new war. It doesn’t, however, go far enough: and the limitations of the historical model proposed lead first, to an understatement of the contemporary problem of warfare and second, to a narrowing of the significance of the phenomenon of new wars: in particular the relations to other contemporary forms of war (continuing preparations for inter-state war) are left unclarified.

In a still seminal essay, Kaldor (1982a) proposed the concept of the ‘mode of warfare’. This was a development of Clausewitz’s insights (into the totality of relations between war-preparation, war and battle as the moment of realisation) by analogy with the mode of production (in which the process of production culminates in realisation through exchange). Part of Kaldor’s reasoning in developing the idea of the mode of warfare was to clarify its autonomous logic, and repudiate simple Marxist reductions of warfare to capitalism. In The Baroque Arsenal, Kaldor (1982b) used the difference between the character of realisation in production and warfare to much effect. A looser expression of the same idea was given by Giddens’ (1985) idea of warfare as one of the four key ‘institutional clusters’ of modernity.

The issue here is the relationship between these modes (or clusters). A radical answer was explicit in Edward Thompson’s (1982) proposal that we understand modern civilization as a whole as ‘exterminism’. His polemic – now lost in the still unwritten history of the Second Cold War – made a deadly serious analytical point: that modern industrial societies, East and West, had been permeated by the logic of mass extermination. For Thompson, the danger was that this would culminate in the prospect of a mutual genocide which could end human history if not life on this planet.

It did not, in the 1980s, although the nuclear arms race had indeed become particularly dangerous. This was partly because of the unravelling of the political structures of the Cold War, from below as well as above – the former also anticipated in Thompson’s writing and campaigning. But despite the end of the Cold War, the logic of mass extermination remained: the harnessing not only of industry, but of politics and culture, to the purposes of mass killing. In a critique (Shaw, 1990) I tried to show that, although on the one hand Thompson’s account contained some analytical as well as polemical excesses, on the other it was – ironically given his profession – insufficiently historically underpinned.

If we trace the issue back, it becomes clear that from the mid-nineteenth century, the institutions of warfare fed off industrial capitalist society – creating (by late century) mass armies fed by conscription from increasingly disciplined workforces; militarist politics fed by mass parties and a mass-circulation press; as well as mass-produced weaponry in distinct state-protected military-industrial sectors (MacNeill, 1982). In turn, these processes led to powerful state machines with capacities to mobilise economy and society for war. In Kaldor’s (1982a) terms, the ‘mode of warfare’, having fed off the ‘mode of production’, came in turn to dominate and shape it – in statist war economies and statist politics, both totalitarian and Keynesian-reformist.

Thus total war was not just a type of war (so that we can judge how far particular wars were total – 1939-45 more so than 1914-18, and so on) but a mode of warfare. It involved a particular relation to the mode of production, in which the latter was actually subordinated. The exterminist character of this mode derived directly from this core, structural relation, which developed through the historical experience of the two world wars and the Cold War (Shaw, 1988, 1991). Once economy and society had been incorporated directly into the supply side of war, as a ‘home front’, then military logic (with the aid of aerial technology) transformed them into a part of the battlefield. The logic of the warfare-production relationship made first ‘strategic’ industries and then whole urban populations into targets. By the time of Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo, not to mention Hiroshima and Nagasaki, war had become genocidal. Here was the (ir)rational historical kernel of Thompson’s concept of exterminism.

Extermination was not, for the Allies, a goal in itself, but an intended and desired consequence of the aim of Germany’s and Japan’s surrenders. It is a fine line, and it is all that separates Allied war policy from Auschwitz, where extermination was an aim in and of itself. The Holocaust has of course become an object of judgement and commemoration – of a violated people and of violated humanity in general – largely outside the understanding of war. Historically, however, it was a product of war: large Jewish populations came into Hitler’s grasp by conquest, and extermination was developed, applied and achieved through not just the methods of modernity (Bauman, 1991) but specifically those of modern war. The Nazi state waged a ‘war against the Jews’ (Davidowicz, 1985). The people were an enemy, as much as the more conventional enemies, the other states.

When the victors of 1945 codified genocide in the 1948 Convention, they identified the peculiar horror of the Nazi extermination policy as the basic model. For them, naturally, the line which separated it from their own mass slaughters of civilians remained sacrosanct – the more so as from the 1950s the now-rival superpowers planned new depths of destruction, with every city a target. And yet the meaning of extermination, and (in a broader sense than the Convention’s) genocide, was now more deeply embedded in the idea of warfare than ever before: so thoroughly, indeed, that one might ask if it could ever really be disentangled?

Much of the subsequent history of military planning, during and since the Cold War, can be seen as an attempt to avoid redundancy, to overcome the self-defeating, mutually genocidal character of the dominant weaponry. Hence, ironically, the development of cruise missiles, designed first to be the more accurate delivery vehicles of a ‘limited nuclear war’ – for ‘tactical’ targetting of military and economic sites – and now become the means of ‘punishing’ the Iraqi regime through ‘clinical’ destruction of its strategic sites.

The absence of the larger context

Kaldor’s new work says little about any of this. She argues that the technologically-driven ‘revolution in military affairs’ is not the ‘real’ revolution in war: ‘Beneath the spectacular displays are real wars, which, even in the case of the 1991 Iraq war in which hundreds and thousands of Kurds and Shiites died, are better explained in terms of my conception of new wars.’ How this is so she does not explain, however, and the Iraqi wars of the 1990s are a disappointing omission from the detailed analysis. It leaves open the question of how the (on the surface) interstate Gulf war – and the larger phenomena of the United States’ and other powers’ continuing preparations for interstate war – can be related to the ‘new wars’ concept.

There is here something of a mismatch between Kaldor’s and some other contributions to Military Fordism, such as Schméder’s documentation of the continuing high levels, despite real reductions, of state military expenditures, and Lovering’s of rapidly transforming European defence industries. Achcar (1998) has pointed out that the US retains an enormous military capacity, and suggests that the only way to make strategic sense of it is to read the scenario of simultaneous wars against Iraq and North Korea as planning for simultaneous conflicts with Russia and China. Clearly, for all the downsizing, warfare for the big states is still about far more than managing new wars.

All this suggests an afterlife, even more surreal than the Cold War itself, for what Kaldor (1990) termed the ‘imaginary war’. The United States and NATO still plan to fight massive interstate wars, even though the circumstances in which these wars could occur are now very difficult to envisage. Similarly, across the globe, state elites of all kinds maintain historically very high levels of military expenditures and dangerous military capacity, although their awareness both of interdependence on the one hand and the limitations of military force on the other are surely growing.

One relation between the kind of war presupposed by these forces and expenditures, and the new wars of which Kaldor writes, is surely to be found in the overwhelming US preference for airpower. No one looking carefully at new wars can fail to be struck by the inappropriateness of aerial bombardment as the principal means of dealing with issues ranging from ethnic cleansing to terrorism and lack of cooperation with UN inspectors. Troops on the ground are universally understood to be a more appropriate primary military response in many situations, and far more compatible with the political and legal measures needed. In Bosnia, indeed, the US eventually succumbed to this logic in enforcing Dayton.

So why does the US reach repeatedly for air strikes, and what is the significance of this policy? (An early example, the US attack on Libya, was examined in Thompson and Kaldor, 1986.) In part they are gesture politics, a way of looking tough – often timed to align with domestic crises – even if they achieve minimal real political results. In part bombing is a relatively cost-free way of attacking even significant state militaries like Serbia’s or Iraq’s, minimising risks to American lives and hence administrations’ political standing. But behind these factors is the whole mode of warfare derived from the Second World War and Cold War, centred on technologically-driven mass slaughter. This lives in on the hardware-centred ‘armament culture’ (Luckham, 1984) of the advanced modern militaries and the political elites who support them.

Although this dominant form of warfare is now not just imaginary but virtual, the itch to realise all those computer-gamed scenarios in real explosions, immolating physical structures and if necessary living beings, is still powerful. Having invested such enormous resources in the most sophisticated technologies of destruction, states like the US and UK are hardly going to admit that the legitimate scope of modern militaries should be limited to a glorified armed form of policing, in support of international civil and legal power.

The key question here is, of course, whether there remains a genocidal content to late-modern airpower. Clearly with computer-aided targetting, advanced airforces can attack cities without causing colossal loss of life. Even according to Iraqi sources, the death toll from the Anglo-American attacks on Iraq in 1998 – in which more firepower was used than during the 1991 attacks – resulted in fewer than 100 deaths: hardly genocidal? Even during the 1991 war, direct Iraqi civilian casualties from coalition bombing were certainly far fewer than military deaths. However, not only did genocidal episodes (the charred Amiriya shelter) lurk within ‘surgical’ bombardment, but the destruction of electricity and sewage supplies certainly produced – as the coalition clearly knew it would, and in that sense intended – far larger losses of civilian lives. In this sense civilian deaths were more than ‘collateral’, and the non-genocidal character of the air bombardment was more apparent than real.

Genocidal war as the problem

Even in contemporary, technologically-revolutionised uses of airpower, therefore, the exterminist implication lingers on, a limited expression of its still-present larger danger. What separates Bush and Clinton from Saddam Hussein and Milosevic is still the fine line which separated Roosevelt and Truman from Hitler: mass killing as an intended consequence, rather than an end in itself. The difference is that while Western powers are looking for ways of limiting the genocidal effects – or at least appearance – of war, for the main protagonists of new wars genocide is not just one end among several (as it was for Hitler) but the principal business of war.

Saddam and Milosevic are important links in the chain of contemporary warfare which links the Pentagon with the machete-killers of Rwanda and the weekend snipers of Serbia-Montenegro. Although Kaldor’s account emphasises external state support for new warriors, by focussing on Bosnia rather than Croatia in 1991 she underemphasises the role of conventional state military forces, and indeed of Milosevic. Similarly the general absence of Iraq loses from her account the state and leader responsible for initiating the two most important interstate wars of the last twenty years together with the most repeated genocidal wars against civilian populations.

In short, Kaldor restricts the significance of new wars by over-emphasising their separation from continuing inter-state war, and by understating how far genocidal tendencies have come to dominate in contemporary war as a whole. Increasingly states (not only Serbia and Iraq but also Russia in Chechnya, Israel in the West Bank and Lebanon) go to war because of uncertainty in their control over ‘their’ territory, and these wars are directed largely against civilian populations.

With the loss of Cold War narratives, particularly war as revolution, what is left is the logic of war as genocide. Although we need to be critical of the media construction of Saddam as Hitler, the main difference is that he heads a third-tier state with uncertain control over its own territory rather than a military superpower. But precisely for this reason, the threat his regime poses is principally to the people of Iraq and immediately surrounding states, and for this reason his wars have been particularly genocidal.

The reluctance to label recent wars as genocidal, compared to Hitler’s, mistakes the comparison. In the Nazi wars, the campaign against the Jews was secondary to interstate conflict. Most of the German population were not directly involved, if only because most victims of the Holocaust were Jews in conquered eastern Europe, and relatively few Jews remained in Germany itself (they were only one per cent of the population even in 1933, concentrated in larger urban areas: half had fled by 1939).

In Bosnia, however, ethnic ‘cleansing’ was the principal aim of the Serbian (and Croatian) forces. Non-Serbs (and non-Croats) were a large minorities if not majorities in the Serbian- (and Croatian-) controlled areas, and locally-raised militia, police and local authorities – as well as many civilians – were involved directly in genocide. The latter, moreover, was double-edged: directed against ethnic groups and plural urban communities. In Rwanda, large numbers of the Hutu civilian population as well as state, militia and public authorities were mobilised to murder their neighbours. There was an amateurish quality to these genocides compared to the Nazis: but the recognition of Nazism in the Omarska camp, or of the Einsatzgruppen in the mass graves of Srebrenica, was no mistake.

New wars, therefore, are genocidal wars. They carry the logic of exterminism in total war to the point where war is genocide. They emphasise more than ever that in modernity, war is the problem. This conclusion enables us to pose the question of appropriate responses more clearly. Recultivating ‘the warrior’s honour’, for which Ignatieff (1997) has argued, can at best be a partial solution. Cosmopolitan law-enforcement, which Kaldor advocates, is an alternative to war, and the kinds of military forces which it needs are glorified policemen. Reconstructing local legitimacy, and indeed constructing global legitimacy, ultimately requires Western and other major states to repudiate war as a solution, and to dismantle their potentially genocidal military structures which provide a framework of legitimacy for all the new warriors.

Theoretically, the problems which this poses for the social sciences are just as large. If total war was a mode of warfare which dominated the capitalist mode of production in mid-century, its mutation through the Cold War and nuclear arms race (not to mention the ‘revolution in military affairs’) involves changed relations between war, economy and society (I began to analyse these, in Shaw, 1988, 1991). Kaldor introduces the new war-economy as an ‘extreme form of globalization’, but globalization itself is presented as external to war. In the end this is unsatisfactory: globality can be traced to the contradictions of total war, and globalization results not only from the end of the Cold War but from the loosening relationships of the war-machines and the economy (Shaw, 1999). These are the forces which are feeding back into new wars.

Kaldor’s New and Old Wars therefore does more than illuminate a new form of war. She helps us to re-open fundamental questions which political economy and social science may have thought they had left behind in 1989, but which are still central to our understanding of modern society.


Achcar, G. (1998) ‘The Strategic Triad: The United States, Russia and China’, New Left Review, 228, pp. 91-127

Bauman, Z. (1991) Modernity and the Holocaust, Oxford: Blackwell

Davidowicz, L. (1985) The War against the Jews, Harmondsworth: Penguin

Giddens, A. (1985) The Nation-State and Violence, Cambridge: Polity

Ignatieff, M. (1997), The Warrior’s Honour, Oxford: Blackwell

Kaldor, M. (1982a) ‘Warfare and Capitalism’, in E.P. Thompson et al., Exterminism and Cold War, London: Verso, pp. 261-88

Kaldor, M. (1982b) The Baroque Arsenal, London: Deutsch

Kaldor, M. (1990) The Imaginary War, Oxford: Blackwell

Luckham, R. (1984) ‘Of Arms and Culture’, Current Research on Peace and Violence, VII, 1, pp. 1-64

MacNeill, W.H. (1982) The Pursuit of Power, Oxford: Blackwell

Shaw, M. (1988) Dialectics of War: An Essay on the Social Theory of War and Peace, London: Pluto

Shaw, M. (1990) ‘From Total War to Democratic Peace: exterminism and historical pacifism’, in H. Kaye and K. McClelland, eds, E. P. Thompson: Critical Debates, Cambridge: Polity, pp. 233-51

Thompson, E.P. (1982) ‘Notes on Exterminism, the Last Stage of Civilization’, in Thompson et al., Exterminism and Cold War, London: Verso, pp. 1-34

Thompson, E.P. and Kaldor, M., eds. (1986) Mad Dogs: The US Attacks on Libya, Harmondsworth: Penguin

  1. Sahab says:

    Amiriya shelter
    is one from 3 shelters of death in Baghdad
    thank for you

  2. Dear Ms. Mary Kaldor,

    Am extremely delighted to have seen your thought provoking articles in OPEN DEMOCRACY. Your articles have really made me sit up and take notice of whats happening in our own part of the country. Incidently, am from the north east of India, called Meghalaya,capital Shillong. Been in the field of journalism these last twenty years in this region that has always been in turmoil these last thirty years. Shall be happy to have your mailing address as I need to learn mopre from you.

    With regards


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