Global warlordism

In May, a book called Warlords, Inc. was published by North Atlantic Books. Edited by Noah Radford and Andrew Trabulsi, it brings together contributed chapters from more than a dozen authors, who discuss, as the book’s subtitle puts it, the rise of the warlord entrepreneur. As the complexities of modern geopolitical pressures mount, the world’s elaborate but fragile political systems are becoming increasingly vulnerable to breakdown and deliberate disruption by those who thrive when globalization breaks down. The book looks at this post-modern warlordism from the dark side, the bright side, and the shades of gray in between. Attempting an optimistic stance, I contributed Chapter 11 to the ‘bright side’ section, under the title Bringing the End of War to the Global Badlands. What follows is an abridged excerpt to whet your appetite for the book itself.

Consider the context in which industrial nation-on-nation war traditionally took place. In the nineteenth century, the dominant international actors were clearly identifiable nation-states with small, culturally homogenous populations. Geographic distance was a significant form of deterrence, and advanced military technology was relatively slowly changing, predictably distributed, and affordable.

Everyday life for most people in most places was relatively circumscribed, with most social and business transactions simple and occurring locally. National decision making was largely independent of other nations, was not overly complex, and had implications that did not extend very far into the future. Indeed, it was mainly the present rather than the future that was considered, since events unfolded at a manageable pace.

These conditions still existed as recently as the mid-twentieth century. Today, literally none of them remains true. Nation-states are only one class of powerful global player, and geography is only partly a deterrent factor. Populations are large, highly mobile, and ethnically mixed, and social and business interactions are complex and global. Technology is fast-changing, increasingly powerful, and highly disruptive. Advanced weapons are sold in a global marketplace, yet they may be unaffordable even to the countries that produce them, while the impacts of war on the natural environment threaten everyone. Events unfold rapidly in front of a global media audience, and national decision making is complex, risky, contested, globally interlinked, and to a great extent, focused on an uncertain future.

Hyperlinked affluent societies, instinctively appreciating this shift of context, no longer feel as they once did about war. During most of the modern era, the cost and horror of nation-on-nation war was an acceptable trade-off, because war was acknowledged as a vital means of social protection.

Today, war is increasingly seen as pathological, even sociopathic. This is partly because it has been getting more lethal for civilians. The ratio of civilian-to-combatant casualties has been rising steadily since the eighteenth century. The civilian casualty rate was 40 percent in the First World War, over 60 percent in the Second World War, 85 percent in the Israeli-Lebanon war of 1982, and it has risen to as much as 90 percent for U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, according to a 2009 estimate published by the Brookings Institute. The environmental consequences of war can also be a serious threat to health and well-being long after a conflict ends—and can become a significant liability for aggressors. The high rate of birth defects in Iraq attributed to the use of depleted uranium in munitions is a case in point.

Over the last two decades, the level of psychological literacy in well-educated societies has been rising, and there is now very little tolerance for violence of any kind. At the same time, the horizon of ethical concern has been widening to encompass the planet as a whole, and this is one aspect of a deep shift in cultural values occurring around the world. Digital communications tend to make all actions transparent, and they highlight failures of ethics, principles, and accountability. In this context, any display of warlike behavior comes under increasing scrutiny, and any political leader initiating a war is likely to be seen as, at best, psychologically unsophisticated and, at worst, sociopathic. This helps explain worldwide consternation at the United States’ circumvention of the Geneva Protocol and use of torture during the first decade of the twenty-first century.

The perception of sociopathy is reinforced when continuing military research leads to dehumanizing and ultimately delegitimizing innovations, such as pharmaceuticals to suppress guilt, robotic weapons, and drones operated from half a world away.

The shift in the cultural status of conventional war from social protection to social pathology—and the future it points to—could be termed “the end of war.” Yet, so far, it does not mean that security threats have disappeared.

The active threats now are not between nations in the pre-globalization sense, but in the ungoverned spaces created by incomplete globalization. All nations face this common challenge. Globalization without global governance is spawning a global badlands that is unstable, prone to state failure and economic breakdown, awash with illicit firepower, and a major source of asymmetric attacks.

Non-state warlords, whether politically motivated actors or the bosses of organized crime, exploit the veins of weakness that snake between and through nations, leveraging social asymmetries and disaffections, even as post–financial crisis spending cuts bite and weaken the influence of the state. The warlords are the unintended beneficiaries of the existing obsolete game of maximum global sales of weapons for total war. They are the ultimate unprincipled players with itchy trigger fingers, and they inherit the capability for overkill. This is Mad Max, armed courtesy of nation-states fatally attracted to nostalgic notions of punching above their weight.

Global society wishes for an end to violence—something that can hardly be repudiated. Yet if violence still exists and threatens the progress that has already been achieved, it needs to be countered in some way.

The world has already reached a stage of global development from which, thanks to digital communications and air travel, it seems unlikely to turn back. But this development falls short of its full potential. In an optimistic future, the end point of our current path of global development is global social and political integration, in which there is genuinely global governance able to address potential conflict of all types at all geographic scales.

The progression toward the end of war is clearly visible in the number of major conflicts. Harvard professor Steven Pinker has assembled persuasive evidence that violence in human society is actually in decline. According to the UCDP/PRIO Armed Conflict Database, worldwide battle deaths in the first decade of the twenty-first century were 0.5 per 100,000 a year, which is lower than the homicide rate in the world’s least violent countries. In absolute numbers, annual battle deaths have fallen by 90 percent, from half a million per year in the late 1940s to thirty thousand per year in the early 2000s. During this period, interstate war shrank to vanishing point, and the greatest source of deaths was civil war. Even civil wars have become less lethal. In 1950 the average armed conflict of any kind killed thirty-three thousand people; by 2007 it killed less than one thousand.

Nevertheless, we are still at an incomplete stage of global jurisdiction, with many lawless and law-deficient zones and some national jurisdictions, such as tax havens, that do not meet emerging global norms. From a global perspective, the existing situation is not systemically coherent, and the incoherencies become weaknesses that are easy to exploit asymmetrically.

These weaknesses—which include such things as social injustice, inequity, and corruption—will not be addressed by reverting to the modes of an earlier stage but rather by more fully adopting the modes that are emerging. Warlords will not be countered by increasing firepower or arming all sides or even by waging war, because these things have become self-defeating for everyone—including the warlords themselves. In the long run, this is the message of the end of war.

The warlords who hold sway in the global badlands are one aspect of incomplete global integration and represent a kind of litmus test for what needs to be done. The end of war means that a fully integrated world cannot be brought about by war among nations or even by a zero-sum competition of interests among nations (the old mode of diplomacy). Instead, if nation-states are to remain effective, they will find that their only viable forward role is as leading actors in enabling global integration.

Warlords can develop asymmetric power either where conventional modes of operating by nations are failing under new conditions, a situation which might be called functional asymmetry, or where the conventional modes are not delivering on their implicit promises about outcomes, which might be called moral asymmetry. The end of war creates functional asymmetries if nations continue to pursue conventional activities such as global marketing of light weapons. And the implicit promise in industrial societies of steadily improving economic well-being and social justice means that exploitable moral asymmetries will be created if, say, income polarization in national economies continues to grow.

To remove these asymmetries—and defuse the power of warlords— nation-states will have to act in a way that recognizes and delivers the promise of full global integration. They will have to be explicit about the social promise of a global society—and live up to it. This will mean developing a new “non-zero” meta-narrative about the benefits of cooperation to replace the existing “zero-sum” or winner-takes-all national rivalry. Nations need not lose their identity or their (already declining) autonomy, but they will certainly need to de-emphasize their self-defeating preparations for war and redirect their attention and resources to delivering on the values that give them social legitimacy.

Full global integration can only be achieved by following a new narrative of mutual predicament and shared interest. It will be too complex to hold together based on coercion and exploitation. It must be about the whole, and it must work for everyone. It must be centered on the principles of personal freedom and systemic coherence, and it must reflect democratic principles and processes.

Positive counterinsurgency in the global badlands must be tied to this new narrative. The security narrative of nation-states can no longer be about maintaining order elsewhere, as there is no “elsewhere” in a global society. To bring order to the badlands, global society must be brought into being. This too is essentially the message of the blowback from the War on Terror—that the clash of civilizations must be disarmed before the end of history can arrive.

This will be a hard, counterintuitive lesson for nations: as the world moves toward global integration, the actors who will withstand the tide of history are going to be those who abandon war. If nations can do this, it will immediately give them an advantage over the warlords, draining the swamp by removing moral and functional asymmetries. Conversely, if nations attempt to justify continued war preparations—particularly if they resort to amoral measures such as false-flag operations—they will place themselves on the wrong side of history and will ultimately lose, not least by creating moral asymmetries for new “white hat” actors to employ.

There is, in fact, no shortage of white hats. Civil society is busy pioneering the development of many of the positive, globally directed initiatives that nations could promote if they were to redirect existing defense budgets. From social enterprises to sophisticated skills in conflict resolution, the ideas and the means for transcending conflict are already available.

It is said that without a vision, the people perish, and this will be true of both nations and people who cannot follow the new story of global integration. Perhaps the ultimate security message conveyed by this vision is that as long as there is war in the human heart, there will be war in human society. A change for the better is ultimately possible only if we have reached the point where each one of us is willing to allow compassion for our extended human family to take the place of all the hatreds, large and small, we harbor within us.