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Issue 49, July 2000

War and Peace in the 21st Century

    The end of 'cold war restraints'
    The bloodiest century
    The last superpower
    The Balkans - unravelling the New World Order
    What alternative to the 'new barbarism'?

Has war between nation states become a thing of the past? Does globalisation mean that conflicts are being fought for different reasons than previously? In the recently published book, New Wars & Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era (Polity Press, £12.95), Mary Kaldor takes this view. PER OLSSON examines the arguments.

THE NEW WORLD Order proclaimed in 1991 by US president, George Bush, was supposed to bring peace and prosperity to all corners of the world. Yet during the 1990s, the first decade of the post-Stalinist era, millions of people have died in wars and millions more have become refugees.

In the twelve months to August 1999, ten international/regional wars and 25 civil wars were fought. At least 110,000 people were killed in those armed conflicts. Several countries have entered a vicious circle of civil war, disintegration and chaos, which is threatening the very existence of a number of nation states. This is particularly so in Africa - the weakest link in the global capitalist chain. Three-quarters of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa are engaged in armed conflicts or are confronted by a significant threat from armed groups.

These civil wars are caused by social, economic and political crises, and national oppression: "When the cold war came to an end, civil conflicts in the developing world did not. On the contrary, they redoubled in intensity. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) more than 23 situations of internal warfare have appeared, or been reactivated - with more than 50 armed groups involved". (Le Monde Diplomatique, June 1999)


Of the 61 major armed conflicts fought between 1989 and 1998, 58 were civil wars. These have been described as 'new wars' in the new period of globalisation.

Mary Kaldor's book deals in depth with the characteristics and origins of the new type of conflict in the post-Stalinist era. She describes the fall of Yugoslavia - in particular, the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina - as "the archetypal example, the paradigm of the new type of warfare". She argues that this new type of war has replaced the 'old wars': "Old wars between states may have become a thing of the past". According to Kaldor, this is because of the present level of economic integration and international military co-operation, at least in the advanced capitalist world: "The new wars can be contrasted with earlier wars in terms of their goals, the methods of warfare and how they are financed. The goals of the new wars are about identity in politics in contrast to the geopolitical or ideological goals in earlier wars". And it is not only a new type of war but also new methods of warfare, where battles tend to be avoided and the "strategic goal... is population expulsion by getting rid of everyone of a different identity".

Kaldor's claim that the new warfare has radically displaced old-style wars, however, is very one-sided, to say the least. In reality, the aim of most of the new wars is still to gain territorial control in order to exploit the people and natural wealth that exist in a particular area. 'New' conflict does not arise spontaneously from 'identity' aspirations. It is invariably initiated by nationalistic, ethnic, religious or communalist elites who aggravate and reinforce 'identity' differences, grievances and aspirations for their own ends. The leaders often mobilise forces based on a minority of the population. By deliberately polarising and ghettoising communities - often through force, by sponsoring paramilitaries or by drawing armed support from neighbouring regimes - they can become the decisive force.


Even the Bosnian war had a broader aim than purely that of 'identity'. It involved economic interests, as well as factors such as the prestige of the Croatian and the Serbian regimes and their regional geopolitical interests. The war was fought by regular army units from Serbia and Croatia, local armies and murderous gangsters, with the involvement of Western and Russian imperialism (financially and militarily) through local client forces.

What is really new in the post-Stalinist era, however, is the global scenario under which all armed conflicts arise. In the old world order, every major conflict or civil war was part of the struggle between two superpowers - the United States and Soviet Union. The superpowers' effective equality of destructive potential for a period (Mutually Assured Destruction - MAD) ruled out the establishment of absolute US hegemony through military means (except in the fantasies of the ultra-right). At the same time, this rivalry gave some poorer countries an opportunity of balancing between the superpowers, thereby gaining some advantages, such as economic and military aid.

This international balance of power was reflected in the fact that there was no major war on European soil between 1947-89. This balance of power obviously crumbled away after the collapse of Stalinism in 1989-91.

The history of the last century illustrates that every tendency towards increased integration of stable nation states can be reversed and replaced by a tendency in the opposite direction when world capitalism is running out of steam. A backlash against the present phase of globalisation and neo-liberalism is inevitable in the context of a new world-wide crisis of capitalism. Harold James, a historian from the US, wrote: "The stakes could hardly be higher. World depression destroys political stability. In the past deflation and depression have frequently led to a vicious circle of nationalism, xenophobia, the disintegration of states and even wars". (International Herald Tribune, 26 October 1998)


This vicious circle leading to the fragmentation of nation states, a basic unit of capitalism, is already evident in the weaker and less-developed capitalist states in Africa, Asia, the former Soviet Union and the Balkans. A similar process could start to develop even in the more advanced capitalist countries if the working class is not able to put its mark on the future.

top     The end of 'cold war restraints'

KALDOR'S DEFINITION OF 'new wars' in the aftermath of the collapse of Stalinism is another expression of post-modernism - a post-historical or a-historical approach based on superficial features which rejects an analysis of underlying forces or international relationships. Wars and civil war are not analysed from a class point of view and the present stretches on forever.

In fact, there is a complex interaction between the 'new wars' and the "old barbaric wars between states": 'new wars' can develop into wars between states, and outside states can intervene to expand their influence. No 'local' conflict remains local for long. For example, in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), nearly every neighbouring country has been involved in the carve-up of the country. The various countries have intervened for their own geopolitical reasons and to get their hands on the Congo's great mineral wealth. As the Le Monde Diplomatique noted, "rebel troops with the support of Rwandan officers spent more time and energy on capturing and exploiting the mining areas than tracking down the enemy". (October 1999)


"There is a deadly new pattern to the world's armed struggles, in which civil wars are escalating into regional conflicts while the international community is increasingly reluctant to intervene", wrote the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in its 1999 annual report. The power and security vacuum left after the collapse of Stalinism has given room for smaller imperialist nations to try and establish dominant regional positions, for example, South Africa and to some extent Zimbabwe and Uganda in southern Africa. The US's role as the global policeman is limited by mainly domestic, political factors which constrain any military action which would incur potential US casualties. Some areas of the world are not worth any risk, until a major crisis undermines US credibility as world peacekeeper, or unless its interests are directly affected. The actual role the US plays therefore varies from case to case.

Russia's wars against Chechnya - 1994-96 and today - include elements of new and old wars. They have taken place in the context of the severe economic collapse and disintegration of the former Soviet Union. Russia, still the world's second-biggest military power, is prepared to use a significant part of its military capacity to ensure that Chechnya and the Caucasus remain part of the Russian Federation. This is 'old-fashioned', naked imperialist aggression and is part of a wider battle for control of this oil-rich region. On the other hand, the armed Chechan groups are without any clear aims apart from that of driving out the Russians. This lack of ideology, political ideas and aims is a recipe for the rapid degeneration of the armed resistance into gangster organisations ruled by warlords. (This is pointed to by Kaldor as a 'new feature', although armed movements unable to win active and lasting support from the population and becoming new oppressors is, in fact, a very old feature.)


The New World Order has given rise to persistent instability and insecurity in many areas of the world. More and more countries have access to weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear arms. A new twist in the arms race seems to be on its way. Not even US imperialism can contain the spread of nuclear arms, as was shown in 1998 when India and Pakistan both conducted nuclear tests.

The Kashmir flashpoint could develop into a new and more dangerous full-scale war between India and Pakistan. It cannot be ruled out that in the face of an impending defeat, an unstable, desperate regime in one of those states would be tempted to play its last and most devastating card. Obviously, nuclear exchanges would be suicidal - politically and possibly physically - for any regime. The social and political crises of India and Pakistan, however, mean that both regimes are extremely unstable. There is always a possibility that they could go out of control, especially as there is no strong, unified bourgeoisie in either country capable of exerting a more sober influence - based on more long-term interests.

Kashmir is just one of many trouble spots in Asia. IISS director, Gerald Segel, commented in August 1999: "North Korean missiles, China-Taiwan sabre-rattling, India-Pakistani tensions... These conflicts have high thresholds in part because they take place in environments with nuclear weapons. If the threshold of conflicts is indeed reached, the stakes could not be higher... The real risks lie elsewhere, primarily in domestic political uncertainties that could lead to irrational calculations about the use of war. It is then that nuclear risks make all three of these conflicts so dangerous. A collapse in North Korea, rapid nationalism in Beijing, independence-driven hot heads in Taiwan, or a collapsing Pakistani government, are the kinds of forces than can take these countries across the high thresholds of war". (My emphasis - PO)


Karl von Clausewitz's explanation in 1832 that 'war is a continuation of politics by other means', is still valid, as the above quote shows. The same holds true for civil wars. Kaldor, however, does not agree. She argues that geopolitical interests do not play a role in the new wars because they "arise in the context of the erosion of the autonomy of the state and in some extreme cases the disintegration of the state. In particular, they occur in the context of the erosion of the monopoly of legitimate organized violence". In short, the ruling classes are no longer conducting wars through their state machines.

The situation, indeed, has changed. The breakdown of the bi-polar, cold-war order has led to greater instability. Neo-liberal policies have accelerated economic and social crises and the fragmentation of states. Since 1989 wars have been conducted by those unstable states, no longer restrained by the cold war alignments. Wars are also being conducted by states in the process of formation. And the emerging states are being fought over by elites before a stable bourgeois class has been formed. Wars are therefore being fought by states - as well as by warlords, minorities, etc - but under the new world disorder: states are different from the immediate post-war period and the whole international context has changed.

top     The bloodiest century

THE DEVELOPMENT OF monopoly capitalism - imperialism - in the late 19th century intensified all the contradictions and conflicts inherent in capitalism. This, together with the defeat and delay of the world socialist revolution, explains why the 20th century became the bloodiest in history. As many as 200 million people perished in the vicious wars of the last century. Many more suffered.


This took place despite the hope that the 1899 International Peace Conference in The Hague would mark the beginning of an era where all states would strive to make 'the great idea of universal peace triumph over strife and discord'. This optimism was backed-up by the rapid expansion of the world market and the openness that characterised the international economy in 1880-1913 - a period of globalisation.

However, that phase of world capitalism did not ease the tensions and rivalries between the major imperialist powers for long. The mounting contradictions and conflicts created the conditions for the first world war, the Great Depression in the 1930s, and the second world war. The wars were fought with ever-more deadly and destructive weapons thanks to the development of the productive forces. An estimated 26 million people were slaughtered in the first world war's many killing fields: single battles inflicted casualties as large as those suffered in entire wars of earlier eras.

The first world war was an inter-imperialist war: a struggle between rival imperialist powers for spheres of influence (markets, finance, strategic power, political hegemony, etc). It was preceded by world-wide colonialism - the greatest robbery and land-grab in history - and intensified competition on the world market. The imperialist powers went to war against each other in order to safeguard the interests of finance capital, and to rob and oppress colonial and foreign countries.

The ending of the first world war in 1918, under the impact of the victorious Russian revolution in October 1917 and social ferment across the world, resulted in an uneasy and unstable peace. Tragically, the defeat of the international socialist revolution - particularly in Germany - and the subsequent isolation of the Russian revolution, paved the way for the rise of the totalitarian regime under Joseph Stalin and the coming to power of Adolf Hitler's fascists in Germany in 1933.


The defeat of the German working class brought the world closer to war. Leon Trotsky pointed out as early as 1933 that "Nazism raises itself over the nation as the worst form of imperialism... the true mission of fascist dictatorship means preparation for wars. The date of a new European catastrophe will be determined by the time necessary for the arming of Germany... It is not a question of months but neither is it question of decades". (The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, p407 Pathfinder edition)

The defeat of the German working class, together with the defeat suffered by the heroic Spanish proletariat and peasantry in the civil war against General Francisco Franco (1936-39) and the derailing of the revolutionary movement in France, paved the way for the outbreak of second world war in 1939.

The horrors of the war were felt across the world. It was an all-out war waged against rival military forces, civilians and countries' economy and infrastructure. Up to 60 million people perished. That figure includes the genocide of six million Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators. Between 10%-20% of the population in the Soviet Union, Poland and Yugoslavia were killed.

Dropping the atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki also heralded the nuclear age and cold war. After this, a new world war would no longer be a 'war to end all wars', as the imperialists said of 1914 and at the start of the second world war, but more likely a war to end all civilisation.

The world relations created by the outcome of the second world war meant that US imperialism became the dominant power in the capitalist world and the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union was strengthened as it took control of Central and Eastern Europe. The national liberation movements and the smashing of the old colonial order in Asia and Africa in the 1950s and 1960s also gave a boost to the Soviet Union. Although ruled by a brutal totalitarian bureaucracy, the Soviet Union had recorded remarkable economic progress. It represented, albeit in a very distorted way, an alternative to the capitalist system. The delay of the socialist revolution in the West reinforced this process. By the mid-1970s, Stalinist regimes had been established or were being formed in a wide range of countries covering 28% of the world and one-third of the world's population.


This division of the world, with the US and Soviet Union involved in a constant struggle to maintain and expand their respective spheres of influence, cast its shadow over the world between 1945-1990. This rivalry gave way to a destructive nuclear arms race - the biggest military build-up in history. An influential military-industrial complex was formed, that is still putting an enormous burden on society. After 1945, the world hardly experienced one day of peace. In fact, the number of armed conflicts surged from twelve in 1950 to 51 in 1992.

top     The last superpower

THE COLLAPSE OF Stalinism and the ending of the old world relations meant that all the subsequent social, political and military conflicts have developed in the context of a new, more fluid international situation.

While globalisation was gaining momentum, the Stalinist bloc, despite its grotesque character, acted as a counterweight to capitalist and imperialist exploitation - in political and social terms as well as militarily. The fall of Stalinism allowed the capitalist ruling classes to turn the screw on the working class internationally and on the poorer countries even further. The massive military onslaught on Iraq - a country supported by imperialism in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war in which one million people died - served as a warning to all other countries trying to pursue their own agendas.

US imperialism led a 40-country 'coalition' against Iraq, pulverising one of the world's oldest civilisations. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed. The Gulf war never really ended: further bombing raids and sanctions have killed at least another 1.2 million defenceless people since 1991. In spite of all the propaganda about fighting the 'evil' Saddam Hussein, the dictator was given a free hand to brutally crush the uprising of Shia Muslims in southern Iraq and the Kurds in the north soon after the 'coalition' halted its war against Iraq.


Former US Republican foreign advisor, Samuel Francis, admitted: "The wars we have fought, the bombs and missiles we have dropped and fired, the people we have killed, the rights and principles we have already violated or ignored have not brought either peace or stability... The wars in the Persian Gulf have accomplished nothing". (Independent on Sunday, 15 November 1998)

What the Gulf war did show, however, was that US imperialism was the only superpower left in the world. The US was shown to be way far ahead of any other country in terms of military technology and capacity, even though the precision of 'smart' weapons used in the Gulf and in last year's war against Serbia have been exaggerated. The collapse of Stalinism and the fragmentation of the Soviet Union meant a relative strengthening of the position of US imperialism, which has been bolstered by the longest cyclical economic upswing in US history. But the world is hardly on the eve of a 'Pax Americana'. As the IISS pointed out in its 1998 annual report: "Globalisation has created conditions within which crisis breeds with increasing speed, but also initially with uncertain impact".

The legacy of US imperialism's defeat in Vietnam, together with the current instability in the world and the existence of many potential trouble spots, are holding the US in check. It had been claimed that the Vietnam syndrome had been overcome by the Gulf war. But the Gulf conflict took place at an exceptional conjuncture. Immediately afterwards, US forces had to beat an ignominious retreat from Somalia to avoid casualties. Even more importantly, the Balkan/Kosova war proved that the US electorate is still not prepared to sacrifice bodies where they do not see that vital and immediate national interests are at stake.


Bill Clinton & Co want to preserve at least the appearance of a multi-national approach (through the United Nations, etc). But there is domestic political pressure for unilateral foreign policies: that US interests are paramount and should prevail over the heads of the EU and Nato allies. This has had an impact on Clinton's policies and has provoked resentment from the European powers. This is reinforcing the divisions inside the imperialist camp. New contradictions will emerge. The US Senate's rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and Clinton's determination to develop a new anti-missile programme - a sequel to Ronald Reagan's 'Star Wars' - will trigger a new arms race that could "undermine the long-standing non-proliferation treaties now in force". (Le Monde Diplomatique, December 1999)

top     The Balkans - unravelling the New World Order

NATO'S 50TH ANNIVERSARY last year coincided with its first and, to date, only war. Mainly an American operation, Nato's war against Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia and its aftermath, illustrate the limits of military intervention by Western imperialism. It is one thing trying to act as a global policeman with cruise missiles. But what is to be done after a military victory is secured? Nato's war means that Western imperialism has no choice but to maintain a military presence in Kosova for many years to come - as in Bosnia. It marks a new phase in the bloody collapse of Yugoslavia.

Kaldor devotes a large part of her book to the fall of Yugoslavia, in particular the war in Bosnia between 1992-95. The Bosnian conflict was a defining moment in the history of modern Europe. It was preceded by a short and disastrous invasion of Slovenia by the Serbian army (the 'Yugoslav People's Army') in the summer of 1991 and a devastating war in Croatia in 1991-92. The break-up of Yugoslavia meant war in Europe for the first time since 1945. The conflict in the former Yugoslavia escalated into international wars.


The emergence of a new form of nationalism paralleled the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Kaldor contrasts this to an earlier, "modern nationalism which aimed at state-building and that, unlike earlier nationalism, it lacked a modernising ideology".

This 'new form' of nationalism in former Yugoslavia was rooted in the failure of the Stalinist regimes to overcome ethnic and national divisions, along with the absence of an independent, socialist movement of working-class people. This phenomenon arose in other Stalinist states as well. The formation of 15 new national states in Europe since 1989 illustrates that breaking free of the Soviet Union's structure, or from Yugoslavia, was seen as the quickest route to democracy and prosperity by the working class. This process, however, developed in the context of an international capitalist counter-revolution after the working class had been defeated and pushed back. This meant that the rise of nationalism in Yugoslavia, for example, became part of a reactionary, bourgeois and chauvinist backlash. Only at the expense of weaker nationalities could the reactionary dreams of a capitalist 'Greater Serbia' or 'Greater Croatia' be fulfilled. This was the road to war and ruin.

As Kaldor states, "The international reaction was at best confused and sometimes stupid, at worst culpable for what happened", although she harbours a vain hope that Western imperialism may have learnt something from this failure. Nato's war against Serbia neither protected the Kosovar Albanians nor did it seriously weaken Milosevic's military machine. Instead, it further destabilised the region and sent Kosova on its way to becoming an ethnically pure Albanian state ruled by gangsters in and around the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA/UÇK).


However, the rise of this type of nationalism and the division of the working class was not an inevitable process. It was no accident that Milosevic started to play the nationalist card at a time when Serbia was rocked by workers' strikes and protests against unemployment and social hardship in 1987-88. As Micha Glenny observed in his book, The Fall of Yugoslavia - still the best book on the horrifying events that shook ex-Yugoslavia in the early 1990s - "Bosnia could have been saved if a political party which spanned the three communities together had emerged as the most powerful after the collapse of communist power". Leaving aside the reference to the misnamed 'communist power' - we describe these regimes as 'Stalinist', rather than 'communist', to highlight their brutal, totalitarian nature - this judgement is correct. But such a party would have had to be a genuine democratic socialist party - a revolutionary party based on the strength and solidarity of the working class.

Kaldor misses that essential point, although she does refer to the pockets of multi-ethnical resistance that existed. Unfortunately, the lack of that clear class alternative - or the capacity for armed self-defence - in the context of a severe setback for the working class, made it impossible for those groups to stand up against the forces of far-right nationalism and sectarianism.

The war in Bosnia was fought by armies and paramilitaries. The agreement between the then president of Croatia, Franjo Tudjman, and Milosevic for carving-up Bosnia at the expense of the Muslims (who were the majority), meant war: the war became a continuation of politics by other means. The Bosnian Muslims were the least prepared for war and the first to become the main victims of 'ethnic cleansing' - the driving-out of whole populations through the use of summary executions, systematic rape and terror. The war changed after Western imperialism gave full recognition to the Croatian state on the condition that it formed an alliance with the Bosnian Muslims. Following that, it was the Serbs - as in Kosova today - who became the main victims of 'ethnic cleansing' in both Croatia and Bosnia.


In the words of Carl Bildt, former Swedish prime minister and the West's highest representative in Bosnia at the time, the peace agreement reached in 1995 was, "an agreement which the political leaders regarded as a continuation of the war, but with other means". Bosnia today is an imperialist protectorate. Kosova is on the way to becoming the same.

top     What alternative to the 'new barbarism'?

KALDOR SKETCHES OUT what she sees as the way forward in the final chapter. The main theme is that a lasting peace has to be based on alternative politics: "The politics of civility" and the "development of cosmopolitan forms of governance". This means that the rich countries have to devote more resources to what she calls 'reconstructing' and "abandoning some of the neo-liberal assumptions". Why just 'some' is never explained.

Given the decline of capitalism and the exploitative and class nature of imperialism, this is a utopian dream. The fragmentation and marginalisation inherent in globalisation, and the super-exploitation of the masses and the poorest countries, are creating tensions which are tearing society apart - not only in less-developed countries but increasingly also in the advanced capitalist world.

Moreover, globalisation is neither the final stage in the development of world capitalism nor has it made it possible to break down the national frontiers, as Kaldor seems to imply. The capitalist world is still divided into rival countries and this rivalry will come more and more to the fore as the productive forces come up against the barriers of private ownership and the nation state.


The only road to lasting peace and a "cosmopolitical policy in the interests of humanity", to quote Kaldor, is to build an international working-class movement uniting the oppressed masses in a common struggle against capitalism and imperialism, against the horror of wars and inequality. The struggle for world socialism is a struggle for peace and a society based on human solidarity.

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