War: making regimes and unravelling states

The thoughts and reactions on this reflection are divided in two sections. Firstly, based on Boas (2005) article on Liberia, I argue that “new wars” (Kaldor, 2001) should not be seen as clearly belonging to the pool of ‘greed’ literature. Secondly, I will look at state formation theory as another indicator of some specific dynamics of contemporary conflict, of how we have moved from the evolutions of state Darwinism to the dynamics of regime Darwinism.

‘New Wars’ meet Grievance Literature

After reading the narrative of Liberia’s history I almost can’t help but look towards the role of neopatrimonialism (Boas, 2005:78) as preponderant, chronic and almost transhistorical. This fist impression was followed by a suspicion that there must also be a distinctly modern aspect to neopatrimonialism, something else about its dynamics that cannot be fully understood by just looking at old grievances. I felt that it was also important to understand what was it about the contemporary system that seemed to sustain and cement this approach to politics.
Boas traces tensions in Liberia all the way back to the early 19th century and there is not doubt that having 110 years of a one-party apartheid state (Boas, 2005:76) leaves deep marks but, overall, I still felt that depicting Kaldor’s (2001) ‘new wars’ as obsessed with “material explanations” and as “one-sided” (Boas, 2005:24) is somewhat caricaturizing her argument. If on the one hand I see authors like Collier (2004) as clearly on the greed side of the debate on the other hand Kaldor’s positioning is not as clear or as materially obsessed as it is said to be. In fact, she argues that ‘new wars’ are fundamentally about identity politics, meaning they represent reignited old grievances emerging in the context of globalisation. The ‘newness’ to which Kaldor refers to has been subject to intense debate but I don’t see it in any way denying that in Liberia the “conflict lines around which the war initially started remain very much present” (Boas: 2005 82) . In fact what it asks is for ‘new wars’ to be “understood in the context of the process known as globalisation” (Kaldor: 2001, 3). Hence, the term ‘new war’ is not intended to indicate that all wars have been transformed into new wars but that some conflicts are underpinned by fundamentally different elements. The two main elements referred to in this case are the role of informal networks and transnationalism. If on the one hand informal networks with their specific structures and grievances are not always new, on the other hand the transnational phenomena of Diaspora, humanitarian aid, small arms trade and money laundering are just some of recent developments that have transformed the way wars are waged and sustained. Kaldor’s term is also not suppose to extend to other forms of conflict such as terrorism, but stick to how specificities of contemporary warfare seem to make the ages-old cleavages described by Boas more salient. It is therefore important to point out that ‘New Wars’ refer to a very specific form of conflict, according to Mary Kaldor (2005) these are wars

“fought by networks of state and nonstate actors, where battles are rare and violence is directed mainly against civilians, and which are characterised by a new type of political economy that combines extremist politics and criminality”.

In contrast to the situation before the end of the Cold War, where ethnic grievances had been kept dormant by the geopolitical and ideological ‘chess’, these grievances today thrive in a world where informal networks and transnationalism are frequently put together with geopolitical fragmentation and economic turbulence. How does this process work? How can one explain why Hutu militia embarked on a genocidal campaign if they were already in power in Rwanda? Was the Bosnian conflict’s grievances so entrenched that a conflict was inevitable? It appears to me that in the Rwandan case the ethnic grievances that remained from colonialism did provide powerful identifiers of community but were triggered by very specific contemporary economic and political insecurities while ethnic nationalism in the Bosnian case was a form of responding to the instability induced by democratisation, political insecurity and economic difficulties. In addition, new uses for old technology or simple new innovations such as mobile phones, internet or a Toyota Hiace with an attached machine gun can deeply change the form conflicts are waged, facilitating the job of factions that rely on informal networks – the whole Rwanda genocide for example was carried out with little more than machetes whilst radio media is said to have played a key role in inciting violence. Take also the Liberian example, Charles Taylor, an economics student in the United States and a Khadafy trainee in Libya was able to set up a political network and begin a successful invasion of a nation-state with a small number of soldiers (100). Even this case is, I believe, illustrative of how today informal networks are wider and more salient in affecting conflict while transnationalism takes the vulnerabilities of failed states to a different level. Charles Taylor was able to tap into pre-existing ethnic grievances and carry out a war sustained by platforms allocated at the global level (exe. diamond, timber and rubber industries) and trends existing at a regional scale (exe. Sankoh’s and Gadaffi’s anti-western doctrines and informal commercial networks). One last example of the changed nature of conflicts can be found if you look at the case of “Africa’s World War” in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). A conflict of this nature could not have happened at any previous moment in history and assumed the form it did. The fact that nine countries were involved, that there was an extensive network of coordination between the factions and that the effort of war did not have territorial conquest in mind is relevant. In DRC, political goals of the intervening actors were constantly intermeshed with economic interests of extraction and business. The prospect of business and the rush of stakeholders went hand in hand with the daily routine of the war and was an intrinsic part of its sustenance. Once again the role of informal networks and transnationalism was evident, informal forces thrive on the de-territorialisation and transnationality associated with globalisation. These informal forces also tend to blossom across some relatively novel characters in international relations – the failed states. It is towards the failed state we turn next.

State Darwinism vs. Regime Darwinism

From the perspective of a researcher in the area of conflict, the “new wars”/old wars debate, put together with questions of state formation add up to one of the most fascinating mixes in the subject. Personally, the huge pressure that ongoing geopolitical fragmentation has exercised on an international system whose foundations rest upon a state-based template is particularly interesting. This nation-state template works at its best when dealing with formal sovereign states but has been struggling, particularly in Africa, where it has to deal with weak states managed by ‘muscled’ regimes and by the recurrence of protracted conflict. These are the so-called failed states.
In an insightful work, Herbst (2004:308) notes that there has not been a process of natural selection in terms of state capabilities in Africa since the “political existence of states was no longer necessarily threatened by failure”. Indeed what has occurred instead, in my perspective, is a process of natural selection of which regimes hold power. It is here where the problem lies since the criteria for a ‘muscled’ regime is different of the criteria for a strong state. Failed states hold regimes where the first decisive factor for natural selection is military capability and secondly, when in power, ability to keep in place a patrimonial structure that makes the most of an informal underground sector or/and an unaccountable primary commodity export sector (Liberia from Tubman to Charles Taylor is one example). All of this whilst, of course, managing to keep any forms of civil unrest on the low. Eriksen, for example, is quick in recognizing the essentially distinct new nature of conflict in Africa when he observes that states in themselves “are not faced with the threat of extinction (Eriksen: 2005: 1110). War does not destroy or make states (Tilly, 1985) as it used to. What you have now are direct battles between regimes, regime-seekers or stakeholder regime-establishers (like for example Angola and Libya in the DRC war) instead of simple inter-state battle. Herbst’s (2004 310) remark that “regimes do not require national political order” supports this, he pushes for an understanding of political order in terms of administrative accountability and control of the territorial extension of the state. These would be pre-requisites for states to be considered sovereign and would prevent regime-seekers from ripping out the benefits of belonging to the international community as soon as they control the capital city. Situations where leaders and policy-makers in developing countries perceive an empowerment of the state as counter-productive to the strengthening of the regime need to be avoided.
Ultimately, Herbst’s (2004:312) suggestion for the international community to decertify states (not recognize them as sovereign) did strike me as ambiguous and impractical but I also could see that it was a product of a logical reasoning exercise. In failed states there seems to be a parallel structure of neopatrimonialism that uses the old state template of the international order as a platform for sustenance. In order for a regime-seeker faction to tap into this template, not only re-igniting old grievances seems to be particularly effective but above all, the ability to log into the international economy (formal or informal), into transnational networks as well as seizing strategic nodal points (instead of large extensions of territory) such as capital cities and river basins.


In his concluding remarks, Boas (2005:88) calls for more attention towards the “ideational aspects of war” as vital towards better understanding and engaging with the implicit, underlying causes of conflict. I strongly agree with this point but I also believe that the sought after holistic approach needs to be complemented with politics tackling the explicit new practicalities of contemporary conflicts. At the end of the day, next to ideation you have to put practicality. Yes, the conflicts are ancient and the grievances are not a sudden ‘disease’ of a post-Cold War world but the expansion of informal networks and transnationalism have surely worked as fast-track incubators for protracted conflicts during the 1990s and the beginning of the millennium.
By assuming this, I consider Kaldor’s notion of “New Wars” as successful in mapping the new transnational, commercial and informal saliencies of modern warfare, contributing towards a more complete sketch of what the current challenges entail. Also, analysing state formation can, as we saw, make this evident. Reading Herbst and complementing the two texts I feel that it is perhaps time to move from the classic argument that states make war and “war makes states” (Tilly, 1985:171) to a situation where regime-stakeholders make war and war both makes regimes and unravels states.


Boas, M. 2005. “The Liberian civil war: new war/old war?” in Global Society, 19(1): 73-88
Collier, P. 2000. “Doing well out of war: An economic perspective”, in Berdal, M. & Malone, D. (eds.) Greed and grievance: Economic agendas in civil wars. Boulder: Lynne Rienner (91-112)
Eriksen, S. 2005. “The Congo war and the prospects for state formation: Rwanda and Uganda compared” in Third World Quarterly, 26(7): 1097-1113
Herbst, J. 2004. “Let them fail”, in Rotberg, R. (ed.) When states fail: Causes and Consequences. Princeton University Press (302-318)
Kaldor, M. 2001. New Wars and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era Oxford: Polity
Kaldor, M. 2005. “Iraq: the wrong war” in Open Democracy (online edition), 9 June. http://www.opendemocracy.net/conflict-iraq/wrong_war_2591.jsp (13 October 2006)
Tilly, C. 1985. “War Making and State Making as organised crime” in Evans, P.; Rueschemeyer, D. & Skocpol, T. (eds) Bringing the State back in Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (169-187)

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