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The wars of the 21st century

31-03-2003 Article, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 849, by Herfried Münkler

This article identifies and explores the salient features of the "new wars" of the 21st century. In particular, three phenomena are analysed: asymmetry; demiliterization; and privatization and commercialization of war. It is argued that these trends are likely to continue to affect many of the wars in the near future unless there are major geo-political and economic changes in international relations.

   

Herfried Münkler,
Professor, Political Theory at Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany. He has recently published a book on new wars: Die neuen Kriege, Rowohlt, Reinbek bei Hamburg, 2002. 
   
Abstract 
This article identifies and explores the salient features of the " new wars " of the 21st century. In particular, three phenomena are analysed: asymmetry; demilitarization; and privatization and commercialization of war.
 
The asymmetry between the parties to new conflicts is pin-pointed as the key distinguishing feature between many wars currently being waged and those fought over the last century. The author develops this analysis by applying the theory of speed to war: while technologically advanced parties may try to use acceleration as a means to quick victory, " guerrilla " strategy may employ ways to make the enemy pay the price of acceleration. For this and other reasons, more technologically advanced societies may not necessarily have the upper hand in asymmetrical conflicts.
 
Secondly, many " new wars " have become demilitarized in the sense that these wars are likely to be fought only partly by soldiers and no longer be principally directed against military targets. This change again reflects the effects of an asymmetric strategy. This trend is coupled with and accentuated by the confusion over applicable humanitarian rules that accompanies de-structured or transnational conflicts.
 
The third feature of these wars is the increasing privatization and commercialization of conflicts. The events of 11 September 2001 indicate that the parties to armed conflicts could be expanded to include transnational criminal or terrorist groups. This could lead to the privatization of conflicts between States and these types of international actors. Meanwhile the phenomenon of " warlords " who make profit out of war and who therefore have an interest in sustaining conflicts has also begun to re-flourish in the new wars of the 21st century. The article traces the historical aspect of commercialization of war.
 
It is concluded that these trends are likely to continue to affect many of the wars in the near future. This will be the case, unless a return to the stability of Statehood can curb the privatization and demilitarization of war. In addition, the process of globalization could be used to equalize the distribution of power and wea lth, thus undermining the root causes of asymmetric conflicts.  
   
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