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The new conflicts: Back to the future?

31-03-2003 Article, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 849, by Irène Herrmann, Daniel Palmieri

In this article the authors analyse the concept of “new conflicts”. A brief historical review shows that all techniques characteristic of the “new conflicts” were used in the wars of the past. Today’s fighting is typical of the “post-bipolar” age; it reflects a West where the reality of war has been forgotten and any war seems new after two generations of peace.


Today’s wars are commonly called “new conflicts”. They seem new because they are unstructured, because their victims are mainly civilians and because they are waged with unconventional weapons and methods, including terrorism. A brief look at history shows that such techniques have been used in Europe since Antiquity. It is true that the Treaties of Westphalia (1648) changed the nature of warfare by ushering in the era of nation-States, which made efforts to spare unarmed civilians while steadily perfecting their weapons. Quickly, however, this model degenerated, unleashing an undreamt of destructive potential that, since 1945, has checked traditional conflicts by making wars between developed States so dangerous that they could annihilate mankind. As a result, we have seen a return to more ancient forms of warfare, of which the new conflicts typical of today’s “post-bipolar” world are the most recent example. The name given to these conflicts simply reflects the fact that, after two generations of relative peace, people in the West have forgotten what war is: for them, all conflicts seem new.  
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