This memo was prepared for a WPF seminar on “New Wars, New Peace” held at the Fletcher School, January 12-13 2012.

Let me start with a straightforward point. By its very nature, the term “new wars” is imprecise and, therefore, lends itself to debates that are based on misunderstandings, something that Mary Kaldor is keen to recognize in the afterword to the third edition of her book.  It is natural therefore that most of the discussion is spent on elucidating what the term actually means and what it doesn’t.

It seems to me that Kaldor wants to have it both ways. Yielding an imprecise term allows her to face her critics by arguing that they misrepresent her arguments. At the same time, this very imprecision (along with the catchiness of the term “new”) focuses attention on the term and allows its constant redefinition in ways that may address some of the critiques while opening new areas of imprecision.

Perhaps, then, the question should be restated. Instead of debating what is new versus what is old when it comes to war, those who wish to understand conflict should pose the more straightforward question: what has changed in the realm of armed conflict since the end of the Cold War?  In this respect,  Kaldor’s additions to the third edition acknowledge a point that has acquired quite a lot of consensus, namely that major wars, interstate as well as intrastate, have declined since the end of the Cold War.  This is an important point and I would like to remind you that many analysts at the time of the end of the Cold War thought that violence was bound to explode out of control following the collapse of the Soviet Union and that the West was facing a “coming anarchy,” to use Robert Kaplans’ formulation that was fashionable at the time.

Also, it is acknowledged that despite the huge difficulties in estimating precise fatality trends, all the evidence points to a decline in conflict-related fatalities, both on and, to the extent that it is possible to say something general, off the battlefield.  To that, let me add that the evidence also suggests a decline in duration of major civil wars.  While it is much more difficult to estimate the duration of very low intensity incidents, that they cannot possibly be causing too much additional conflict otherwise they would impact the larger trend of decline.  Another trend: negotiated agreements have become much more common after the end of the Cold War, replacing outright military victory and defeat.  Some people have argued that this is not necessarily good, noting that negotiated agreements may be associated with war recurrence. However, the jury is still out on that assertion and it looks like that this probably not the case.

In summary: there is less “major civil war” since the end of the Cold War: there are fewer wars and they also tend to be less severe in terms of casualties. Even though it is trickier to assess minor conflict data, the UCDP data suggest lower levels of minor conflict as well applying the threshold of the 25 yearly fatalities.

To that I would add a couple of interesting findings from my own research (with Laia Balcells) that relies on a dimension–and one that is easier to observe and measure compared to new and old–what I call the technology of rebellion, i.e. how wars are fought. If one examines all major civil wars in the period 60 years between 1944 and 2004, one finds that irregular or guerrilla wars (a technology of rebellion that, by the way, displays a lot of the elements associated with the “new wars” category—for example, the scarcity of actual battles) makes up the majority with 54% of all wars.  Conventional wars make 34% and symmetric non-conventional (SNC) wars: 12%.

However, if one breaks down the period into two sub-periods, the Cold War and the Post-Cold War period, one observes a striking shift.  Irregular wars collapse from 66% to 26%, conventional wars become the dominant type of civil war, going from 28% to 48%, and SNC wars climb from 6% to 26%.  So, when discussing major civil wars, we must recognize that the oldest type of war, conventional ones, actually become more not less dominant in the aftermath of the Cold War.  The explanation is simple: the increased number in secessionist wars in areas where the formerly unified army splits.  The second reason that SNC wars become much more common is the end of the superpower practice of propping up regimes, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa.  Think Liberia.  What is very interesting is that if you cross-tab these three technologies of rebellion with the variable “ethnic war” (wars fought alongside ethnic lines and in favor of ethnic agendas), one finds a very high correlation of ethnic war and conventional war (think Bosnia) and a very low correlation of ethnic war and SNC war.  Most of the failed state type of war are not ethnic!   Think Sierra Leone.  A last point: we also find that the longest of these wars are irregular wars rather than SNC wars.

Back to the discussion about global trends. If both major and minor war have declined and if minor war is more visible only because it is residual and not because it is on the rise, then the only real question left is what is going on outside the category of war.

Three types of such violence come up. The first is terrorism, but this is generally not associated with mass distress. The second is organized crime of the type we see in Mexico.  This type of violence incorporates elements of politics and does cause mass distress.  It is hard to tell what the trend is here. It is clearly a problem in certain countries, most notably Mexico and Guatemala.  At the same time it is also declining in Eastern Europe and Brazil, for example.

The third type is electoral ethnic violence, most notably typified by the 2007-08 post-electoral violence in Kenya.  The key point here is that there is a connection between ethnicity, violence, and democracy (an argument for why that might be the case has been offered by Steven Wilkinson for India).  It is natural to expect that as democracy keeps spreading, especially in poor and ethnically divided countries, that this type of violence will increase.  However, the theoretical implication goes against the grain of Kaldor’s insights: for, if this is true, then it is caused by what Kaldor thinks is a solution, or certainly part of it, namely a form of liberal cosmopolitanism in the form of democratic institutions, however watered down or misapplied.  And what if a possible solution turned out to be the exact opposite of cosmopolitan liberalism, namely Huntingtonian state-building as a possible precondition for eventual internally-driven democratization as opposed to its externally imposed version?

Stathis Kalyvas is the Arnold Wolfers Professor of Political Science and Director of the Program on Order, Conflict, and Violence at Yale University.

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