War has changed. Can human security change its impact?

September 27, 2023

The war in Ukraine is now in its second year.

Photo: UNDP Ukraine / Oleksandr Ratushniak

Mary Kaldor is a Professor of Global Governance and Director of the Conflict and Civil Society Research Unit at the London School of Economics. In advance of her Kapuscinski Development Lecture, she unpacks the concepts of new wars and their impact on security and democracy.

How do you think war has changed over the last decades? You termed them “forever wars”, what does that mean?

We've reached a stage in the development of military technology where it's really, really difficult to win.

What it means is that we have intractable violence that's framed as war, in which a variety of armed groups use violence to control populations to mobilize around an extremist ideology or economic reasons, taking hostages, looting, smuggling, stopping people at checkpoints…all kinds of things.

And in this situation, you get a permanent war. It's terribly difficult to end. The outsiders come in, and they think it's a conflict in which the two sides are trying to win, and so they try to negotiate some type of agreement. But these groups just want to sustain their power, their access to resources, their ideologies, and it goes on and on forever. We see large parts of the world characterized by these; I call them new wars, you can call them intractable violence. Maybe we should call it a sort of social condition. It's a kind of militarized neoliberalism, a free for all. And that's very different from classic wars where each side tries to win.

How does the idea of national identity feed into the traditional form of wars? And how does this idea manifest in different ways now?

These tend to be ethnic identities. In the 19th century, the idea of national identity was very much about constructing a state, providing a basis for democracy, providing a basis for industrialization, and it was an alternative to monarchies. The nation was in control.

But these new types of identities, they still call themselves national, but they’re labels, really. They're about access to the state on the basis of a label. It's not on the basis of a program for government. If we have a right to the state because we're Serbs because we're Orthodox, because we're Catholics, because we're Croats or whatever.

Do you think that the current war in Ukraine reflects a more old-school type of conflict that involves national borders?

Russia tried a more conventional approach to war in February 2022. But Ukraine was dominated by very strong civic sentiment that arose after the Revolution of Dignity and a strong demand for democracy, and they resisted.  For Russia, their hope is that if they can keep the war going forever, the civic spirit will diminish, and you'll get a similar situation in Ukraine as you have in other parts of the world.  

How is the war in Ukraine affecting the geopolitical landscape in terms of security and democracy in other countries?

What you're seeing is two tendencies. A lot of people say this is the return of geopolitics. I don't think it is, I think it's the fragmentation of the world order. And that's one trend that we observe in a very depressing way, that way in which Russia is now allied with Iran and North Korea, and all sorts of other players are becoming quite significant. I would say one prognosis is a kind of disintegrative process, both at the international level and at a domestic level. But of course, there is incredible rethinking going on within NATO and within international institutions. I mean, at the moment, you can feel very depressed about it because they don't seem very effective. But I do think it's interesting to me the way human security that came up in the early 90s is being revived both in the United Nations and in NATO and in the European Union. And that's what I'll talk about in the lecture.

I think if we can show that there are parts of the world that do operate on the basis of the rule of law and relate to the rest of the world, not through an aggressive national security policy, but through human security, maybe that can offer an alternative to this disintegrative process.


Be part of the discussion and join her Kapuscinski Development Lecture in Bucharest live or online. For more info: https://bit.ly/KAPKaldor and register here.