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Fleeing people locked up in camps along the United States–Mexico border or drowning in the Mediterranean Sea; trucks driving into crowds of people; mass shootings in schools; foodbanks and homelessness in advanced industrial countries; violent storms, floods, and fires caused by climate change; seemingly never-ending wars in places like Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo; the spread of extremist fundamentalisms; electoral victories for racist, misogynist, populist leaders such as Donald Trump in the United States, Narendra Modi in India, or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey. All of these phenomena are what the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci called “morbid symptoms.” They appear in situations where “the old is dying and the new cannot be born.”1

The “old” is the system of states associated with modern industry, mass production, mass media based on newspapers and television, and dependence on fossil fuels. It is a system that is out of step with today’s interconnected and complex world, associated with the revolution in information and communications technology and facing the existential challenge of climate change. In similar grand transitions of the past, war played a critical role in constructing and reconstructing the state apparatus. But the type of war through which this occurred has become too destructive to be fought. Instead, contemporary wars could be described as state unbuilding. They involve what Saskia Sassen terms the “disassembly” of the state.2 So how is it possible to construct the kind of institutions that would enable us to lay the basis for the “new”?

Mary Kaldor
Mary Kaldor is an emeritus professor of global governance and director of the Conflict and Civil Society Research Unit in the London School of Economics’ Department of International Development.

The world needs to rethink the meaning of peace. Peace, as it is predominantly perceived, is a “modern invention,” as Michael Howard has termed it, associated with the rise of the states and “modern” wars.3 To develop this argument, I start with a brief discussion of the changing character of war and then reflect on the meaning of peace.

The Changing Character of War

In this essay, the terms “old” and “new” wars are used to describe the difference between the wars of the “modern” period, from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, on the one hand and contemporary wars on the other.4 Old wars include both interstate wars and classic civil wars between governments and rebels, where the rebels are organized, in effect, as a state in waiting. Indeed, the English Civil War of the 1640s could be described as the first modern war, in which Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army offered a template for the future organization of the state.

The distinction between old and new wars is conceptual rather than empirical. Old wars, at least in theory, as Carl von Clausewitz, the iconic strategist of the modern period, expounded, were contests of wills; he defined war as “an act of violence designed to compel our opponent to fulfil our will.” These wars tended to the extreme as the political leaders tried to gain their objectives, as generals tried to disarm their opponents, and as hatred of the “other” was mobilized among the population. Old wars were grand clashes between two or more sides in which battle, as Clausewitz stressed, was the decisive encounter—something he compared to the act of exchange in the marketplace.5

New wars, like those in Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or Somalia, are better described as a social condition or even as a mutual enterprise in which numerous armed groups gain more from violence itself than from winning. They gain politically through the construction of extremist identity politics based on hatred of the “other”—along the lines of ethnic sectarianism or religious fundamentalism. And they gain economically through loot, kidnapping, extortion, and other criminalized activities that take place under the cover of war. In new wars, battles between armed groups are rather rare and most violence is directed against civilians. These wars are difficult to end in time or space; they tend to persist and spread rather than to extremes.

All wars are the site of gender construction. In theory at least, old wars constructed a type of heroic masculinity in which male heroes fought for their families at home—even though in practice the totalizing nature of war also involved much greater participation by women, and wars always involved sexual violence. New wars produce a much more extreme, unstable masculinity where the ideologies are inherently misogynist and racist and where sexual violence is often a systematic part of the violence against civilians. The need to continually reproduce this form of unstable masculinity contributes to the persistence of new wars.6

Although contemporary wars are predominantly of the new type, they may also include old war characteristics. Likewise, during the modern period, there were more or less continuous instances of warfare as part of the process of colonization of other parts of the globe by European powers, and though they were not often called war, they might be better explained in terms of the logic of new wars. Some features of contemporary wars are, of course, empirically new, most notably the transformation of communications technologies and the way this has contributed to new forms of networked organizations, new forms of mobilization through social media and websites, and new terror tactics based on publicizing atrocities. But this is not the reason for describing contemporary wars as “new,” rather it is the different logic that matters.

Old wars were an essential element of state-building. “War made the state and the state made war,” said Charles Tilly.7 Wars, usually against other states, were the ways in which first monarchs and later republican governments established order and built a state apparatus. Modern wars centralized power, mobilized the population, and encouraged economic self-sufficiency. To raise money for wars, governments increased and improved the efficiency of taxation, increased borrowing, regularized banking, and established central banks.

In Western countries, this involved an implicit bargain, in which the population gained increased rights in return for paying taxes and fighting in wars—initially civil and political rights but, in the twentieth century, economic and social rights as well. In Eastern Europe and Asia, by and large, funds for fighting wars were extracted through increased repression rather than through a bargaining process, so the repressive capacity of the state was also developed. War established an international and domestic hierarchy that provided the basis for order in the intervening period before the next war. And wars produced technological and organizational innovations that contributed to the transformation of both the state apparatus and the broader socioeconomic context. Wars, moreover, opened up new forms of communication and social organizations; thus, newspapers were first published in the English Civil War, while many new social movements, such as humanitarian groups or women’s groups, gained traction in times of war.

Contemporary wars are almost exactly the opposite. They disassemble the state. Participation is low. They are decentralized and globalized wars. They involve the disintegration of federations, such as the former Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union. They construct new, unstable, inward-looking substate entities like the Republika Srpska in Bosnia, South Sudan, or the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics in eastern Ukraine. Taxation is low and finance comes from war-related activities. State services such as health, education, police, or courts are decimated. They produce fragmented and often transnational extremist political identities. They lead to waves of forced migration. They also give birth to new transnational assemblages of security and humanitarianism formed to tackle their problems; that is to say, external interventions by the United Nations and other multilateral institutions and by a whole array of international NGOs and private contractors.

Rethinking the Meaning of Peace

The wars that evolved during the modern period were discontinuous. While the military capabilities acquired by states and indeed private companies were used almost continuously for colonial purposes, major clashes between European states took place only intermittently. The intervals in between major wars gave rise to a corresponding concept of peace.

Philosophers and political thinkers began to develop schemes for perpetual peace during the Enlightenment era. This period saw the rise of secular intellectuals associated with an enlarged merchant or capitalist class—consisting of growing numbers of teachers, doctors, writers, or lawyers—that developed alongside the traditionally dominant warrior nobility and clergy. According to Michael Howard, this class “saw war not as the natural order or as an instrument of state power but as a foolish anachronism perpetuated only by those who enjoyed or profited by it.”8

Most of these schemes were based on the assumption that war was between states, and they proposed to end war through proposals for some form of league or federation of nations based on a permanent peace treaty. Immanuel Kant, whose pamphlet “Perpetual Peace”is probably the best-known example of these suggestions, created a scheme that involved a permanent peace treaty, republican constitutions (with checks and balances), and the idea that cosmopolitan rights (human rights, as understood now) need only to be confined to the right of hospitality, that is to say treating strangers appropriately. Peace movements developed throughout the nineteenth century with regular pan-European congresses that put forward peace schemes designed to end conflict between nations, aimed at establishing instruments of international arbitration such as the court established at the Peace Palace in The Hague. It was this version of peace that was championed by Andrew Carnegie.

This idea of peace as synonymous with “peace between nations” became the dominant conception of peace up to 1989. The Soviet Union espoused this understanding of peace as peace from above, negotiated among states and associated with noninterference in internal affairs—in other words, as the absence of old war. This was reflected in peace research databases of war established during the Cold War period, such as the Uppsala Conflict Data Program that defined war as interstate or intrastate and involving a certain number of battle deaths.9 Wars that involved networks of state and nonstate actors that were both global and local and where most violence was directed against civilians were simply not captured by the data.

For these old-fashioned advocates of peace, the main method of peacemaking was top-down diplomacy among states. Wars could be ended either by victory for one side or by talks that resulted in a compromise between the parties. Yet in new war contexts, this understanding of peace has turned out to be counterproductive. The various armed groups are not states in waiting; rather, they represent a combination of gangsterism and political extremism. Since the end of the Cold War, there have been literally hundreds of such agreements negotiated by international agencies, mainly the United Nations but also the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the African Union.10 Only about half can be said to have succeeded in reducing violence.11 Because violence is directed against civilians, it is rather easy to halt violence between the groups or to separate the warring parties—which is what the agreements are meant to do. The agreements are usually the moment when some kind of international presence is deployed. Both because of the international presence and because the narrative of war is harder to justify, this may also reduce violence against civilians. These agreements, basically, freeze the social condition of a new war, and so, in most cases, violence continues after the agreement albeit often at a lower level of intensity.

While these agreements have a legalistic veneer on the model of peace treaties in the past, they are better described as mafia truces. As armed groups multiply, it becomes ever harder to bring them together, except through promises of positions and money. Indeed, there are cases where peace groups have been formed in order to participate in peace talks. If peace talks do succeed in reaching agreement, the main effect is to legitimize the participants, thereby entrenching the toxic combination of political extremism, social and economic predation, and the disassembled state.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is often touted as the model for this type of agreement. The Dayton Agreement is hailed as a success story for ending three years of war. Yet the Dayton Agreement also divided Bosnia into three entities ruled by ethnic warlords. Despite a large international military presence and very high levels of funding—more money per head than the Marshall Plan delivered to Western Europe after the Second World War—Bosnia remains a dysfunctional society, where the threat of renewed war is ever present, human rights violations are tolerated, unemployment stands at 25 percent (40 percent among young people), and corruption is endemic and systemic.12

An alternative conception of peace requires a very different set of assumptions in which peace is imagined not as the absence of war between states, but as a social condition experienced in rights-based law governed societies. The world of states was characterized by what international relations scholars call the “great divide” between “outside” relations of power based on war and diplomacy and “inside” relations based on politics and the rule of law. Instead of peace between states, the new peace is about the spread of the “inside” outward. It is constructed on the basis of the globalization of politics and law. Peace could be described as a civic social condition that can be counterposed against the social condition of a new war that crisscrosses national boundaries. Peace can only be achieved by reversing or countering the new war social condition. That is a much more complex undertaking than merely top-down peace talks. It requires a simultaneous, multilevel combination of building legitimate institutions, countering sectarian and fundamentalist narratives, investing in value-adding economic activities, establishing the rule of law, and creating effective justice mechanisms.

This approach does not replace peace talks. But peace talks aimed at reversing the social condition of new wars would be constructed very differently from peace talks aimed at reaching agreement among the warring parties. They would be more akin to politics than diplomacy. They would be much more inclusive, involving civic political groupings, especially women. They would be multilevel. New wars are fragmented. Many peace or ceasefire agreements are reached at local levels even though they tend to be fragile and unstable; these agreements need to be supported and integrated into a broader peace process. Instead of focusing on constitutional and/or power sharing agreements, they would address specific conditions on the ground—lifting sieges, sustaining cease-fires, humanitarian access, access to infrastructure and services, all with the goal of creating safe spaces for broader political and societal change.

The South African peace-keepers of the MONUSCO Force Intervention Brigade patrol the town of Pinga in Democratic Republic of Congo as part of a mission to secure the area. (MONUSCO/Marie Frechon)

The last three decades have been a learning process. The transnational security assemblages formed in the wake of top-down peace agreements to deal with postconflict situations have grown in size and scope. There is a much greater understanding of the multidimensional requirements that are needed to address the new war social condition. But the efforts of many dedicated international officers and volunteers are often subverted by the gap between the actual situation on the ground and the conceptions of how to achieve peace at the level of high politics, which means, by and large, the level of old-fashioned states with built-in old- fashioned ideas of war.

Giving Birth to the New?

New wars are an expression of the way in which states have become increasingly dysfunctional in contemporary society. The morbid symptoms to be observed worldwide are the symptoms that can be observed in new war contexts. They include the neoliberal hollowing out of states and the rise of crony capitalism or what Alex de Waal calls the “political marketplace,” where money replaces public deliberation as the currency of power.13 They also include the rise of extremist populist ideologies directed against women and minorities and fomented through new digital methods of spreading lies and propaganda. States no longer have the capacity to address the everyday problems that individuals face because their capacities are hollowed out by spending cuts and contracting out, because problems like climate change are bigger than the state, and because of embedded “old war” ways of thinking and doing.

Even in the so-called advanced countries, hate crimes, terrorist attacks, and mass shootings are already rising. A possible, indeed probable, scenario is a global era of chronic new warfare—the spread of the new war social condition supplanting capitalism and democracy. This does not mean increased war between states, but a new dark age where all these morbid symptoms of societal breakdown contribute to and are compounded by climate change.

If we conceive of the new peace as the spread of the inside outward, then it should be noted that there are different models of the inside, some of them characterized by repression and surveillance. The growing weight of China in global affairs, for example, may betoken a model of world order based on extensive global surveillance and the imposition of stability from above. Rather, a new conception of peace should be based on an inside that is characterized by a rights-based rule of law.

This kind of peace would need to express a broad social narrative about how to adapt political institutions to a different development paradigm that makes use of new digital technologies to save resources and transform lifestyles in a way that is just in both social and climate terms and addresses all levels of governance. Earlier peace proposals for federations or leagues of nations need to be replaced by new models of global governance in which states are no longer the pivotal element of the global system. Local and regional levels need to be empowered to address local and regional complexities. And regional and global political institutions need to be more than intergovernmental institutions, able to act politically and accountable to citizens.

Some models of a new way of thinking exist, in nascent form at least. It is worth noting that unlike states, other institutions at local, regional, or global levels have never been war-making institutions. Indeed, organizations like the European Union or the United Nations were established as peace projects, albeit of an old-fashioned kind. The current challenge is whether they can be transformed into institutions capable of promoting a new sort of peace.

The problem is, above all, in our own minds. The earlier conception of peace was produced by newly emerging secular intellectuals who were able to realize the potential of living beyond the “bare life” of mere existence.14 Technological change, the spread of tertiary education, and the expansion of knowledge all make possible a broader transnational constituency of people who have a stake in a new conception of peace. It is their ideas and actions that matter.


1 Antonio Gramsci, Selections From the Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers Co., 1971).

2 Saskia Sassen, Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2008).

3 Michael Howard, The Invention of Peace and the Reinvention of War (London: Profile Books, 2002).

4 Mary Kaldor, New and Old Wars: Organised Violence in a Global Era, 3rd ed. (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2012).

5 Carl von Clausewitz, On War (London: Penguin, 1968).

6 Christine Chinkin and Mary Kaldor, “Gender and New Wars,” Journal of International Affairs 67, no. 1 (Fall/Winter 2013): 167–87.

7 Charles Tilly, Capital, Coercion and European States AD 990 – 1992 (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1992).

8 Howard, The Invention of Peace and the Reinvention of War.

9 Uppsala Conflict Data Program, available at

10 Christine Bell, On the Law of Peace: Peace Agreements and the Lex Pacificatoria (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

11 Charles Call, Why Peace Fails: The Causes and Prevention of Civil War Recurrence (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2012).

12 Mary Kaldor, “How Peace Agreements Undermine the Rule of Law,” Global Policy 7, no. 2 (May 2016): 146–55.

13 Alex de Waal, The Real Politics of the Horn: Money, War and the Business of Power (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2015).

14 Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).