Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

What ‘war’ means today

When picking up Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Multitude – War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (Penguin, 2006), again, in the light of recent developments across the globe involving Syria, Isis, Boko Haram and al-Qaeda (to mention only some of the names associated with war), I was struck, anew, by their astute identification of differences pertaining to war today, as opposed to war in the modern era of the nation state. This comprises but one thread of their argument in this complex, encompassing book of more than 400 pages; hence, what I write here cannot possibly do justice to its intertwinement with other threads.

To begin with they see the “Thirty Years’ War” of the 17th century that was triggered by the “Prague Defenestration” (a very interesting story; google it) as being symptomatic of the transition from a medieval conception of war to a distinctly modern concept, which was, and still is, for many, tied to the notion of the sovereign nation state. More recently, they argue, the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11, 2001, marked the transition, in its turn, from a modern to a postmodern notion of war.

Modern war — that is, warfare in the distinctively modern era — was conceived of as a matter of armed struggle between two or more sovereign nation states. Carl von Clausewitz’s well-known remark, that war is politics conducted by other means, must be seen in this context, they argue. For Clausewitz and other theorists at the time, “politics” was something that was conducted between states, and not, as we think of it today, something that happens internally in a state or country. Hence, when at times inter-national “politics” was no longer sufficient to maintain peaceful relations between nations, as sovereign states they could (and did) declare war against each other. This is what one now knows as “conventional warfare”, governed by the Geneva Convention.

At the same time, the notion of civil war obtained in cases where a sovereign ruler, or a parliamentary institution, failed in its task of resolving a state’s internal differences by peaceful means, and intra-national, armed conflict erupted. The difference between inter-national war between states and intra-national civil war was therefore clear-cut, although it is true that the one sometimes triggered the other. Furthermore, inter-national war was governed by international law. At the same time the distinction between police action, internal to a country, and external, military action, obtained in the modern era — or, to put it differently, where that distinction is clearly recognised, a modern political mindset still prevails.

Today, Hardt and Negri point out, war is no longer what it was in modern terms. Instead of a clearly recognisable differentiation between police functions and the role of the military, this distinction no longer holds, so that increasingly one witnesses military personnel executing “police” missions aimed at “keeping the peace” in global political space. This goes for the many instances where United Nations peacekeeping forces (and sometimes military forces sent by specific nations, such as France) intervene in national conflicts, such as the Rwandan genocide during the 1990s. The cover article and two related ones in a recent TIME magazine (March 9, 2015) raise the question, whether America should intervene in the Isis (Islamic State) conflict raging in the Middle East — something clearly predicated on Hardt and Negri’s contention, that modern warfare between sovereign states is no longer the reigning paradigm.

More importantly, however, war has become a permanent or pervasive condition in the postmodern era of globalisation, and it has increasingly assumed the guise of global civil war, if by the latter one understands military, armed conflict between different groups within the “same” (previously sovereign national) space. Hardt and Negri bring what I have been saying together like this (p. 3-4):

“War is becoming a general phenomenon, global and interminable … there are innumerable armed conflicts waged across the globe today, some brief and limited to a specific place, others long lasting and expansive. These conflicts might be best conceived as instances not of war but rather civil war. Whereas war, as conceived traditionally by international law, is armed conflict between sovereign political entities, civil war is armed conflict between sovereign and/or non-sovereign combatants within a single sovereign territory. This civil war should be understood now not within the national space, since that is no longer the effective unit of sovereignty, but across the global terrain. The framework of international law regarding war has been undermined. From this perspective all of the world’s current armed conflicts … should be considered imperial civil wars, even when states are involved.”

This statement has to be understood against the background of their earlier study, Empire (2001), where they traced the emergence, at different levels (economic, political, cultural, juridical), of a new kind of supra-national (beyond national and international) sovereignty, which they call “Empire”, and of which the United Nations is a transitional stage.

To be able to grasp what is at stake in this new era of constant, brutal global war, they employ the concept of a dual “state of exception” (not in the sense that Giorgio Agamben gives it in Homo Sacer). The first exception is the Germanic, derived from the attempt, in the early modern period (think of the civil wars in England and the Thirty Years’ War in Germany), to terminate civil wars by relegating war to something occurring under “exceptional” conditions, and not within a state’s borders, but at its margins, between one sovereign state and another.

War, under these peculiarly modern conditions, “was a limited state of exception” (p. 6), and it is no longer viable today, they point out, because of the proliferation of many “global civil wars” (p. 7), the eruption of which goes hand in hand with the declining sovereignty of nation-states. But instead of this decline making way for Immanuel Kant’s 18th-century dream of “perpetual peace” under a league of nations, the opposite is happening, as the following (quite terrifying) observation indicates (Multitude, p. 7):

“Today, however, instead of moving forward to peace in fulfilment of this dream we seem to have been catapulted back in time into the nightmare of a perpetual and indeterminate state of war, suspending the international rule of law, with no clear distinction between the maintenance of peace and acts of war … the state of exception has become permanent and general; the exception has become the rule, pervading both foreign relations and the homeland.”

If one doubts the accuracy of their remark, just think of the global reach, and implementation of, drone warfare on foreign soil by the US, although such a practice is in contravention of international law. But there is a second meaning of the “state of exception” here. If the first meaning, above, entails the temporary suspension of the state’s constitution, giving special powers to the state to be able to repel an external threat, then the second, more important meaning of exception begins precisely there, insofar as the “exception” today no longer concerns an external threat, and is no longer temporary.

This applies particularly to what Hardt and Negri refer to as American “exceptionalism”, again in a double sense: first in the ethical sense of America claiming to be the global “exception” by being the world leader in championing human rights, democracy, etc, and secondly in the sense of claiming exception from the (international) law. As they show, the US increasingly exempts itself from internationally binding treaties and agreements concerning international courts, the environment and human rights (ironically). In practice this means that the US military does not have to abide by the rules valid for others.

All of this goes a long way towards explaining why the meaning of war has changed so fundamentally today, but there is much more in this fascinating book.

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