Should new wars be seen as a continuation of economics by other means?

Child Soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo – Source: USAID

In this essay, the author critically analyses Mary Kaldor’s new wars theory and challenges views that portray new wars as a continuation of economics by other means. Drawing on the writings of Mats Berdal and Stathis Kalyvas, as well as theories of peace and conflict, the author dismisses Paul Collier’s greed thesis and concludes that it is necessary to move beyond reductionist theories and adopt holistic approaches to conflict.

By David J. Franco, 17 Nov, 2011

Some scholars claim that war has shifted from a classical model to a new mode of intra-state warfare[1] in which ‘states have given up their the facto monopoly of war’[2] to groups and actors driven by greed. This, in turn, has led some to propose a reformulation of Clausewitz’ dictum of war[3] by defining the so called new wars a continuation of economics by other means[4]. In this regard, if we accept that new wars are driven only by economic motives then surely these should be seen as the continuation of economics by other means. In other words, defining new wars as wars driven by greed or defining these as the continuation of economics by other means is the same. Therefore, the answer to the actual question lies in the same definition of new wars and, in particular, on whether these can be defined as wars driven only by private, greedy motives or economics. This essay looks into this issue with a critical view. My argument is that the so called new wars are not so new and that, even if we accept some of the alleged new elements of these wars, economics is generally not the only motive driving conflict. Hence, I contend that no general theory of war based on economics can be drawn from these so called new wars and that a holistic approach is always necessary if we want to translate theory into effective policy.

This essay is organized as follows: The first part is a broad critical analysis of the new wars thesis. This is important because before focusing on the actual question it is first necessary to define what new wars are really about. In this section I point to the weaknesses of the claimed newness and demonstrate that the changing dynamics of conflict must not be confused with a change in the nature of war. In the second part I narrow the analysis and focus on thesis based on greed. In this section I critically analyse the works of Paul Collier and David Keen and seek to prove that reductionist explanations based on economic motivations are incomplete. Finally, the third part of this essay is a reflection on the nature of war and whether it is possible to formulate a general theory of war or whether every war is sui generis[5].

Defining New Wars

According to Mary Kaldor, new wars find their origin in the context of the globalization of the 1980s and 1990s which she defines as ‘the intensification of global interconnectedness – political, economic, military and cultural’[6]. Kaldor further stresses the relation between global interconnectedness and the erosion of the principle of territorially based sovereignty, as a result of which states would be experiencing an erosion of their monopoly of legitimized violence[7]. But Kaldor’s definition of globalization is insufficient, too vague and incomplete to explain why it has brought about, if it has, changes to the nature of war. As Mats Berdal notes, ‘much of the writings on the so-called New Wars of the 1990s typically proceed from a loose understanding of globalization as “the widening and deepening of economic, political, social and cultural interdependence and interconnectedness”’[8]. In this regard, Berdal denounces the ‘term’s “totalizing pretensions”’[9] in the sense that its vagueness is very distorting when trying to explain the particularities of one conflict or another[10].  Despite the attempts of other authors to clarify and expand on Kaldor’s definition of globalization[11], from an analytical viewpoint her explanation of the origins of the so called new wars remains incomplete[12]. But, leaving aside the issue of globalization, what are the so called new wars? Broadly, new wars are characterised as ‘criminal, depoliticized, private, and predatory’[13], while old wars are usually portrayed as ‘ideological, political, collective, and even noble’[14]. In the following paragraphs I critically analyse the so called new wars by disaggregating the new wars thesis along three clusters: goals and motivations; the means of warfare; and the means of funding war.

The first claimed distinction relates to the causes and motivations driving new wars. Among the competing thesis, two are worth exploring[15]: First, Kaldor claims that with the advent of globalization and the end of the Cold War[16] identity politics[17] have replaced ideology as the principal raison d’être of conflicts. Although she agrees with the fact that there may still be background ideas, she argues that these are merely an ‘idealized nostalgic representation of the past’[18]. In other words, Kaldor claims that the end of the clash of ideologies and the superpower rivalry of the Cold War unleashed ancient latent hatreds[19]. However, historical accounts prove Kaldor wrong. Indeed, two good examples are the French Revolutionary wars of Napoleon, where French grandeur might have been at the core of the revolutionary idea of “liberté, égalité, fraternité”, and the total wars of the twentieth century, which were as much about ideas as they were about nationalism[20]. Not to mention many of the wars of the second half of the twentieth century, where rebels were usually able to successfully mix Marxist ideology with nationalism[21]. The second competing interpretation stresses, with varying degrees, that new wars are driven primarily by greed or economic motives[22]. According to this, defenders of the greed thesis argue that the principal goal in new wars is to loot and to seek profit-maximizing, especially through the exportation of valuable commodities. But this view of old wars as wars of grievance while new wars are fought merely for greed reasons is too naïve and simplistic. It attaches too much weight to ideological or other motives in old wars, while it underestimates the weight of these motives in new wars. Further, it must also be observed that the greed argument is problematic as it is not clear whether it refers to the causes of war or to the motivations of the combatants, or both[23]. It is also unclear whether it refers to greed as a result of the need to finance war or to greed as the cause for war. This particular issue will be looked at in more detail in the next section; let us then continue with the other two main claimed distinctions between old and new wars.

The second alleged distinction refers to the methods of warfare. Here Kaldor points to the shift towards a culture of ‘fear and hatred’[24] implying a sort of new gratuitous violence where non-combatants take the worst part. In this regard, the literature often compares new wars with classic inter-state wars of the sort defined by Carl von Clausewitz[25]. The argument is often one that compares Clausewitz’s trinity of people, government, and armies with the blurred situation of new wars where combatants and non-combatants get mixed and the state’s structures are torn down[26]. This seems to imply that order, albeit one in situations of war, has given way to chaos, and that public interest, represented by the state, has given way to private interest(s). However, none of these claimed features are new in war. Historical accounts again portray situations in which war was not always like the sort defined by Clausewitz[27]. Further, to a greater or lesser extent, brutality among warring parties and against the population has always been, and continues to be, a common feature of war; not to mention rape as an extended practice in both old and new wars[28]. In this regard, it is often argued that in new wars the ratio of deaths among non-combatants has significantly increased[29]. But historians suggest that some forms of people’s war were fought in early Modern Europe, during modern Europe, and again in the twentieth century total wars[30]. Further, it is often also argued that a feature of new wars is the increase in the number of refugees and internally displaced people[31]. Indeed, such an increase in numbers cannot be denied per se but it may be due more to the fact that intra-state conflicts increased significantly in the early nineties than to other more obscure reasons[32]. Hence, when faced with what seems to be the absence of one or more features of old classic wars, scholars tend to argue that we are witnessing the emergence of a new type of war. The issue, I would suggest, is not whether the wars of the post-Cold War era are new, but whether the particularities of accounts such as those of Clausewitz are universal or confined to a particular spatiotemporal context.

Last but not least, a third claimed characteristic of new wars is that these are founded on what Kaldor calls the ‘new “globalized” war economy’[33]. In essence, new wars would no longer be ‘centralized, totalizing, and autarchic’[34] but decentralized, with high levels of unemployment, and dependent on external resources[35]. In addition, as opposed to classic warfare the new wars would be fought by different units of war that would ‘finance themselves through plunder and the black market or through external assistance’[36], including ‘remittances from the diaspora, “taxation” of humanitarian assistance, support from neighbouring governments or illegal trade in arms, drugs or valuable commodities such as oil or diamonds’[37]. But Kaldor’s argument is, again, misleading. One can agree that some of these features are applicable to a few of the wars of the developing world or to wars fought in para-states or states in transition, but to argue that these are common features of all intra-state wars in the post-Cold War era is incorrect. For instance, based on the works of Zeeuw and Frerks, and the studies of David Shearer, Mats Berdal argues that ‘the actual importance of diaspora income remains unclear and underresearched’[38] and that ‘[b]eyond the case of Sudan, however, the impact of relief aid on the course of civil wars, especially in prolonging them, appears to be exaggerated’[39]. With regards to the funding of wars through illegal practices such as the extraction and trade of commodities, scholars are unclear as to whether such practices are a means to an end or an end in itself. Indeed, while initially Kaldor seems to suggest that looting takes place in order to finance war, she then seems to confuse her own argument by suggesting that war is waged in order to loot[40].

Therefore, according to the above the so called new wars are not as new as it is often claimed. However, while this is true mostly with regards to the form (i.e. the methods of warfare and the funding of war), can the same conclusion be reached with regards to substance (i.e. the goals and motivations of new wars)? In this regard, since it is not form but substance what ultimately determines the nature of war, it is the causes and motivations of new wars, especially the claim that these are driven by greed, that needs to be analysed in more detail. It is to this particular debate I now turn.

Are new wars driven by greed?

While it is commonly agreed that economics are relevant to conflicts, ‘there remains considerable disagreement as to how it matters and how much it matters relative to other political, socio-cultural, and identity factors’[41]. As a starting point, Mats Berdal and David M. Malone point out that ‘what is usually considered to be the most basic of military objectives in war—that is, defeating the enemy in battle—has been replaced by economically driven interests in continued fighting’[42]. Further, Berdal and Malone note that ‘much of the violence (…) in the post–Cold War era has been driven not by a Clausewitzian logic of forwarding a set of political aims, but rather by powerful economic motives and agendas’[43]. Therefore, the question is whether private economic agendas outperform politics as the main cause driving wars since, as explained above, this inevitably would lead to a reformulation of Clausewitz’ definition of war as a continuation of economics by other means.

Studies based on new functional approaches to conflicts in the nineties demonstrated that ‘far from being irrational or dysfunctional, violence and instability often serve a range of political, social and economic functions for individuals’[44]. However, Paul Collier disagrees with this holistic approach and argues that ‘civil wars are far more likely to be caused by economic opportunities than by grievance’[45]. Collier’s main argument is that resources and commodities are the principal cause of intra-state conflict in the post-Cold War era. Indeed, as one scholar puts it, ‘[a]ccording to his controversial “greed thesis”, economic motivations and opportunities (“loot-seeking”) are more highly correlated with the onset of conflict than ethnic, socio-economic, or political grievances (“justice-seeking”)’[46]. But Collier’s thesis is too reductionist thus posing serious problems when translating theory into actual effective policy. Indeed, just as theories based solely on grievance are incomplete and may therefore fail to translate into effective policy, any explanation of conflict that focuses only on greed suffers from the same weakness. As noted by Ballentine and Nitzschke, ‘explanations of conflict should avoid “resource reductionist” models in favour of more comprehensive approaches that focus on the wider range of political and economic interactions that drive conflict’[47]. In this regard, the work of David Keen seems to offer a more appropriate approach. Keen highlights the ‘importance of investigating how violence is generated by particular political economies’[48] and, based on his analysis of the economic functions of violence, notes that ‘particularly where chains of command are weak, war may be a continuation of economics by other means’[49]. In fact, ‘”where there is more to war than winning”, those benefiting from violence may have a vested economic interest in conflict continuation’[50]. But Keen’s words should not be taken as the formulation of a general theory of war based on private economic goals. Instead, my suggestion is that Keen’s reformulation of Clausewitz’ famous dictum of war is one which he sees applicable only to particular situations where the monopoly on the means of violence lies neither with the state nor with rebel groups but with other groups or individuals willing to take advantage of the situation. This then raises the question of whether in new wars the chains of command are always weak. But Keen’s choice of verb and tense (i.e. that war may be a continuation of economics by other means), suggests the contrary (i.e. that chains of command are not necessarily always weak or inexistent and/ or that even in those instances greed may not be the only element driving conflict). Hence, Keen’s thesis should be seen more as an attempt to address the problematic of existing theories of conflict constructed solely on political causes or grievance than a general theory of war based solely on economics. In fact, Keen clarifies his position in the following paragraph:

‘Paul Collier has emphasized the importance of greed rather than grievance in driving civil wars. My own work gives a good deal of importance to economic motivations. However, this process of falling below the law underlines the continuing importance of grievances and not greed in contemporary conflicts. Indeed, we need to understand how the two interact.’[51]

Similarly, Herfried Münkler notes that while special attention must be paid to the ‘economics of war and force, this does not at all mean that ideological factors should be neglected’[52]. Indeed, as noted by Frances Stewart, while economics played a very important role in initiating and sustaining the conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Sudan, grievance also played an important role alongside greed[53]. For example, in Sierra Leone one could find both elements of ‘class conflict as well as short-term benefit maximization’[54], whereas in Liberia ‘ethnic inequalities combine with profit maximizing’[55]. Likewise, Christopher Cramer’s account of the civil war in Angola shows that it was as much a new war as it was an old war and that both greed and grievance played key roles in initiating and sustaining the conflict[56].

Accordingly, new wars are not solely or mainly about economics but about a wide range of issues encompassing politics, economics, development, ethnicity, religion, ideology, and identity[57]. While it is agreed that the wars of the late twentieth/ early twenty-first centuries have certain common new features, this cannot lead to the conclusion that the nature of war has changed and that new wars should be seen, as a matter of principle, as a continuation of economics by other means. Therefore, as Cramer points, have wars really changed or is it that we have changed the way we understand them?; and ‘is it possible to find a convincing general theory of war or is instead every war sui generis?’[58]

A final reflection

An approximation to these questions can be found in the works of Stathis N. Kalyvas. Indeed, Kalyvas notes that ‘the distinction drawn between post-Cold War conflicts and their predecessors may be attributable more to the demise of readily available categories than to the existence of profound differences’[59]. What these conceptual categories are, Kalyvas does not say. Maybe he had in mind the western, realist idea or concept of the state as the only unit legally entitled to hold the monopoly of organised violence. If so, the demise of this realist conception may have driven some scholars, too enthusiastically, to denounce the appearance of new wars where warlords fight driven by private interests. Be it as it may, in his conclusion Kalyvas refers to ‘the constraints of externally imposed lenses’[60] and warns about the risks of building theories founded on ‘conceptual categories grounded in current events rather than good theory’[61]. In a more recent work, Kalyvas notes that a ‘twin historical myopia’[62], affecting both actors and observers, has produced an undesired outcome: ‘the domination of the empirical and conceptual association of insurgency, civil war, and revolution’[63]. In his opinion, the problem is that this merger is ‘often understood as a universal constant when, in fact, it is a historically contingent’[64]. In other words, war and conflict are dynamic, not static, and so a good theory of war is one which leaves aside historical contingencies and draws a series of premises applicable to conflict throughout space and time. This point is illustrated in Kalyvas’ critique of Paul Collier’s “greed thesis”:

‘In a way, Collier (2007) was not necessarily wrong when he described all rebels as greedy looters rather than justice seekers; he just had in mind a subset of civil wars that happened to be particularly visible in Sub-Saharan Africa during the post-Cold War era. His error was to generalize what was, once more, a historically and geographically confined phenomenon’[65].

Indeed, David Keen was more prudent when he noted that under certain conditions war may be a continuation of economics by other means. Had Keen wanted to draw a theory of war based on economics applicable through space and time, he would have made a stronger case. But to do so would have been unwise and misleading for, as suggested by Kalivas, no good theory should be grounded on historical contingencies. In this regard, anything that bears the adjective “new” is inevitably based on historical contingencies and so runs the risk of being bad theory. Paul Collier’s greed thesis may be just that, a thesis, but his critique of discourses based on grievance and his conclusions reached on econometric models reflect higher ambitions. Accordingly, it may not be that the nature of war has changed (if anything, war is in constant evolution) but that we have changed the way we understand it or even that we never understood it in the first place. In this regard, it is important to note that the types of wars that we see in the Middle East are not like those of the nineties in Africa, or like those of the Balkans. The question, therefore, remains open: is it really possible to find a convincing theory of war through which to study war across space and time? This, I suggest, is something to explore in a separate study. For now, let it just be said that, more likely than not, any such theory risks leaving aside important elements of causality.


The end of the Cold War and the acclaimed advent of globalisation shifted the attention of scholars to the intra-state wars that developed during the nineties in the Balkans and Africa. This led many to label these conflicts as new wars in the sense that they presented features unknown or unseen in past eras. Among these, the most problematic is the claim that new wars are driven by private, greedy motives.

However, a close analysis of the new wars thesis shows that the new is not so new, and the old has not been entirely relegated to the past. In addition, while economics plays an important and sometimes decisive role in many of these so called new wars, it is generally not the only motivation driving conflict and so a reformulation of Clausewitz’ definition of war grounded on economics is not appropriate. In this regard, it is necessary to move beyond reductionist theories based on grief or greed and adopt holistic approaches if we want to both understand the dynamics of intra-state conflict and produce effective policies.

[1] Herfried Münkler, The New Wars (Cambridge Polity Press, 2005), p.1

[2] Ibid

[3] Clausewtiz defines war as the ‘continuation of policy by other means’. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Michael Howard & Peter Paret (Princeton University Press, 1976), Book 1, ch.1: ‘What is War?’, p. 99

[4] This question was first raised by David Keen in his work ‘Incentives and Disincentives for Violence’, in Mats Berdal & David M. Malone (eds.), Greed and Grievance: Economic Agendas in Civil Wars (Lynne Rienner, 2000), ch.2. Available at

[5] These questions are raised by Christopher Cramer in Civil War Is Not a Stupid Thing: Accounting for Violence in Developing Countries (Hurst, 2006), p. 144

[6] Mary Kaldor, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era (Polity Press, 1999), p. 3

[7] Ibid, p. 4

[8] Mats Berdal, ‘How “New” are “New Wars”? Global Economic Change and the Study of Civil War’, Global Governance 9:4 (2003),p. 480. Here Berdal quotes an extract from the work of Willett, “Globalization and Insecurity” but in his endnote he also refers to Kaldor’s definition of globalisation as noted above.

[9] Ibid

[10] Notwithstanding this, Berdal notes that Kaldor points to distinctive aspects worth exploring under the common rubric of ‘economic globalization’ (Ibid, p. 481)

[11] See for example Martin Shaw’s Review Essay ‘The Contemporary Mode of Warfare? Mary Kaldor’s Theory of New Wars’, Review of International Political Economy 7:1 (2000) pages 171-80, where Shaw points to a ‘new political economy of war: globalised arms markets (analysed by Schméder in Military Fordism), transnational ethnicities and internationalised western-global interventions are all integral to new wars’ (page 172).  See also Mark Duffield, Global Governance and the New Wars: The Merging of Development and Security (Zed Books, London; 2001).

[12] Christopher Cramer has argued that globalization is not an explanation for the conflict in Angola where, he notes, ‘[i]nternational interdependence is not new… Nor is it a simple matter of the most recent, post-Cold War phases of war being different and especially “globalised”’. Cramer further dismisses Duffield’s argument that new wars are tied to a new phase of globalisation by contending that ‘[t]his is a misleading distinction to impose on Angola’ (Christopher Cramer (fn.5), p. 147)

[13] Stathis N. Kalyvas, “’New’ and ‘Old’ Civil Wars: A Valid Distinction?`, World Politics 54:1 (2001), p. 100

[14] Ibid

[15] These two competing views form the basis of the so called greed versus grievance debate. A third or residual view would be the claim that new wars may be seen as wars ‘about nothing at all’ (Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Civil Wars: From L.A. to Bosnia (New York, The New Press, 1994), as quoted in Stathis N. Kalyvas (fn.13), p. 103).

[16] Whether globalisation was the cause of the end to the Cold War or whether the end of the Cold War accelerated the process of globalisation is far from clear in the literature. In her introductory chapter of New and Old Wars, Mary Kaldor suggests that the end of the Cold War could be viewed as the way in which ‘the Eastern Bloc succumbed to the inevitable encroachment of globalisation’ (Mary Kaldor, (fn.6), pp. 3-4).

[17] Kaldor defines identity politics as ‘the claim to power on the basis of a particular identity – be it national, clan, religious or linguistic’ (Ibid, p. 6).

[18] Ibid, p. 7

[19] Kaldor’s usual example is the wars of the former Yugoslavia (Ibid, p. 1).

[20] Martin Shaw contends that there is a continuity with the total wars of the twentieth century (see Mary Kaldor (fn.6), p. 2. Also in Martin Shaw (fn.11), pp. 171-80)

[21] Stathis N. Kalyvas, ‘The Changing Character of Civil Wars, 1800-2009’, in Hew Strachan and Sibylle Scheipers (eds.), The Changing Character of War (Oxford; Oxford University Press; forthcoming), available at, p. 15

[22] For example, Kofi Annan, “Facing the Humanitarian Challenge: Towards a Culture of Prevention”, UNDPI (New York, 1999), as quoted in Stathis N. Kalyvas (fn.13), pp. 102-3; David Keen (fn.4); Paul Collier, ‘Doing Well out of War: An Economic Perspective’, in Mats Berdal & David M. Malone (fn.4), ch.5; or Herfried Münkler (fn.1).

[23] Stathis N. Kalyvas (fn.13), p. 103.

[24] Mary Kaldor (fn.6), p. 8

[25] See for example, Herfried Münkler (fn.1), pp. 32-50

[26] Bart Schuurman, ‘Clausewitz and the “New Scholars”’, Parameters (2010), pp. 89-100

[27] Mats Berdal points to ‘war in early modern Europe’, ‘the various wars and phases of imperial and colonial conquest from the sixteenth through to the twentieth century’, the conditions of warfare…at the edge of borderlands of empires’, or the ‘Thirty Years’ Wars’ (Mats Berdal (fn. 8), p. 493)

[28] For an account and analysis of the functionality of rape in old and new wars see Herfried Münkler (fn.1), pp. 83-5.

[29] Mary Kaldor (fn.6), p. 8; and Herfried Münkler (fn.1), p. 14

[30] Herfried Münkler (fn.1), pp. 42 and 67. Münkler refers to the Thirty Year’s War, the Spanish Guerrilla War against Napoleon, the Russian partisan war of the autumn and winter of 1812 and to some extent the South Tyrol uprising of 1809. Münkler also admits that while not the dominant form, this form of asymmetrical warfare was also present in the anti-Napoleonic War of Liberation (1813) and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1 (p. 67).

[31] Mary Kaldor (fn.6), p.8

[32] As Kalyvas suggests, ‘mass population displacements is nothing new–as suggested by such classic wars as the Russian, Spanish, and Chinese Civil wars’ (Stathis N. Kalyvas (fn.13), p. 110).

[33] Mary Kaldor (fn.6), p. 9

[34] Ibid

[35] Ibid

[36] Ibid

[37] Ibid

[38] Mats Berdal (fn. 8), p. 496

[39] Ibid

[40] Mary Kaldor (fn.6), p. 9. Similarly, Herfried Münkler (fn.1), pp. 1-4

[41] Karen Ballentine and Heiko Nitzschke, ‘The Political Economy of Civil War and Conflict Transformation’, Research Centre for Constructive Conflict Management, p. 3 (available at

[42] Mats Berdal & David M. Malone (fn.4), ch.1

[43] Ibid

[44] Karen Ballentine and Heiko Nitzschke (fn.41), p. 3

[45] Paul Collier (fn. 22), ch.5

[46] Karen Ballentine and Heiko Nitzschke (fn.41), p.4

[47] Karen Ballentine and Heiko Nitzschke (fn.41), p.4

[48] David Keen (fn.4), ch.2

[49] Ibid

[50] Karen Ballentine and Heiko Nitzschke (fn.41), p. 3

[51] David Keen (fn.4), ch.2

[52] Herfried Münkler (fn.1), p. 1

[53] Frances Stewart, ‘Development and Security’, Conflict, Security & Development 4:3 (2004), p.275

[54] Ibid

[55] Ibid

[56] Christopher Cramer (fn.5), pp. 139-69

[57] This is not a closed list as in fact any element or factor affecting conflict can be added to the list.

[58] Christopher Cramer, (fn.5), p. 144

[59] Stathis N. Kalyvas (fn.13), p. 99

[60] Ibid, p. 117

[61] Ibid

[62] Stathis N. Kalyvas (fn.21), p.2.

[63] Ibid

[64] Ibid

[65] Ibid, p. 23


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