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

Image from the 2005 film, 'Lord of War'

In this essay the author attacks the idea that modern conflicts are more driven by economic motivations than those in the past. Romantic ideals of gentlemanly European conflicts have masked the harsh realities of war. Even in the most egregious cases of greed and ‘warlording’, the political motivations can never be fully amputated from the criminal behaviour.

If modern conflict is to be understood the language of ‘new wars’ must be avoided. In the case of the Lomé Peace Agreement, the concept of economic determinism was taken to the extreme and led to the subsequent collapse of the peace. Future peacemakers must keep this simple message in mind: money is not the only form of power.


By Jack Hamilton, 4th May, 2012

The Worst of Times, The Best of Times

In 2007 the Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers described the links between economics and politics in conflict regions as ‘something out of Dickens: you talk to international relations experts and it’s the worst of times. Then you talk to potential investors and it’s one of the best of all times’ . This idea that modern warfare has evolved into a new era in which economic motivations have overtaken political ambitions has become popularised in the post-Cold War era. The notion has led Carl von Clausewitz’s aphorism to be rephrased to claim that ‘war has increasingly become the continuation of economics by other means’ . This substitution of ‘politics’ in favour of ‘economics’ poses the question: have economic incentives created a situation in which there is now more to war than winning?

Of course it is dangerously reductionist to divide economic and political motives absolutely and no theorist ultimately falls into that trap. If this were the case military conflicts would be most common in nations where poverty is at its most abject and the reality is not as simple as this. The problem is that an overemphasis on economic incentives for war can oversimplify the motivations behind modern conflicts. Economic motivations should themselves be seen as multifaceted and in constant interaction with socio-political factors to avoid essentialism. A more useful practice to analyse the cause of modern conflicts is to attempt to find predispositions that can lead to war. These predispositions are a combination of economic, political and social factors that include: state failure, dependency upon primary commodity exports, regionalisation and the role of diasporas.

In order to evaluate the claim that ‘new wars’ should be seen as a continuation of economics by other means, the concept of ‘new wars’ must first be addressed. If these ‘new wars’ are an intensification of economic motivations it is necessary to investigate how this is manifested. The role of globalisation is key to this as it is seen as a facilitator for the more violent and economically driven facets of ‘new wars’: shadow states and the actions of warlords. The data supporting these theories will then be evaluated to determine whether it is useful to essentialise the motivations of the conflicts as being a continuation of economics.

What is meant by the term ‘New Wars’?

At which point did ‘new’ wars become ‘new’? Was it at the end of the Second World War or perhaps at the end of the Cold War ? Martin Van Creveld points to the rise in ‘low intensity conflicts’ that began in the period of decolonisation and which continues today as a result of the inability of the newly independent states to maintain a monopoly over the use of force . Others put the threshold at the end of the Cold War using controversial labels such as ‘post modern wars’ or the term coined by Mary Kaldor, ‘new wars’ . If the exact origins of ‘new wars’ are disputed it necessitates an analysis of which factors constitute the conflicts in order to determine whether they are truly a continuation of economics by other means. In order to do this it is first necessary to outline the positions of the key theorists on ‘new wars’ and their ties to economic determinism.

Paul Collier’s theory of ‘greed’ posits that social and political grievances are merely a front that is provided by rebel organisations to justify the economic motivations for warfare. The causes of politics are therefore framed in this argument as being a form of ‘international public relations’ as they are formulated as a justification for predation . According to Herfried Münkler, ‘new wars’ can be differentiated from ‘old wars’ by three factors: the privatisation of warfare; the asymmetry of military force and affiliated guerrilla tactics; the atomisation of violence (decentralised conflicts). He derives from this that ethnic and religious oppositions are not the causes of wars but rather reinforce the underlying economic motivations of corruptible political elites . Economics therefore becomes the key motivator in ‘new wars’ as older forms of grievance become superseded by greed. This economic emphasis is echoed by Karen Ballentine and Jake Sherman who propose that economic motives are not just crucial for instigating conflicts but for sustaining them through an ‘alternate system of profit, power and protection’ . The dominant theme of these arguments is that in ‘new wars’ economic motives take precedence over political objectives both in instigating and sustaining the conflicts. However, the question remains as to how these motivations translate to the way in which the wars are conducted.

The general assertion is that the new conflicts are characterised by an increase in violence and duration . The ‘new wars’ concept has four main themes with regards to the nature of war: (1) the severity of battle in civil conflicts is increasing (2) the number of civilians killed in these conflicts is increasing (3) the number of civilians being displaced in these conflicts is increasing (4) the ratio of civilians killed to combatants is increasing . The increased economic motivation permeates the conduct of warfare through techniques of pillaging and the exploitation of labour. These conclusions have been drawn from a plethora of case studies and the conclusions have been hotly contested but the assertions are crucial for the idea of ‘new wars’. According to ‘new wars’ theorists the increased influence of economic motivations have created a clear shift away from older forms of conflict which were underpinned by political grievance. This has allegedly manifested created a more violent and decentralised style of warfare characterised by an increase in civilian casualties. It is therefore important to determine how the transformation in global economics has come to be intrinsically tied to these ‘new’ forms of barbarism.

The ‘New’ Economic Incentives for War and Their Manifestations

‘Globalisation’ is the term that is generally used to describe the new economic trends that are said to underpin the ‘new wars’ of the postcolonial and post-Cold War era. International capital flows and regionalisation as a result of the liberalisation of markets have facilitated a comparatively inexpensive form of warfare, supported by ‘shadow states’ and conducted in some cases by warlords.

The term ‘globalisation’ is highly imprecise and needs to be defined. Susan Willett puts forth the ambiguous definition that it is the ‘widening and deepening of economic, political, social and cultural interdependence and interconnectedness’ . This includes changes in global economics such as the greater mobility and ease of access to capital and finance, improved communication and transportation as well as partial deregulation of industry. The term has taken on a role of describing a period of universal and irreversible change that has enabled a shift to ‘new wars’. Global economics have transmogrified the dynamics of conflict through financial liberalisation, industry deregulation and the ease of private capital flows and as the old forms of European wars burnt out, new forms continued as a result of ‘shadow globalisation’.

‘Shadow globalisation’ has had an indirect negative impact on some societies as it has contributed to a burgeoning ‘cleavage between rich and poor [that] represents a deep form of structural violence’ . Thus, Willett’s description leaves out several key features of globalisation which have furthered the notion that it has helped create and exacerbate civil war. Some parts of the world economy have failed to benefit from globalisation and have in fact become victims of it due to an increase in poverty. There is an unambiguous connection between economic globalisation, socioeconomic dislocation and the outbreak of violence . New technologies that have aided globalisation have also helped to facilitate the transmission of economic and social tensions which can then lead to instability. The liberalisation of markets and economically porous borders have therefore facilitated the creation of the ‘shadow states’ which perpetuate the conflicts.

The technologies of states have sprung up in areas where no officially recognised state exists. These manifestations of power have been labelled ‘shadow states’ and help to explain the relationship between economic corruption and politics . Globalisation provided opportunities for non-state actors within weak states to connect to global trading networks and without state interference and capitalise upon the lack of states control on resource extraction . William Reno contends that further misdirection of state funding through networks of patronage leads to the creation of a ‘shadow state’ that significantly increases the risk of civil war. ‘Shadow states’ are therefore the political manifestations of clandestine economic transactions. Liberia provides an example of how a state may collapse politically but extend its economic influence as an informal economy comes to dominate. Every Liberian warlord of any substance had alliances with foreign businessmen and at least one foreign government . To use Summers’ words, globalisation is the best of times (for those benefitting from the kleptocracy) and the worst of times (for those who desired political coherence).

A further incentive for conducting war for economic benefit is the low costs. The ‘new wars’ are cheap to wage as they are generally fought with light weapons and use civilian infrastructure. Furthermore, the troops themselves are inexpensive to recruit and can fund themselves through the use of extortion and pillaging . The availability of troops is bolstered by the availability of child soldiers in some regions, such as Sierra Leone, as it is a ‘rational choice’ for them due to economic incentives. The exclusion from regular economic activity, hunger and lack of opportunities can help drive them towards those waging the war: the warlords.

Warlords are defined by Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz as ‘businessmen of war’ who use ‘violence as the main instrument of their economic activity’ . For warlords war is an economically attractive proposition as they can control distribution of costs as well as the privatisation of its profits. Violence therefore becomes a means of income and political conflicts can transform into conflicts that are sustained by economic motivations. In Afghanistan the gradual transition to an ‘open economy’ permitted the growing production of raw opium to yield considerable profits on the trade routes of the eastern Mediterranean. This trade in illegal goods allowed Afghan warlords to access global markets, even if this took place through a ‘shadow economy’.

This state of affairs incentivises the use of violence to allow for criminal activity that would be otherwise unacceptable during peacetime. Such economic determinism is perhaps best demonstrated by examples of collusion in which warring parties forgo their supposed political motivations in favour of collaborating for mutual economic benefit: in Angola during the war, UNITA traded weaponry with government forces . Collusion is a prime example of the theory that ‘new wars’ are a continuation of economics by other means as the warmongers are willing to eschew any former political motivation when profits can be made, even if this entails the mutual benefit of the opposition in an ongoing conflict.

‘New Wars’: The Continuation of ‘Old Wars’?

The aforementioned studies provide some evidence for the theory that new wars are a continuation of economics by other means. Private aspirations to wealth and power, reasons of state and identity politics predicated upon shared value all contributed to the ‘new’ manifestations of conflict. However, the novelty of the factors that are said to constitute new wars have been contested. Intense conflicts with mass civilian death rates, international funding and mercenary armies have not been confined to the post-Cold War civil wars. In fact, examples of such barbarism can be found in seventeenth century Europe.

Commanders in the Thirty Years War in the Germanic states frequently lost control of their troops while they were engaged in warfare. During these instances there were no limits to the cruelty or violence that was perpetrated against civilians such as the greed and bloodlust that characterised the attacks on Magdebug in 1631. In these conflicts there was no intended swift military resolution as war itself became part of an economic life that is no longer under political control or subject to political limitation. Furthermore, subsidies were received from external sources such as the United Kingdom and the Netherlands which helped to prolong the war and shift it from being an internal conflict to a transnational conflagration. The participants were not patriotic soldiers but professional mercenaries who had served previously in several theatres of war as well as lower classes seeking a way to make a living . These characteristics bear a striking resemblance to the ways in which ‘new wars’ are conducted. In this case, economic motivations take precedence and ultimately lead to a much more brutal form of conflict that has a devastating impact upon civilians. The question must therefore be asked: are ‘new wars’ a continuation of economics by the same means?

The answer to this is no. A recent meta-analysis has demonstrated that the activities may actually have gone into decline in the post-Cold War epoch and that the initial claims were merely based upon case studies and anecdotal evidence . Instead, Erik Melander, Magnus Oberg and Jonathan Hall have conducted a meta-analysis of these factors to demonstrate that the human impact of civil conflict has actually diminished in the post-Cold War age. Battle severity, if measured in battle deaths, has significantly declined while violence against civilians has also decreased. The patterns for civilian displacement are slightly more complicated as there is an increase in the period immediately following the end of the Cold War but more recent analysis shows that there has been a decrease in forced migration flows.

If the characteristics that support the idea of ‘new wars’ are inherently flawed, there is a need to investigate the claims of economic determinism in the modern era beyond case studies and anecdotal evidence. The economic motivations remain significant from the Thirty Years War to modern conflicts but the manifestations of this are not as widespread as analysis based on case studies would imply. This suggests that economic motivations are not a single entity and can manifest themselves in a variety of ways depending upon the socio-political contexts in which they emerge.

The Importance of Multifaceted Motivations

Collier makes the bold assertion that social and political grievances are merely a front that is provided by rebel organisations to justify the economic motivations for warfare. This research was the result of quantitative statistical analysis based upon probabalistic statements of conflict risk. It therefore fails to take account of descriptions of specific real-world instances that preoccupy policymakers . The methodology allows for broad generalisations to be made predicated upon case studies rather than explaining the whole picture. For example, it fails to differentiate between the varying motivations for such ‘greed’. Without a full analysis of the motivations the ‘continuation of economics’ theory is too limited to be useful in identifying possible solutions to the conflicts it seeks to explain.

There is a need to identify which groups may be impervious to economic sanctions as a result of ‘shadow economies’ and groups that participate in such economies out of necessity and whose livelihoods may suffer as a result of the predatory actions of others. The costs and benefits of war are borne differently by different participants in war economies and so too are the costs and benefits of peace . For example, Nepal is an impoverished nation with few natural resources therefore placing it outside the model for resource warfare. Instead, the economic incentives for conflict are derived from ethnically based frustrations, inequality, corruption and the democratic deficit. There is still evidence of groups resorting extortion and plunder but this has come as a result of desperation rather than a predatory action . It is reductionist to conflate such activities to be commensurate with the plundering of warlords as these groups are resorting to economic means of warfare for their mere survival.

The question of motivations becomes crucial when looking at conflict resolution. If the perceived motivation is incorrect, it is likely that any peace proposals by third parties will ultimately fail. This was demonstrated by the failure of the Lomé Peace Agreement of July 1999. The peace pardoned all combatants of the RUF in Sierra Leone and allowed them continued access to the nation’s diamonds. The motivations of the RUF were deemed to be predatory and therefore the pardon and the diamonds should have acted as an appeasement. However, instead of contentment, the RUF launched an attack on UN peacekeepers and attempted to capture full political power in Freetown . Thus, even where economic predation takes on its most egregious forms, the political dimensions of the conflict are never entirely amputated from the criminal behaviour.

A further variation in motivation can be detected when conflicts are broken down into various types. Civil wars and conflicts in developing countries are not the same everywhere and even if economic motivations underlay them all, they are never isolated from social and political factors. Separatist conflicts are generally explained using identity politics as the variable whereas insurgencies tend to involve the wholesale capture of state power. However, economic motives were clearly evident in the secessionist attempts of the Katangan movement in the copper-rich regions of the DRC and similar desires can be found in the ambitions of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta in the oil-soaked south-west of Nigeria. Each case therefore needs to be analysed individually to determine the precise motives. Reducing a conflict to Clausewitzian political motivations can direct a conflict resolution towards accidently funding warlords with no desire for peace while a similar economic essentialism can create misdirected payoffs with the same consequences. Motivations are never static and conflict dynamics are incredibly fluid. The longer that a war sustains itself, the more likely it will be that it will encapsulate a wider range of motivations. For example, the civil war in Angola oscillated between political and economic motives at varying stages .

Economic motivations must be seen as fluid and multifaceted in order to establish the origins and the reasons for the continuation of a conflict so that possible solutions can be reached. It is too myopic to claim that economic motivations, whether predatory or not, take precedence in every conflict. Instead each conflict must be interrogated individually to understand the complex interplay between economics and socio-political factors. A more useful way of analysing conflicts is to derive clear predispositions that may lead to the forms of ‘greed’ conflict which engender the most brutal forms of violence.

Predisposition to Conflict: Which Factors Help to Facilitate Wars of ‘Greed’?

The fluid and multifaceted motivations for conflict mean that it is impossible to determine that any single factor is more useful than another when describing conflicts in general terms. Instead it is more efficacious to draw up a small number of predispositions to the brutal forms of conflict which are described by the theorists of ‘new wars’. The conditions of state failure, dependency upon primary commodity exports, regionalisation and remittances can all contribute to the proliferation of predatory players.

State failure is a critically high risk factor for civil war. Mohammed Ayoob claims that the erosion of legitimate authority and the lack of a state monopoly on the means of coercion within its territory is the best explanation for the outbreak of civil wars in developing countries. However, the relationship between state failure and civil war is cyclical rather than a linear progression from one to the other . For example, the rise of the shadow state in Angola may have primarily been the result of rather than the cause of the internal conflict. Political factors such as a lack of governance therefore contributed to the outbreak of war in this case rather than economic factors. Furthermore in Kosovo, Nepal and Sierra Leone the outbreak of violence occurred at a time when both the legitimacy and the military capacity of the states were severely diminished.

Alice Hills argues that warlords and militias can only exist in states in which structure, authority, power, law and civil order have fragmented . The devolution of power from the centre to the periphery enables the non-state actors to provide their own form of security and act on their own behalf beyond the realm of the coercive force of the state. Insecurity then begets insecurity as the planting and harvesting of crops, for example, stops as a response to the conflict thereby exacerbating the economic impact upon the civilian population. Once again state failure comes before economic opportunism occurs in this case rather than economic factors begetting state collapse.

The most important predisposition according to Paul Collier is that of dependency upon primary commodity exports. He claims that objective measures of social grievance in fact have no systematic effect on the risk of conflict. Instead the key factors are economic: dependency upon primary commodity exports and low national income . These primary commodities can be virtually worthless until introduced to the globalised marketplaces. De Beers has a history of obtaining ‘conflict diamonds’ for resale in western nations while the main commodity in the war in the DRC was coltan. This was for use in mobile phones which could not be made in the nation . These commodities have little intrinsic worth within the state but when exported to the global markets value is added. The idea that greed motivates all of the ‘new wars’ and that grievance has a minimal effect is an overstatement but his evidence does suggest that there is at least a strong correlation between a dependency upon primary commodity exports and conflict.

A further risk factor is regionalisation and the subsequent erosion of territorial sovereignty. The fate of Sierra Leone and Liberia are interlinked as demonstrated by Charles Taylor’s support for the RUF insurgency and the intervention of the regional hegemon, Nigeria, via the ECOMOG peacekeeping effort. The regionalisation of conflicts is significant as it permits tensions in one state to facilitate the outbreak of conflict nearby. It does not necessarily require violence. For example, Kabila’s insurgency was initially triggered by refugee flows from neighbouring states . In this case the pre-existing grievances were mobilised by warlords demonstrating once again that socio-political factors were the spark rather than the over-simplistic explanation of a dependency upon primary commodity exports.

The role of remittances from diasporas can also change the opportunity structure to favour conflict. Politicised diasporas such as those funding the Tamils and Ibrahim Rugova’s Kosovo Republic helped to sustain the unrest. Communal solidarity helped bolster the ‘shadow economies’ of these groups as well as providing them with increased international social capital . However, the global currents can reverse as quickly as they form. The flow of arms and funds from the United States that helped to bolster the PIRA in Northern Ireland is a thing of the past which means that the terrorist organisations are forced to raise money through smuggling drugs and extortion. At least two of these recent economic efforts have been disrupted by MI5 sting operations . While the economic manifestations of the conflict, (smuggling and extortion) remain, the international social capital of the dissident organisations has been diminished. As states gain legitimacy and become stronger, the shadow economies become more difficult to sustain due to the lack of insecurity, as shown by the example of Northern Ireland.

Each of these individual cases demonstrate different motives being used at different times while the predisposition remains a risk factor. There is no set checklist which every new conflict will pass through before exploding into a brutal attack on civilian populations. It is important to recognise that the aforementioned predispositions are also the result of a combination of economic, social and political factors which have manifested themselves in different ways at different times. This highlights the fluidity of the conflicts in question and invalidates the argument that there can be any single determinant behind them while remaining negligent of other factors.

Conclusion

Economic incentives and opportunities are not the only or the primary source of the ‘new wars’ but instead interact to varying degrees with social and political grievances and security issues to trigger or sustain hostilities. Even where economic predation takes on its most egregious forms, the political dimensions of the conflict are never entirely amputated from the criminal behaviour. There is no doubt that some new conflicts are driven primarily by economics and will continue to be in the near future. Two threats which meet the criteria of the predispositions set out are the possible problems regarding the division of oil if there is a division between Northern and Southern Sudan and the new iron ore extraction deals in Sierra Leone . However, there is still a need to take other factors into account as well as combining case studies with broader meta-analysis to avoid oversimplifications. This will enable us to better understand the multifarious motivations behind the modern conflicts learn from the mistakes of the Lomé Peace Agreement.


Jack Hamilton is a Northern Irish journalist and researcher based in Washington, D.C. and London. He reports on energy, security and African politics for Sky News in addition to his research on West African security and conflict resolution. He can be followed on Twitter @jmhamilton

Email: jack [at] inpec.in


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One thought on “Should the ‘new wars’ be seen as a continuation of economics by other means?

  1. Sadly, what could be new about wars, viz; a consistent, unequivocal, and credible response for an international body that holds violent egos accountable for their pathology is what’s most lacking: regardless of the differential causality of conflict.

    Simplification is THIS area would preclude the need to oversimplify conflicts origins, since the outcome of initiating a conflict would be swift,incontrovertible and painful to the aggressor and making it something to avoided. .

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