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Last Updated: 11/16/2011
New Wars, Old Wars: Is the Distinction Valid?
Alexandra Dobra

Alexandra Dobra, masters student at Cambridge University, provides an analysis of the relevance of post-Cold War distinctions between old and new wars, using a bipartite structure to emphasize continuities and universalities versus differences resulting from the dynamics and correlated increase in war-prone circumstances via the construction of identities and structure. She concludes that the distinction between old and new wars is valid to the extent to which the image of the nature of war is expressed via new means but that many so-called new wars reflect rather enduring patterns over the last century.


“[…] it assumes the centrality of a propensity towards violence, which has as [its] classic form of expression… war.” [1]

According to US former President George W. Bush in 2003, the “arrival of a new era” has happened with the existence of the second Iraq war. This new era is characterized by a new form of war, which extensively relies upon “a combination of precision, speed and boldness the enemy did not expect and the world had not seen before” [2]. Is this empirical observation the mark of a turn in the conceptualization and operationalization of warfare? Have the traditional conceptions of war lost their validity? One basic feature of the traditional conception of war lies in considering it as an intra-state armed conflict, entrenched inside a geographical model according to which conflicts predominantly occur between strong states. Yet, according to the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, “the most marked security phenomenon since the end of the Cold War has been the proliferation of armed conflicts within States”[3]. Furthermore, the geographical distribution model of war highlights a movement of conflicts to the South; in sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia [4]. Along these lines, it seems that the traditional conceptions of war or, in other words, the old war, have lost their veracity and are asynchronous to the contemporary environment. As such, in the theoretical line of thought, most scholars in the post-Cold War period argue for the need to distinguish between old and new wars. Contemporary warfare is considered as qualitatively and quantifiably different from previous forms of conflict and, thus, requires a new conceptualization[5][6]. The empirical foundation of the new war proposition, however, remains contested, since studies illustrate that the numbers are mis­leading and partly inaccurate[7].

Old New

The distinction between old and new wars seems very blurry, and one must keep in mind that “a classificatory system should remain as theoretical as possible”[8]. Making a clear and definite typology of wars has proven to be a problem of taxonomy. Typologies are too simplistic and tend toward confusion between the nature and the conduct of wars. This paper argues that the intrinsic nature, the fundamental attributes of war, remain unaltered between old and new wars. Where the distinction between old and new wars can be observed is in terms of: (1) the dynamic and the correlation; (2) increase in war-prone circumstances via the construction of identities and structures 1. Thus, this paper constructs the trilateral model of construction (figure 1) and stresses that the distinction between old and new wars is valid to the extent to which the image of the nature of war is expressed via other/new means.

From the intrinsic nature of war as a perennial variable to…

Before distinguishing the perennial characteristics of war, we should ask what war is. A plethora of definitions have been made, ranging from the political rational account, to alternative definitions considering war as an all-pervasive phenomenon. The latter rest on the Heraclitean and Hegelian philosophy, according to which change can only arise out of war since war is the father of all things. Despite the fact that “definitions rarely convey the complexity of a subject in either theory or practice”[9], succinctly, war is actual organized violence: it is a resort to arms between integrated groups with incompatible demands.

The very conflict and resort to arms is therefore the nature of war. But what is nature? Nature is an intrinsic characteristic, a thing’s essential qualities and, therefore, never changes. Now, in both old and new wars, conflict and fighting are the two main interrelated perennial variables. Furthermore, in both types of wars, at some stage, the human dimension intervenes. Indeed, the Second World War (1939-1945), as well as the war in Kosovo (1998-1999), were also driven by “glory”, “honour”, and perennial variables compounding the quiddity of individuals. Hence, bellum omnium contra omnes is an endemic feature of human nature and of the systems, categories and dynamics inside which they operate.

Old war is a Clausewitzian version of conflict, empirically valid until the mid-20th century, on an inter-state scale, fought by official armed forces, where the decisive encounter was battle and where front lines could be geographically perceptible. Old wars enabled the erection of nation-states to the extent to which “war made states, and vice versa”[10]. War enabled states to monopolize and organize the use of violence in a legitimate way. In line with Schmitt11, protecto ergo obligo is the cogito ergo sum of the state. Now, new wars echo old wars in the sense that each organized party drives its infra-level legitimacy on account of its use of violence as a tool for self-preservation based on greed or grievance considerations (e.g. territory; honour; pride; self-determination). Furthermore, the civil war in Sri Lanka, despite being considered a new war, still possesses features of old wars, notably reverberated via the role that the state apparatus has played in fuelling it; Sri Lanka’s conflict was not deinstitutionalized.

New wars exist to the extent to which their style, their character, has changed. The style of wars is in perpetum mobile; however, the nature, the essence remains, which gives a sense of independence to the differing contexts: bellum is stillbellum. New wars are taking place in the context of the disintegration of states[12] and therefore constitute a break in the dynamics of old wars; however, they remain intrinsically unaltered.

… the split in the dynamics between new wars and old wars

New wars are taking place within the context of a globalized conflict dynamic and analogically contribute to applying, on an intra-state scale, the paradigm of globalization as a fundamentally disintegrative process (see figure 1). The metamorphosis of conflictuality is due to micro-sociological modifications, operated in the frame of the closure of the Westphalian era. This globalized dynamic is characterized by:

  • Deprivation of the symbolism of the state as an instance of legitimacy and authority – emergence of non-state actors as vital players
  • Movement of conflict toward the periphery: the South
  • Asymmetry
  • Absence of norms as codified at anterirori, leading to the absence of the logic of intelligibility and regulation

In the layout of exogenous and centrifugal forces of states, the globalized dynamic further weakens rogue, fragile, and unstable states, and as such, the geographical model of conflict is highlighting an inflation of conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa (e.g. Somalia, Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Angola). This new dynamic seen in the context of neoliberal economic forces and globalization imposes the erosion of the state’s monopoly over the use of violence by enabling a pattern of private violence to emerge and to challenge the state’s authority. In this political vacuum, non-state actors arise and are established within a system where they develop diverging interests, which erode the authority of the state’s structures[13]. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example, 83 separate combatant units existed[14]. Furthermore, this globalized dynamic also contributes to the fading of formal distinctions between combatants and civilians, as well as to a phenomenon of demilitarization and of asymmetry. Indeed, the war’s main objective has been displaced from military targets to civilian and infrastructural ones; “nowadays approximately 80 per cent of all casualties in wars are civilian”[15]. Soldiers become warriors eluding the application of a code of conduct in war. Hence, in terms of forms of warfare, “behaviour that was proscribed according to the classical rules of warfare and codified in the laws of war in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, such as atrocities against non-combatants, sieges, destruction of historic monuments, etc., now constitutes an essential component of the strategies of the new mode of warfare”[11]. As such, there is increasing use of cost-efficient soldiers, thereby exploiting child soldiers (more than 250,000 children estimated to be used as soldiers in 2007[16]).

If conflicts are transforming, it is also on the basis of the emergence of a new connection between individuals, spaces and social solidarities, still operating in the framework of the globalized dynamic. Hence, we see the advent of a construction of identity politics as a sequel to the political vacuum and as a source of criminal mobilization, along with the rise of structures acting as fuel for the perpetuation of conflict. “Identity politics” arise out of conditions as those that existed in the former Yugoslavia and Soviet Union, but also in places like Kashmir and Eritrea. What these cases share is a political leadership with diminishing legitimacy and a growing parallel economy based on corruption and crime. Under these conditions, “identity politics” are used by political elites to stay in power, fill the vacuum left by crumbling state structures with a sense of national identity, and provide legitimacy for criminal warfare[17]. For instance, Armenian migrants in the U.S. have compelled the U.S. government to halt both its diplomatic overtures to the government of Azerbaijan and its efforts to help U.S. oil companies secure exploitation and drilling contracts in that petroleum-rich Caspian state. Meanwhile, in the case of Afghanistan, the cultivation of opium and cannabis, the production of heroin, the smuggling of arms and general goods have contributed significantly to the country’s overall GDP. In January 2002, the total income generated by the parallel economy was no less than three times larger than that of the foreign-funded economy.

Finally, the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992-1995) represents a paradigm of the new type of warfare in as much as it illustrates the inadequacy of traditional conceptions of war[11]. It is an example of new war, on account of the fact that entrenched political assumptions, strategic thinking, and international arrangements were challenged and reconstructed. In other words, the strategic predictability of the war has been altered. New wars have no conventions; “conventions are constraints and frames for reference, used by actors to understand the world and define their interests. This ensures a logic of intelligibility - some actions are more imaginable.”1. The field where there is an irrevocable schism between old wars and new wars is in terms of the legal framework. Indeed, international law, by being erected on a Westphalian conception of sovereign nation-states, does not fit on a global scale and leads to a desynchronized development reality between law and warfare. As pointed out by Daase5, international regimes fall short of fulfilling their intended role in preventing and mitigating warfare, and therefore, progress in the field of international law concerning new regulations addressing phenomena like asymmetric conflicts between state and non-state actors is needed.

Trilateral Model


“Famine, plague, and war are the three most famous ingredients of this wretched world…. All animals are perpetually at war with each other…. Air, earth and water are arenas of destruction.” Voltaire

To conclude, there is an obsolescence of the concept and applicability of the “great war”, but not of the old war as a valid paradigm. The dynamics of conflictuality have evolved, and, as a mutual reinforcing consequence, new, more war-prone circumstances created by identities and structures have emerged. In other words, new wars operate within the epistemological and essential construction of old wars, while being subjected to a new systemic dynamic on account of the advent of pervasive globalization. Hence, the concept of old wars is, in Leinizian terminology, the anagogical induction. In our case, the first cause explaining new wars is to be found in the very nature of old wars.

In the frame of future cogitations, it might be worth accentuating the need to go beyond the Western-style typology of conflict and international law in order to create a platform of dialogue enabling the different parties to come to consensus and mutual understanding of identities. Such a dialogue model of consensus would allow for the effectiveness of preventive means against war.

1 Dobra, A. (2010). Thucydides: An Author Still Relevant for the Contemporary Analysis of International Relations? Alternatives: Turkish Journal of International Relations, 9 (2), 91.

2 Bush, G., W. (2003). President Bush Announces Major Combat Operations in Iraq Have Ended: Remarks by President Bush from the USS Abraham Lincoln.

3 ICIIS Report (2004). Available at [Accessed the 19 November 2010].

4 Chojnacki, S. (2006). Anything new or more of the same? Wars and military interventions in the international system, 1946–2003. Global Society 20: 25–46.

5 Daase, C. (2001). Das humanitäre Völkerrecht und der Wandel des Krieges. In: Hasse J.

6 Münkler, H. (2002). Die neuen Kriege. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt.

7 Lacina, B. and Gleditsch, N.,P. (2005). Monitoring Trends in Global Combat: A New Dataset of Battle Deaths. European Journal of Population 21, 145-166.

8 Singer, J., D. (1961). The International System: Theoretical Essays World Politics, Vol. 14, No. 1, pp. 77-92.

9 Kiras, J. D. (2002). Strategy in the contemporary world: An introduction to the contemporary world:Aan introduction to strategic studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

10 Tilly, C. (1990). Coercion, Capital and European States. Oxford: Basil Balckwell.

11 Schmitt, C. (1990). The Concept of the Political. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

12 Kaldor, M. (1999). New and Old Wars. Organized Violence in a Global Era. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

13 Eppler, E. (2002). Vom Gewaltmonopol zum Gewaltmarkt? Die Privatisierung und Kommerzialisierung der Gewalt. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

14 Heupel, M., Zangl, B. (2004) Von ‘alten’ und ‘neuen’ Kriegen. Zum Gestaltwandel kriegerischer Gewalt. Politische Vierteljahresschrift 45: 346–369.

15 Chesterman, S. (2001). Just War or Just Peace? Humanitarian Intervention and International Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

16 UNICEF. La situation des enfants dans le monde : exclus et invisibles. Available at [Accessed 19 November 2010].

17 Mueller, J.,E. (2004). The Remnants of War. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Alexandra Dobra is a masters student at Cambridge University. She is the Editor of Politikon, Council Board Member for Gerson Lehrman Group, Chapter Chair and Founder for The Transatlantic. She has published more than 20 articles in international academic journals, most of them ISI.