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The Cosmopolitan Rejoinder

James Stafford, George Morris

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Civil Society and 'Human Security'

GM: I wanted to change tack and talk more about civil society and ’human security’ outside of Europe. One of the things you talk about a lot is putting civil society at the heart of peace-building and ‘intervention’. I’m intrigued by the mechanism by which you can actually do that. In Syria, the UN’s attempts to talk about civil society groups have always appeared basically cosmetic.

MK: I’ll go back and start with the Bosnian war. First of all, what is civil society in wartime situations? Most of the contemporary conflicts that we talk about start with democracy protests, and democracy protests that are very inclusive. The Bosnia War began with people shooting on a peace demonstration and the first person to die was actually from Croatia. So what happens is that the outside world tends to equate the democracy movements with one side in the violence: in Bosnia it was considered to be on the Muslim side and in Syria it’s considered to be on the opposition side, but that’s not what happened at all.

In fact in both cases the vast majority of protestors believed in non-violence. They thought that if they turned to violence they would be defeated, and that the only way to shift to democracy was changing attitudes, changing the discourse. The people who were in the protest movements were either the first to get killed or had to leave, or they turned themselves into civil society. So they became groups that provided humanitarian assistance, they were mediating local ceasefires, they were keeping schools and hospitals open, they were documenting war crimes and human rights violations. And those people actually represent a political position. They’re anti-sectarian. So actually these wars in my view are wars of sectarianism against counter-sectarianism. 

The second point is your question about how to help civil society. It’s treating them as a partner, treating them as a side. But there are two different ways that I would talk about. The UN talks are really fascinating, we’re following really closely the role of civil society. Staffan di Mistura, the UN special envoy to Syria, created this civil society room that was supposed to be a big innovation. Actually what’s happened is that the main talks are going absolutely nowhere. But the civil society people are gaining huge amounts just from talking to each other, and they’ve asked Staffan di Mistura if they can continue the talks even if the talks between armed groups stop. So that’s turned out to be actually a lot more interesting than anyone anticipated.

GM: I know people who are at those talks who say it’s really useful meeting all these people, but useless in terms of the conflict.

MK: The argument I made for years is that the problem is that we focus on the violence but there are areas that civil society has kept peaceful – I’ve called them ‘islands of civility’.1 And it’s those areas that actually the international community should focus on, protecting those areas and allowing them to spread, rather than focusing on trying to create a peace from above between the armed groups who are not interested in peace because they’re gaining a lot from the violence. 

A very good Syrian example is Eastern Ghouta. After the chemical warfare attacks it was civil society that negotiated a ceasefire. At that point we could have had a resolution in the UN Security Council saying the UN should be deployed to monitor, to uphold the ceasefire – none of that happened. Ceasefires like that are sort of surrenders to the Assad regime, but on the other hand if the UN were there you could lessen the repression that’s going on when the regime takes over again. 

GM: As you say, at this stage in Syria it’s about managing the surrender. How about trying to build mechanisms into future situations?

MK: I can only describe it retrospectively, but the huge mistake with Syria was to demand regime change rather than saying you’re not supposed to bomb your citizens. That’s what needed to change. I mean Syria’s really interesting from the point of view of the EU, because the EU had the most leverage of any state at the beginning of the war. It was in the middle of negotiating an Association Agreement. And it simply followed the American lead, withdrew everything, imposed blanket sanctions, and said Assad must go, which actually was totally ineffective. They could have used all 
their mechanisms and tried to put pressure on the regime to act differently. 

Preserving and extending the role of UN monitors instead of withdrawing them would also have been an incredibly important thing to do. I can think of similar things one might have said in other conflicts, but what I guess I’m really saying is that first of all the pressure has to be on stopping illegal behaviour. And secondly on supporting and strengthening what civil society is trying to do. 

Another very good example is Libya. When the Responsibility to Protect resolution was passed in the Security Council it was given to NATO instead of the EU. The EU would have had a quite different policy because the EU is much more in line with a ‘human security’ approach. 

What they wanted to do was to stop Gadhafi from attacking Benghazi. NATO sent out planes to destroy his forces but then they didn’t know what to do next. So they empowered local armed groups and they called for regime change, which wasn’t Responsibility to Protect. 

The alternative would have been to declare Benghazi, which had been liberated by civil society, a safe, protected area, have a presence on the ground to protect it, and help develop local governance, and local development, and do the same when other areas liberated themselves, and that way they would have stopped the spread of armed groups and they would have allowed the peaceful overthrow of Gadhafi. 

GM: It’s striking I think that we’re talking about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ interventions, rather than intervention in an abstract way, because obviously so much of the debate in the Labour Party and on the Left is about ‘for’ or ‘against’.

MK: I agree. My point has always been that there’s good and bad interventions. Iraq and Afghanistan were bad. Bosnia was an experiment in what was good, it just didn’t go far enough.

GM: This is the other thing as well, it’s not even just ‘good’ and ‘bad’...

MK: Exactly, exactly.

GM: As I say, the debate on the Left is dominated by that sort of language. But how do we get out of that? 

MK: Well that’s why I wrote this book, called Global Security Cultures, because my point is that there are different security cultures and they have different forms of intervention, and we should try to understand that.2 We should understand that in a globalised world whatever we do is a form of intervention.

JS: A lot of the hostility to intervention per se on the Left comes from is the idea that there are legacies of colonialism involved. Western European countries are rarely intervened upon. Intervention is in one direction. This is a problem with cosmopolitanism in general—how you can project the idea of an international community without asking the question, ‘whose international community’? Who made the rules, who sets the norms, who gets to go around enforcing them?

MK: I suppose my answer would be the same as I said before, which is that we’re intervening whether we like it or not. There are big companies intervening, all kinds of activities going on. There are private security contractors. Surely one wants a socially responsive international intervention. 

Then you ask who is the international community, who is global civil society. Obviously it’s dominated by the rich and powerful. But here I’d say there is a difference between hegemony and domination, there is a difference between international relations and imperialism. A set of international relations in the frame of international law are still likely to be unfair and uneven, but nevertheless they offer space for deliberation, for discussion, for arguing. 

The advantage of global civil society over imperialism is that it’s not just the governments, there is a debate at civil society level. Nevertheless it’s a debate that’s dominated by the rich and powerful. And the argument I would make is, I’m aware of that, and I’m aware that this is a huge problem, but at least it is hegemony rather than domination, which is a contrast with imperialism. And at least that offers an opening for people to engage and participate. There’s a huge raft of international law-making where civil society’s played a big role, like climate change or the 
landmines treaty or the cluster munitions treaty.

The other thing I think the Left argument, the anti-colonial argument, fails to take into account is the huge exploitation of local elites. Is the Assad regime better than European colonialism? They’re probably better than European colonialism in some respects, but they’re pretty horrible.

GM: A big part of this debate is the problem of moral legitimacy. The major powers and the big international organisations. How can global civil society help to rebuild that?

MK: It’s a huge problem because we’re going in the opposite direction. I mean, everything Trump does, a lot of what Theresa May does is really undermining legitimacy. The UN lost so much legitimacy because it went into Iraq after the Americans invaded, and you remember the terrorist attack on UN headquarters – it was the moment it lost its ability to move around conflict zones peacefully because 
it had legitimacy. 

There’s a huge weakening of international legitimacy as a consequence both of the war on terror and the return of geopolitics. Liberal Peace, which is so criticised by so many on the left ... I share a lot of their criticisms but I feel it’s the only pathway to a superior alternative model. Whether it can regain legitimacy is really open to question. If we don’t regain legitimacy in international institutions we’re going to really see the spread of a global new war, which will really be very frightening.

The continuing rise of ‘new wars’

JS: Do you mean new war in your specific theoretical sense?

MK: Yes. I don’t mean that we’ll have World War Three, but I think that we’ll have new wars in my theoretical meaning. Those are incredibly difficult to end. They’re incredibly persistent. They’re more like a societal condition than a conflict.

I don’t know if there were ever old wars, but old wars are our stylised conception of war, which is a deep-rooted political contest that can only be solved either by one side winning or by political talks. New wars are not like that. New wars involve numerous armed groups, who gain from violence itself rather than from winning or losing. They gain because new wars are a way to mobilise extremist ideologies, and they gain from pillage, hostage-taking.

A lot of this my more recent thinking about this came engaging with Clausewitz. Clausewitz’s basic theory is that war tends to the extreme, and he comes to this proposition through his definition of war, which is war is a deep-rooted contest of wills. But war can also be a kind of mutual enterprise in which everyone is gaining from fighting. If that’s the case, then it tends not so much to extremism as to 
persistence; it’s incredibly difficult to end. 

JS: And you can see even the Western European capitalist societies falling into that?

MK: They’re displaying elements of that, exactly. The rise of armed gangs, the rise of terrorism, the rise of racist behaviour; and linked very often. The networks of power and dark money behind Brexit are linked to both organised crime and racist violence.

GM: It’s interesting how you’re bringing in ideas of economic justice implicitly there. In a lot of your writing gender features in the same way. Could you talk more 
about the gendered elements of new wars?

MK: Let me start with economic justice. I think there was a break at the end of the eighties. The civil wars of the seventies and eighties were typical left-right wars: between a guerrilla movement and a regime. Rebels behaved like quasi-states. I think there was a big shift at the end of the eighties when you started to get more and more rentier-type economies, when politicians saw the advantage of violence for capturing power, and rebel groups tended not to be led by romantic left-wing intellectuals but by former regime types. You got a shift among intellectuals towards non-violence. I think very key to all this was the shift from authoritarian, often planned economies, under the pressure of liberalisation. You got the development of a kind of crony-capitalism, but also much more extreme inequality. 

I think all wars are highly gendered and that war is a mechanism for constructing masculinity. But I think there’s a difference between old and new wars, at least in theory. In old wars it was the typical idea of the man as the hero, protecting the women at home. New wars are very different: they involve a much lower level of participation, but also very extreme forms of masculinity. All wars actually involve sexual violence, but in old wars they tended to be a side-effect rather than a central tactic. 

In many contemporary wars it’s a central tactic, because it serves the goal of population displacement. So typically new wars involve very few battles. Instead most of the violence is directed against civilians, with the aim of establishing political control. The easiest way to create political control is by getting rid of everybody who doesn’t agree with you or are of a different ethnicity. Rape is a means 
of achieving that.

All this produces a very extreme and unstable form of masculinity, one that can only 
be reproduced through continuing violence. Young men who are unemployed 
regain their sense of masculinity by becoming soldiers. 

GM: What about at the level of politics and leadership? Is masculinity a driving factor in the same way?

MK: Oh definitely, because all these ideologies are extremely patriarchal. All of these nationalist and religious groups always seem to involve a very extreme view of 
patriarchy. And interestingly all the counter-sectarian groups, particularly in the Syrian case, involve a feminist impetus. 

JS: I wanted to link new wars back to the EU, and to end on something very contemporary. There is now this expanded move to effectively – as I understand it – co-opt Libyan gangs to defend the Mediterranean border, helping to keep Libyan society in exactly the condition of ‘new war’ that you describe. How can those sorts of tendencies in European policy be challenged and transcended? 

MK: What is so striking is that there’s huge contradictions between different bits of EU policy. We did a contribution to the EU’s global strategies review, ‘Hybrid Peace to Human Security’, and we were arguing that because the EU is a new kind of institution, like I was saying at the beginning, it has to have a different kind of policy. The EU should be a new kind of twenty-first century model of global governance, but it often behaves in state-like ways, in twentieth-century ways.The whole business of the camps and Libya and trying to close the borders are very typical, backward, twentieth-century ways of doing politics. 

On the other side of the coin, the EU’s official security strategy involves a completely different set of policies towards places like Libya and Syria: it’s more of a contribution to UN missions even though the strategy is based on human security and involves, if you like, a revision of the Liberal Peace. An interesting example is Libya, even though it’s actually a UN operation. Ghassan Salamé, who is the UN Special Representative to Libya, is doing so many interesting things in terms of trying to construct legitimate municipalities, build on civil society, and generate inclusive 

There are different bits of the EU that are operating in completely contradictory ways. This is where the Left should come in and say: we need support for the municipalities, we need support for civil society and we need to bring civil society groups from Libya, from Syria, to the centre, to the European Parliament. This is the kind of thing we ought to be doing. 

Mary Kaldor is Professor of Global Governance in the Department for International Development, Director of the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit at 
the London School of Economics, and a member of the organising group for The Left Against Brexit.

George Morris is a doctoral candidate in History at Cambridge University, a  Commissioning Editor for Renewal, and an activist with Rethink Rebuild Syria.

James Stafford is Postdoctoral Researcher in World Politics at Bielefeld University and the Co-Editor of Renewal.

Further Reading

M. Kaldor, Global Security Cultures, Cambridge, Polity, 2018.
-- New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era, Cambridge, Polity, 1999. 
-- (with L. Cooper et. al), The Corbyn Moment and European Socialism, London, 
Another Europe is Possible, 2018. Online at:

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