A Review of ‘New and Old Wars’

Author: Ariya Das, 2018.


“Mary Kaldor’s book ‘New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era’ improves our understanding of transnational security today…”

Cover page of Mary Kaldor’s New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era from Stanford University Press.


Mary Kaldor’s book ‘New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era’ improves our understanding of transnational security today. Kaldor’s first edition of the book (1999) was written to challenge the prevailing viewpoints about warfare “in the Balkans and Caucasus in the post-cold War era” (Kaldor, 1999). The book lays down the foundational concept of contemporary wars and the benefits of a state-led intervention. The third edition is an improvement over the previous editions of the book as the author expands her discourse on the concept of new wars with wider applicability of cosmopolitanism in states outside of the West.


Brief Summary

The book contains eight chapters with the first chapter serving as an introduction to the some of the key concepts of the book . The second chapter introduces ‘old wars’ with emphasis on the work of Carl von Clausewitz on the relationship of modern states with war. The third chapter functions as a seminal case study of the Bosnia-Herzegovina War (1992 – 1995) to illustrate how wars were fought in the 1990s. The fourth chapter introduces us to ‘new wars’ with a focus on precepts of identity politics, globalization and the divide between cosmopolitanism and particularism. There fifth chapter introduces the economic element of war expressed through private finance, and forces and patterns of violence. The sixth chapter highlights the response to ‘new wars’ and propagates cosmopolitan law-enforcement and politics. The seventh chapter examines the Iraq War (2003 onwards) as a ‘new war’. In the latest edition, the author includes an afterword to respond to critics of her work alongside introducing a new chapter on Iraq and Afghanistan in context of ‘old’ and ‘new’ wars.


‘Old Wars’ versus ‘New Wars’

The book is predicated on the concepts of ‘old’ and ‘new’ wars and the nuanced differentiation between them.

‘Old wars’ refer to traditional inter-state warfare where militaries are focused on territorial conquest. These wars were centralized and financed by the state machinery through taxation of the public. ‘Old wars’ took place across the nineteenth and twentieth century and were fought over nationalistic and ideological reasons respectively. The battle is the decisive element in wars with the state’s military forces as the main target of the warfare.

‘New wars’ refer to warfare conducted by varying combinations of state and non-state actors. These wars are decentralized and the non-state actors involved include armed forces, paramilitary forces, mercenaries, warlords and private security contractors. ‘New wars’ are fought in the name of identity politics and not in the name of ideology. Identity politics has arisen due to globalization, increased communication and migration between countries. These wars are financed partially by the state and other, illicit means, such as looting, kidnapping, smuggling, bribery and stealing. The violence is generally internal and targeted at civilians.



“New and Old Wars” provides several valuable contributes to improving our understanding of transnational security in today’s context.

Firstly, the book provides clear and concise explanations of the various terminologies that form the backbone of transnational security. The concept of ‘new wars’ contributes to a new tenet of transnational security studies, notably the actions of non-state actors acting against the state. Kaldor’s book also touches upon the dangers posed by fragile and failing states with numerous examples. The understanding of fragile and failed states has become an integral part of transnational security discussions in contemporary situations, such as those in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Mali and South Sudan. The book explains old and new wars based on a causal analysis of their threats, risks and constituents. There is a distinction made between the constituents of a state that have benefitted from globalization and those that have not. The latter often feel neglected by the globalization process and this makes them vulnerable to joining extremist and terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda.

Secondly, the book introduces a new perspective to analyzing warfare. This is important since warfare has been a concept that was defined through the lens of the European experience in the past two centuries. This fresh perspective of ‘new wars’ allows policy-makers in transnational security circles to revisit the old assumptions that governed warfare (Newman 2004). Kaldor argues that transnational security in the modern age can be enhanced by studying the organization and impact of non-state actors on states, as well as the phenomena of globalization, technology, migration, social networking and identity politics. Additionally, policy-makers should understand the effects of technology, social media and communication in cyberspace in ‘new wars.’ A useful example of non-state actors using communication technology was the use of social media in rallying protestors during the Arab Spring.

Lastly, Kaldor formulates a useful policy response to the evolving nature of warfare. The book advocates for a cosmopolitan approach that involves local groups and non-governmental organizations with increased involvement by women. Some of the tenets of this cosmopolitan approach include “tolerance, multiculturalism, civility and democracy” (Kaldor, 2012). Cosmopolitan law enforcement is an alternative solution to fulfill the shortcomings of modern peacekeeping. The incorporation of women, local actors, NGOs, and other cosmopolitan actors have been propagated in United Nations development and peace-building initiatives.



There are certain criticisms that one can make of the book which centre around the notion that that the book does not significantly improve our understanding of transnational security.

Firstly, the main criticism of this book is that it does not significantly add any ‘new’ concept to the idea of ‘wars’. The low intensity or small-scale wars that constitute ‘new wars’ have happened for a long period of time. The non-state actors in new wars, such as pirates, militias, bandits, thieves and warlords, have been active throughout modern history. The pursuit of power and furtherance of identity politics have been around for ages as well. In fact, the Crusades, which predate the scope of wars described within the time period of the book could be identified as an expression of identity politics based on religion. The role of identity politics as a driving force in creating conflict is not completely convincing, since such a conflict did not break out at end of the Cold War. Therefore, the argument can be made that this book does not significantly further the establishment of of new concepts of study in transnational security.

Secondly, the book uses a vague definition of the ‘new war’ concept. There is a “hodgepodge of armed conflict” that has been “lumped together” to form “new wars” (Henderson and Singer 2002).  The hybrid nature of new wars, which includes inter-state, intra-state, and sub-state warfare concepts, make identifying such new wars very difficult. Therefore, policy prescriptions are hard to make when there is ambiguity and vagueness in the definition of new wars.

Lastly, while promoting the applicability of the ‘new wars’ model to the situation of the Iraq War (2003), Kaldor draws an unconvincing parallel to the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992). The disintegration of the former Yugoslav states for over a decade provided a level of fragility to the state from which Iraq did not suffer under Saddam Hussein’s leadership. In the case of the former, the fragile nature and ethnic tensions played a direct role in the outbreak of the war, as opposed to the case of the latter where the Iraq war was a hegemonic decision of the United States.



 In conclusion, Mary Kaldor’s New and Old Wars is an important contribution to transnational security studies. The book adds new perspectives on the study of warfare and has utility in the study of transnational security beyond the case studies provided in the text. Despite the critiques and limitations inherent in the book, Kaldor’s work is influential due to her ability to describe the evolution of warfare, including how it has been understood historically, and how these understandings have impacted the world.



Works Cited

Henderson, E A and Singer D, “New wars and rumours of ‘new wars’, International Interactions”, 2002.

Kaldor, Mary, “New and old wars: Organized violence in a global era”, 1st edition, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999.

Kaldor, Mary, “New and old wars: Organized violence in a global era”, 2nd edition, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007.

Kaldor, Mary, “New and old wars: Organized violence in a global era”, 3rd edition, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012.

Kaldor, Mary, “In Defence of New Wars”, Stability: International Journal of Security and Development, 2013.

Newman, E. , “The ‘new wars’ debate: A historical perspective is needed. Security Dialogue”, 2004.

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