Volume 12 Number 3
Islands of Civility
01 June 1999

'Old and new wars: organized violence in a global era' by Mary Kaldor: Blackwell Publishers, 1999, £12.99

The theme of Mary Kaldor's perceptive and innovative book is the change in the nature of wars since the end of the Cold War. In the two centuries before that, individual states, or the blocs which they formed, had a monopoly of power. Today, 'there are new types of polity emerging out of new global processes', which 'privatize' power. As a result a new type of war has become the norm. To illustrate this she focuses largely on Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Kaldor suggests that there is an analogy between this period of 'new wars' and the years following the collapse of the Roman Empire. When Germanic and other tribes breached the frontiers, and the Roman legions were partially withdrawn, disorder ensued. The capital of the Roman Empire was transferred to Constantinople, though Rome itself later revived to become an 'island of civility' in a barbarized Italy.

Our modern barbarism, the product of corruption, gang warfare and tribal or ethnic conflicts, is analogous. Kaldor sees barbarism as a continuum, which starts 'with the combination of criminality and racism to be found in the inner cities of Europe and North America'. Its 'most acute manifestation' is in areas where those who have privatized power aim at 'political mobilization on the basis of identity'. 'The military strategy for achieving this aim is population displacement and destabilization so as to get rid of those whose identity is different and to foment hatred and fear.... War provides a legitimation for various criminal forms of private aggrandizement.'

At the same time, she writes, 'it is possible to find islands of civility in nearly all the war zones'. The spirit of 'cosmopolitanism' saved Sarajevo from the worst of the destruction which affected other towns, and there were similar pockets elsewhere. These could be linked up with humanitarian intervention, which she describes as 'a very significant innovation in international practice... adopted under pressure from the international media'.

Here the international community--a modern concept which gained substance as the 20th century wore on--was a key factor. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) provided aid to around two thirds of the popluation of Bosnia-Herzogovina and coordinated the activities of other agencies and NGOs (non-governmental organizations).

The equivalent of the international community in the crumbling Roman Empire was the Church, which could claim the allegiance of all Christians in the Mediterranean region and its hinterland. In the east, the alliance of Church and State maintained civilization in what became known as Byzantium. In the west, a strong Pope like Gregory I could maintain the city of Rome as a 'centre of civility'.

For Gregory the spiritual side was the priority. His homebase was the monastic community he had founded in Rome. He could build on the heritage of spirituality which had developed during the imperial period. He sent out missions to ex-colonial territories such as Britain and France. Networks of spirituality were formed throughout Europe; women played a particular part.

Looking at Europe today, and especially former Yugoslavia, it is easy to see similar needs. 'A new strategy of reconstruction... of social life and institutional relationships' is needed, says Kaldor. NGOs can play a vital part, but would do well to heed the words of Harold Saunders, a veteran in the field of international relations, who calls for activists to educate themselves in policy thinking: 'a multitude of well-meaning citizens craving new relationships of peace and growth may waste a lot of precious energy if they fail to direct that energy precisely'.

This requires not only mental preparation, but spiritual as well, before moving into areas like the former Yugoslavia, to create not merely islands of civility but the framework in which they can flourish. The spiritual factor is of key importance in an area where religion is often the determining element in ethnicity.

In her conclusion Kaldor says, 'An effective response to the new wars has to be based on an alliance between international organizations and local advocates of cosmopolitanism in order to reconstruct legitimacy.' In each area 'individuals and groups respected for their integrity' must be involved in developing the strategy.
R C Mowat

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