If you’re going to oppose Private Military Companies, understand the issues first

We've been hearing for a while about private military companies seeking to jump on the Peacekeeping Operations (PKO) gravy train. Blackwater has been notably vocal in this, most recently in a Washington Times article and on Slate. Typical opposition goes like this, from the Glittering Eye:

Nearly 400 years ago Europeans met in desperation to solve a problem: war without end; war everywhere; war against everyone. The solution they came up with led to modern nation-states. States have a monopoly on military force.

The problems with abandoning that monopoly are numerous:

  • anyone can playIf you’ve got the cash, you, too, can have your own private army! Not everybody with the cash shares your benevolence or, indeed, any of your goals.
  • it invites reprisal in kindA mercenary army invades Sudan (or the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or Colombia). People sympathetic to the Sudanese government (or the Sauds or the Colombian government) send in their own mercenaries (not nearly as scrupulous as yours) who go after lots of people—including people who had nothing whatever to do with invading Sudan (or KSA or Colombia).
  • there are no limits or controls

These anarcho-collectivist/anarcho-syndicalist fantasies could well lead to disaster. We don’t have war everywhere without limits against everyone because states have a monopoly on military force.

No, the alternatives are either the nation-state or globalization. Government requires consensus to function and world government requires world consensus. And, European fantasies notwithstanding, there just isn’t world consensus right now. If there’s one thing we should have learned over the last five years it’s that there isn’t world consensus right now. The Mohammed cartoon controversy in which people actually died should be enough to be that beyond reasonable doubt.

Three points must be made here. First, current PKOs are contracted operations and second, this "monopoly on force" is an erroneous reading of Max Weber, which is where most people get that concept from. Third, Glittering Eye's bulleted concerns are really unrelated to the concept of "monopoly" and must be addressed, but his framing ignores and displaces actual liability and accountability.

I've addressed the first point previously:

I won't update the first two, but I will update the numbers on the third. There is a clear contractor relationship between the Security Council (SC) and contributor nations. The SC, who authorizes and effectively hires contributor countries, looks the other way when contributors commit crimes and human rights abuses on the job or in their home country. (Nepal, for example, commits human rights abuses at home with its army but is apparently absolved because it promises not to send any of those troops on PKOs.) The SC pays about $1100 per man per month to the contributor nations.

Who contributes? Well, contrary to what one colleague said yesterday, it ain't Europe. A few stats before listing the Top 10 contributors as of August 2006. All summary figures combine police, military observers (MilOb), and troop contributions.

  • The 5 permanent members of the Security Council combined contribution is 4.6% of the total.
  • China, three years after stating its intent to use participation in PKOs as a tool of public diplomacy (and PLA news article here), is now nearly half (48%) of the SC total.
  • Just the top 3 contributor countries, who must be especially concerned about the world if they aren't doing it for the money, make up 39% of the total. The fourth and fifth countries, as you can see below, each contribute less than half of the third country.
  • European Union countries, if they weren't concerned about their own shrinking armies, must be more interested in supporting their own PKOs (via NATO, OSCE, or prepping for the "EU Army"?) do slightly better than the SC at 5% of the total.
  • Who is in the top 10 has remained the same for some time now, with only minor shuffling around in the lower half.
  • China moved from 15th in December 2005 at 1,059 (1.5%) to 1,663 (2%) in August 2006.
Top 10 Contributor Countries Police Milob Troops Total % overall
Bangladesh         473         108       9,575       10,156 14%
Pakistan         484         119       9,217        9,820 13%
India         388           94       8,797        9,279 12%
Jordan         879           75       2,857        3,811 5%
Nepal         465           47       3,012        3,524 5%
Ghana         101           65       2,508        2,674 4%
Uruguay   &
          67       2,500        2,580 3%
Ethiopia             21       2,553        2,574 3%
Nigeria         368           79       1,964        2,411 3%
South Africa             37       2,052        2,089 3%

On the second point, internally state autonomy was different than externally autonomy. Max Weber was describing, in his misrepresented and incompletely quoted "monopoly" passage, a bureaucracy and not an international order. What a state did within its borders increasingly became its own business as it constructed, shaped, and mobilized nationalism toward the creation of an "imperatively coordinated corporate group". This group is based on “uncritical and unresisting mass obedience” led by a leader who imposes his will in a given situation.

As Max Weber described it, a state was not a state without this internal capacity to own force.

An imperatively coordinated corporate group will be called “political” is and in so far as the enforcement of its order is carried out continually within a given territorial area by the application and threat of physical force on the part of the administrative staff. A compulsory political associate with continuous organization will be called a “state” if and in so far as its administrative staff successfully upholds a claim to the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in the enforcement of its order. [Weber's emphasis, not mine]

It is important to emphasize here that contrary to popular belief, Weber and the so-called Weberian state does not prohibit mercenaries or non-state forces. Weber implicitly allows licensing of force (“upholds its claim”) and explicitly narrows his statement onto an “imperatively coordinated corporate group”.

Glittering Eye's concern over benevolence is nice, it's also quaint. Are states, or similar political entities in our contemporary world of increasingly powerful non-state groups, really benevolent? This utopian thought doesn't mesh with the reality of history or of the present.

The issue of private armies, as he raises it, conflates questions of who is doing what, to whom, why, how, and to what end. Each of these questions can take us into vastly different directions that even a state or UNO PKO can have difficulty corralling. In effect, Glittering Eye suggests that PMCs make warfare inexpensive (morally? financially? normatively? all the above?) and that their use, or perhaps increased use, will, by implication, alter the conduct of war. This classic failure to see history in the context in which it took place leads to the typical statement "…400 years ago Europeans met in desperation to solve a problem…The solution they came up with led to modern nation-states."

As states consolidated power inside borders, they sought ways to limit diplomatic and military liability as conflicts over resources, both far and near, increased with a shrinking world. The authority of the state was “made coterminous with territorial boundaries” as “states were held accountable for the trans-border coercive activities of individuals residing within their borders”. State authorization of non-state violence, through mercenaries, privateers, boucaniers, filibustiers, etc, made it difficult to determine what violent acts were sanctioned and which were "private, independent, or free-lance". Distinguishing between domestic and international, a new theory, was unclear before and is becoming unclear and indistinct again. This is true in many democracies except perhaps in the United States, where the domestic political environment overrides foreign requirements and creates new perceptions of reality.

What would Glittering Eye say about the US Naval war hero John Paul Jones following the practice of the day and renting his services to Catherine the Great after the Revolutionary War?

Is Glittering Eye concerned about the return of personal enmity? A little background is in order since so many think there was a magical transformation when the Thirty Years War ended (i.e. the magical inception of the Westphalian State). Is the concern that war will once again become the toy, not the tool, of the ruling class? Personal enmity as a cause of war was displaced by growing the growing interests of the state. War as a tool of the state led to a distinction between combatant and peasant, or non-combatant, and the understanding there was little difference between the soldier who laid down his arms and a person who never took up arms: both should be spared since neither was a combatant. This new concept of a prisoner of war arose as war was now between states and not individuals. Wars became national causes, not just conflicts between kings, giving raison d’état over other considerations. It came to be that “war should not be a ritual or an instrument to redress petty grievances, but rather an activity to serve the interests of the state”. This is a very valid concern as force is becoming de-democratized and outside the oversight of the democratic public carrying the burden of the war through taxes, national image, and trade issues.

There are limits and controls, they are simply not being exercised, which is different than the absence of controls, which is the UN Blue Helmet problem, and he with the most money generally wins. The richest countries can afford to spend more on defense (the US defense R&D budget is greater than the aggregation of many European countries total defense budgets!), but it doesn't mean a smart investment. African countries are known for spending their resources on weapons, which those who study small arms markets know very well (G8 countries are major supplies of weapons to these countries by the way).

If you're going to debate the use of private soldiers, get your facts straight and understand the theoretical trajectories of the actions to be taken or not taken.

3 thoughts on “If you’re going to oppose Private Military Companies, understand the issues first

  1. The last world government I’d personally want to be part of would be one ruled by Islam. But that is, it seems, where it is all heading unless America and Europe wakes up very, very quickly.The question then is what do we do…what do we designate as a true threat, what is not? And this is not is not only critical from a legal and tactical perspective, but from a psychological. What do we need to be afraid of? Why? And for how long? What is the proper response when there is a proper fear?
    To think there is never anything to be afraid of is naive at best. When I work with clients who are afraid of robbers or attack, the first thing we work with is reality: have you locked your doors? closed your windows? avoided dark alleys?
    Personally I believe in the tree that falls even if I do not hear it. My experience is not the center of the universe or reality. Just because I’m enjoying a cup of coffee at Starbucks and the skies are blue doesn’t mean there aren’t things to worry about. What I and so many Americans do (perhaps too much)is trust that the government is handling the threat, dealing with the tree, we can’t see.
    There’s a book out–just came out–that deals with this. I’ve been reading it on line (for free) and it’s all about viral free–what’s real, what’s perceived, what to do with real threats, what perceptions do to us. I’s called the NEXT OSAMA (J. Acosta).
    We should be all be paying more attention to these things, instead of sitting benumbed in front of our TVs watching hours and hours of horror, fear mongering media events, and sexual scandal.

  2. Dave (& Dan), first thanks for taking the time comment here. Dave, I completely agree with your last point in your comment above. In this case, however, it isn’t a private individual hiring their own army. It would be, or could be, the UN, AU, or hybrid doing it.A question: what would you say if a country used a PMC to fulfill its UN PKF contribution?

  3. In my original post I was addressing a very specific proposal: that a mercenary army be hired to deal with the situation in Darfur. That was the rationale behind the comments on “benevolence”, for example. I wasn’t suggesting state benevolence; I was referring to the benevolence with with the original suggestion was proposed.I think that the use of contractors by governments presents some challenges but that wasn’t the case I was considering in the post.
    FWIW I don’t think much of UN peace-keeping operations, either.
    I thought and continue to think that private individuals hiring their own armies for whatever reason is a bad idea.

Comments are closed.