Mats Berdal is Professor of Security and Development at the Department of War Studies, at King’s College, London. From 2000 to 2003 he was Director of Studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London. Between 2007 and 2011, Berdal was a Visiting Professor at the Norwegian Defence University College. He was a Consulting Senior Fellow at the IISS from 2009 to 2011, responsible for the Institute’s “Economics and Conflict Resolution Programme”. He now directs the Conflict, Security and Development Research Group (CSDRG) and is the Programme Director for the MA in Conflict, Security and Development. He is a member of the Academia Europaea.
Mats has made a vast and singular contribution to the nascent field of Conflict, Security and Development.
His published works include Power after Peace: The Political Economy of State-building, co-edited by Dominik Zaum (Routledge, 2012), The Peace In Between: Postwar Violence and Peacebuilding, co-edited by Astri Suhrke (Routledge, 2011), Ending War, Consolidating Peace: Economic Perspectives, co-edited by Achim Wennmann (Routledge, 2010), Building Peace After War (Routledge, 2009), United Nations Interventionism, 1991-2004, co-edited by Spyros Economides (Cambridge UP, 2007), and Greed and Grievance: Economic Agendas in Civil Wars, co-edited by David Malone (Lynne Rienner, 2000).
Alastair: We’d like to start the discussion with reference to Mary Kaldor’s New Wars thesis. This is the idea that the nature of conflict has been subject to fundamental change in the last twenty or thirty years. What do you think the contribution of this thesis has been? And do you think it is as effective as a signpost as it was in the nineties for how we think about conflict?
Mats: Perhaps the main contribution of the New Wars thesis was the fact that it was presented in very stark terms and language. This forced people to think very hard about whether things had changed dramatically, and the evidence suggests that the term ‘New Wars’ does not stand up to close scrutiny. Many people would suggest that history has returned with a vengeance. That is not to say that the context in which we think about conflict has not changed in important ways and indeed we are still struggling to work out the full implications of these changes. I am thinking of technological change, and the impact of information technology on conflict. But in terms of the basic motors and drivers of human conflict, there is clearly a greater degree of continuity than was supposed by that thesis.
Alastair: And in terms of the nature of conflict; the civil wars in Africa in the nineties were presented as a new phase of brutality in human conflict, but this brutality is quite familiar to Europeans.
Mats: I think that is true. The New Wars thesis implies that there has been a fairly dramatic rupture in the history of warfare and that that rupture is represented by the end of the Cold War itself. Many policy makers were happy to go along with it. It did appear that we were no longer concerned with the overarching threat of a nuclear confrontation. We tended to view conflicts that had taken place during the Cold War through the prism of that greater ideological struggle, when in reality, many of those conflicts had a pre-history and dynamic of their own. Indeed, many of the features of the civil wars were also features of the wars of decolonisation, in terms of atrocities, intensity and dynamics. Once we realise that these conflicts were not necessarily tied to the Cold War in the direct fashion that we had assumed, then it is possible to examine them on their own terms. We find that many traditional drivers were still at play, even though of course these conflicts did benefit from processes of globalisation. Belligerents could tap into processes of economic exchange, a more open global economy, and deregulated markets. There were certainly new elements that drove these conflicts, but the fundamental drivers of conflict were very much the same.
Alastair: With a resurgent Russia, equally resurgent China, and America with its status as the global superpower in doubt, are we moving back to a nineteenth century picture of ‘Great Power’ relations, rather than a bipolar, or rules – based international order?
Mats: The nineteen nineties was a period that distorted both our understanding of history and where we might be heading in the future. In some respects, this was the heyday of liberal interventionism. China was very much preoccupied with its own affairs. After the events of Tiananmen in 1990, the Communist party was concerned about restoring its legitimacy. This was achieved by successfully appealing to a strong sense of Chinese nationalism. Only after 1999, did China begin to expand economically and become a much more active participant in the international system. Likewise, Russia was also preoccupied in the nineties with the end of empire and was also not as active on the international scene in the sense that it was at least prepared to defer to the United States, France and Britain on the Security Council. At the same time there was a sense that some of the constraints of the Cold War had been lifted, particularly in terms of the goals that could be pursued by the liberal West, in terms of the promotion of human rights, good governance and economic liberalization. The question is whether that really was a genuine opening up, or whether there was more continuity between the Cold War and the post – Cold War period.
One way of illustrating this tension is by looking at the debates that took place during the early nineties. The Secretary General of the UN at the time, Boutros Boutros – Ghali, produced a document called ‘An Agenda for Peace’. This was his way of trying to say that now the Cold War is over, we can build a new order. That particular document hardly mentions that some states might still have their own interests, that states might view challenges differently, and that those views might reflect their particular history, whether that of past humiliation, past colonization, and past greatness. This idea that states might have their own interests was set aside, and this leads to a distorted view of the potential for conflict. We should also talk more about other emerging powers, including South Africa, Brazil and India. The interesting thing about them is that they are powerful and democracies. We do have growing authoritarian regimes like Russia and the Chinese, but there are also other emerging powers which have a definite view on things. They do not necessarily agree that human rights and good governance are a first priority. They think that other things might be more important like protecting the principle of non – intervention, economic development and so and so forth. We are back in a world in which there are deep divisions among member states, deep divisions over interests and deep divisions over values. The question is whether we have the mechanisms at an international level or a set of basic principles that can govern interactions between states. In that sense, we are back to a traditional world.
Alastair: And that was the pathos of the nineties. There was the great promise of transformational interventions in the world, which have in the end either left countries less free and less chaotic, or freer and totally chaotic. These assumptions, that were of course formed from the assumptions of a Western – ruled world order, disappear very quickly under serious pressure.
Mats: The main difficulty with doctrines of liberal interventionism was that Western states tended to treat countries as clean states. For example, the notion of state failure that the West entertained, that it was possible to fix countries by social engineering, was an essentially mechanical one,. To hold that view is deeply problematic for many reasons, partly because it abstracts from one’s understanding of state failure, away from the cultural, historical, and political specificity of target states. Put more simply, you don’t treat states such as Libya, Syria or Afghanistan on their own terms. Even with the best intentions, if you intervene without doing that, you are going to generate perverse and unintended consequences. Although we might be talking about a return of history, we should not overplay the idea. Perhaps, not all that much has changed. This emphasis on promoting liberal values, or, to put it differently, the idea that sovereignty is not a licence for governments to treat its people appallingly, is still important. A national authority cannot massacre its own people, and argue at the Security Council that these things are domestic, internal affairs. That might sound very odd to us now, but it was possible twenty or thirty years ago. The debates around the invasion by Vietnam of Cambodia reflect this. It was roundly condemned as a violation of the principle of non-intervention, when in fact, it helped bring the genocides of Pol Pot to an end. Although countries don’t agree on humanitarian intervention, and although many countries do not sign up to the responsibility to protect, the normative shift that happened in the nineties is still important.
There is a still a sense that we ought to be doing something in places like Syria. There is a still a sense that we cannot ignore the Central African Republic’s descent into barbarism. The tragedy of international relations is that we are neither here nor there. We recognise the challenge and the sense of responsibility, but cannot decide what to do about it. At the same time, there are countries like Russia, particularly under Putin, obsessed with restoring its ‘Great Power’ status, and deliberately using multilateral institutions to forward those aims; which makes intervention even more difficult. It is a very complex and deeply depressing picture, not helped by the arrival of Trump in the White House. He appears to have a transactional, deals based approach to international relations rather than the values-based approach, typical of the nineties.
Margot: How do you think that valueless approach is going to affect America’s position in the world? How important do you think it is, for example, that America has been left out of the Syrian peace talks?
Mats: At the moment, everyone is grappling with a pretty dramatic change in the way the United States views and approaches the world. There are those who take refuge in the thought that the international system will do its work and show Trump that the world is more complex. But on things like trade and economic policy he appears to be serious about it. The reality is that America, as it is a great power, will face very difficult choices in foreign policy. The Trump line is that everything is a zero-sum game. Either you win or you lose. The reality in fact is that your choices are either bad or very bad. It might be better to approach this issue with allies, and to see Trump’s national issues as genuine transnational threats. That is the real test: whether the institutions of American government, the state department or the advisers close to him, show him some sense. These tensions are already obvious. Trump’s defence secretary James Mattis has been very emphatic about the importance of NATO. This is at odds with Trump’s relaxed attitude. It is still too early to say how this will work out.
Alastair: Particularly with the effects of the Brexit vote, and this change in America’s position in world affairs, what role can NATO play in securing more stability, or alternatively becoming itself a source of instability?
Margot: Especially if Britain is trying to pull away from international cooperation in terms of security.
Mats: At the moment, NATO has returned to its core Article 5 function which is to be concerned about the North Atlantic Treaty Area and about collective defence. Between 2003 and 2014, NATO had a major operation in Afghanistan. Although this isn’t the official line, most NATO countries will now say that this was a mistake. After 9/11, there was a lot of discussion about whether NATO could become a kind of global police force. There is now no one in NATO capitals who would buy into that vision, either because of practical reasons, or because of domestic austerity commitments. Russia is posing a threat to certain NATO countries, particularly in the Baltics. It will be interesting to see how NATO guarantees the protection of countries considered by Russia to be in its sphere of influence. In places like Norway, the relationship with Russia is good. There is an ordered, stable and long – lasting relationship. In the Baltics, it is very, very different. That is worrying because of the way Russia has dealt with the Ukraine and Crimea. Russia has annexed territory – a very clear-cut violation of NATO charter principle. Even more worrying is the way in which the Russia have destabilised those regions, the way in which they have used hybrid warfare, and how effective their cyber operations have proved. It is this element of unpredictability that is most worrying.
When it comes to Britain, the government is very keen to stress that by leaving the EU, it is not neglecting its role in the security of Europe. Britain thinks it can compensate for Brexit by contributing more to NATO, but it is sometimes forgotten that Britain is not what it used to be. Its capabilities are fairly limited. Britain does a relatively impressive job in NATO countries. However, in 2010 for example, Britain decided to do away with maritime patrol aircraft which means it cannot patrol the northern seas anymore. This is being reinstated, but it shows that Britain is pretty stretched. Even if Britain does want to beef up NATO, the Americans still have to be involved, which makes Trump’s position a more urgent question.
Alastair: There have been reports of Russian interference in elections in Montenegro. I wonder whether the Balkans might be another site of tension between Russia and the West.
Mats: It is important to remember that we must not confuse Russian tactical astuteness for strategic vision. Russia is in many ways very weak. They are under sanctions and there are massive problems with the way the economy is run. At the same time, they are trying to exploit opportunities as they arise, whether in the Balkans or elsewhere. In those circumstances, for NATO and the West, it is a question of standing firm and being clear about its intentions and the limits of its patience. The Russians are trying to make the best of a position of relative weakness. That is why it is worrying that Trump has such a relaxed attitude particularly for those who are concerned with these areas of tension. I come back to the issue of predictability in moments of crisis. For its all faults, the strange thing about the Soviet Union was that there was a high degree of collective leadership and a high degree of predictability. That element of predictability is now gone. We don’t have a clear sense of exactly how Putin’s decision making works, who holds real power in the Kremlin and what he might do in a moment of crisis. His decision to annex Crimea was taken very late in the day. It was an opportunity that arose. It was not part of some grand strategic plan. Unpredictability is the main worry for any government. And that is what both Russian behaviour, the result of the American election and also Brexit have produced.
Margot: On that theme of predictability, coming back to question of the interventions of the last couple of years, is there a sense that we continually fail to plan for unintended consequences, for example in Libya? Is there a way in which the West can avoid running away from the idea of intervention because it is so complex? Can states plan for those kinds of things?
Mats: Libya is a very interesting example. The intervention was a reflection of this normative shift towards the responsibility to protect. When NATO decided to intervene militarily in Libya, in 2011, they did so in order to protect civilians. There was a perception that Benghazi was about to be overrun. In the words of the French president of the time: “We cannot allow a Srebrenica to happen in North Africa”. That was laudable. But they didn’t think much beyond that. It was a matter of preventing the massacre from happening. Of course, once you do that, it will have massive consequences in terms of the wider social and political fallout. The episode very much a function of intervention fatigue, austerity, and the Afghanistan experience. The idea that a light footprint might just be enough wasn’t the case in reality. But there appeared to be an imminent threat of a massacre. We live in a tragic system. The alternative would have been to do nothing- but that is also hardly a morally neutral position.
Alastair: It comes back to that question of order. Iraq is probably now a freer place compared to under Saddam’s regime. Libya is probably a freer place than it was under Gaddafi’s absolute rule. But this is not a freedom that is experienced as freedom. How necessary is it therefore to see conflict, security and development in tandem rather than in isolation?
Mats: Indeed, the creation of freedom only works in conditions in which that freedom can be meaningfully enjoyed. In the nineties, the global promotion of good governance, a human rights agenda and democracy were salient concerns. We can all agree that in the long run, a democratic form of government with democratic accountability, checks and balances on absolute power, and civil liberties, is the kind of society that will produce less violence. The question is how you achieve that stage. The implantation of Western notions of statehood and democracy into societies that are deeply fractured and deeply traumatised by conflict, can in itself be conflict generating, and can produce new forms of violence. The war in Yugoslavia went into a dramatic spiral immediately after the first free elections were held, because the political circumstances, including ethnic polarisation, and unscrupulous manipulation by elites were dire. The processes of modernisation and particularly the holding of competitive elections fuelled rather than mitigated conflict. We have got to think very carefully about what we can reasonably do as an outside actor, in giving people the means to realise their freedom. In a place like Libya, or indeed Iraq, or even El Salvador perhaps, where civil war was brought to an end twenty years ago, what does freedom mean? A much greater sense of humility is needed on the part of outsiders.
Alastair: You mention El Salvador, In Central America, and South America, is there greater hope for conflict resolution? What seemed like a pretty intransigent civil war in Guatemala did come to some sort of an end. Columbia is now slowly moving towards a kind of awkward resolution.
Mats: We have to make sure that people have a genuine stake in building a new kind of society. That is where the focus has to be. If you look at Guatemala, or El Salvador, the formal phase of civil war did come to an end in the nineties. The UN played a role in assisting that process. But violence is still fairly endemic and very high. Many sections of society are marginalised. It is hard to see that as an issue separate from the earlier conflict. How success is defined has to be adjusted.
Margot: Do you think that kind of political settlement, with all parties involved, is possible in Syria? Or do you think the rebels are too intransigent in their opposition to Assad (and vice versa) for it to be?
Mats: Well that is the ultimate question. Some conflicts do become ripe for resolution. People are exhausted by years of war. But the sad fact is that the threshold for that is very high. People are prepared to remain at war for a very long time. There might be a fundamental symmetry on the battlefield, in the sense that both sides realise that no side can come out victorious, and in a sense be able to impose their vision of the future on the other. Once this symmetry has been recognised, then we can think about what you suggest. Whether that has been reached in Syria is unclear. There are talks going on in Kazakhstan in which Assad’s side and leaders from the opposition have both been included. These talks have been extremely fractious. But is the fact they are there perhaps a recognition that in the long term, their interests and rights have to be taken on board? I am not sure we are there yet. The first step towards resolution is a recognition that there can be no military solution to the conflict. And that can take a very long time.
Alastair: Clearly, we do live in a rapidly deteriorating international context. In the long run, is the picture more hopeful or pessimistic? And by the end of the twenty first century, what will international order look like, if it still exists?
Mats: The trend at the moment reflects a return to history, the fact that individual member states have different views, preferences and interests which govern their policies. This is driven by rising nationalism, and the sense that national interests should always come first. It is displacing the view that there are many problems in the world, only soluble if we work together; whether it be to fight climate change, transnational organized crime, or state failure. If that kind of view is displaced, that is worrying. If you look at the record of history, it is not a very sensible route to go down. The kind of language Trump uses is worrying for that reason. There will come a point when we realise that some of the challenges we face cannot be reduced to simple solutions, or simply resolved by asserting a country’s interests first.