New Terror, New Wars
Author: Paul Gilbert
Publisher: Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2003
Review Published: October 2005
Paul Gilbert, Professor of Philosophy at University of Hull and author of previous books such as Terrorism, Security and Nationality (1994), tackles distinctions between various paradigms and regimes of war -- outlining a transition from wars that occur between states and wars that occur between more varied actors such as groups and even individuals. In his 2003 book, New Terror, New Wars, Gilbert questions the applicability of theories of war that do not foreground the influence of identity groups, arrangements of people that form outside and beyond the state's authority. Old wars, according to Gilbert, involve struggles over territory between states such as the Falklands conflict or arguably the Cold War. More recent conflicts, represented by the war on terrorism and the US occupation of Iraq, diverge with the old model in that they are defined by competing identities rather than simply competing states. The distinctions between old and new wars run throughout the text, gaining complexity through concepts of self-defense, identity politics, and the conduct of war.
The ultimate question here -- the one that determines whether Gilbert's book is worth a close read -- is this: If these theoretical distinctions between old wars and new wars matter, what are the stakes behind the distinctions? Gilbert has to do some initial work simply to justify the distinction between old and new wars, but that task is admirably accomplished. The amorphous status of "peace" in the context of recent conflicts, for instance, is one example where theories of warfare must adapt, for the absence of war does not denote peace and vice-versa. Preparation and conduct are simultaneous. In Gilbert's terms: "What makes a peace just, then, rather than unjust is that it does not pose unreasonable terms on the vanquished as a result of victory" (134). The conceptions of justice and peace are diverse and often contingent when groups are fighting for culture and identity over and beyond allegiance to a particular state. Reasonable is a relative term, and multiple interests make reasonability more difficult, particularly if victory (or defeat) is seen as tenuous. States always have the choice, according to Gilbert, whether to use military means to combat terrorism or to rely on the tools of criminal justice. These approaches can be combined, but the initial intent to rely on one response over the other can make a difference to the protection of a state's citizenry. Regardless of the choice, "the right response to extremism, then, must be, wherever possible, to return its adherents to moderation, not to force them further from it" (101).
The distinctions point to a significant phenomenon in recent theories of warfare -- a tactic and even an ethics that may transcend realism in international relations in addition to old conceptions of war. Terrorism is that phenomenon, despite and perhaps because of its illusive and often contradictory definitions. Terrorism is not new, but its role and influence are unique, not to mention its pervasive rise in the void left by the Cold War. The primary insight Gilbert offers is that terrorism surfaces through divergent forms of nationalism when those forms align and conflict with other influences, spanning the spectrum from tribalism to extreme state authoritarianism. These connections mean that it is "misguided . . . to place the blame for new wars upon ethnic nationalism and similar manifestations of identity politics" (64), but that it is equally misguided to rely exclusively on any form of nationalism or patriotism "as a desirable modality for ordinary political life nor even as a general feature which must simply be accepted" (64).
What does this mean for Gilbert's alternative and position on ethnic identity and culture? Is he dismissing identity politics as minor or somehow incomplete? Possibly. More likely, however, Gilbert is recognizing the relevance of the state and governing institutions in the development of justice as well as in the process of negotiation, notions requiring some type of universality. Unlike most traditional wisdom, and perhaps a glance at the stakes involved when applying old theories to new wars, Gilbert observes: "the moral seems to be that terrorism continues so long as no negotiations are offered" (135). Within these negotiations there must be a source of morality, for both identity politics and cosmopolitanism institute cultural prescriptions that often spark violence and splintering. Cosmopolitanism, for Gilbert, operates in the same way as globalization in that it rests on a homogenizing and superficial pluralism that is as dangerous to the particulars of identity as difference-based politics may be to global progress.
The consequence then becomes a continued request for radical democracy -- a fluid conception of mutual citizenship that can co-exist with local and regional forms of government. Hegel responding to Kant, two of Gilbert's favorites, brings reason into the equation and allows Gilbert to place our "roles" as humans and citizens in a regime of limited perspectivism going beyond rationality. How this plays out in actual conflicts involving terrorism and non-state identity groups is questionable, as is the utility of any blanket solution or theory. "Roles" come to mean almost everything for Gilbert and the last few chapters fail to concretize the term "role," despite its centrality. Sides change so quickly and factors mutate through new contexts such that the very labels of "interests," let alone identities, are difficult and often counter productive. Gilbert's traditional perspective -- a focus on just war, conduct, humanitarian norms, and the thinking behind the Enlightenment and structuralism -- makes his rubric run the risk of always being outdated by the very speed of warfare isolated in the category of "new wars."
Overall, Gilbert has assembled a collection of insightful distinctions between the ways wars were conducted and resolved during periods of state conflict and the ways wars are conducted and resolved in our current era of terrorism. He does not outline the full implications of this shift, however, and his devil is in the detail, or lack thereof. No specific scenarios are woven through the book -- whether the examples come from Iraq, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Chechnya, or elsewhere. These places and events appear sporadically, but we are never given a full account of how these new wars can best be described and approached. Hugo Chavez, for instance, leads the country of Venezuela, but he is considered a terrorist by the United States despite his progressive social policies and concern for the poor and disenfranchised. The oil resources in Venezuela must be considered in the equation, along with the complex allegiances between Chavez, China, Iran, Cuba, and some of the resistance groups in neighboring Columbia. A scenario like this would add the much needed context for Gilbert's generally strong theorizing. New Terror, New Wars is a valuable companion to a set of readings about terrorism and military strategy, but it does not offer its own framework for doing more than simply re-interpreting the existing vocabulary of warfare.
Kevin Douglas Kuswa:
Kevin Douglas Kuswa received his PhD in Rhetoric from the University of Texas at Austin. He has published on the interstate highway system, the rhetorical process of blowback in international relations, the trope of balkanization, the Kurdish identity, and a number of other critical and cultural controversies. He currently teaches at the University of Richmond where he also directs the debate program. Previously, he reviewed Global Encounters: Media and Cultural Transformation for RCCS. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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