Interview – A Window into the Life and Mind of Mary Kaldor

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A member of the Spanish contingent of peacekeepers in a devastated street in Mostar. Image: legio09/Flickr

This interview was originally published by Strife.

Mary Kaldor is Professor of Global Governance at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is best known for her seminal work ‘New and Old Wars: Organised Violence in a Global Era’, now in its third edition. Professor Kaldor was interviewed for Strife by Melanie Daugherty.


What shaped your perspective of the world?

Mary Kaldor: There were two important things in my background that shaped my intellectual trajectory. One, my mother was very active in the peace movement; she took us on anti-nuclear missile demonstrations from an early age. Second, my father is Hungarian and my uncle was a dissident in Hungary in prison while my aunt and cousin were in a Stalinist labour camp. I’ve experienced the Cold War in an immediate sense, which really influenced what I did afterwards.

Some people encounter new environments and certain experiences that radically change or perhaps challenge their conceptions. Have you ever had a period or experience in your life that challenged your preconceived ideas?

The thing about my trajectory is that while I was always an academic and scholar, I was also active in the peace movement. I was with a group called European Nuclear Disarmament fighting against the deployment of nuclear missiles in Europe. We were putting emphasis on not only ending the deployment of missiles in Europe but also ending the Cold War. We were working with dissidents in Europe. Many of the dissidents disagreed with us. Yet, of course, there was disagreement on both sides. Many people in Western Europe were sympathetic to the Soviet Union and saw it as the alternative to the US. Then there were some in Eastern Europe who believed Thatcher and Reagan were on their side in favour of human rights. We kept trying to argue that their chance of human rights would be best preserved in Europe without the Cold War. Particularly, that the hawkishness of the West provided a justification for the oppression in the East. We were challenged the whole time. My views were absolutely formed by these experiences. My family was also much divided. My uncle always told me that you ‘can’t trust Russia’ and that ‘you shouldn’t be a peace activist.’ I had to deal with all these complicated arguments.

And very important for New Wars was what came after. Because I was an activist after the end of the Cold War, I helped found a new NGO that was helping civil society in difficult places. And almost immediately groups sprang up all over the Balkans in the South Caucasus. We were actually involved on the ground with peace and human rights groups during the Bosnian Wars and the wars in the South Caucasus. Of course, that enormously impacted me – I was very pro-peace, but seeing ethnic cleansing at first hand, I thought ‘you know, I really hope there is a military intervention to save these people from ethnic cleansing.’ So you have to start thinking all over again.

You were a great part in the shift of thinking on the political economy of war. In the late 1990’s, new writing emerged in academia questioning whether war was really about winning – that perhaps, war was instead a mutually beneficial economic enterprise. It radically changed how the world thought about war. It seems that realisation for you was in Bosnia, which was years prior. Is that right?

I think it was actually implicitly even earlier. I wrote a book called the Imaginary War about the Cold War as it was ending. It described the Cold War as a mutual enterprise. I was arguing that we tend to think it’s a conflict between capitalism and socialism or between democracy and totalitarianism, but actually it is two systems that mutually uphold each other. The idea that war was a mutual enterprise was definitely in my mind then.

But it was a long journey before I came to New Wars and the mutual enterprise idea. As I said in the beginning of New Wars, if there was a key moment, it was when I went to Nagorno-Karabakh [South Caucasus] in about 1992. I suddenly looked at these people – before the Bosnian War and the beginning of Serb enclaves – young men in their Ray-Ban glasses and Adidas running shoes and home-made uniforms. And at the refugees, most memorably Greek refugees asking for help because they were being forced to leave after living there for hundreds of years. I remember talking to a politician, who’d only been a politician for two minutes and I just remember thinking, ‘he’s not what you’d expect of a politician.’ This was not what I expected war to be like, not like what I’d seen in WWII movies. I realised it was very similar to Bosnia. I thought at that time that what was going on was something specifically post-communist, but then we had a project for the United Nations University and I realised that this has been going on in Africa for quite a while.

You started your career at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute directly after completing your BA. Did you know right after completing your BA that you wanted to commit your career to the pursuit of finding ‘peaceful solutions to international conflicts?’

I don’t know that I was very explicit about it. My father was a well-known economist and my sister was also an economist and I’d studied Politics and Economics at university. I was very keen on peace, but at that time, I thought I didn’t want to be a ‘straight economist’ because the field was too crowded. Then this job came up that involved the arms trade and I thought it was ideal because it involved a cross-over between economics and politics. Then, of course, I went to Stockholm and there were these two amazing people, Gunnar and Alva Myrdal, key figures in Swedish Social Democracy. It was Alva who talked extensively about the Cold War as a mutual enterprise. And by the time I’d left Stockholm, I was an expert on the arms trade.

Some say that your firm belief in the power of cosmopolitanism in solving conflict is idealistic. [Cosmopolitanism is a political-moral philosophy that views individuals as citizens of the world instead of one particular nation-state and sees humanity evolving toward harmony and away from conflict.] What is it that allows you to cling to your idealism or, put differently, what gives you encouragement that it is a viable alternative?

There are two things. One – not being a cosmopolitan is not an option anymore. The Second World War was the worst event that anyone can possibly imagine. The idea that you can go on having war between states is not a realistic option anymore if we want the planet to survive. For me, cosmopolitanism is the only viable way of thinking about things if we’re going to live together on the planet. And by the way, I’m not that hopeful.

But second, on a positive note, there is the caveat that there are incredibly brave cosmopolitans in conflict zones – thought they don’t call themselves cosmopolitans – that reject the sectarianism of each side. In Syria it’s amazing what these civil society groups do, but you don’t read about them very often. In Africa, you meet all kinds of people trying to support themselves, solve their own problems, and to treat each other as equals. As long as there are a few people doing that, we have moral responsibility to support them in doing it.

You’ve said before that change must happen from the inside out and from your thoughts now, it seems that you think we might do that from empowering individuals with a cosmopolitan mentality. Yet, if cosmopolitanism is founded on the belief that each human being has equal dignity and worth, do you think you can change groups like ISIS (who are fighting for an exclusionary state) from within?

First, let me distinguish between humanism and cosmopolitanism – cosmopolitanism is not just about equality. It’s about people who celebrate the different ways of being human. It’s not just about human equality – it’s about human difference.

Secondly, let me put the answer from the other way around again. I don’t think you can deal with ISIS through classic defeat unless you kill them all. This doesn’t mean that I don’t think you can make friends with them either. I think what you have to do is treat them as criminals. I think you have to protect people as well – like the Christians who don’t want to be a part of ISIS. I think you ought to marginalize them and, where possible, arrest them rather than kill them. You want to stop this vicious cycle – where the more people you kill, the more people become frustrated.

I had a friend visit from Egypt who says all her students want to join ISIS because Egyptian society is so brutal and they don’t see any other alternative. You must then deal with the brutality of everyday life that these young men are experiencing. That may not be a problem here, but I also take a boring economistic view that a key issue is also unemployment – dealing with unemployment is absolutely crucial.

You’ve stated before that this is the most difficult thing – to change people’s mindset. Some say that it is nearly impossible. Culture, with values and beliefs as its subsidiaries, is one of the most difficult things to change in the world. How do you believe that we go about this process of change?

I think you find cosmopolitans in the tiniest remote places. I don’t think you start by saying that we should go to Bosnia and tell everyone to stop being sectarian. You go talk to cosmopolitans and say ‘What do you propose?’ or ‘What can we do to expand the space?’ And by the way it’s not about money – funding cosmopolitanism may have disastrous consequences. It’s about creating space where people start talking to each other.

You know I think sectarianism is constructed, it’s not deep in people. Yet I also think war creates sectarianism. If someone tries to kill you because you’re a Serb, a Jew, or a Muslim – then obviously you hate them and you turn to people who are going to protect you. It’s about creating safe spaces and communicating.

Perhaps the most common critique of your New Wars Thesis is the fact that you chose to use the word ‘new.’ Have you ever had regrets in choosing to use the word ‘new’ to describe the apparent change in military warfare/wars that you’ve outlined in ‘New Wars?’

I’ve thought about that a lot, because I meant ‘different’ wars. Of course, it would be very peculiar if they were entirely new, but it would be equally peculiar if they were not a little bit new. Some things about them have been new – like the use of information and communications technology. The point is not that they’re ‘new’ but that they’re ‘different’ from old wars.

On the other hand, the debate that it provoked was very good. I sometimes think about ‘hybrid’ – because the people who talk about hybrid wars have taken a lot from the new wars argument about the blurring of internal and external and public and private. Yet, hybrid would not be better, because it is a ‘mixture’ whereas I’m trying to define a different logic of war and hybrid could be just anything. Maybe post-modern would have been the most accurate. These are wars that come after modernity but they might not be new. At the same time, I don’t think it would have provoked the same debate, namely whether new wars are empirically new. Although I do get hugely irritated by people who go on and on about a point that is really unimportant; I don’t think it would have provoked the same debate. Maybe, then, I was right to call it ‘New Wars.’

Melanie Daugherty earned a BS in International History with a European concentration at the United States Air Force Academy and is currently reading for an MA in Conflict, Security and Development at King’s College London. Her main interest is security sector reform, defense policy and state-building.

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