The Re-Privatization of Security (World Peace edition)

Sean McFate, a political scientist at National Defense University in Washington, DC, has a fascinating article in Aeon about the reemergence of mercenary and quasi-mercenary security firms throughout the world. The whole article is fulfilling throughout, especially if you’re a well-read anarchist or a history buff, but I wanted to highlight this tangent:

With the fall of the South African apartheid regime, unemployed soldiers from special forces units such as the 32nd Battalion and the Koevoet (‘crowbar’ in Afrikaans) special police formed the first modern private military company, appropriately named Executive Outcomes. Unlike WatchGuard, Executive Outcomes was not a military enterpriser but a true mercenary firm, waging war for the highest bidder. It operated in Angola, Mozambique, Uganda and Kenya. It offered to help stop the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, but Kofi Annan – then head of UN peacekeeping – refused, claiming ‘the world may not be ready to privatise peace’. Annan’s was an expensive ideology, given the fact that 800,000 people died. By 1998, the company closed its doors, but the mercenary market for force surged.

Two aspects are important here, one said and one unsaid. First, the unsaid. If this mercenary outfit was “waging war for the highest bidder,” why did it offer to go in to Rwanda to stop the bloodshed? I think scholars assume the worst when it comes to stateless actors and warfare. Why has Anheuser-Busch begun shipping free cans of water into Flint, MI? Why does Wal-Mart donate billions of dollars to charity? When it comes to reputation, costs may sometimes not make sense to outside observers who don’t have a sufficient understanding of benefits. Why on earth would a corporation built solely to wage war for the highest bidder be interested in offering its services to a country that would not be able to afford its services? To ask the question is to answer it, of course, but understanding incentives using a costs-benefits framework requires more effort than you might suspect.

There is simply no logical coherence to the idea that, in a world where stateless mercenary firms are the prominent form of security, violence and lawlessness will reign supreme; nor is there any evidence whatsoever to suggest that “[m]ore mercenaries means more war, as they are incentivised to start and expand wars for profit, and turn to criminality between contracts.” Indeed, as McFate notes in his excellent article, the market for security is already becoming freer and while he ends his piece on a depressing note, lamenting this indisputable fact of the present-day world, I couldn’t help but remember the now-famous graph on battle death trends produced by political scientist Jay Ulfelder (using data from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program [UCDP]), which illustrates nicely the overall decline in deaths due to warfare violence around the world:

blog battle deaths
Notice that the most deadly conflicts are the ones involving states with armies that had been nationalized?

The always excellent Max Roser and his Our World in Data project has another graph worth highlighting, with this one using data from Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature… and the UCDP:

blog battle deaths pinker data

Now, two graphs showing that deaths from warfare have been in decline for half a century does not necessarily mean that a freer market in security services has led directly to this overwhelmingly good news. I am confident in claiming, though, that the freeing up of security services markets, combined with the steady presence of a few, still-powerful nationalized armies has led to a reduction in war-related deaths (and violent conflict in general). Both graphs illustrate well what happens when there are too many nationalized armies vying for power and prestige. (It is worth noting here that the main goal of diplomats and policymakers everywhere, no matter their ideological orientation or citizenship status, is still to avoid another world war.)

Second, the said. Annan’s refusal to decriminalize mercenary activities led directly to the 800,000 Rwandan deaths. How is this moral failing any better than when a mercenary firm breaks its contract and ends up killing a few dozen more people than it was supposed to? Again, the graphs are useful here: When conflict is nationalized, everybody suffers; when it is privatized, atrocities happen but not on the same scale we have seen with nationalized conflicts. It’s not even close. Annan’s short-sightedness reminds me of economist Scott Sumner’s 2012 summary of Hillary Clinton’s view of the War on Drugs:

[…] in response to a final question on drugs (from a Latin American reporter), she said drug legalization would do no good because drug dealers are really bad people, and they would simply do other crimes. No discussion of how America’s murder rate fell in half after alcohol was legalized in 1933.

Like drug use, the privatization of security services causes many people, well-educated or otherwise, to bristle at the notion without quite thinking through its logical implications. While ugly, mercenary firms are far more efficient and effective at quelling “bush wars” than are nationalized armies and, in turn, mercenary outfits are far less capable of sowing the type of destruction that nationalized armies routinely carry out.

I don’t think that a world with a few nationalized armies and an abundance of mercenary firms is necessarily the best option going forward, though. It is, however, a better option than most scholars and analysts give it credit for. In fact, it’s the best option at the moment, and while the status quo may sometimes be ugly, remember the graphs. Privatization of security services has contributed, at least in part, to a more peaceful and less violent world.

In order to move forward from this status quo it is best not lament the way things are going, but to acknowledge that things are the way they are for a reason, and then look for avenues to alter the status quo without falling back on a blanket policy like nationalizing security services again. The horrors of the World Wars should still be fresh in our minds, and the horrors of those wars were enabled and encouraged by nationalized security forces.

The best way to move forward is by looking at where these “bush wars” are taking place and begin thinking about ways to incorporate these regions into the global order (such as it is). This policy represents a departure from traditional post-war thinking about international relations, but it doesn’t make it radical or unfeasible. Indeed, there is a long tradition of republican thinking in Western thought pertaining to international relations. The West needs to start recognizing the legitimacy of secessionist sentiments in the post-colonial world, even if it means friction with Russia and China.

Washington and Brussels will have to endure charges of hypocrisy when it comes to ignoring the lobbying efforts of places like Tibet and Dagestan, but Biafra should have become a member state of the United Nations long ago. Baluchistan should have access independent of Pakistan and Iran to the IMF and World Bank. Two or three soccer teams from the region known as Kurdistan could easily be present in all major FIFA tournaments. Examples abound throughout the world. The West should also be open to recognizing arguments made by Russia and China for the independence of regions. There is no good reason why Western diplomats should ignore Moscow’s recognition of places like South Ossetia and Donetsk; doing so only hardens Russia’s stance on recognizing secession in parts of the world where its influence is limited or non-existent and forces the West into bed with unsavory post-socialist regimes.

The West needs to start being more inclusive when it comes to its own federal and republican institutions, too. Morocco, for example, should have had its 1987 application to join the European Union taken seriously (same goes for Turkey). The US federation needs to be actively courting polities like Puerto Rico, Coahuila, Alberta, and Micronesia to join the union. Both the EU and US are contracts designed to dampen violent conflict by fostering diplomatic, economic, and cultural intercourse between provincial polities. The reasoning behind exclusionary policies simply doesn’t answer why these republican, supranational organizations should not be actively recruiting neighboring or geopolitically useful administrative units into their representative systems.

Without this change in mindset the status quo will continue, which again if we remember the graphs is not all that bad, but something worse may happen: There could be a reversion to the blanket nationalization of security services that we saw during World Wars I and II.


13 thoughts on “The Re-Privatization of Security (World Peace edition)

  1. Interesting thoughts, and a novel (to me, anyway) conclusion here, Brandon. Going to be thinking about this for a good while, I suspect!

  2. I wonder if you could elaborate on how exactly we should define “private security force”. In my mind, when we look at warfare in the modern era (post-WW2), there isn’t really a clear line between “national” and “private” armies, and most armies that might be considered as “private” are still acting as part of a nationalist/statist project, or at least, as part of an entity that aspires to political and economic power.

    For example, consider the various cartels in Mexico that have evolved from being private criminal enterprises to being fully-fledged political actors and quasi-states that have fused with pre-existing state structures (and the same thing appears to be happening in El Salvador today). Or, consider the private security forces that emerged in Colombia in the ’70s that were working for wealthy landowners and mining conglomerates, as protection from communist guerrillas; these also quickly fused with existing state structures and ended up acting as both a political force as well as a tool for increasing profits.

    It seems to me that the growing privatization of security doesn’t really signal a move away from nationalism, but rather an outsourcing of nationalism. Emerging private security forces are overwhelming going to be a project of existing power structures–namely, nation-states and economic oligarchs and powerful local tribes and whatnot–and thus, serve to violently enforce the power of these structures.

    Seems like the only way nationalism will actually be challenged by private security forces if these forces have an actual libertarian/anarchist ideology that explicitly opposes state power–which is not at all going to be the case for generic mercenary forces working for the highest bidder.

  3. I’m thinking along the same lines as Arjun. Is there any data out there indicating that the privatization is more than a shift from members of the armed forces to contractors doing the same bidding for the same masters?

  4. @Arjun and @Terry,

    Thanks for both of your inputs.

    To start, I’m going to point out that nationalism and nationalization are two very different things. I was writing about nationalization in this post, but Arjun counters with this:

    It seems to me that the growing privatization of security doesn’t really signal a move away from nationalism, but rather an outsourcing of nationalism.

    Nationalism is a concept used by social scientists and others to try and make sense of the world. Nationalization is what happens when a state seizes control of an entire industry within its borders with the intent of running the industry itself. Thus, me and Arjun are arguing about two very different things. I have to make a quick point about Arjun’s use of the word “outsourcing,” too. It seems to me, and I may be reading too deeply into this, that Arjun is attempting to subtly seize the moral high ground by using the word “outsourcing” to refer to the privatization of security markets. Outsourcing is a net benefit for global society, though.

    Both responses also illustrate quite well why I left the Left in the first place.

    There is, for example, a crystal “clear line between ‘national’ and ‘private’ armies” in the postwar era. There has been a crystal clear line between private and national armies for centuries (read Dr McFate’s piece if you haven’t already). Again, the graphs are helpful here (data for Dr A): nationalized security forces are destructive and devastating to human life, whereas privatized security forces are simply incapable of achieving the levels of violence that nationalized security forces are.

    Grozny, Dachau, Nanjing, Homs, Hiroshima, and Gaza City are all good examples of a nationalized security force at work. (Try imagining Hizbollah or the Mexican drug cartels using their air forces and tank platoons to level whole cities.)

    The “revolving door” hypothesis, where members of the military simply shuffle into the private sector brings up two thoughts in my mind, one said and one unsaid. First, the unsaid. The fact that this scenario happens at all, and that Leftists recognize it, shows that there is indeed a clear line between nationalized and private security forces in the world today.

    Secondly, the said. I agree that the privatization of security forces is not a pretty option. I said so in my initial post. However, it’s a much better scenario than an alternative where we go back in time, to the good ol’ days, and have governments nationalize security services again. Look at the graphs. If you want to change the status quo, and if you don’t want to go back in time to the good ol’ days, ponder my proposals and share the hell out of this post!

  5. I’m still not convinced that modern mercenaries are not contractors doing the same job as members of the armed forces. Well not exactly the ‘same’ jobs, I’ll grant you that….The death and destruction that can be dealt by the mercenaries is much more limited because they don’t have the same armaments.

    • @Uncle T

      Exactly! To some extent, we’re going to have mercenary firms do their bidding for state actors (especially when Russia is involved). There’s not much we can do about it, save for following my suggestions outlined in the initial post. At the end of the day, though, the people in eastern Ukraine are lucky they didn’t have to tangle with the Russian military.

      All we can do is keep taking small steps towards a much better world…

      • This conversation in the comments (are present-day private defense contractors really private) is really fascinating. I had hitherto assumed that Blackwater et al. were indistinguishable from nation-state forces in terms of their effects on the conquered populations.

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