Modern Mercenaries: Unaccountable Opportunists or Tools for the Public Good?

March 4, 2015

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Sean McFate, The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What they Mean for World Order (Oxford University Press, 2014)

 

On September 16, 2007, security contractors working for Blackwater Worldwide were accompanying a U.S. convoy passing through Baghdad’s Nisour Square. They opened fire, killing 17 civilians. Before the killings, Blackwater was little-known outside U.S. government circles. After the events in Nisour Square, Blackwater “came to symbolize American power run amok,” according to the New York Times. Following international outrage over the incident, Blackwater lost its $1 billion annual contract with the U.S. State Department. Four Blackwater guards were convicted last October of murder, manslaughter and weapons offenses.

Blackwater may have disappeared, but as Sean McFate makes clear in his new book, private military companies have become a permanent part of the international security landscape. McFate, a former U.S. Army officer, has first-hand knowledge of this emerging environment, having worked in post-conflict Liberia for DynCorp, one of the world’s largest security contractors. The United States, despite its vast military power, is unable to go to war without such firms. Part of the explanation is cost — in the long term, hiring private security is cheaper than maintaining uniformed personnel. But as McFate argues persuasively, this “commodification of armed conflict” is part of the broader decline of the state-centric Westphalian system itself.

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Armies obviously continue to march under national flags. But states no longer have a monopoly on organized violence. Across the developing world, warlords, gangs, militias and other non-state or quasi-state forces have become as important as national armies. From Colombia to Nigeria to the Philippines, governments, communities, ethnic groups and neighborhoods have turned to armed groups to provide the security the state is unable or unwilling to deliver.

A great strength of The Modern Mercenary is the broader historical context it provides for understanding this secular trend. McFate’s discussion is richly informed by his knowledge of what he calls the “medieval market for force” that flourished in pre-Westphalian Italy and elsewhere in Europe. In a time when political sovereignty was fragmented among popes, kings, emperors and city-states, there was no taboo associated with hiring or serving in mercenary armies — a popular occupation for the lesser sons of aristocrats, such as Giovanni de’ Medici. In McFate’s view, the emergence of “neo-medievalism” in the 20th century can be seen as a return to an international order that existed before the centralized state system. Companies like Blackwater (now known by the anodyne brand name Academi) can be expected to operate like their profit-maximizing Renaissance predecessors.

Another strength of The Modern Mercenary is its judicious and measured treatment of a highly contentious subject. Private security contractors are viewed by many as the corporate lepers of contemporary armed conflict. The United Nations and a host of human rights groups have long opposed the existence of mercenaries as unaccountable, opaque and incentivized to promote and prolong conflict. McFate, too, highlights what he calls the “darker side of private warfare,” and in particular, the potential of “moneyed corporations, cartels and individuals” to become a “new kind of superpower” through their use of armed contractors.

At the same time, he offers compelling evidence that these companies can serve as private tools for promoting public goods. In a long case study on post-war Liberia, McFate makes the case that DynCorp was a model of innovation that was largely successful in raising, vetting and training a capable and disciplined new national army. This is in contrast to the public-sector approach that prevailed in other post-conflict environments like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, East Timor, Sierra Leone and Haiti, were new security forces have proved to be hollow, trigger happy or coup-prone.

The Modern Mercenary concludes with a small number of sensible suggestions. McFate is skeptical about legalistic and regulatory nostrums aimed at reining in private security companies. Instead, he urges the United States — the world’s largest customer, by far — to use its market power to demand from its contractors high performance, reasonable cost, accountability and respect for human rights.

Although published by an academic press, this book is notably well-written and concise, and therefore accessible to non-specialist readers. Although a member of the Washington policy community in good standing, McFate avoids the temptations of think-tankery and the sclerotic prose style that clogs many policy-oriented books. The Modern Mercenary will reward anyone looking for a deeper understanding of market-driven contemporary conflict.

 

William Rosenau is a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic Studies, CNA Corporation, a nonprofit research institute in Arlington, Virginia.

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8 thoughts on “Modern Mercenaries: Unaccountable Opportunists or Tools for the Public Good?

  1. “But states no longer have a monopoly on organized violence.”

    States never had a monopoly on organized violence.

    “Private security contractors are viewed by many as the corporate lepers of contemporary armed conflict. The United Nations and a host of human rights groups have long opposed the existence of mercenaries as unaccountable, opaque and incentivized to promote and prolong conflict.”

    The only real example of this was Executive Outcomes, which eventually folded in 1998 following concerted international pressure against its operations. Tim Spicer attempted to get the same concept off the ground with Sandline International, which had ties to Executive Outcomes. Spicer was hung out to dry in both Papua New Guinea and Sierra Leone, and Sandline eventually folded as well despite Spicer’s suggestion that PMCs could serve as adjuncts to legitimate governments under direct accountability to the UN. Spicer, Erik Prince, and others eventually spearheaded a much less ambitious model as private security contractors working directly for Western governments, as opposed to “private military companies” as a euphemism for private armies acting independently of national actors. As such, the idea that companies such as Blackwater/Xe/Academi, Aegis Defence, or DynCorp are working as private armies independent of international scrutiny and outside the Westphalian system, or that they’re likely to turn private corporations into players on par with nation states, seems a decade or two out of date.

    I’m interested to read McFate’s book, but based upon this review, I suspect I’ll be reading it with a great deal of scrutiny.

    1. @Tom:

      “But states no longer have a monopoly on organized violence.”

      What is implied there is the word “legitimate”. That is the point of concern of the opponents of PMSCs. To be more precise, the sentence should write “states no longer have a monopoly on legitimate organized violence”. And in that sense, yes, states used to enjoy that kind of monopoly for the last three and a half centuries, until recently that is.

      “As such, the idea that companies such as Blackwater/Xe/Academi, Aegis Defence, or DynCorp are working as private armies independent of international scrutiny and outside the Westphalian system, or that they’re likely to turn private corporations into players on par with nation states, seems a decade or two out of date.”

      In general, private corporations have indeed become players on par with nation states. One example of the many that can be brought here: Western companies sell advanced mass surveillance equipment and technology to dictators of countries that the West ostensibly would like to democratize. Why aren’t these companies prohibited from doing so? Either the Market is more powerful than the State, or the above is actually happening with the tacit encouragement of governments. The latter possibility brings us to another relevant concern: the adverse side effects of private military force arise not only when these companies act independently of international scrutiny (which they do to a great extent), but also when they directly function as a convenient tool for governments, democratic or otherwise, to bypass public oversight or opposition to policies that they wish to implement. The relation of such companies with secret service agencies in various cases has long been documented.

      Anyone interested to know more on the issue can read my article “The Ethical Implications of the Use of Private Military Force: Regulatable or Irreconcilable?”, published in the Journal of Military Ethics. It’s currently on open access.
      http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15027570.2014.908645

    2. “One example of the many that can be brought here: Western companies sell advanced mass surveillance equipment and technology to dictators of countries that the West ostensibly would like to democratize.”

      They only do so with the express written permission of their governments. In the United States, this is governed by the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), foreign disclosure regulations, and other laws. I suspect that most readers would be flabbergasted at what constitutes an “export” and what seemingly benign technologies are governed by the ITAR for having potential military functions of negligible value. The idea that private companies are acting as private entities on par with nation states, or selling all sorts of specialized equipment to foreign governments independently of their governments’ oversight, is simply not in evidence.

    3. “States never had a monopoly on organized violence.”

      Please provide an example of this assertion, as a widely accepted corollary of the post-Westphalian definition of statehood is that states maintain a “monopoly on violence” within areas over which they maintain sovereignty, as this legitimizes their claim to territorial sovereignty in the first place. Also please note that criminality or paramilitary violence is not an acceptable reason to challenge this corollary, as those are frequently indicators of a failure of statehood rather than an indicator that the definition of statehood itself is flawed.

    4. strategicservice: Dimitris opined that the author implied the word “legitimate”, and if so, there’s a much stronger case for that. Regardless, sub-state groups of all shapes, sizes, and creeds perpetrate armed violence on a daily basis around the world. I’m not challenging the Westphalian model, I’m actually a pretty comfortable critic of those who make such arguments. However, the continued legitimacy of Westphalian statehood has not precluded sub-state groups from perpetrating violence.

      1. I would argue that the Westphalian model is strengthened by the continued prevalence of violence perpetrated by nonstate actors across the world, since it reinforces the idea that sovereignty over an area is only valid when the claiming state can enforce rule of law. “Monopoly of violence” is just that, a monopoly, implying any other violence by groups or individuals not acting on the state’s behalf is illegitimate, but this is just semantics since I think we’re all in agreement.

  2. I heard Dr. McFate speak on this topic at San Francisco’s Marines Memorial Club in March 2015. He offers a fresh perspective on how private military companies bring innovation to international relations. Some hollow states will become so dysfunctional that they will be forced to outsource key government functions to contractors. Look for the first failures in heavily corrupt states with festering sub-national conflicts: http://thirdeyeosint.blogspot.com/2015/04/pmc-living-systems-enter-neofeudal-era.html