Postmodern Wars (I): New actors in a postmodern world

Postmodern Wars take place in a world where nation states are no longer the only relevant actor in the international stage. Nation states share the stage with other kind of actors now. For example, supranational organizations deploy forces under their own flag. Uruguayan blue helmets serve in Congo under the United Nations flag, as Spanish blue helmets do in Lebanon and Philippine blue helmets do in Haiti. We also find regional organizations like the European Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) that deploy forces in international missions. The matter is that we find that soldiers serve and occasionally kill or die in the name of organizations that are not their Motherland.

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The spread of regional organizations are not only the symptom but often the cause of an increasing interdependence among countries that attenuate conflicts. Just think about the European Union, whose monetary union brings together the very same handful of countries that were responsible for the wars that devastated Europe from the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century. Or let’s think about UNASUR: Argentina and Chile were on the verge of war in 1978, but today they keep ready a binational brigade for peace missions. The result is that the number of interstate conflicts has been decreasing since the end of the Second World War.

Nation states not only share the international stage with supranational organizations, but also with non-state actors, such as big companies, NGOs and local governments. All of them have today international projection due to their economical power, their ability to set the agenda and push international legislation. It is not difficult to find megacities with more population and megacorporations with more wealth than many countries. But, beyond these new comers, the novelty is finding organizations that have no nationality but have a transnational character. Of special relevance for the concept of Postmodern Wars is that, among transnational non-state actors, we find armed, terrorist and criminal groups.

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I think the best description of the spirit of the age was made by the Argentinian writer and politician Fernando A. Iglesias in his book Twin Towers. According to him, during the 9/11 events we witnessed

“the frightening inability of the most powerful nation in Earth to fulfill the most elemental function, protecting its citizens’ life, and the enormous destructive power held against it by a small network organized in a unanchored and deterritorialized way in a global world determined by state-of-the-art technology”

The rise of non-state actors is the result of globalization and the information society, with the intensification of connectivity and the democratization of technology. Organizations, movements and companies can coordinate the action of many people located in dispersed far away places. Nowadays a hunter or a hiker hold in their hands as much technology as a special operations soldier did 25 years ago. Thuraya satellite phones, night-vision goggles and GPS navigation devices can be easily bought online.

While some regions of the world go beyond the nation state as main international actor, others suffer from the catastrophic collapse of the nation state. The European colonial expansion in the Americas, Asia and Oceania left a legacy of nation states imitating their former colonial rulers. The break up of European empires left behind nation states with their flags, national anthems and armed forces. But the nation state was born in Europe as the result of a long singular historical process (economical, political and social) that can not always be reproduced successfully. As soon as many African state stopped being geopoliticallly relevant after the end of the Cold War and the transfer of resources from Washington or Moscow ceased, they collapsed ravaged by civil wars. The civil wars after the Arab Spring showed the fragility of the state structure in places like Libya, Syria and Iraq.

The “Sea Shepherds” as a naval insurgency

I think I found out about the “Sea Shepherds” through a South Park parody. They are an animal-rights group that harasses and annoys the Japanese whaling fleet in Antarctic waters. The U.S. channel Animal Planet has a documentary TV series portraying their “adventures,” “Whale Wars“, which in Spain was entitled “Piratas Ecológicos” (sic). Its renewal for a sixth season was announced last January.

“Sea Shepherds” now has a respectable fleet that consists of the MY Steve Irwin (a former patrol boat), the MY Bob Barker (a former whale catcher), the MY Sam Simon (a former oceanographic ship), the MV Brigitte Bardot (an experimental trimaran), several RIB boats, helicopters and light drones. The larger boats formerly wore a quite ugly and theatrical black that has been replaced by a camouflage pattern.

“Sea Shepherds” is in a category apart from environmental groups such as Greenpeace, as their aesthetics and language reveal. Both organizations conduct public actions seeking high media coverage, but “Sea Shepherds” plays with the limits of maritime law. That already has earned them several problems with the law, the seizure of a ship in Canada and the loss of another one after a “clash” at sea with a Japanese whaler. Viewing the TV series gives the impression that the “Sea Shepherds” place ends above means. The fact that their actions make for attractive content for a television show also questions their credibility due to the evident pursuit of spectacularity, parodied and criticized by South Park. But as we saw in the case of the Gaza Flotilla (I, II, III and IV) the important thing in these times is not to reflect the reality of the facts, but to reach media notoriety with a propaganda action that harms the image of the “enemy” .

“Sea Shepherds”, with private funding sources (*) and multinational crews, is a clear example of the emergence of non-state actors who achieve global notoriety. Chris Rawley at Information Dissemination told how he was invited to discuss this and other issues related to irregular warfare at sea within a specialized forum at the U.S. Naval Academy. Rawley noted how interesting it is to follow the evolution of the tactics and means of the “Sea Shepherds”, which have been considered “piracy” by an appeals court in the United States.

(*) “Sea Shepherds” is financed by contributions from supporters and merchandising sales, like the book “Earthforce!: An Earth Warrior’s Guide to Strategy”, written by its founder. The book is touted as:

Captain Paul Watson, one of the most brilliant ecologist strategists of our generation, takes the genius of Sun Tzu, the discipline of Miyamoto Musashi, the perception of Marshall McLuhan and his own field experiences to present an effective strategic guide for any apprentice of environmental or conservationist activism.

Published originally by Jesús M. Pérez in
Translated from Spanish by Alan Furth.