Max Weber, in his seminal Politics as a Vocation lecture, defined a state as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” What logically follows the German sociologist’s classical definition is that state making is a (violent) process that consists in wiping out those who can contest that monopoly inside that territory. In Western Europe, as Charles Tilly brilliantly demonstrated, this process historically went hand in hand with war making, that is, “eliminating or neutralizing” one’s rivals outside this territory. Things are different now for contemporary would-be state-builders. In the current international system, waging war to one’s neighbor is not always an option, in particular for weak states trying to consolidate. In this context, it is becoming really hard for those states to defeat internal rivals, such as warlords, commanders, and whatnots. I have argued elsewhere that it is in fact almost impossible, and that contemporary international society and external state-building missions might actually promote fragmentation in, or at least prevent consolidation of, peripheral states (that is, states that, in world systems theory, remain excluded from and economically, financially, and even militarily dependent on more developed core countries). What it means is that non-state armed actors are extremely resilient, even in the midst of ambitious state-building projects that, in line with Tilly’s definition of state making, are actually aimed at defeating them. And what that means is that weak states almost always fail to consolidate along Western bureaucratic lines. Warlords (what Tilly would call rivals of state agents) always find ways to survive: either as active warlords, when they have the opportunity to do so (in the case of state failure) or, when the international environment doesn’t give them this opportunity (in the case of an ambitious state-building project), by becoming dormant. In the latter case, they just transform their power, accumulate resources, and shape-shift, making sure that they have the capacity to shift again should the environment change.
Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a seminar on state-building and federalism in Somalia at Clingendael. Given the argument I just laid out, it was music to my ears to hear a renowned expert on Somalia explain that political order in places such as Somaliland and Puntland is not the result or the manifestation of state formation à la Weber (that is, the monopolization of the means of violence), but rather an “armed truce” between the different power-holders. It means that we have a sort of peaceful co-existence between armed actors, the state being first among equals. In other words, and as I write elsewhere, warlord authority exists in parallel to the state. There is no linear relationship that goes from high warlord authority/low state authority to low warlord authority/high state authority. Jonathan Goodhand, in a 2008 article published in International Peacekeeping, argues that there is no such relationship between drug production and state-capacity (between high drug production/low state capacity to low drug production/high state capacity) but instead that that the historical trajectory has been one closer to an inverted ‘U’ (see graph below).
Goodhand’s explanation of the inverted ‘U,’ that can be extended to all kind of illegal activities, goes like this: when state capacity is low, drug production is low because, as Diego Gambetta’s work on mafias shows, even traffickers need states “to provide a level of stability and predictability in economic and political relations;” when state capacity improves (state-building), drug production goes up because of additional resources and state-induced stability. In the latter situation, the state and the traffickers reach some sort of political equilibrium in which state agents get their cut of the benefits in exchange for turning a blind eye. Finally, as state capacity continues to go up, state agents stop relying on the informal economy and trafficking eventually reaches a minimum. As we discussed this in class, one of my students correctly pointed out that the descending part of the inverted ‘U’ (from high drug production/high state capacity to low drug production/high state capacity) is probably much more gradual than the first part, as the benefits of drug production far outweigh the benefits of increasing state capacity. Put differently, the costs of neutralizing or eliminating drug traffickers far outweigh the benefits of it, resulting in a shallow plateau rather than an inverted ‘U.’ Now, if we define warlords as a specific type of actors operating in parallel to (or beyond) the state (economically, militarily, politically, etc.), we see how Goodhand’s analysis of informal economic activities can be applied to them. If we don’t end up with an inverted ‘U’ but with a very gradual reduction of their activities, then warlords don’t disappear (see graph below). Instead, as Goodhand shows, specialists in violence (warlords, drug traffickers, and whatnots) might in fact “represent an emerging capitalist class.”
In policy terms it means that the international community will not manage to get rid of powerful warlords. Warlords are not “paper tigers” as we sometimes hear and read. They are astute political, economic, and military entrepreneurs who find other ways to survive in a changing environment. They become dormant, until the environment changes again. There is no perfect solution to the warlord issue. The option that seems most realistic is to accept their existence and make sure that they benefit from the peace (and hence have no incentive to go back to a state of war) without becoming Frankenstein’s incontrollable creature. This is a hard balance to find indeed. Whether we like it or not, these men will remain politically relevant until they die and a generational change in leadership takes place.