Nazia Azim

Old Wars vs New Wars: Is there any difference?

Posted on Posted in Analyses

By Nazia Azim, Analyst KEDISA


The “Art of War” by the Chinese Sun Tzu is among the first books presenting the correct tactics for winning the enemy on the battlefield. He wrote of tactics and ways of thought that could make the absolute winner and conqueror in the battle. This book is still popular and even taught in different military colleges worldwide because it emphasizes winning a war without using military means; today, we can characterize it as winning a war by only using the negotiation method.

On the other side, many centuries later, Carl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz, as a general and author, wrote among his many books the famous one “On War,” which, totally comparable to Sun Tzu’s, claims that in war, there is nothing to be called moral. Clausewitz was a realist, using the term realpolitik even before it became popular among the Europeans as a way of thinking.

In the East or the West, Sun Tzu and Clausewitz are considered academicians, and the whole military world must know their tactics and thoughts of view besides reading their books to comprehend their deeply philosophical meaning. Until the end of the Cold War, Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, and many more dominated the military area; after the end of the Cold War, new theories appeared claiming that war and its practices had changed as the world moved beyond the bipolar competition between the two great powers, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the United States of America. The formulation of these new theories helped different books written by many scholars, like the ‘End of the World’ by Francis Fukuyama.

Mary Kaldor introduced the theory of New Wars in her book New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Globalized Era in 1999. In her book, the author claims that New Wars is not a conflict developing inside a state like the common civil conflicts we know. However, their specialty is that they are connected to the weakening of a state as a legitimate source of power and norms. Along the way, the state is becoming more fragile, and the different private military groups gain both the power that the legitimate government has and the popularity among the citizens. Hence, individuals and private entities need to identify who holds the power and to whom they can refer in the moment of need. According to Kaldor’s theory, war is not anymore among states and is not caused by geopolitical reasons trying to conquer territories; besides, it is among private military groups most of the time inside one state that is trying to gain influence and can be said influence and fame.

This article will analyze if the theory of ‘New War’ has any theoretical foundation or if it is just a new term trying to replace the ‘Old War’ theory and if it can change anything. Many scholars have criticized it, and many have praised it, saying that it fits in the new environment of the world. Nevertheless, the main issue is not that; the crucial issue is whether the theory of ‘New Wars’ can do anything to change the international community into a better place or it will remain as a theory that will remain only in the papers as many theories have done until now.


Characteristics of a New War


In 2023, in an over-globalized world, countless private military organizations either act only inside one country or act worldwide, trying to establish their state or caliphate, like ISIS in 2013. The fact can be attributed to the feeling of social emptiness and the space of disputes articulated from the bottom-up and up-down, which facilitate the creation of these private militias. Nevertheless, despite the increase of private militias worldwide, the fact that there is no reduction in the quantity and the geopolitical violence between the states can still prove that the theory of the New Wars lacks essential theoretical and accurate documentation. There is indeed a diversification of violence and Wars, but the international community cannot accept the term New Wars without proof. The situation today, the scarcity of environmental resources, the refugee problem, the chances of social polarization, the weakness of states to prevent and stabilize the issues of the international society, the risk of instability, and many more have created more reasons for wars but not New Wars as pr. Kaldor claims.

According to Kaldor, the New Wars are not a competition between states but rather a cooperation for creating a mutual enterprise and the gains from them. May violence and conflict have not vanished from the world. However, to reduce inter-state violence, they have changed into ‘political’ or ‘criminal’ violence, which is more brutal and usually has more casualties. In the late 20th and 21st centuries, new wars were taking place inside weakened authoritarian states that were trying to hold onto power and expand their influence worldwide.

In an over-globalized world, the old and new wars have four different characteristics according to Kaldor: actors, goals, methods, and forms of finance.

  • Actors: In the old wars, the main protagonists were regularly army forces of states. In new wars, the main actors are paramilitaries, warlords, and private security contractors.
  • Goals: The aims of the Old Wars were mainly geopolitical purposes and usually were used to enforce a political system to another country. However, today, New Wars aims to expand a particular ideological idea like Jihad or, most importantly, to spread the idea of a nation against another one—for example, the idea of nationalism against post-colonialism practices.
  • Methods: The battlefield was the decisive place where two or more armies met, and the winner was declared. However, in the theory of the New Wars, today’s battlefield is not where the winner is declared. However, the negotiation table and the violence are spread against the civilians, which causes their forced displacement. In most cases, New Wars are not directed against military forces but against innocent people not involved in the battle or living in a different country or continent.
  • Forms of Finance: New Wars used smuggling, diaspora support, selling of drugs, and kidnapping for financing, while Old Wars were financed by the states usually but the taxation of the civilians.


‘Old Wars’ vs ‘New Wars’


First, to define an armed conflict or an armed dispute between countries, more significantly, is the legal basis of the war. One situation to be called war must be declared officially by the state’s head. Otherwise, one cannot declare it as a ‘war.’ For instance, in the case of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Ukraine, it is wrong that analysts called the conflict’ war’ because, from the side of the Russian Federation, it is called just a ‘Special Military Operation’, and Ukraine is defending itself. Many critics -among them and the author of this article- believe that the case of ‘New Wars’ and the differences between the ‘Old Wars’ is just a superficial way to describe the new era we live in and a way for Mary Kaldor to distinguish herself among the academic community.


No significant differences exist between the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Wars. The only thing that has changed is the era we live in.


  • Globalization is the first changing factor that helped in the various ways conflicts are occurring today. Globalization did not lead to the demise of the state but rather to its transformation, which simultaneously changed the methods in which the international community works.
  • As in the so-called ‘new Wars’ in the ‘old Wars,’ after winning whatever side, there were mass rapes, forced displacement of the local populations, banditry, and atrocities against civilians, which in many cases were even higher than today.
  • Also, it needed to be more confident that only two or more states would be involved in a war conflict for geopolitical reasons. Many times, independent groups like pirates or military groups took the one or the other side, hoping to gain a certain amount of treasury or influence after the winning. So, the involvement of ‘paramilitary’ groups in a war between empires or states is not new, although this involvement has taken a greater level today.
  • Moreover, today, technology and military arsenal have involved so many grade levels that the methods of the wars cannot remain the same as in the old times. In recent years, war has taken different performances, like cyber war and war in space, and the battlefield is not the only place where two or more armies gather to fight each other.




The changes that the 21st century brought not only to everyday life but also to political and economic life have presented many changes in how the local and international population react to a war conflict, even in the near neighborhood or far away.

As an example, the recent war between Hamas and Israel and the progressive involvement of Hezbollah, one cannot consider it an example of a new war because, in the middle of the conflict, no business will gain from this conflict. Instead, the war itself has already changed the image of the Middle East, and the region will not have the chance to return to its previous image. Furthermore, maybe the war was started officially by an extremist organization – as the international community characterizes it. However, there was a significant dispute between Palestine, Israel, Hamas, and other major regional players all these years.

No one can define war as ‘Old’ or ‘New’ because whatever methods take place will always bring the same repercussions to ordinary people and create political instability. To conclude, such an important event as a war can only enhance the ways it will take place and not transform into something else. Maybe a war can be defined as ‘New’ only when it will not bring suffering to the civilians but only to the players of the so-called war. Then, the international community can talk about something new or something underrepresented that will end the suffering of the citizens. However, simultaneously, the states will antagonize each other to gain control over an area or space.




  1. Mary Kaldor, In Defence of New Wars (2013)
  2. Gerald Peter Mutonyi, From Old to New Wars, Kenyatta University (2020)
  3. Mary Kaldor, Old and Ne Wars, Bosnia-Herzegovina: A case study of a New War (2012)