A Global War Regime

We seem to have entered a period of war without end, extending across the globe and unsettling even the central nodes of the world system. Each contemporary conflict has its own genealogy and stakes, but it is worth taking a step back and placing them in a larger framework. Our hypothesis is that a global war regime is emerging – one in which governance and military administrations are closely intertwined with capitalist structures. To grasp the dynamics of individual wars, and to formulate an adequate project of resistance, it is necessary to understand the contours of this regime.

Both the rhetoric and practices of global warfare have changed dramatically since the early 2000s, when the ‘rogue state’ and the ‘failed state’ were key ideological concepts thought to explain the outbreak of military conflicts, which were by definition confined to the periphery. This presupposed a stable and effective international system of governance, led by the dominant nation-states and global institutions. Today, that system is in crisis and unable to maintain order. Armed conflicts, such as those in Ukraine and Gaza, are drawing in some of the most powerful actors on the international stage, summoning the spectre of nuclear escalation. The world-systems approach has typically viewed such disruptions as signs of a hegemonic transition, as when the World Wars of the twentieth century marked the shift from British to US global hegemony. But in today’s context, the disruption portends no transfer of power; the decline of US hegemony simply inaugurates a period in which crisis has become the norm.

We propose the concept of a ‘war regime’ to grasp the nature of this period. This can be seen, first of all, in the militarization of economic life and its increasing alignment with the demands of ‘national security’. Not only is more public expenditure earmarked for armaments; economic development as a whole, as Raúl Sánchez Cedillo writes, is increasingly shaped by military and security logics. The extraordinary advances in artificial intelligence are in large part propelled by military interests and technologies for war applications. Logistical circuits and infrastructures are similarly adapting to armed conflicts and operations. The boundaries between the economic and the military are becoming ever more blurred. In some economic sectors, they are indistinguishable.

The war regime is also evident in the militarization of the social field. Sometimes this takes the explicit form of suppressing dissent and rallying around the flag. But it also manifests in a more general attempt to reinforce obedience to authority at multiple social levels. Feminist critiques of militarization have long highlighted not only the toxic forms of masculinity that it mobilizes but also the distorting influence of military logics on all social relations and conflicts. Various right-wing figureheads – Bolsonaro, Putin, Duterte – make a clear connection between their militarist ethos and their support for social hierarchies. Even when this is not outwardly articulated, we can observe the spread of a reactionary political repertoire that combines militarism with social repression: re-enforcing racial and gender hierarchies, attacking and excluding migrants, banning or restricting abortion access, and undermining gay, lesbian, and trans rights, all while often invoking the threat of a looming civil war.

The emergent war regime is also visible in the seeming paradox regarding the continual failures of recent hegemonic war campaigns. For at least a half century now, the US military, despite being the most lavishly funded and technologically advanced fighting force on the planet, has done nothing but lose wars, from Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq. The symbol of such failure is the military helicopter carrying off the last remaining American personnel, leaving a devastated landscape in its wake. Why does such a powerful war machine keep failing? One obvious answer is that the United States is no longer the imperialist hegemon that some still believe it to be. Yet this dynamic of failure also discloses the overarching global power structure that such conflicts help to sustain. Here it is worth recalling Foucault’s work on the perpetual failures of the prison to accomplish its stated goals. Since its inception, he remarks, the penitentiary system, ostensibly dedicated to correcting and transforming criminal behaviours, has repeatedly done the opposite: increasing recidivism, turning offenders into delinquents and so on. ‘Perhaps’, he suggests, ‘one should reverse the problem and ask oneself what is served by the failure of the prison . . . Perhaps one should look for what is hidden beneath the apparent cynicism of the penal institution.’ In this case, too, we should reverse the problem and ask what is served by the failures of the war machine – what is hidden beneath its apparent aims. What we discover when we do so is not a cabal of military and political leaders plotting behind closed doors. It is rather what Foucault would call a governance project. The incessant parade of armed confrontations, large and small, serve to prop up a militarized governance structure that takes different forms in different places, and is guided by a multi-level structure of forces, including the dominant nation-states, the supranational institutions and competing sectors of capital, which sometimes align and sometimes conflict.

The intimate relation between war and circuits of capital is nothing new. Modern logistics has a military genealogy with roots in colonial endeavours and the Atlantic slave trade. Yet the current global conjuncture is characterized by the increasing imbrication of ‘geopolitics’ and ‘geoeconomics’, amid a constant making and remaking of spaces of valorization and accumulation, which intersect with the contested distribution of political power across the planet.

The logistical problems of the Covid-19 pandemic set the scene for a number of subsequent military disturbances. Images of containers stuck in ports signalled that world trade had become sclerotic. Corporations made frantic attempts to cope with the crisis, reconsolidating old routes or opening new ones. There followed the invasion of Ukraine and the consequent logistical disruptions. The oil and gas trade from Russia to Germany was one of the major casualties of the war, especially after the spectacular sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea, renewing talk of ‘nearshoring’ or ‘friendshoring’ as a strategy to wean Western economies off Moscow’s energy supplies. The war also stemmed the flow of wheat, maize and oilseeds. Energy prices soared in Europe; food staples grew scarce in Africa and Latin America; tensions rose between Poland, the Czech Republic and Ukraine after limits on the export of Ukrainian agricultural products were lifted. The German economy is now stagnating, and several other EU member states have been forced to reorganize their energy provision by striking deals with North African countries. Russia has rerouted its energy exports eastwards, mainly to China and India. New trade routes – through Georgia, for instance – have allowed it to at least partially circumvent Western sanctions. This reorganization of logistical spaces is clearly one of the main stakes of the conflict.

In Gaza, too, logistical and infrastructure arrangements are decisive, although they are often obscured by the unbearable spectacle of the slaughter. The US hoped that the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor, stretching from India to Europe through the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and Greece, would shore up its regional economic influence and counterbalance China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Yet this relied on the project of Arab–Israeli normalization, which may have been fatally undermined by the ongoing war. Houthi attacks in the Red Sea have, moreover, compelled major shipping companies to avoid the Suez Canal and take longer and more expensive routes. The US military is now building of a port off the coast of Gaza, supposedly to facilitate aid deliveries, although Palestinian organizations claim that its ultimate purpose is to facilitate ethnic cleansing.

The fighting in Ukraine and Gaza thus exemplifies the worldwide remaking of spaces of capital. Key sites of circulation are being reshaped, under a war regime, through the active intervention of nation-states. This implies the intermingling of political and economic logics: a phenomenon that is even more apparent in the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region, where mounting tensions in the South China Sea and military alliances such as AUKUS are influencing economic networks like the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership. In this transitional period, each conflict or supply-chain disruption may benefit this or that state or capitalist actor. Yet the system as a whole is beset by increasing spatial fragmentation and the emergence of unpredictable geographies.

In opposing the global war regime, calls for ceasefires and arms embargos are essential, but the present moment also demands a coherent internationalist politics. What is needed are coordinated practices of desertion through which people can depart radically from the status quo. At the time of writing, such a project is most clearly foreshadowed by the global movement in solidarity with Palestine.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, internationalism was often conceived as solidarity among national projects. This sometimes holds true today, as with South Africa’s case at the ICJ. Yet the concept of national liberation, which served as the basis for past anticolonial struggles, seems increasingly out of reach. While the struggle for Palestinian self-determination is ongoing, the prospects of a two-state solution and a sovereign Palestinian state are increasingly unrealistic. How, then, can we configure a project of liberation without assuming national sovereignty as a goal? What needs to be renovated and expanded, drawing on certain Marxist and Pan-Africanist traditions, is a non-national form of internationalism, capable of confronting the global circuits of contemporary capital.

Internationalism is not cosmopolitanism, which is to say that it requires material, specific and local grounding rather than abstract claims to universalism. This does not exclude the powers of nation-states but casts them in a wider context. A resistance movement fit for the 2020s would include a range of forces, including local and city-wide organizations, national structures and regional actors. Kurdish liberation struggles, for example, extend across national borders and straddle social boundaries in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. Indigenous movements in the Andes also cut across such divisions, while feminist coalitions in Latin America and beyond provide a powerful model of non-national internationalism.

Desertion, which designates a range of practices of fugitivity, has long been a privileged tactic for war resistance. Not just soldiers but all members of a society can resist simply by subtracting themselves from the war project. For a fighter in the IDF or the Russian Army or the US military, this is still a meaningful political act, though in practice it may prove extremely difficult. This could also be the case for Ukrainian soldiers, although their position is very different. Yet for those trapped in the Gaza Strip it is hardly an option. Desertion from the current war regime must therefore be conceived differently from traditional modes. This regime, as we have already noted, exceeds national boundaries and governance structures. In the EU, one can oppose one’s national government and its jingoist positions, yet one must also contend with the supranational structures of the trading bloc itself, while recognizing that even Europe as a whole is not a sovereign actor in these wars. In the US, military decision-making structures and fighting forces also spill beyond national boundaries and include a wide network of national and non-national actors.

How can one desert such a variegated structure? Local and individual gestures have little effect. The conditions for an effective praxis must involve collective refusal organized in international circuits. The mass protests against the US invasion of Iraq, which took place in cities across the world on 15 February 2003, correctly identified the supranational formation of the war machine and announced the possibility of a new internationalist, anti-war actor. Though they failed to stop the assault, they created a precedent for future practices of mass withdrawal. Two decades on, the mobilizations against the massacre in Gaza – springing up on city streets and college campuses worldwide – portend the formation of a ‘global Palestine’.

One of the primary obstacles to such a liberatory internationalist politics is campism: an ideological approach that reduces the political terrain to two opposed camps and often ends up asserting that the enemy of our enemy must be our friend. Some advocates of the Palestinian cause will celebrate, or at least shrink from criticizing, any actor that opposes the Israeli occupation, including Iran and its allies in the region. While this is an understandable impulse in the current conjuncture, when the population of Gaza is on the brink of starvation and subject to horrific violence, campism’s binary geopolitical logic ultimately leads to identification with oppressive forces that undermine liberation. Rather than supporting Iran or its allies, even rhetorically, an internationalist project should instead link Palestine solidarity struggles to those such as the ‘woman, life, freedom’ movements which challenged the Islamic Republic. In short, the struggle against the war regime must not only seek to interrupt the current constellation of wars, but also to effect broader social transformation.

Internationalism, then, must emerge from below, as local and regional liberation projects find means to struggle alongside one another. But it also involves an inverse process. It should aim to create a language of liberation that can be recognized, reflected and elaborated in various contexts: a continuous translation machine, as it were, which can bring together heterogenous contexts and subjectivities. A new internationalism should not assume or aspire to any global homogeneity, but instead combine radically different local and regional experience and structures. Given the fracturing of the global system, the disruption of strategic spaces of capital accumulation, and the interweaving of geopolitics and geoeconomics – all of which has laid the groundwork for the emergence of the war regime as a privileged form of governance – the project of desertion requires nothing less than an internationalist strategy to remake the world.

This article owes several insights to Brett Neilson, who is the author with Sandro Mezzadra of The Rest and the West: Capital and Power in a Multipolar World, forthcoming from Verso.

Read on: Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, ‘Empire, Twenty Years On’, NLR 120.