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Hybrid Wars. The Dissolution of the Binary Order of War and Peace, and Its Consequences

"Hybrid war" as a symbol of semantic helplessness

The dividing lines between war and peace are dissolving, and, as they do so, an in-between state has developed that can neither be described as war in the classical sense nor as peace. This in-between state, which cannot be clearly named because its character is constantly changing, and for which, for this reason, the term “hybrid” was introduced, can mainly be observed on the periphery of prosperity zones and in postimperial regions. Here it sometimes assumes the character of civil wars, at other times that of transnational wars, and finally also that of excessive violent crime. Yet at the same time, we talk about hybrid warfare when state actors in the classical sense make use of particular methods below the level of a heavy military deployment to destabilize a neighboring state: for example, in the form of cyber attacks against that country’s infrastructure, or by inciting and assisting revolts and uprisings by national minorities in the neighboring country. “Hybrid war” is therefore a collective term that is used to denote highly different forms of organized violence and illegal influence on another state according to international law. Along with the term “new wars,” it is a further attempt to take into account the erosion of conventional classification terms, or rather their increasing inadequacy for describing the conceptual order of the political world. For this reason, it is impossible to give a precise definition of what is meant by the term “hybrid war”. In principle, hybridity indicates the indefinability of the thing so described. The term “hybrid war” refers more to what is no longer the case, rather than being capable of precisely describing what is new about the changed situation.

Such problems with the classification of wars and the definition of war in distinction to peace are not new. After the end of the Napoleonic Wars and in the wake of wartime violence unleashed by the French Revolution, Carl von Clausewitz in Vom Kriege (On War) subjected the new experience to an analytical examination in contrast to the conventional model of Kabinettskrieg or “cabinet war.” He called war “a true chameleon” and “a strange trinity,” because it continuously changed not only in its form of manifestation but also in its triggering forces and internal dynamics. Clausewitz nevertheless identified in war a “blind natural impulse” (violence as its element together with hatred and enmity), the “free activity of the soul” (the game involving probabilities and chance), and “plain reason” (war as a political tool), in order to understand differences in the nature of war in terms of a specific combination of these elements of brutality, creativity, and rationality (Vom Kriege I, 1). At the same time, he redefined the blurred boundaries between war and peace by having war begin not with the attack but with defense, because the objective of attacking is mere possession, whereas true fighting is the objective of defense. In this way, Clausewitz revised the concept of war, which had got out of control.

The binary concept as an establisher of political order

Political order, one could say, begins with a fairly reliable distinction between war and peace. For the vast majority of human history, this was not the case. The nomadic way of life of hunter-gatherer societies did not permit such a thing. This only changed with the emergence of a settled way of life as a result of the Neolithic Revolution – namely, the transition to arable farming and cattle breeding. Unlike nomadic hunters, farmers depend on peace; war becomes a matter for specialists – for aristocrats and professional warriors, who gradually develop their own code of honor. This code of honor can be regarded as an early limitation of the violence of war. With the consolidation of statehood, this was followed by the juridification of the distinction between war and peace, which were understood as being separate aggregate states of the political realm. The transitions from one state into the other were at first conventionalized and later institutionalized as acts of law: declaration of war in one case, peace agreement in the other.

The more precisely the two aggregate states of the political realm were defined and the transitions between them juridified, the more pronounced was the development of a binarity of the political order, based on the principle of tertium non datur: there was either war or peace – a third between the two did not exist. The point of the term “hybrid war” is that it stands for precisely this “in-between,” for a third state that dissolves the order of binarity. Thus, the custodians of the binary order – the experts on international law – have lost influence, since their influence on politics consisted in them wielding the power of definition. As real-life boundaries erode, so the definition specialists lose relevance. What we are currently observing, and what the expression “hybridization” of war also signifies, is a growing distance between the norm structure of international law and the actual events of violence and war. Particularly the new wars on the periphery of prosperity zones are indifferent to the standards of the law of war, while the strategic hybridization of war deliberately undermines the normative order of international law. In the form of cyber attacks by states against states, for instance, territorial borders are not breached “with armed hand,” and the actors responsible can be identified only with difficulty.

Indeed, the contribution of binarity to order was not limited to the distinction between war and peace (ius ad bellum), as it also constituted the inner ordering framework of ius in bello: this applies, for example, to the distinction between interstate and civil war, or between combatants and noncombatants. Here too it was the case that no third existed or could exist, because to recognize such a third would have called the entire order into question. The concept of the semi-combatant, which Michael Walzer brought into play in his book “Just and Unjust” Wars to describe German armaments workers during the Second World War, contradicted the structure of the classical law of war. And on the real-life level, the strategies of nuclear war which defined the second half of the 20th century were characterized by a radical negation of binarity, as they treated all living beings in the target area of nuclear missiles as combatants. The erosion of the binary order is therefore not a recent occurrence, since it extends well back into the 20th century.

This also applies to the distinction between interstate war and civil war, for it has always been apparent that civil wars have been characterized by a notorious disregard for the rules of the law of war (or of religion or ethics). For this reason, civil wars were differentiated from interstate wars so that the latter could serve as the normal case for the development of standards. Civil wars, or to be precise wars within societies, were regarded as to be avoided at all costs, because they notoriously led to a cataclysmic unleashing of wartime violence. The political orders following the Thirty Years’ War and the Napoleonic Wars, in which civil war and interstate war intermingled, were aimed at reregulating interstate war and actively preventing civil war. In contrast, the new wars can be described as the return of patterns of violence from the Thirty Years’ War, and it is characteristic of the era of decolonization that a legitimacy was ascribed to the war of liberation, conducted in a manner similar to civil war, which amounted to the exact opposite of its previous delegitimation. At the same time, following the events of the First World War, the classical interstate war was placed under normative guardianship. This found expression firstly in the prohibition of wars of aggression, and after the Second World War, under the UN Charter, in a general prohibition of war.

The concept of a policification of war

With the erosion of the system of binarity and the associated loss of its ordering force, the idea emerged of a policification of war, which was designed not according to the model of the duel, but as the enforcement of peace against notorious peacebreakers through police measures. Thus, on one side stood the powers who laid claim to the role and tasks of a “world police,” and on the other side were the “villains” against whose malevolent influence the good order was to be imposed. In parallel, theories of just war resurfaced, which are likewise characterized by a normative asymmetry between the warring parties. They became a blueprint for the concept of humanitarian military intervention. In legitimacy terms, this differs from conventional war in that it is carried out not in the own interests of the conflicting parties, but in the interests of a third party, namely the civilian population in the intervention area. President Wilson’s explanations for the United States joining the First World War in 1917 can be regarded as the starting point for the idea of a policification of war. In retrospect, this can be seen as the beginning of a normative hybridization of war, since “a war to end all wars” had no place in the binarity of interstate war and civil war.

Lest this be misunderstood, these third-party designs, in which maintaining and enforcing peace were made an absolute political imperative (which is not the case in the binary order with its contrasting of war and peace as being in principle equivalent aggregate states of the political realm), were not the willful destruction of an established order, but rather a consequence of this order’s self-destruction as a result of national mobilization capacity and industrially provided destructive potential. The tipping point in this development was the First World War, but it was the Second World War, with the use of the two atom bombs in early August 1945, that first made the insight into the impossibility of this type of war compelling. The problem is that no concept has been developed as yet that creates clarity and perspicuity similar to that of the earlier binarity. In this respect, the term “hybrid war” is just a placeholder that stands for the end of the old order, but is not itself able to provide a cornerstone for the development of a new order. This is mainly because it is an inclusive term with no discriminatory force, a term that merely describes and thus has no ordering and certainly no prescriptive dimension. More than that, it is semantically maintained by the old binary order, which it must invoke to be able to describe hybridity as an essential feature of the new.

Everything therefore suggests that we should not expect too much in the way of clarification from the term “hybrid war.” In particular, it is inadvisable to build models of political order on it, since the hybrid represents the combining of contrary elements, and hence it can be assumed that with any step into political practice there will be dispute as to which of these two elements has or should be given the greater weight. Thus, the concept of hybrid war is nothing more than a semantic brand for the current practice of “muddling through” in security policy. To put it another way, before one can start changing the political world for the better on a lasting basis, it is first necessary to explain it, and this is done by defining it in clear and unambiguous terms. This appears not to be possible at the present time and the concept of hybrid war stands for just this impossibility.



Herfried Münkler teaches political theory at Humboldt University in Berlin. He is a member of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities (Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften). Key publications: “The New Wars” (Cambridge/Malden, MA, 2005); “Empires” (Cambridge/Malden, MA, 2005); “Der Wandel des Krieges. Von der Symmetrie zur Asymmetrie” (Weilers­wist, 2006); “Der große Krieg. Die Welt 1914–1918” (Berlin, 2013); “Macht in der Mitte” (Hamburg, 2015); “Kriegssplitter” (Berlin, 2015).