Episode 46: No Neat Battlefields

Peter Maurer, the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, sees no distinction between how the West and other belligerents wage war.

In discussion with Professor Peter Roberts, Dr Maurer evinces a grimmer reality in which the cumulative effects of climate change, poverty and poor governance combine with the ‘democratisation’ of access to sophisticated weapons, which are now held by a multitude of actors. The result is a modern battlefield torn asunder by precision weapons, one which more resembles Armageddon than ideas of the beautiful ’surgical’ use of force that are often rehashed by military and political leaders. Sobering stuff.

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  • Moderator: Professor Peter Roberts
    Respondent: Peter Maurer 

    Unedited Transcript


    Moderator: Welcome to the Western Way of War. This is a weekly podcast that tries to understand the issues around how to fight and succeed against adversaries in the 2020s. I'm Peter Roberts, Director of Military Sciences at the Royal United Services Institute on Whitehall, and every week I'll talk to a guest about the Western way of war. Has it been successful? Is it fit for task today? And how might it need to adapt in the future? The podcast is only possible because of the good people at Raytheon UK, a subsidiary of Raytheon Technology, a British company that creates jobs in England, Wales, and Scotland, contributing over £700 million to the UK economy. You may have noticed, dear listener, a pattern to recent episodes. We're balancing out some of the hard power and realities of contemporary conflict episodes with more on human security and related topics. This has been deliberate, but not without controversy. Some listeners feel we're veering too far from our original course of learning how we need to adapt to win.


    Others have pushed us down this path. And it's an interesting balance for us to consider and comes down to some of our presumptions, and our experiences of conflict. There seems to be a universal acceptance that wars and conflict will continue to take place within the people, but less consensus on whether we believe that wars will continue to be about the people. Those with experience in Iraq and Afghanistan who have bought and read Rupert Smith's narrative will usually accept the theory that says warfare is a contest over who is able to win the support of the local population. Others are less convinced by the enduring nature of this argument. Counter to the leading theories of people-centric strategies of the last two decades is the notion of what is commonly called great power competition, which returns us to an era in which ideologies, interests, and realities trump concerns over values.


    In this vein, the people are less consequential than our recent experience leads us to believe. Indeed, the populace, according to those who believe it, are not central in achieving national objectives. Whether those are of great powers, the USA, China, or Russia, or other less determined and less powerful nation-states. This matters because, right now, our doctrine and political-military conversation about interventions takes place around concerns over the human domain as the pre-eminent factor in much of our decision-making in the Western way of war. It determines our strategy, campaign plans, use of weapons, force employment, force protection, supply and logistics planning, as well as a myriad of other factors associated with nation-building, well beyond what the military's been successful at. This line of discussion, moving away from people-centric military interventions is neither popular, nor aligned to much recent Western experiences, nor the current rhetoric about values, evident in recent UK integrated review, The Defence Command Paper, or a myriad of strategies being produced by Western states at present. It seems, perhaps, that the French alone are taking a different path in a conversation to the rest of Europe. Whether they are ahead of the time, or, perhaps, behind it in preparing for the future is worthy of discussion, but who to call to enlighten us? Who represents those values about the people? Which non-government organisation? And who within that community best represents those interests?


    Well, the International Committee of the Red Cross is an impartial, neutral, and independent organisation whose exclusively humanitarian mission is to protect the lives and dignity of victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence and to provide them with assistance. Now, the ICRC was established in 1863, and it's at the origin of the Geneva Conventions, and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. It directs, coordinates, and supports international activities conducted by the movement in armed conflict and other situations of violence. Now, my guest today is President of the ICRC. Peter Maurer was appointed to that position in 2012. Under his leadership, the ICRC carries out humanitarian work in more than 100 countries. Peter has a unique exposure to today's armed conflicts and the challenges of assisting and protecting people. He travels regularly to the major conflict theatres of the world and has done so recently. As the ICRC's chief diplomat, and through the ICRC's principled and neutral approach, Peter regularly meets with heads of states and other high-level officials, as well as parties to conflict to find solutions to pressing humanitarian concerns.


    Now, previously, Peter served as the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in Switzerland, as well as the ambassador and permanent representative to Switzerland to the UN in New York. As a diplomat, he worked on issues relating to human security, including mine action, small arms, and light weapons, as well as on the responsibility of states in the implementation of international humanitarian law. Now, all those are nice words, but Peter's just returned from a trip to Damascus, experiencing first-hand what can only be described as the most harrowing and disturbing realities of war. These are no different from Ukraine or Mozambique, but they are really evident and close to home. These aren't the planned clinical maps and screens in Western capitals, but an unending humanitarian disaster in which the ICRC has been involved in Syria alone since 1967. If the west wants fast, in-out military interventions, Peter brings the realities and balance of the enduring nature of the impacts of such intervention.


    Those with experience of campaigns in foreign fields, not from the luxury of state capitals, will recognise the deeply disturbing pictures that Peter paints in his interviews. I'm not sure there's anyone better placed anywhere in the world to help us in our discussions about this topic today. So, let's start by situating Peter in our wider discussion by asking that first question, and I'm not sure what you're going to come back with, but, Peter, what does the Western way of war mean to you?


    Peter Maurer: Well, thanks a lot, Peter, for the kind introduction, and maybe you won't be surprised to hear me first say that we look at the concept of template of the Western way of war through the spectrum of international humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions that you have mentioned in your introduction. And when I look at this template and this perspective, of course, there is not really a recognisable Western way of war because this is a universal framework of behaviour in warfare. It's the largest ratified convention by states. 196 states ratified the Geneva Conventions. It transcends, as a normative framework, cultural and regional horizons. It's not a product of Western diplomacy or predominance. It is rooted in customary international law in all parts of the world. It transcends bases as well, in a sense that it is applicable and carried forward as customary law in many parts of the world. It's relevant as well in the Islamic world as it is in Buddhist-rooted society, as it is in other societies. So, its multicultural roots is something which is critically important.


    So, in that perspective, ICRC is blind to the concept of Western way of war. Then, of course, today we look at the phenomenology of warfare, and we see that a series of countries, many of them Western, some of them not Western, have an increasing difficulty of accepting victims and being involved directly into warfare. And I think that has given maybe not way to a Western way of war, but towards an industrialised, developed, society way of war, which has difficulty getting involved and accepting war as an event which may kill soldiers of their own country. And we have seen how this has informed the way countries are shaping alliances, working through proxies and partners in order to pursue their global interests. It's a different way of framing the Western way of war that you have asked me at the beginning. And maybe, from a humanitarian perspective, what are the two, three predominant features that I recognise in today's world and which challenge a humanitarian organisation like the ICRC? It's certainly the multiple challenges that we are faced with in warfare, in a sense, that we don't have battlefields neatly disconnected from other reasons at the origin of humanitarian concerns.


    We have battlefields in the middle of zones which are affected heavily by climate change. We have these in countries which are particularly affected by poverty and governance issues. So, we have these multilayered problems which, in their cumulative effect, are at the origin (TC 00:10:00) of a lot of humanitarian problems. We see battlefields increasingly moving into urban areas, and because they are moving into urban areas, they are affecting urban systems, and, therefore, the impact of modern battlefields in urban areas, the humanitarian impact is more important than what we have maybe seen 20, 30, or 40 years ago. We see the multitude of actors coming to our battlefields. State, non-state actors, private military and security companies. We see a mix of criminal groups and political actors where it is very difficult sometimes to distinguish neatly whether political objectives are carried further through military operation or where it is just criminal networks pursuing economic interests through massive weaponry. We see when I talk about weaponry, an increasingly sophisticated set of weapons coming to battlefields with massive impact.


    You mentioned I'm back from Syria. I'm flabbergasted each time I see cities like Homs, Aleppo. More so in Yemen, Taiz and others, which have been so heavily affected and where modern weaponry has massive destructive force. We see these as some of the characteristics of modern warfare. So, it doesn't fit neatly into the concept of Western, even if there are, of course, bridges and interlinkages to what some of the interviewed people before me have eventually designed as Western way of warfare.


    Moderator: You make a really important point. So, people before you have pulled apart the idea of a Western way of war, but they've also all also come to this idea that, you know, there is a set of Western values associated with how we do it. But what's interesting from your perspective is not seeing that. It's seeing instead what a modern way of war looks like in terms of the scale of destruction, and there's a risk, isn't there, because the military see this and they tell their political masters that it's increasingly about precision. And the language is of surgery, it's of scalpels being applied. And yet, when you go out and you see the result of these scalpels, they are not the small, beautiful scars that have been looked over by plastic surgeons and made right. They tend to wreak as much wholesale destruction as we saw in the First and Second World Wars, right?


    Peter Maurer: Well, indeed. This is one of our daily experiences, that we have this tension between increasingly sophisticated and targeted weaponry, and a firepower operated through those precise weapons which question, fundamentally, some of the basis of international humanitarian law. Distinction, proportionality, and precaution. And when I look at some of the destroyed urban landscapes that I have visited over the last couple of years, I really wonder what these precision weaponries are when they are, at the end of the day, used to transport explosives with high firepower into populated areas. If you look at the cost from the humanitarian side, it's really mind-boggling to see that we live in a time with one of the population displacements worldwide, and when we look up the chain of origin of those population displacements, it's obvious that it has always been, at the beginning, a violation in terms of fundamental disregard of international humanitarian law. Respect for proportionality, distinction, and precaution, and the fundamentals of militaries would not allow to send some of the high-powered destructive precision materials into some of the cities which have millions flee their neighbourhoods and not return for decades.


    So, I think, we have really a tension here which is obvious, and which has been with us for 160 years. Very frankly, I always turn back to the origin of the ICRC. Why was a humanitarian organisation like the ICRC founded in the nineteenth century? Because technological advances have powered warfare with such destructive capacities that the countries waging war at each other in the nineteenth centuries saw a necessity to regulate the impact because they saw that, increasingly, warfare would move into civilian infrastructure. And for the leading politicians of the nineteenth century, it was an unacceptable idea that you couldn't separate the battlefields from the industrial sites anymore, and from the civilian places. Today, we are somehow back to this situation where massive advances in technology allow for massive destruction. And we see it as a cost coming to the international community in terms of international humanitarian aid, in aid of capacity building in society, stabilising societies, in terms of political disruptions in the international community because of the massive humanitarian consequences of warfare.


    Moderator: And it feels like the patterns, how warfare is evolving, and I don't think it's a revolution, I think it is evolving, but we're seeing a move towards, you know, perhaps a regression even, that sees critical national infrastructure as one of those key targets which militaries are starting to use. We're seeing the re-emergence of chemical and biological weapons on a battlefield in a shocking way, and we're also seeing the marrying of greater technology, the democratisation of quite sophisticated weaponry. I mean, you know, one could imagine it won't be too long before we see hypersonics in the hands of rebels able to reach out and strike Western capitals from North Africa or wherever it is. I mean, how do you view the future behaviours and norms of warfare? Do you see this as a great circle, as we're going back to the Great War? These levels of destruction, the use of chemical biological weapons and weapons of mass destruction. Do you see it going there, or do you see it as an evolution in technology or how do you view this in terms of the future?


    Peter Maurer: Well, at the end of the day, I think, at the origin of international humanitarian law is the effort to limit the impact of war on civilians and civilian infrastructure and those not participating in hostilities. I think that fundamental of international humanitarian law is still here today and is relevant in a situation where we see this massive impact, but the, sort of, legitimacy of the law comes from the political acceptance that you need to follow it and comes from political consensus. It comes from trust amongst belligerents that these are routes to respect in a higher logic of limiting the impact of war. And what we see today is that we see a new mutation of this, again, more than 100-year-old debate on the tension between military necessity and protection of civilians. And the needle, in our perspective, moves towards expanding the legitimacy of military necessity into cyberspace, into modern technology and making accepting collateral damage in densely populated areas, in urban areas.


    And I think the international community, at a certain moment, will be confronted with the question, how much cost are we ready to bear, and when does this way of warfare, in this regard at least of the spirit of what international humanitarian law has represented in the past, is reviewed into a new political consensus for more restrictive interpretation of international humanitarian law? And we see how, in the negotiations and some critical junctures, this is a highly controversial issue. Is international humanitarian law applicable to cyberspace, and how exactly, and what do the ideas of precaution, proportionality and distinction mean in cyberspace? Even the use of high-impact explosives in densely populated areas is a painful negotiation amongst states to move to the consensus because, within states, there are a lot of military and security operators who think that the discretion to use those high-impact explosives should be framed less (TC 00:20:00) restrictive than in the past. And I think it all boils down to the political legitimacy of acceptance of where you put the needle in the delicate balance and it has always been a delicate balance in societies and in the international relation between military necessity and the protection of civilians.


    Moderator: And I get that, but you and I have spoken quite a lot in the last little bit about states. And you must deal increasingly in your discussion with this, you know, the fragmentation of belligerence. We are just talking about states as we would recognise them as perhaps we'd have dealt with them over the past, you know, 50 years, there's been a real shift in how non-state actors are able to wage power. And surely, their understanding of legitimacy, is that different from what you experience with established states who understand the, sort of, Westphalian norms? Is it something very different?


    Peter Maurer: Well, it's a very interesting question indeed because, as you rightly suggest, Peter, the ICRC is probably the organisation with most contacts with non-state armed groups in some of the key conflicts and battlefields in the world. What we have seen over the last couple of years, I think, is the convergence of two trends. One, the, sort of, a shift from international armed conflict to internal armed conflict, and then the shift from state to state, and state actors in conflict, to a fragmented landscape with many non-state armed groups being part of the conflict. The ICRC, last year, counted in our 30 most important operations, more than 610 non-state armed groups, out of which with more than 400, we have regular interactions in terms of negotiating access and security for our humanitarian operations, respect for international humanitarian law, humane treatment of detainees because non-state armed groups make detainees as much as state does.


    So, we do have a landscape which is increasingly fragmented. We have few conflicts out of the 30 which have not at least between five and twelve non-state armed groups. Then we have some of the really, quite, sort of, surprising figures that, in some places of Libya, we have counted a couple of years ago more than 240 non-state armed groups in just one single city, in the city of Misrata. And so, this is, of course, a completely new landscape because ensuring respect for international humanitarian law, which is a critical task of the ICRC which we were tasked in the Geneva Convention is, even by mathematical standards, a challenge when you exponentially move into other categories of numbers of engagement. With roughly 130 armed forces in the world, we engage in the respect of international humanitarian law. We do training, we do operational reviews, we make recommendations with regards to ground rules, operational controls and mechanisms and decision-making, mechanisms to integrate international humanitarian law into the decision-making process.


    It is obvious that non-state armed groups are structured in a very different way. So, the critical question for an organisation like mine is really to understand the decision-making process within non-state armed groups and to see where we find leverages in order to ensure respect for international humanitarian law. Normally, states have much more hierarchically structured organisation. If you do training at the top, you have a trickle-down effect. Non-state armed groups have flatter hierarchies. So, you need to work with different methods and methodologies in order to bring them to better behaviour in terms of respect of international norms. What we see though, and what is really surprising probably for many of the listeners to this podcast is that if we make a sober assessment on violations of international humanitarian law, and we try to see who is at the origin of some of the most important violations of international humanitarian law, states and non-states armed groups, at the end of the equation, are not so different.


    Meaning that non-state armed groups can be engaged into respecting international humanitarian law. They feed, most of the time, on acceptance of communities in which they operate. Without the consensus or at least the acquiescence of communities, no non-state armed group can survive for a long time. And therefore, they make their calculations on what is acceptable and non-acceptable in the conduct of hostilities in treatment of civilians, in protecting civilians, they make this equation very different. Ask some of the non-state armed groups in the Sahel or in the Lake Chad region, some jihadi groups, they have a pretty hard life, and if they destroy hospitals of communities which are already underserviced and they get reined in by communities very often, as much as they terrorise communities. But it is a much more complex relationship between communities and non-state armed groups and an organisation like mine. It is a very complex and different relationship than compared, for instance, the relationship that we have, which is pretty straightforward with the signatory to a convention which has processes which are very different. But it's a very interesting question on where to pitch influence into behaviour.


    Moderator: But what's interesting about what you say is this is, obviously, a process. Bringing these non-state armed groups into the conversation about them understanding their community, about being reined in. I mean, this is a period in which they might be rising, a period in which they might be falling in influence and others will be competing with them. I mean, your ability to map that and understand that, whether it's geographic region, country, or even city, over a period of years is really quite sophisticated, but challenging. I mean you're talking about an engagement with a community or a city that will last generations, which seems completely at odds with how the west understands or thinks about intervention and engagement. It's a go in, wreak death and destruction, do a bit of nation-building, and come home to get tea and medals. In very simplistic terms, the Western way of intervention is we do the destruction stuff, and then we'll give them some money and everything will be fine. You seem to have a completely different concept about how you engage with a community than we would naturally understand. Do you think that's right or have I got it completely wrong?


    Peter Maurer: Well, it's interesting, what you say. And indeed, if what you just described is the Western way of intervention in warfare, then I would have some mental reservations about the solidity of such a strategy and the success possibility of such a strategy. Indeed, I think, what we are really interested in being close to victims but also close to arms bearers. And if you are close to arms bearers and try to understand the dynamics of conflict at the root, at the origin, close to the battlefields, close to the operational realities, the interaction with the civil society around, I think that's where we feel humanitarian actors can contribute something in the understanding of the dynamics of modern warfare.


    Moderator: And I was going to say, but that gets to this publication which your company do and the reason we got you on because you've got a publication coming out shortly that talks about alliance, partners, and proxies, right, that talks to this idea about how you see ICRC and the engagement with these groups.


    Peter Maurer: Well, I think, obviously, what we have done in the past is that we continuously engaged with these non-state armed groups on a bilateral level as much as we do engage with states on a bilateral level. I think what has changed and what the publication talks about is that, increasingly, we see alliances of states and non-state armed groups also, very much shaping the conflict and battlefield realities of today. When you look at a place like Syria, you have Turkey, Iran, Russia, US, Syria as states engaged, but you also have Kurdish militias, you have different forms of jihadi groups active and alliances, partners and proxies are shaped out of this reality. If I look at Mozambique or the Central African Republic, or other places (TC 00:30:00) you add to this mixture private military and security companies. It's not that these are separate silos. States coalesce with other states and together, they coalesce with non-state armed groups, support non-state armed groups as proxies. So, one of the big challenges is, of course, to see can we learn from these engagements and use some of these engagements to leverage better behaviour in warfare, more compliant behaviour with international humanitarian law?


    And that's where, I think, the concept of alliance, proxies and partners fits in. That, on the one side, we try from the bottom of the realities in which we operate to engage with whoever carries a weapon, but on the other hand, we also try to pitch what the new reality of alliance-shaping, proxies and partners is, and to see what these dynamics are that are unfolding and that are relevant for behaviour in the battlefields. How can we eventually use a state in order to use its influence so that we can retrieve dead bodies from a battlefield? How can we ensure that medical installations are protected in a combat operation in which state and non-state actors strategise together in order to overcome the adversaries? So, it's really to recognise that we have, kind of, a new meta-level between states and non-actors as individual actors in battlefields, and we see those alliances and proxy realities coming forward, which we try to map, to look at entry points and possibilities to leverage these alliances, to create a humanitarian space, to have access, to ensure respect for international humanitarian law, and to protect those not participating in warfare.


    Moderator: Peter, thank you very much. This month, ICRC is launching a book called 'Allies, Partners and Proxies: Managing Support Relationships in Armed Conflict to Reduce the Human Cost of War.' It aims to guide decision-makers in bringing a humanitarian dimension into the design and implementation of any kind of support to warring parties in any conflict. There was a virtual launch event at RUSI on 14th April. You can find a recording of that on our YouTube channel, details at rusi.org/events. And you can find our show on all major podcasting platforms including iTunes and Spotify. Your downloads regularly place us in the top 5% of nearly 2 million podcast shows globally. And more and more of our first-time listeners seem to go back and dig into previous episodes, and why not? The guests are 'knock your socks off' superb. The show is produced by Peppi Vaananen and Kieron Yates and is sponsored by Raytheon UK.


    We've been lining up some amazing guests for the next set of episodes that will take us through to the summer. We've got a few spots left, so I'm turning this over to you, dear listeners. Who do you want to hear on the show? Shoot me or Peppi an email and let's see who you want to have an episode of their own. I can't promise your suggested guest will agree to come on, but we can only try. Thanks for listening.

Western Way of War Podcast Series

A collection of discussions with those in the Profession of Arms that tries to understand the issues around how to fight, and succeed, against adversaries in the 2020s. We pose the questions as whether a single Western Way of Warfare (how Western militaries fight) has been successful, whether it remains fit for task today, and how it might need to adapt in the future? It is complemented by the ‘Adversarial Studies’ project that looks at how adversaries fight.


Professor Peter Roberts

Director, Military Sciences

Military Sciences

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