In their 1993 book "War and Anti-War: Survival at the Dawn of the 21st Century," Alvin and Heidi Toffler wrote, "Why not, when nations have already lost the monopoly of violence, consider creating volunteer mercenary forces organized by private corporations to fight wars on a contract-fee basis for the United Nations, the condotieri of yesterday armed with some of the weapons, including non-lethal weapons, of tomorrow."
Such thinking is a radical reversal of status-quo thinking. After all, no less a realist than Machiavelli wrote, "Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous; and if one holds his state based on these arms, he will stand neither firm nor safe; for they are disunited, ambitious, and without discipline."
Actually, such a view is outmoded. Today's mercenaries increasingly are highly trained, organized, and, most importantly, organized into incorporated, registered businesses - i.e., private military companies (PMCs). Their services are offered both to governments, large corporations, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Often, PMCs are staffed by former military personnel with many years of active duty behind them.
Why are PMCs used more in recent years? For one thing, the end of the bipolar superpower standoff set into flux an international order that had been in an unnatural stasis for the past half-century. As a result, instability and its handmaidens, conflict and war, have been abundant. Unlike the cold-war era, today's battlefields show a marked reluctance on the part of the West to intervene in what are seen as peripheral conflicts not related to vital national interests.
The casualties suffered by US forces in Somalia in 1993 strengthened US reluctance to participate in peace-enforcement missions.
Among PMCs, Executive Outcomes (EO), a South Africa-based firm, is virtually in a class by itself. It is primarily a pool of former South African National Defense Force or police personnel, albeit one without a weapons stockpile or even a standing force. It is also the one PMC which has conducted direct-combat operations on a sustained basis. Most PMCs, unlike EO, function in a noncombat advisory capacity.
MPRI, founded in 1987 and headquartered in Alexandria, Va., may be the prototype of future PMCs. MPRI trades heavily on the cachet of its founders and staff, most of whom were former high-ranking senior officers in the US military. Its immodest logo says it is "the greatest corporate assemblage of military expertise in the world." It has close ties to the US government and says it operates only in areas approved by the US State Department. Overseas, MPRI has deliberately worked as an extension of US foreign policy. Given the challenges of civil conflict in the Balkans, the US government understandably supports MPRI's work there. In that regard, should be emphasized that no PMC thus far has worked against the interest of its home state.
World attention has been drawn to the new mercenaries, most recently, by the scandal in the United Kingdom over the activities of Sandline International, a London-based PMC. The controversy centers on the small west Africa country of Sierra Leone.
Last spring, Sierra Leone's junta, which had illegally seized power in 1997, was defeated by an African multinational peacekeeping force called ECOMOG. That force was mostly led and manned by Nigerians. In May, reports surfaced that Sandline had exported to ECOMOG 30 tons of small arms obtained from Bulgaria, as well as its own military expertise. This breached a United Nations arms embargo approved in October, 1997. But the only practical effect of that embargo had been to help the junta stay in power.
Supposedly this was a violation of the Labour government's promise to pursue an "ethical" foreign policy. In its defense, Sandline said it had been given the go-ahead for the exports by Britain's Foreign Office. It appears they told the truth, since the Customs and Excise Office said it could not find enough evidence to prosecute Sandline.
Largely undiscussed is the fact that the operation in question led to the restoration to power of a democratically elected president, recognized by Britain and the UN. Well-known journalist William Shawcross wrote "the saga shows how necessary it is to rethink the role of private armies."
Questions remain as to precisely how PMCs should be allowed to operate, which clients they should serve, and how they should be monitored. Yet given the fact conflict will continue and states may choose not to undertake humanitarian interventions, PMCs will likely play a significant future role.
For generations we have seen the private sector make money off war. The time has come to let them make a profit, well-monitored, from out of peace.
* David Isenberg is an analyst at DynMeridian, a private firm that advises the US government on arms control issues. The views expressed are his own .