MercMart: The Future of PMCs

Continuing the theme of my last post, I thought I might offer my own ideas on the future of the private military industry. Private military corporations (PMCs) in all their various guises have become a critical component of U.S. military operations and power projection. There may never again be a situation where private security contractors are employed to the extent that they were in Iraq, but it has become impossible for the U.S. government to embark on foreign contingencies without extensive support from the private sector. Thus far, however, PMCs have functioned in a supporting role; an ancillary element to an official mission.  There are some scenarios where they might be able to function as an independent, decisive instrument. Let’s examine a few of them:

1. In the employ of the United Nations. The dismal record of UN peacekeeping operations has done serious damage to the organization’s credibility. It is true that “peacekeeping” was never meant to function without the consent of all the belligerent parties, but the failure of UN forces to protect civilian populations in such places as Rwanda, the Congo, and Sierra Leone has destroyed much faith the world body, no matter what the academic definition of “peacekeeping” is; war ravaged peoples tend not to be interested in semantics. One of the problems is that these missions rely on military contributions from member states. These troops are often of poor quality, and the governments contributing them usually place restrictions on the types of operations they can engage in, severely limiting their effectiveness. This problem could be alleviated were the UN to have its own military legitimacy, and private military corporations are immediate solution.

In the years following the Rwandan genocide, it was revealed that UN officials debated hiring mercenaries to enter the country and put a stop to the genocide. In 1998, Kofi Annan explained why the decided against this, stating that “the world may not be ready to privatize peace”. Perhaps the world wasn’t ready, but one million Rwandans certainly were…

That said, the idea of the UN buying its own military forces and kicking in the doors in a forcible intervention should be cause for concern; I doubt any government on the planet is comfortable with the notion. Even if the mission was a legitimate enterprise to stop another genocide, the UN bureaucracy is so corrupt and incompetent that not even a crack army of mercenaries could save the day.

2. Employment by weak states. The use of mercenaries by governments is often condemned as somehow undermining accepted norms of state behavior. The implication of this argument is that weak governments in war-torn countries are morally obligated to either (a) surrender to the insurgent forces that seek to unseat them, or (b) throw themselves at the mercy of the “international community” in the hope that a foreign intervention will come save them. Given the importance attributed to the principle of state sovereignty by that same “international community”, this norm makes no sense whatsoever. Decolonization created a number of states that exist in name only, and the only way that they can protect their territory is with hired help. How can state sovereignty be respected if a different norm forbids governments from taking the measures necessary to exercise that sovereignty?

3. Employment as an independent instrument of U.S. foreign policy. It is possible to imagine scenarios where critical U.S. interests are not at stake, but U.S. intervention is otherwise desirable. In these circumstances, the absence of political will prohibits the employment of U.S. forces, but PMCs offer an alternative.

Let us imagine a fictional scenario to illustrate what I mean. In future decades, the distribution of world power will once again trend toward bipolarity as China continues to rise and the American “unipolar moment” comes to an end. Inevitably, a mutual suspicion will set in between these two superpowers. Let us then imagine that ethnic violence on a genocidal level breaks out in the tiny African nation of Equatorial Guinea (not a completely unrealistic prospect…it has happened before). As usual, the UN would be paralyzed, and European states would have neither the will nor capability to intervene. After the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. is not eager for any foreign adventures, least of all one that does not involve vital U.S. interests. But there would be one reason to intervene: to get there before the Chinese do. Were the Chinese to intervene under the pretext of a peace enforcement mission, they would secure another source of oil and gain a base on the Atlantic Ocean. This would not be unprecedented for China; in the past, Beijing has committed troops to UN missions as part of strategy to isolate Taipei. A few years ago they joined the UN mission in Haiti, which was one of a handful of states in the Western Hemisphere the extended diplomatic recognition to Taiwan.  Committing U.S. forces might not be possible, but why not a PMC?

Of course, there are many reasons why not. Outsourcing foreign policy like this could set a very dangerous precedent. Intervening in any region where vital interests are not at stake is a questionable endeavor, no matter what forces are committed. In any case, the U.S. has managed to topple unfavorable governments when secondary or tertiary interests are involved (Liberia, Haiti, etc.) with little enough controversy.

Ironically, the best arguments for employing mercenaries tend to be the humanitarian ones. A crisis like the Rwandan genocide is one where armed intervention is most necessary but least attractive. This is where the employment of PMCs would have the most value, and it’s the niche that the private military industry is trying to exploit.

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2 thoughts on “MercMart: The Future of PMCs

  1. I always find it interesting when the discussion of using PMSCs centers around if we should or not. The reality is they are being used every day by foreign companies and governments in almost every emerging market but most certainly in Africa. And even if you want to focus on the physical, they are primarily being used for intelligence gathering which many countries including the US need to outsource because of a lack of internal capacity and skills.

    Maybe we need to shift the discussion away from if and when they are used and discuss what oversight and transparency can be built into the PMSC industry. So far attempts in both the US and US have failed miserably.

  2. To start I would like to rebut the claim that the U.N is ‘corrupt and incompetent’. Having had the opportunity to see study U.N peacekeepers and to see U.N civilian efforts I can say that I have seen very little incompetence in what was done.
    Indeed, considering how little was given by member states for U.N efforts in the DR Congo I argue it was a miracle that any kind of peace was held at all until a sizable force was sent with a Chapter 7 mandate.

    While I cannot deny that there have been scandals at the U.N involving corruption I would also argue that the same could be said about nation states. I seem to recall a series of scandals including a Mr. Abramoff earlier in the decade, yet the United States is generally not seen as unable to work .

    On number 2. I might agree with you, though that begs the question of who exactly would be employing them. Given the fact that most insurgents claim that they are also legitimate and would have the right to hire mercenaries.

    On number 3. this ignores a serious problem. Anything that the mercenaries did would be effectively under the flag of the United States. Currently mercenaries are a legal conundrum, and although many that the U.S would employ are former U.S soldiers that doesn’t guarantee that they will act as them. Any actions that those mercenaries make is seen as an action of the U.S, and the U.S could be legally liable for their actions even if they happened without our knowledge. Also the hypothetical you mention ignores that mercenaries (though used) are not at all trusted in much of Latin America and Africa due to their role in coups or brutal corporations.

    In essence: mercenaries may have their place in things but there is a reason they are unpopular.

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