The Diversification of Violence and Foreign Policy

In a recently published essay for, Marianna Albuquerque, Coordinator of the South American Political Observatory, provides a succinct and accessible history of the theory of war as it has evolved according to shifting economic, geopolitical, and institutional realities.

Beginning with a brief discussion of what Élie Tenenbaum has elsewhere referred to as the system of “Westphalian regularity” that for many centuries defined the parameters of traditional warfare between and among states, Albuquerque pivots to an analysis of “irregular” or “asymmetrical” wars that, to a certain degree, have become anever more commonplace aspect of inter- and intra-national conflict in the modern era. She is keen to point out, however, that while irregular war does not in and of itself constitute a wholly new phenomenon, what is of significance is “the extent of its use.”

Accordingly, with the advent of not just new kinds of war but also of the ways in which wars are conceived of and prosecuted, Albuquerque asserts that right now what is needed is a “new lexicon” that “must consider the social character and the human consequences of the diversification of violence” (emphasis added).This richly suggestive phrase establishes a useful prism through which it becomes possible to consider the potential ramifications of the various ways in which nations or non-state entities, be they corporations, drug cartels, or revolutionary organizations, aggressively pursue their interests.

Of primary importance is the necessity to briefly consider the relationship between the diversification of violence and the proliferation of violence. In the simplest of terms, the primary difference between these two ideas or concepts is what some analysts and scholars have identified as the emergence of new forms of violence or discord and merely the exponential multiplication of violence as a defining element of present-day politics. Ultimately, it is not that violence has expanded or increased in terms of magnitude. Rather, what is noteworthy is the observation that it is highly adaptive; that is, violence changes as a function of or response to innovations in the fields of technology, politics, commerce, and industry, among others.

It is impossible to provide a full and exhaustive catalogue of the many new forms of irregular or asymmetrical war that the world faces today. Included below, however, is an admittedly short and incomplete survey that can serve as a point of departure for further analysis of novel types of conflict and for thinking about how a progressive foreign policy can respond to the challenges they present.

The emergence and evolution of cyber warfare as a serious threat to national security and economic stability is certainly high on the list of potential disruptors to the global status quo.From the sophisticated joint U.S.-Israeli Stuxnet attack on Iranian nuclear infrastructure, to the North Korean operation against Sony Pictures in the wake of that studio’s production and release of the satirical film The Interview, cyber warfare has become an increasingly common tactic employed by states and non-state actors to project power and influence beyond and across borders.

Similarly, the well-documented and exhaustively covered attempt by Russian troll farms and twitter bots to influence the American presidential contest in 2016 reveals the extent to which social media has become weaponized in order to sow chaos and confusion on the world stage. Regardless of the eventual result or actual degree of effectiveness of this campaign, what is certain is that this operation did cause many observers to call into question the integrity and security of U.S. elections and to raise doubts concerning the sanctity and legitimacy of the democratic process in this country.

Of related and increasingly relevant concern is the emergence of so-called of “stochastic terrorism.” In a post from January 2011, an anonymous blogger breaks down this concept into two constituent elements: 1. The use of mass communication to incite random actors to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable. 2. Remote-control murder by lone wolf. Thus, in an age in which a post on a message board or a provocative tweet can potentially lead to catastrophic violence, it is imperative to address the fragile balance of preserving the fundamental right of freedom of expression and the need to predict and prevent acts of terror.

Other manifestations of irregular war include the evolution of the exploitation and deployment of mercenaries, paramilitary forces, and private security contractors in various hotspots such as Libya, Afghanistan, and Mozambique. Again, while this practice is not in and of itself entirely “new” per se, the extent of its use and its wide acceptance as an instrument of state power or international relations certainly demands the attention of those tasked with diplomacy and de-escalation of conflicts.

Additionally, economic policies like the institution of tariffs and the placing of sanctions, the formation of regional trade blocs and associations, and even debt ownership as a means of exerting influence over poorer nations, are ways in which different governments around the world often times project power.

In order to adequately address this diversification of violence, then, a progressive foreign policy must include certain fundamental priorities. Among these are taking the concrete and verifiable steps necessary to adhere to international peace treaties, trade agreements that protect workers and the environment, and promises to decrease and regulate existing stockpiles of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

Furthermore, it is of paramount importance to re-evaluate government spending priorities and resource allocation in order to properly fund and support the necessary work of various international aid organizations and non-profit groups that advocate for increasing the health and well-being of vulnerable and marginalized populations. And perhaps most obviously, as the climate crisis becomes ever more acute with each successive year, the increased investment in new technologies that continue to diminish our reliance on fossil fuels and that address the profound threat posed by the scarcity of resources, including the limited availability of fresh water and adequate housing, should be a primary concern.

Finally, in a time defined as it is by increasingly high levels of insecurity, imbalance, and turmoil, revisiting the idea of hybrid peacebuilding has the potential to yield positive results. In its simplest formulation, hybrid peacebuilding“ signals a willingness to accept and work with traditional institutions and values based on religious, tribal, and kinship connections, and to explore how they can be combined with those of modernity to bring a lasting peace.”Perhaps by constructing lines of contact between the global and the subnational, an innovative and mutually beneficial solution to the problem of the diversification of violence can be achieved.

Ryan Michael Kehoe
Ryan Michael Kehoe
Ryan Michael Kehoe has a Master’s degree in English Language and Literature from Rice University. He has received awards for teaching and research from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the University of Maryland, and Rice.