A couple weeks ago, the United Arab Emirates made a most unusual acquisition: 842 Colombian soldiers. They’re looking for at least a couple thousand more. What’s going on is fairly simple: the UAE has a lot of cash, a need for hardened combat veterans, and wanted internal security expertise to boot. And presto! They got some. No Private Military and Security Company (PMSC) was involved. At Kings of War, Jack McDonald worried about whether or not the start of a market for force will deprive states like Colombia of its best men. The more relevant question, however, is what the possibility of a real market for individual soldiers with specialized talents will mean for the advanced military forces of the West as personnel cuts continue. Others may be willing to pay for skills a infantry captain’s home country has decided are no longer valuable to the national interest.
The greatest mistake of the PMSC debate during the 1990s was the idea that soldiers-for-hire were part of a growing privitization of force and decline of the state. But many commercial entities, militias, and private armies tend to be closely linked with state authority and objectives. The US use of PMSCs during the Iraq and Afghan wars leveraged entities like Blackwater, Triple Canopy, and MPRI to further force protection and logistics arrangements. Today, Academi isn’t likely to guard any Chinese interests in Africa because it has specialized itself around providing business to broadly Western military needs. Nor would the Chinese trust such firms due to their population of former American military and intelligence operators and involvement in realizing US geopolitical objectives. As my blogmate Dan often notes, MPRI played an instrumental role in helping construct the final Croatian ground offensive that cratered Serbian military power in the Bosnian War.
A true market for individual soldiers would further perpetuate this trend. The UAE acquisition of the Colombians does not represent a trend in the decline of the state. Rather, it is the geopolitical equivalent of a soccer trade. Of course, Machiavelli’s warnings about the mercenary also applies. Only time (and individual temperment) can tell whether the UAE’s new acquisitions will be reliable under fire or mesh with their fellow soldiers.
None of this is to deny that true private armies (like the Mexican drug cartels) exist. But the problem is that private armies are primarily appendages of existing elites within a given state ecosystem. Not every state completely achieves a true Weberian monopoly of force, which was always intended as an ideal type rather than a concrete signification of statehood. States, empires, and other vessels of political power have always had competing domestic elites with the power to make war if they so chose. What matters not necessarily is the existence of such capabilities, but whether or not the central government has a means of military or economic leverage and a political order that enables sub-state actors to peacefully pursue their interests.