a1 Department of Political Science, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, USA
Contemporary military conflicts are frequently referred to as ‘new’, ‘irregular’, or ‘asymmetric’, labels that are meant to distinguish contemporary conflict formations from previous ones. Yet the language of asymmetry is not just a conveniently vague gloss for a variety of conflicts; it also introduces a normative schema that moralizes and depoliticizes the difference between states and non-state actors. The description of contemporary conflicts as asymmetric allows states to be portrayed as victims of non-state actors, as vulnerable to strategic constellations they ostensibly cannot win. ‘Asymmetry’ is today's idiom to distinguish between civilized and uncivilized warfare, an idiom that converts ostensibly technological or strategic differences between state and non-state actors into moral and civilizational hierarchies. Furthermore, the claim that these types of conflicts are new is used to justify attempts to revisit and rewrite the international laws of armed conflicts. While such attempts are unlikely to succeed in the formal arena, informally, a transformation of the international normative order is already underway. At the heart of this transformation is how states interpret a key cornerstone of international humanitarian law: the principle of discrimination between combatants and civilians.