THE BLOG
11/19/2012 12:34 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2013

What Role for PMC in Today's World?

Is there an appropriate role for Private Military Companies (PMCs) in the contemporary security context?

Maybe, but less than you may think, according to the recently published dissertation, "Is there an appropriate role for Private Military Companies (PMCs) in the contemporary security context?" that was written by Clement Tracol, a student at Kingston University in London.

Like just about everyone else who studies this issue he acknowledges that private security services are a growing sector of activity, not to mention a profitable one. He notes it was valued in 2007 at around $139 billion and forecasted to be worth $230 billion by 2015.

One useful point he makes is that much of the argument over private security providers goes back to the classic argument, a la German sociology Max Weber, that it is the state which claims a monopoly on the use of force. Critics and opponents of PMC fear that outsourcing such functions to the private sector undercuts the contemporary state and returns us to a pre-modern era (Dark Ages anyone?) But Tracol argues that "the privatization of security does not necessarily stands in opposition to the state and does not inevitably erode its prerogative and power."

This is an important point which is surprisingly overlooked by most commentators; perhaps because they were asleep when the studied world history at school. After all, most people who study this issue understand that the privatization of violence was the historical norm, not the exception, and was the de facto mode of conflict, long before the modern state system was created.

More important, today's PMC industry benefits from neo-liberalism. The term has experienced many definitions since it was coined back in the 1920s but for our purpose it is sufficient to remember it calls for reducing state influence on the economy, especially by privatization.

"In today's neoliberal mode of governance, the market orientation has favoured private sector contribution in all spheres of the public sector. This process of outsourcing was particularly evident during the Thatcherism and Reaganomics policies of the 80s, and the privatisation of nationally owned industry (telecommunication and energy sector). The prescription for privatisation is motivated by the neo-liberal assumption that market competition ought to be the best tool to achieve service efficiency (both cost and delivery) and to avoid agency problems linked to politicians."

Tracol argues that the popularity of using PMC today is not just a case of economics, i.e., the argument that presumes they are cost-effective. Instead he argues that our understanding of security has changed:

"... the privatisation of security and its association with the idea to a return to a pre-modern era appears over simplistic. The public delegation of security to private actors is a phenomenon concomitant with a new understanding of security. It corresponds to a socio political movement that has rearticulated the place of the state, legitimized the emergence of the private security sector and argued for the participation of various actors (including commercial entities but not only NGOs, neighbour watch etc. as well) in the provision of security. It inscribes itself within the benefices brought about by the trans-sectorial and transnational neoliberal assumption of market governance. It cannot be reduced to a simple retraction of the state."

However, just because the thinking has evolved to a sort of let the market be all that it can be it does not mean that reliance on PMC is problem free. Here are a few potential downsides that Tracol envisions.

  • "Fighting for money is morally objectionable and also induces questioning over loyalty and commitment. Because the "just cause" does not seal the bound between the recipient of the service and the provider, money does it. The day that contractual disputes emerge or money runs out, PMCs may retract from their obligation.
  • In terms of functional interference, PMCs also add complexities in the balance of power. It is more difficult to calculate rival military capabilities with an open security market. The hiring of PMC could tip the balance of power, trigger fear or deter threat. This situation could extent to what could become a bidding race rather than a weapon race.
  • With a market for security, increased militarisation is more likely to happen. Indeed, because PMCs services range from intelligence analysis to direct tactical support, they both prescribe and supply services. In market dynamic, this particularity would rapidly result in an increased militarisation -the supplier being also the client advisor. The proliferation of security services does not necessarily induces an escalation of violence but at least certainly an increase in the means of producing violence."

For Tracol this means that:

"The mode of functioning of PMCs has clear consequences in the security environment. It contributes to the phenomenon of militarisation, generates confusion in the balance of power and produces patchy security coverage. Functional and moral objections are tenacious issues with PMCs that in turn, tend to reject them on the basis of pragmatism and efficiency."

Yet another negative is that increased reliance on PMC allows for today's contractor-warrior to be more engaged with those in politics who make decisions on whether to use force in the first place. Bear in mind that there is a traditional bright, shiny dividing line, at least in democracies between regular military forces and policymakers.

But that line becomes dim when PMC are used.

"Generally, military have a very restricted and formalized access to political forum. Indeed, the restriction of the role of the specialists of violence in the affair of the state is an important pillar of the democratic republican system. However, because of their corporate nature, PMCs representative, contrary to regular military personnel, are able to use a variety of unconventional channels to influence politics (advertising, campaigning, lobby). Lobbying for example would be swiftly decried if a military general try to influence a political decision, yet when the PMC international association ISOA [a Washington, D.C.-based industry trade association] embarked on a campaign calling for an intervention in Darfur, no restriction applies.<"

Tracol's conclusion is this:

"It is, we believe, the shaping of security understanding by private commercial entities that really undermines and threatens citizens' sovereignty. If the state looses its capacity to think for himself, and delegates its security understanding to PMCs, a paradoxical situation may arise; namely the increasing of private actors within the security domain and simultaneously, the shrinking of their legitimate normative functions."