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Warlordism Through the Looking Glass Research Paper

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Updated: Nov 12th, 2020


The aim of this research is to analyze whether warlords represent a new form of resistance to West’s attempts to impose neo-imperialism, or whether they are simply criminal individuals who undermine the already weak states’ capabilities. In analyzing this question, the paper particularly focuses on liberal, constructivist, and Marxist IR theories, discusses the liberalist account on warlords as non-state actors, identifies the paradoxical nature of liberalist attempts, scrutinizes constructivism, Marxism, and their stances on the perception of warlords, and examines a case study to find the pragmatic implications.

MacKinlay suggested that although the term ‘warlord’ historically portrayed a definite phase of Chinese history, in a contemporary context, it rematerialized as a tag, and the word now defines a person who gathers power and assets for private purposes through the use of militia under situations where a country is powerless (49). Wilén argued that warlords are conventionally seen as atrocious, custom breaching, and profit-hunting people who mostly employ defenseless persons into their channels in order to gain a competitive advantage over the other belligerent groups within the warring territory (185). On the other hand, some authors define warlords as leaders who are autonomous from governmental command and who build and organize a personal militia to preserve their control; moreover, it is suggested that the key difference between a warlord and a businessperson is that the latter never uses force to attain his goals, whilst the former uses aggression to accumulate wealth. The wealth of the warlords hardly provides any benefit to the inhabitants, and they rather terrorize the citizens who refuse to offer any mitigating benefits; nevertheless, certain warlords create proto-states that have civilian governments and proffer ad hoc services, which in turn often give them partial legitimacy.

Warlords as a Form of Resistance against Western Neo-Imperialism

At this stage of the paper, through the use of critical arguments to explain the theories, it shall be considered whether at all the warlords characterize a new type of resistance to the Western attempts of imposing neo-imperialism over the weaker or warring states. Even though realism typically excludes the study of warlords, they still have huge influences over a country’s foreign relationships and international performances; in fact, it is now debated whether the nations are the mere players in the continuously emerging global problems, or whether there is a presence of numerous non-state contributors as well (Baylis et al. 162). This debate is further inspired by nations that fail to fit within Max Weber’s characterization of a nation as a human community, and since warlords shatter a country’s monopoly power on the use of aggression denying that the nation has the sole authority over its territory, they represent the non-state contributors whom the realist theories have typically excluded.

Consequently, warlords have a noteworthy role not just in directing or controlling the extent of the conflicts, but also in creating a barrier to the admittance of external imperialists because they have strong authority on the natural resources of the locality, which allows them to gather more assets than the external aggressors or existing national leaders (Baylis et al. 163). Warlords are able to exert greater authority on considerable parts of the population when national leaders are unable to extend their control; for example, Wilén considered that during a Liberian civil conflict, Charles Taylor had huge powers to form a parallel state (dubbed as Taylorland), which was the crucial part of the economy and international relations during the period (12).

MacKinlay strongly promoted the idea that even though warlords make illegitimate use of their authority exploiting the wealth of the warring states through unpleasant actions and misdeeds; these local leaders carry out significant social functions, which, for example, include endorsing the religion, preserving the local culture, and safeguarding certain features of the primeval contour of the neighborhood (49). At the same time, the author further added that the preservation of the social features of the locality in this way often acts as the key resistance against the western neo-imperialists to poke into the territorial integrity and exert their control.

Are Warlords Criminal Individuals Undermining Weak States’ Capabilities?

Whilst many warlords have been tried before the International Criminal Court (ICC) and other war crimes tribunals like International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) as war criminals, as it has been discussed earlier, their activities as local leaders and de facto governments cannot be broadly labeled as being criminal in nature. Therefore, the first argument is that warlords are not simply criminal individuals, whereas the second argument, as it shall be seen in the subsequent parts of this paper, is that even in cases where their activity is wholly criminal in nature, it may not be solely directed to undermine the capabilities of the already weak states. The first argument can be expanded by saying that often the byproduct of their actions is the preservation of local culture, heritage, and natural resources from neo-imperialism from the West. As argued earlier, in certain circumstances, the warlords even come up with parallel states having civilian governments and offering ad hoc services in order to give them some legitimacy apart from their coercive actions, and such a practice, in turn, can temporarily relieve the local population from the effects of war.

Wilén argued that liberalism stresses on the impact of globalization over the international relations and highlights on the fact that both these factors are mutually dependent because of expanding markets and growing trade; nevertheless, the effect of globalization is not just restricted to lawful and genuine markets, but rather, it now greatly extends to criminal networks throughout the world (12). Consequently, warlords can gather enormous power and wealth not just by exploiting the already weak states or by taking advantage of the flaws in their competencies, but also by gaining a benefit from globalization and the expanding markets and augmenting trade and commerce. As a resultant effect, expanding markets allow warlords to buy and sell commodities throughout the globe (even in extremely inaccessible places); moreover, they continue to take advantage of valuable natural resources in the locality, attracting foreign imperialists on the spot, but it is never easy for invaders to take the control since the ultimate authority rests with the local leader. On the other hand, Wilén also suggested that fast-growing markets allow warlords to undermining weak states’ capabilities as well, since now they can purchase small and light weapons through the internet, and the arrival of so many weapons within the territory have a greatly pessimistic influence on the ongoing disputes inside the country by boosting violence in peaceful areas (187).

Liberal, Constructivist, and Marxist IR Theories

Although liberal theories have been briefly discussed previously, in the following sub-segments of this research, the activities of the warlords should be analyzed more methodically in the light of the liberal, constructivist, and Marxist IR theories.

Liberalism Account on Warlords as Non-State Actors

Whilst liberal IR theory recognizes non-state actors like warlords, it asserts that nations are the main actors; it discovers that there is an agenda in global politics that enables the entry of warlordism into international relations – moreover, commercial liberalism sees warlords’ wealth in light of free trade in a capitalist economy, which allows them to privatize funds (Baylis et al. 124)

Paradoxical Nature of Liberalism Attempts

There is a paradox in liberalist attempts to democratize the world whilst warlords are continuously emerging because liberalism, in one hand, intends to promote free trade and free markets, whilst, at the same time, discourages warlordism – however, both cannot happen simultaneously, since warlordism flourishes in free markets (Beswick and Jackson 139).

Constructivism, Marxism, and Their Stance on the Perception of Warlords

Marxism sees economic arrangements as the key driver of politics, and believes that capitalist system facilitates the ‘rich to get richer’ and the ‘poor to get poorer’; therefore, from the Marxist standpoint, although warlords do not belong to the core state, they embrace the state’s capitalist and free-market approach to extort power and money (Baylis et al. 142). Marxism would consider warlord as a person who forces people to manufacture more products, forming the base of the economy; moreover, warlords would sell the items on capitalist markets to gather more wealth, without assisting the local laborers; thus, by the accretion of wealth, they would manage to obtain more power, and the circle shall continue (Baylis et al. 143).

Mills argued that from a Marxist perspective, by establishing the new means of aggression, the warlords start to direct the main means of production and accumulate private property; in addition, Marx condemned the separation of public and private assets, as this is a ‘fake’ partition formed by capitalists (in this case, the warlords) to obtain more wealth from the public (12). Thus, under the authority of the warlords, the country turns into the dominant extractor of wealth from the citizens, and the new political platform coerces people for private benefits in a similar way, deceiving people more autocratically with the use of threats and violence. According to Marxist IR theories, absence of collective benefit over private benefit is the most distinctive and dangerous feature of warlord politics in the disputing state, as the people of the country can no longer benefit from any form of social security, human rights, or even the fundamental rights they are entitled to due to their membership of the state.

Conversely, constructivism highlights the significance of investigating ideational aspects of international relations, and the major suggestion of social constructivism is that the congregate ideas are socially formulated and thus are capable to adapt in diverse circumstances; from these, identity is one of the notions that has been socially devised and so is flexible to diverging circumstances (Baylis et al. 160). Warlords frequently apply identity to mobilize and employ armed forces in their private militia, and to generate antagonism amongst diverse belligerent groups to accumulate personal wealth – thus, their role can be easily compared to that of the ‘identity entrepreneur’ – the one who finds it enviable, lucrative, or otherwise utilitarian to produce and strengthen the group identities (MacKinlay 50).

Like identity entrepreneurs, warlords would also try to make use of unstable circumstances by reinforcing existing identities, and this technique was used to strengthen the aggression between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda to mobilize the genocide, by generating intimidation of execution and nourishing it with dialogues and symbols (Baylis et al. 168). Moreover, warlords also formulate identities to create ‘new identities’ with ‘fighter names’ for children in the armed forces, who are employed in their channels and are compelled to cut family ties – such reformulation of identity is believed to make them less accountable for dreadful activities, and more efficient as fighters, as their conventional social background is eradicated (MacKinlay 58).

Case Study

British Broadcasting Company has reported a case of a twelve-year-old boy in Sierra Leone, who can stand as an example of a child fighter being given a new identity with a fighter name by the warlord to strengthen the existing aggression (1). He was compelled to participate actively in planned ambushes, and he and other fighters of his group had to wait for opponent belligerents by being fully equipped with heavy weapons and artilleries throughout the day; in certain cases, the warlord also forced him to trade marijuana or cocaine within the grieve-stricken population and ensured that he detaches all family relationships.


It can be deduced that warlords provide some degree of resistance to Western neo-imperialism, and they are mostly criminal individuals who take advantage of weak states; however, certain benefits of preservation of local heritage may ensue as an offshoot of their actions. Under Marxist IR theories, warlords can broadly be labeled as coercive capitalists, and there is a contradiction in the liberalist attempts to eradicate warlordism and promote free trade concurrently.

Works Cited

Baylis, John, et al. The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Beswick, ‎ Danielle, and Paul Jackson. Conflict, Security and Development: An Introduction. Routledge, 2013.

British Broadcasting Company. BBC, Web.

MacKinlay, John. “Defining Warlords.” International Peacekeeping, vol. 7, no. 1, 2000, pp. 48-62.

Mills, Wright. The Power Elite. Oxford University Press, 1956.

Wilén, Nina. Justifying Interventions in Africa: (De)Stabilizing Sovereignty in Liberia, Burundi and the Congo. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

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