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Privatizing security: talking with Lou Pingeot

National security entrusted to the market's private military and security companies can only address the symptoms, not the causes, of war and insecurity. Interview.

David Torres Pascual Lou Pingeot
5 November 2014
Blackwater-helicopter

A Blackwater helicopter flies over Baghdad. Michael Best/Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Private military and security companies (PMSCs) have become a relevant topic in international relations and in academic literature during the last decades: the case of Executive Outcomes in the 90s, the well-known actions of Blackwater in Iraq, and G4S controversial practices are good examples of it.

Furthermore, with the end of the Cold War, the privatization of some areas of security has been an increasingly important issue in the discipline of International Relations, in particular, the phenomenon of PMSCs: corporations which offer a variety of military and/or security services: armed and unarmed security, risk assessment, military training, logistical support, consultancy, etc. They have found a lucrative business in the market of security in conflict and post-conflict areas. PMSCs are a multifaceted, consolidated and growing phenomenon, fundamental to understand international relations and security in the new century.

Different studies show quantitative evidences regarding these private security industry: there are (1) a greater number of PMSCs offering their services, (2) a greater number of contracts between PMSCs and states, international organizations or other companies and (3) a greater number of PMSCs deployed in conflict and post-conflict situations. Some authors suggest that these quantitative changes go together with a new understanding of international security, more related to effectiveness and range, efficiency and zero-casualties war, and trying to disengage from the political and social component of security. Even within the discourse of human security, effectiveness and depoliticization are increasingly relevant concepts.

These companies have also been linked with the United Nations (UN), developing a history of cooperation with the organization since 1990. This controversial collaboration has rarely been an open discussion, both in the public and in academia (Gilje Ostensen, 2011: 5). However, in recent years, several studies attempt to illuminate this relationship. This is the case of the work of our interviewee, Lou Pingeot.

David Torres (DT): During recent years, there have been a lot of debates on the privatization of some areas of security, especially related to the increasing presence of PMSCs in the international arena. There are discussions about the legal status of these companies and their employees, the ethical implications of such companies, the role of the state in international military affairs or the importance of these companies in international security practices and discourses. Our conversation will focus mainly on the latter issue. In order to clarify concepts, what do you understand by international security and which actors are relevant in this issue?

Lou Pingeot (LP): PMSCs challenge the traditional conception of international security as mostly state-led (even though I think we should not think of PMSCs as actors that are completely autonomous from states). They also introduce a for-profit dimension into the international security arena, where actors usually argue that they are motivated by public interests (national security, etc.) rather than private interests. Of course PMSCs also use a public interest discourse.

On the concept of international security itself, I appreciate efforts to expand its meaning beyond “national security”, with for instance the introduction of “human security” or other initiatives. But I’m also wary of the possibility of securitizing everything. This is something I have witnessed at the UN, where the Security Council is tempted to take on an increasingly wide number of issues because they affect “international peace and security”. But can climate change, to mention one of these issues, be dealt with in an international security framework? Through the tools available to the Security Council? This leads to focusing on very specific aspects of the problem, such as climate refugees or competition over natural resources. These of course are very valid concerns, but they do not tell you much about the root causes of climate change. Securitization tends to decontextualize and depoliticize problems, and this is something that PMSCs very much participate in.

This is somewhat of a side-note but I also think it is important not to think in silos when we think about PMSCs: we shouldn’t look at PMSCs as a phenomenon that relates just to international security. PMSCs are also important in the resource extraction sector, for instance. They work for extraction companies that operate not necessarily in conflict/post-conflict zones but in places where their activities are contested by local communities and where the rule of law is sometimes shaky. And there has been a boom in the use of private security services by individuals in many countries, in particular in places with high inequality where the wealthy isolate themselves in gated communities. This type of activities seriously challenges the conception of security as a public good, which is also something that is happening at the international level.

DT: Former United States President Ronald Reagan, defending market's ability to attract the best of each sector, said that "the best minds are not in government. If any were, business would steal them away". Similarly, we observe that the development of PMSCs is leading to a transfer of officers, elite soldiers and other military and security professionals, from national armies to these companies. Considering the privatization process that has taken place in some parts of the world in sectors such as health or education, to what extent is this process reversible in the military and security field?

LP: I think what we are witnessing with the perceived “failure” of the public sector and the move to privatization is basically a self-fulfilling prophecy: the public sector in many cases is just not given the means to carry the mandate it has been given, and the private sector can then step in as an alternative solution. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy because the more public services get privatized the more the public sector just loses the capacity to do certain things. This raises the question of reversibility: can we put the genie back in the bottle? If you look at the US military it is clear that so much has been outsourced over decades, starting with things like feeding the troops, that you are not going to get back to a self-sustained US military. This does not mean that it is impossible to consider bringing at least some key activities back in house. But this would mean confronting an industry that has grown tremendously over the years and has a clear interest in not having anything brought back in-house. Lobbying of representatives and a revolving door between public and private sector can make it very difficult to change things.

DT: One of the leading figures of International Political Economy (IPE), Susan Strange (1998, 14), argued that the framework of knowledge and communication has changed because private companies have been those who have developed new technologies and knowledge. Since the nineties, in some regions of the world, the educational and technological systems have been led or heavily influenced by the private sector. However, Strange observed, this privatization process, based on deregulation, occurred with the consent or even the support of national governments: sometimes by their participation in the game and other times because of their lack of resistance to that process. What responsibility do the states have in the privatization of security that is taking place in recent decades?

Foreign policy is not very democratic as it is, but with PMSCs we have seen that it is even easier to obscure what is happening from the public.

LP: One of the misconceptions around PMSCs is that they are threatening the power of the state. You hear a lot about how they challenge the state “monopoly on the use” of force. This is similar to misconceptions about globalization as a phenomenon that states can’t regulate, when in fact globalization is largely the product of state regulation. Similarly PMSCs are very much the creatures of states: certain policies have deliberately favoured the rise of the PMSC industry. Just to give you an example: in France a couple of years ago the Parliament published a study arguing that the government should facilitate the emergence of a French private security industry that could compete with its US and British counterparts! The study added that these companies were great tools for the projection of state power abroad without actually involving the military. I think we are clearly facing an industry that did not appear through the magic of the invisible hand of the free market. So the problem is not so much that PMSCs are a threat to the state monopoly on the use of force. They are rather a threat to the democratic control of the use of force, i.e. the possibility for citizens to exercise some form of oversight over foreign policy. Foreign policy is not very democratic as it is, but with PMSCs we have seen that it is even easier to obscure what is happening from the public. In the US, for instance, the use of PMSCs has meant more control for the executive with less oversight from Congress. And we also know that PMSCs have been deliberately used by governments to make war more “palatable” to the public. A 2012 memo from the British Ministry of Defence on PMSCs argues that the public does not react to the death of contractors as strongly as it reacts to the death of troops.

DT: Following the previous argument, we can say that knowledge and communication are essential elements of the study of the global politics. Within the military and security world, Anna Leander (2005) suggests that PMSCs have achieved sufficient power to influence the security agenda. Due to this, they could behave as epistemic power experts with the capacity to build a framework favourable to their interests. Do you think, as Leander points out, that PMSCs have so much power to influence the context of security?

LP:What is impressive with the PMSC industry is that it is going “full circle”: PMSCs advise on military operations and security, they provide the services needed, and in the case of war they even provide the services to do reconstruction! In any given industry or sector if you have the same people defining what the needs are and providing the services to fulfill these needs you are witnessing a conflict of interest. And you are likely to see these perceived “needs” increase.

You’re not going to define security the same way if you see it as a public good or as a commodity that can be sold and bought. If you are selling “security”, your interest is to make it an excludable good, i.e. something that people who haven’t paid for it cannot enjoy. Your interest is not going to be to try and make a given situation generally less insecure, but just to keep your clients safe. So you are approaching the question of security with a very technical and decontextualized approach that may do nothing to build security on the long term.

If you consider that security is not a technical issue but very much linked to political, economic and social contexts, then who is defining and providing security matters. If the UN uses security advisors who have a background in the military (as many PMSC employees do) rather than a background in humanitarian aid, for instance, it is going to get a very different definition of security and what may be best to achieve it. So yes, I argue with Leander that PMSCs have the power to influence the security agenda.

However, I do not want to make it sound like PMSCs are super-powerful evil geniuses plotting world domination. This goes back to your question about the role of states in this process. Let’s not forget that the PMSC approach to security (as a technical and depoliticized issue) is not unique to PMSCs: in fact many people in government may share it. PMSCs did not emerge in an ideological vacuum. So in many cases PMSCs are not “lobbying” governments (or the UN) to adopt their worldview, but in fact this worldview has already been internalized.

DT: The UN is increasingly hiring PMSCs for a wide range of security services. You have some publications about this topic. One of your conclusions, and perhaps your main contribution to the study of PMSCs, is that hiring these companies by UN in peacekeeping operations has to do with a broader process, a process linked to changing mandates and harder security measures, called “bunkerization”. Could you explain this process?

LP: I usually try to present my research on UN use of PMSCs as involving two levels: on the first level, it is obvious that UN use of these companies doesn’t “look good” given their history and current activities. This is usually the point that strikes people most directly because it is pretty obvious you do not want the UN to hire a company that is also responsible for human rights abuses. But there is a second level that, to me, is almost more important: why is the UN hiring these companies to begin with? You have to take a step back and understand how we got to that point. What decisions were made? Who is responsible?

What I find so interesting with PMSCs is that they are at the nexus of many questions surrounding how the UN is evolving and what it may become in the future. If you start to unravel the question of why the organization is using PMSCs, you realize that these companies are just part of a set of new “hard” security measures that the UN has adopted in recent years. And if you take another step back you see that the UN has changed its security philosophy, from “when to go” to “how to stay”, and the organization is now more willing to stay in dangerous environments when it would have withdrawn in the past. And why is that the case? It is directly linked to mandates given to the UN by member states, who want to send and keep the organization in dangerous zones such as Iraq or Somalia. And these new mandates have generated their own discourse and philosophy, such as the concept of “integrated” mission (where the political, military and humanitarian components of UN operations are supposed to be brought together). But what does it mean when the UN politically supports a government that is contested while at the same time carrying “neutral” humanitarian work, as is the case in Somalia? Everyone recognizes that new mandates have changed the perception of the organization and that the UN flag is no longer a protection and has sometimes become a target. The concept of “robust peacekeeping”, with UN troops engaged in direct combat not just for self-protection but also to protect civilians or even to militarily support one side of a conflict (as in the Democratic Republic Congo) raises the same questions.

PMSCs are really a symptom of much wider problems. They allow the UN to provide a quick fix to security problems without challenging why they exist to begin with. Having strict regulation for UN use of PMSCs —or even banning the use of these companies by the organization— will not affect these dynamics, even if it may be seen as a step in the right direction.

DT: It is interesting to mention the development of an abundant academic literature that points out the necessity to regulate the private security market. There have also been attempts by some states and international organizations to develop regulatory initiatives in order to improve accountability through the industry (Montreux Document in 2008, International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers in 2010). However, you argue that this regulation process, even if it is useful, involves the risk of normalizing a certain conceptualization of security. In contrast, you recommend UN to look for alternatives. To what extent may both your recommendations and other critical studies about the phenomenon have institutional, academic and social influence? What could be a good way to find an alternative security conceptualization against the so-called complex and unmanageable privatization process?

LP:There is an eternal debate about whether it is better to promote international humanitarian law (which is supposed to regulate the behaviour of states in conflicts) or whether it is better to try and “abolish” war. PMSCs seem to generate similar discussions. For instance, there was some tension in the NGO community at the time the Code of Conduct for private security providers was being discussed: should we engage with the process, or is it going to be seen as legitimizing a flawed system (i.e. a voluntary code rather than binding regulation)? Isn’t a code better than nothing at all (which is somewhat currently the case)? So we are always making those calls between what we really want to achieve and what we think is feasible at a given moment. Right now there are people who are victims of human rights abuses by PMSCs and cannot get reparation. Of course you want them to have access to a proper justice system that can deal with such abuses, which requires some law to regulate PMSCs at the national or international level. Even a code might help. But can you just stop there? A legal approach is important but we also need to think about PMSCs as a political, social and economic phenomenon. Where did they come from and what do they say about the state of our society?

Where do PMSCs come from and what do they say about the state of our society?

I think if you conducted a poll in many of the societies that have used PMSCs in war zones you would find that people do not want their police force to be replaced by private contractors (popular mobilization against G4S in the UK seems to support this view). So why are we allowing private contractors to be sent to war zones in our name? For many people PMSCs are not a problem because they are operating “out there” and supposedly not impacting us. But there is a direct link between securitization abroad and securitization at home, and as we have seen with the militarization of police forces in the US what happens in war often tends to “come back home”. So I am hoping that people will stop seeing PMSCs as a far away, technical issue and start seeing them as symptomatic of how our societies are evolving. This goes back to the point I was making about silos: PMSCs are not just about security, they also say something about growing inequality, about how our economic system exploits natural resources, basically about what we want our societies to look like.

DT: Returning to the regulatory debate, Baker and Pattison (2012) state that if we implement an effective regulation system, we would have little reason to oppose the use of PMSC in interventions in order to defend human rights. Moreover, as Baker and Pattison argue, there may even be 'some' reasons to defend the use of private forces rather than state contingents (the freedom of choice offered to employees in a well regulated market), but recognizing that these arguments do not have a universal justification because they aren't strong enough. They conclude that contingent issues will determine the feasibility of using PMSC in humanitarian missions. What are the advantages of a market for security? And what are the limitations?

LP: The market can deliver many things, but we have learned that it is not very good at delivering public goods, such as health. There are sectors where a profit-based system does not work, because profit eventually becomes more important than actually providing the public service. I think we have enough experience with neoliberal privatization by now to say that some things have not worked. In fact some public administrations (and militaries) are now trying to move things back in-house, so there seems to be a swing of the pendulum in the other direction.

There is a fundamental difference between seeing security as a technical issue (to be solved by the market) and seeing it as a political issue (that requires public debate and intervention). If you see it as a technical issue, you are going to focus on risk-minimization, “hardening” targets and so on. If you see it as a political issue, you may wonder why insecurity exists to begin with, what may be its causes in society and in the economy, and you will work on eliminating its root causes rather than its symptoms (to present things simply). A market for security will always address the symptoms, not the causes. And that is not necessarily a problem, as long as you do not believe and say that the market is going to somehow fix insecurity. This is where the debate on the use of PMSCs in humanitarian operations comes in: even if we agree that PMSCs are not able to build peace and security on the long term, could we imagine a situation in which they could be used on the short term to address symptoms (i.e. human rights abuses)?

For me the most convincing argument from the PMSC industry is not that they (the market) are doing things better than the public sector: it’s that they can do things that the public sector doesn’t want to do. When they argue that such and such crisis could be solved by sending a few of their employees when no other government wants to act it is of course very powerful. But we have heard this discourse before; it is the same discourse as that of GMO corporations that argue they can solve famines in Africa. The “us or famine” or “us or genocide” discourse taps into the emotions of its audience so it is difficult to counter it. After all we are all against famine or genocide. But this is typical of the securitization discourse: it takes a situation at, say, point X, without looking at what happened at W, V, U, all the way back to A. Are GMO companies part of a system that creates famine in Africa? Are PMSCs part of a system that creates conflict in many parts of the world? These are questions that you do not ask if you are looking at the issue in a technical manner and at a point X where of course everyone wants to “do something”. If the problem in a conflict situation is that the state is not capable of insuring the security of its citizens and that security has been privatized (in the hands of militias, for instance), you may be kind of missing the point by sending PMSCs to protect the population. And we have seen from experience that these supposedly short and “technical” interventions can have disastrous effects (e.g. Somalia 1993), particularly if they are not thought out in the context of the causes of violence. Intervention sounds appealing, but to protect whom against whom? With what level of force? These questions cannot be solved by PMSCs.

DT: Another Republican US President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, during his famous farewell address, warned about the danger of the growing Military Industry Complex which, following his ambivalent stance known as progressive conservatism, was necessary to protect the American society but also dangerous because the industry would develop a power capable of depriving citizens of their political rights. The president pointed out that only a watchful and informed citizenry could politically control the huge industrial and military defence complex, in a way in which security and liberty may prosper together. To conclude, are we doomed to accept a tragic conception of politics and assume that privatization of security is a contemporary phenomenon that seems to come to stay, with lights and shadows but as a required issue to get involved in politics in the XXI century?

LP: If we understand that there was nothing inevitable about the situation we’re in right now (that in fact it was the product of many conscious decisions by states), then we can understand that there is nothing inevitable about it lasting. Again I think the parallel with globalization is interesting: we are constantly being told that states are not capable of regulating the globalized economy, in particular transnational corporations (TNCs), but right now these very states are negotiating a trade agreement (TAFTA, Transatlantic Free Trade Area) that would allow TNCs to sue states for implementing social and environmental legislation that could “affect” their profits! Once again this is a self-fulfilling prophecy, a case of impotence by design. I think we are facing a similar mechanism with PMSCs. The first thing we need to do is to recognize that privatization, like globalization, is not a magical phenomenon that happens out of the blue: it is very much driven and regulated by states. This means that we, as citizens of these states that are supposed to be democratic, should have something to say about these processes. When the French Parliament says France needs more PMSCs to project its power abroad and for its “national interest”, whose interest is that? Is this the interest of an ordinary citizen? Or is it the interest of large French TNCs? Eisenhower was right in saying that only an informed and engaged citizenry could counter the military-industrial complex, and that’s certainly a daunting task to mobilize people around these issues. But we should not think that we have no influence or power on the privatization of security. 

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