The Market for Force: The Consequences of Privatizing Security

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The flourishing role of the private sector in security management over the last twenty years has challenged state control of the legitimate use of force. Deborah Avant examines the privatization of security and its impact on the control of force. She describes the growth of private security companies, explains how the industry works, and describes its range of customers—including states, non-government organizations and commercial transnational corporations. Avant also charts the inevitable trade-offs that the market for force imposes on the states, firms and people wishing to control it, and suggests a new way to think about the control of force.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Deborah Avant has written a sensible corrective to the hype and hyperbole that has accompanied the study of mercenaries. She shows how private military companies are a part of the everyday workings of national military establishments, and provides prescient warnings about the impact of excessive outsourcing in this area. Avant provides an alarming message that over-reliance on private forces undermines the spirit and commitment that make effective national militaries work. In doing so, Avant shows how a public ethic is an integral part of what makes national militaries successful and how this is missing in private military companies."
William S. Reno, Northwestern University

"This fine study—rigorous in methodology, sweeping in its empirical domain and variety of data sources, and theoretically inspired to transcend the events of the day—does what all good scholarship should do: It informs, casts into doubt sweeping generalizations and conventional wisdom, and will promote and sometimes correct the next wave of security studies and international relations theory."
Perspectives on Politics, K.J. Holsti, University of British Columbia

"Avant's work provides two overarching benefits. First and foremost, it should be studied by the nation's strategic and political leaders. As the United States has taken the lead role in fostering the supply of and demand for PSCs, it would behoove these decision-makers to better comprehend the domestic and international ramifications of such actions. Second, for those interested in further study of PSCs at any level, The Market for Force acts as an outstanding repository of research for every aspect of the topic."
Parameters, Major Richard M. Wrona, Jr., US Military Academy

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521615358
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 6/30/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 328
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Deborah D. Avant is Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Institute for Global and International Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University. She is the author of Political Institutions and Military Change: Lessons From Peripheral Wars (1994) and of numerous articles.

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Read an Excerpt

Cambridge University Press
0521850266 - The Market for Force - By Deborah D. Avant


. . . a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory


. . .the extent to which the state has a monopoly of physical force and the extent to which the use of physical force is legitimate are variables, not elements of a definition.


It is common sense that the control, sanctioning, and use of violence fall to states. Weber's definition of the state is the obvious starting point in most investigations and even those who argue that globalization and the rise of non-state actors have affected vast portions of the world's political arena generally assume that coercive power still resides with the state. Private security activity in the last two decades, though, should lay waste to this conventional wisdom. When the US won a resounding victory against the Iraqi Army in 2003, one out of every ten people it deployed to the theater during the conflict were employed by private security companies (PSCs) performing the work (logistics, operational support of weapons systems, and training) that used to be done by military personnel.3 As lawlessness followed the fall of the Iraqi government and coalition forces were stretched thin, an "army" of private security personnel flooded into the country. Some were hired by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to train the Iraqi police force, the Iraqi army, and a private Iraqi force to guard government facilities and oil fields. Other PSCs worked for the US Army translating and interrogating prisoners, or for Parsons providing security for employees rebuilding oil fields, or for ABC News or the Research Triangle Institute or any of a number of international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) working in the country. By spring 2004, it was estimated that in excess of 20,000 private security personnel, mostly retired military or police from countries as varied as Chile, Fiji, Israel, Nepal, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States, employed by some sixty different PSCs worked for the US government, the British government, the CPA, private firms and INGOs in that country.4 The role of PSCs in the Iraqi occupation was thrust into the public eye when four private security personnel working for the US PSC, Blackwater, were killed and mutilated on 31 March 2004 and when contracted interrogators working for CACI and Titan were among those implicated in the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison.5

The role of private security in Iraq is simply the latest chapter in the private security boom. While the state's monopoly Weber wrote about was exaggerated from the start and there has been a role for the private sector in security for some time, in the last two decades that role has grown and is larger and different now than it has been since the foundation of the modern state. Private security companies now provide more services and more kinds of services including some that have been considered core military capabilities in the modern era. Also, changes in the nature of conflicts have led tasks less central to the core of modern militaries (such as operating complex weapons systems and policing) to be closer to the front and center of maintaining security, and private security companies provide these services readily. Furthermore, states are not the only organizations that hire security providers. Increasingly transnational non-state actors (INGOs, multi-national corporations, and others) are financing security services to accomplish their goals. A burgeoning transnational market for force now exists alongside the system of states and state forces.

Private security and the control of force: the question

Why should we worry - or even care - about this market? The answer is simple, private security may affect how and whether people can control violence. The effort to contain violence within collective structures - rules, laws, norms, and institutions - has been an ongoing struggle throughout human history. "War," John Keegan writes, "is not the continuation of politics by other means," we only wish that were so. He argues that Clausewitz's dictum was part of a theory of what war ought to be.6 Clausewitz's conception reflected the emerging view in the west that the state - or the "public" sphere - was the institution through which the use of violence could be most effectively linked to endeavors endorsed by a collective. The endurance of references to Clausewitz indicates the degree to which state control of force (though often imperfect) has provided the best (even if highly uneven) mechanism human kind has known for linking the use of violence to political processes and social norms within a territory. How privatization affects this control, then, is a critical question. Does the privatization of security undermine state control of violence? Can the privatization of security enhance state control of violence? Does the privatization of security chart new ways by which violence might be collectively controlled? How does private security affect the ability to contain the use of force within political process and social norms?

The contracting out of sovereign transactions poses grave difficulties.


Preying on the vulnerability of kleptocratic regimes, corporate armies are repackaging violence in pseudo-market frills, with their eyes firmly set on creating safe havens around enclaves that are rich in natural resources.

Musah and Fayemi8

My division . . . employs expatriates with military skills . . . all moral and professional people with a mission to protect the personnel and assets of our clients . . . To do this we inject millions of dollars into the local economy each year, employ and provide training and opportunities to nearly two thousand local people on equitable salaries . . . [and] contribute considerably to economic efficiency and the ability of the diplomatic, humanitarian and formal business community to safely fulfill their tasks.


As these statements attest, the implications of privatizing security for the control of force are debated. Pessimists claim that the turn to private security threatens to undermine state control and democratic processes.10 Ken Silverstein characterizes this process as one "by which the responsibilities of government are transferred to corporate hands."11 In the US this allows for foreign policy by proxy - where corporate entities do what the government cannot. The implication of Silverstein's argument is that the institutions that contain violence in the US are undermined by privatization. Violence becomes a private commodity rather than a public good - and the result, Silverstein argues, is a defense policy that ignores the real issues and threats only to be shaped by "the profit motives and egos of a small group of hardliners."12 In Africa, according to Musah and Fayemi, the consequences are even more severe. Though contemporary mercenaries attempt to distinguish themselves from the lawless " guns for hire" that ran riot over Africa during the Cold War, their consortium with arms manufacturers, mineral exploiters, and Africa's authoritarian governments and warlords sustains the militarization of Africa.13 This poses "a mortal danger to democracy in the region."14 Unregulated private armies linked to international business interests threaten to undermine democracy and development in Africa.

Optimists, however, declare that private options offer solutions to intractable security problems that can operate within national interests and/or the values shared by the international community.15 In the US, Eliot Cohen argues, privatizing security services can help governments make the most of advances in information technology in the civilian economy and manage in a complex world with fewer troops.16 David Shearer argues that in Africa and elsewhere PSCs willing to take on messy intervention tasks that western militaries are eager to avoid can help end civil conflicts that would otherwise be intractable.17 He argues that rather than outlawing PSCs, the international community should engage them, give them a legitimate role, and expect them to operate as professionals, according to the values held by the international social system.18 Doug Brooks proposes that a consortium of PSCs could bring years of peacekeeping experience and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) level professionalism to protect vulnerable populations in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC); they could also train local gendarmes in policing and human rights so as to build a more professional local force.19
Who is right?

Private security and the control of force: the answer

I began research on this book intending to bring data to this dispute - to see whether optimists or pessimists provided the best guide to private security's implications. I found evidence, though, that supported both arguments. I soon realized that both arguments could be "right" because their arguments hinge on different conceptions of " control" and often hold private security alternatives to different comparative standards. Ken Silverstein is worried about political control - who gets to decide about the deployment of arms and services. Eliot Cohen, though, is worried about functional control, or what kinds of capabilities will be present in American arms and services. Musah and Fayemi are also worried about political control, who calls the shots about the use of force - but unlike Silverstein, they are comparing privatization with a democratic ideal, not current African "public" forces. Finally, Shearer is worried about functional control - are forces capable for meeting current challenges that the international community (not just the US) sees and social control - the degree to which the use of force is integrated with prevailing international values.

Each of these definitions is problematic because they all ignore the fact that ultimately all three dimensions of control (and how they fit together) hold the key to controlling violence. Indeed, the control of force has been most stable, effective, and legitimate when all three aspects have reinforced one another - when capable forces have been governed by accepted political processes and operated according to shared values. Furthermore, any serious evaluation of privatization's impact must compare private alternatives against a common standard - most suitably the other available alternatives rather than an unachievable ideal.

To find a common framework with which to examine these different dimensions of control, I draw on the "new institutionalism," a diverse set of theory drawing from distinct "logics" in economics and sociology, but united by an interest in institutional mechanisms and how they affect collective outcomes. Juxtaposing economic and sociological institutionalist arguments, I argue that privatization's effect on the capability of forces and the values they serve should vary. Privatization sometimes leads to greater capabilities, other times to lesser capabilities, and sometimes leads to more, sometimes less integration of violence with prevailing international values. Inevitably, however, privatization should redistribute power over the control of violence, both within states and between state and non-state actors. In effect, the shift to private guardians changes who guards the guardians.

The key question, though, is how privatization affects the way these dimensions of control fit together. Do the political changes introduced by privatization engender needed capabilities governed by acceptable political processes that operate according to shared values? I argue that this is most likely when the consequential mechanisms economists pay attention to: screening and selection, monitoring, and sanctioning, work together with the mechanisms for transmitting appropriateness sociologists pay attention to: norms, standards, education, and practices among security professionals, creating something like an equilibrium outcome. When they work against one another, they present individuals with multidirectional imperatives and opportunities, portending friction, instability, and change.

A fundamental intervening variable in my analysis is the varying capacities of states. Strong states that are coherent, capable, and legitimate to begin with are best able to manage the risks of privatization and harness the PSCs to produce new public goods, but they also have the most to lose if privatization tips the ledger and undermines the capacities of public forces or legitimacy of foreign policy. Weak states with ineffective and corrupt forces potentially have the most to gain (or the least to lose) from privatization, but also are the least able to manage private forces for the public good - efforts to harness the private sector for state building in weak states are often desperate gambles.

I illustrate this argument and demonstrate its usefulness by looking at three ways in which private security has changed political control. I begin by looking at state contracts for the delivery of security services. How do these contracts compare with the execution of policy with regular security forces? I then explore states' attempts to control the export of private security services. Can states control the security services that emanate from their territories? Finally, I examine non-state actors' financing security. Does non-state financing of security enhance or erode the control of violence?

I find that changes in political control frequently introduce new dynamics that destabilize the "fit" between functional, political, and social control of force. Thus even as it enhances the capacities of individual states and responds to new social demands, the market for force has often led to less stable control over force. The institutional model I put forth, though, suggests a strategy of action for those interested in generating more stable control - working toward continuity between norms, standards, monitoring, and sanctions.

In the rest of this chapter, I describe the current market for force, define some key terms, compare this market to previous ones, and look briefly at its origins.

A transnational market for military and security services

Private security companies provide military and security services to states, international organizations, INGOs, global corporations, and wealthy individuals. Every multi-lateral peace operation conducted by the UN since 1990 included the presence of PSCs. States that contracted for military services ranged from highly capable states like the US to failing states like Sierra Leone. Meanwhile, global corporations hired PSCs to provide site security and planning, and INGOs working in conflict zones or unstable territories did the same. Since the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States, the war on terrorism has offered even greater opportunities for the private security industry. This is evident not only in Iraq - where PSCs are the second largest member of the "coalition of the willing" - but also in the growing presence of PSCs in the new jobs that accompany the war on terrorism, interrogators and interpreters, for instance.20

The number of private security providers burgeoned during the 1990s. Trade in military and security services is not a category tracked by military or trade databases, so the data for this growth are rather piecemeal, but nonetheless compelling. Private industry projections suggested in 1997 that revenues from the global international security market (military and policing services in international and domestic markets) would rise from $55.6 billion in 1990 to $202 billion in 2010.21 Recent estimates suggest that the 2003 global revenue for this industry was over $100 billion.22 Private security companies with publicly traded stocks grew at twice the rate of the Dow Jones Industrial Average in the 1990s.23 Between 1994 and 2002 US-based PSCs received more than 3,000 contracts worth over $300 billion from the US Department of Defense.24

News reports of mercenary and/or private security activity have mushroomed. Some document the activities of individual soldiers of fortune, frequently linked with international criminal networks that profit from shady deals in the extractive sectors (diamonds, oil, timber, coltan, and other minerals) or in the market for illicit drugs and sex. During the Democratic Republic of Congo/Zaire civil war, the white legions (composed of Serbian and other European individuals) made the press frequently and in Chechnya, similar reports abound.25 More frequently, however, reported "mercenary" activity is the activity of firms that offer security and military services. Well over two hundred such companies made the news between 1995 and 2004. Private firms trained militaries in more than forty-two countries during the 1990s. Some claim that several hundred companies globally operate in over one hundred countries on six continents.26 While older companies such as Vinnell, Booz Allen Hamilton, Defense Systems Limited (DSL), DynCorp, and Cubic are still active, many of the highest profile firms (including MPRI - now part of L-3 Communications and Blackwater) have been established since 1985. Table 1.1 lists these firms organized by the services they provide and the countries from which their employees are generally drawn.27

Though the table catalogues PSCs by country, as with global corporations more generally, many PSCs defy easy national classification. Take DSL as an example. It began as a British firm (founded in 1981 by General Sir David Ramsbotham) but was purchased by a publicly held American conglomerate called Armor Holdings in 1997 and became ArmorGroup.28 Most of its employees that operate out of its London office are former British Special Air Services (SAS), but the company also draws on retired US military personnel and local personnel in its offices all over the world. In 2000 ArmorGroup had offices in the US, the UK, South Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo/Zaire, Mozambique, Kenya, West Africa, North Africa, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Hong Kong, Nepal, Asia, the Philippines, France, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Brazil, and regional managers in Europe and the CIS, Russia, Latin American, Southern Africa, Central Africa, North Africa, the Far East, and the Middle East.29 In most of the regional offices, a small expatriate core with mostly British military background employs predominantly local personnel. DSL works according to local laws and with local personnel, but its behavior in one area affects its reputation worldwide.

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

1 Introduction 1
2 Private security and the control of force 40
3 State capacity and contracting for security 81
4 Dilemmas in state regulation of private security exports 143
5 Private financing for security and the control of force 178
6 Market mechanisms and the diffusion of control over force 219
7 Conclusion 253
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