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MercenariesThe History of a Norm in International Relations$

Sarah Percy

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780199214334

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2008

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199214334.001.0001

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Conclusion

Conclusion

Chapter:
(p.244) Conclusion
Source:
Mercenaries
Author(s):

Sarah Percy (Contributor Webpage)

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199214334.003.0009

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter presents a synthesis of the discussions in the preceding chapters. It shows that the norm against mercenary use has explained four different puzzles in international history. First, anti-mercenary feeling can help illustrate why states gained control over the independent mercenary and established a controlled international trade in mercenaries. Second, it can help explain why, even though the controlled trade in private fighters was effective, it was abandoned in favour of citizen armies across Europe in the 19th century. Third, it is impossible to understand why international law on mercenaries is so flawed without understanding that states were attempting to adhere to a very strong norm against mercenary use which was difficult to translate into law, and was simultaneously supported by the norms of national self-determination and undermined by the norms of state responsibility and freedom of movement. Fourth, the growth of PMCs, their disappearance, and the rise of PSCs cannot be understood without understanding the normative obstacles modern-day mercenaries face, and the international community's response to the emergence of PMCs is likewise impossible to understand without attention to widespread normative discomfort with the use of private force.

Keywords:   anti-mercenary norm, mercenaries, international law, PMC, PSC

Mercenaries and their employers must constitute one of the quintessential love-hate relationships of international politics. Private fighters have always been useful, but those in a position to make decisions about which type of force to use have never accepted them with wholehearted enthusiasm. Mercenaries have often been hired only out of desperation or despair. Moral reservations about the advisability of using a soldier motivated only by financial gain have been coupled with a belief that only certain actors within a polity and among polities are entitled to use force at all. In the medieval period, the church-sanctioned use of violence was restricted to the nobility, and by the end of the seventeenth century the sovereign state took for itself the aristocratic right to wage war. Even though rulers have loved the idea of hiring soldiers only when necessary, they (and their people) simultaneously hated the resort to private actors who were connected to the cause for which they were hired to fight by money only, and who, by retaining the right to wage war for themselves, challenged the institution of war itself.

On the employer side, states, kings, popes, princes, and other rulers who have been in a position to hire mercenary force have never been able to do so without constraint. Sometimes, the constraints on employers have been externally imposed, by the ‘popular control’ aspect of the norm. Public opinion turned against mercenary use in nineteenth century Europe and remained strongly opposed to the use of private force across the world during the twentieth century, and remains opposed today. Public moral disapproval has been shared privately by employers themselves. The external constraints on employers have mainly been moral, based on a belief that to fight for money, without sharing the goals of the hiring group, is problematic. In medieval Europe, mercenaries upset the social order because they did not fight for a just cause. In renaissance Italy, Machiavelli feared the condottieri on republican grounds, believing that mercenaries undermined the fabric of the republic because they prevented the citizens of the republic from doing their civic duty and fighting for the state, and because their selfish motivation meant that they could never be as effective as citizens. Machiavelli's republican opposition to mercenaries can be traced directly through history to today's objections about (p.245) PSCs. The American revolutionaries, the French revolutionaries, Prussian reformers, and Victorian Britons all argued that fighting for a financial, selfish motive rather than out of patriotism or devotion to the national cause would not only make mercenaries poorer soldiers, but would make society itself poorer by ignoring the duty the citizen has to serve the state.

Employers also faced self-imposed constraints on the use of private force. These constraints stem from the ‘authoritative control’ aspect of the norm against mercenary use. Even in its earliest days, the use of mercenaries had to be controlled to be remotely tenable. A free-ranging, freewheeling system of freelance soldiers could (and did) lead to mayhem and social disorder. Employers chose to use mercenaries under increasingly constrained circumstances to avoid these problems. In medieval Europe, states developed prototype standing armies and began to hire foreigners only as part of long-standing alliance arrangements with other states. By the end of the seventeenth century, as states across Europe had grown stronger, the independent mercenary contractor no longer existed and the mercenary industry was a state-to-state-based exchange of troops based on bilateral agreements. Employers wanted control over private force for practical reasons, as uncontrolled mercenaries were dangerous to both states and individuals, but also for moral reasons.

The idea that only certain groups in society have the right to wage war is an old one, although it has taken many forms. The argument that only nobles, or the rulers of sovereign states, or the governments of sovereign states, have the right to use force is a highly normative argument. The right to use force is located in the hands of the few, and that right is buttressed and justified by normative ideas, like the medieval social order or raison d’état or the divine right of kings or the theory of the sovereign state. As long as independent mercenaries existed, they challenged these norms as well as posing genuine practical problems for rulers.

Mercenaries, as employees, have also been constrained by the norm against the use of private force. These constraints have often come in the form of contracts, whether between a mercenary captain and a city-state, between a state and another state, between a mercenary and a colonial power, or a PMC and a troubled state. But these constraints have often been more explicitly moral and deeply condemnatory. Medieval mercenaries were excommunicated and penalized by the Church. Italian condottieri were castigated by renaissance humanists and often became citizens of the states that hired them. The Swiss turned their backs on their mercenary past in 1848 by outlawing the long Swiss tradition of exporting mercenaries, succumbing to the arguments of nationalists and humanists like Zwingli. The mercenary of 1960s and 1970s Africa was forced to act at the margins of respectability, often for causes lacking international support or completely illegal, like the raising of troops for coups d’état. (p.246) PMCs and PSCs have had to struggle to overcome the mercenary label to develop effective business, and their prospects are greatly constrained by the ongoing belief that to use mercenaries is simply immoral.

We have seen how the norm against mercenary use has constrained states in deciding whether or not to use private force, and how to compose their armies. The norm against mercenary use has also made life more difficult for mercenaries themselves, shaping the kinds of opportunities available and so the kind of mercenary best able to meet those opportunities. The condottieri, the Hessians, and today's PMCs and PSCs had and have a particular construction so as not to upset, or to challenge only minimally, prevailing beliefs about who has the right to wage war.

The norm against mercenary use has explained four different puzzles in international history. First, anti-mercenary feeling can help illustrate why states got control over the independent mercenary and established a controlled international trade in mercenaries. Second, the norm against mercenary use can help explain why, even though the controlled trade in private fighters was effective, it was abandoned in favour of citizen armies across Europe in the nineteenth century. Third, it is impossible to understand why international law on mercenaries is so flawed without understanding that states were attempting to adhere to a very strong norm against mercenary use which was difficult to translate into law, and was simultaneously supported by the norms of national self-determination and undermined by the norms of state responsibility and freedom of movement. Fourth, the growth of PMCs, their disappearance, and the rise of PSCs cannot be understood without understanding the normative obstacles modern-day mercenaries face, and the international community's response to the emergence of PMCs is likewise impossible to understand without attention to widespread normative discomfort with the use of private force.

The norm against mercenary use not only helps explain these four puzzles, but also reveals three further points about the role of norms in international politics. First, the norm against mercenary use is a good example of a soft, uncodified norm. The norm against mercenary use has only been formally codified recently, and the resulting law is unwieldy and unworkable. The persistence of the norm against mercenary use suggests that norms do not need to be formally or effectively codified in order to retain an influence over state behaviour. Moreover, the relationship between law and norms is not straightforward. A strong underlying norm can still result in weak and ineffective law.

Second, the norm against mercenary use flies in the face of certain expectations of state behaviour. The rationalist view of norms, outlined in Chapter 1, would be perfectly consistent with the control aspect of the norm. States (p.247) have created a norm about the control of private force because it serves their needs by diminishing the negative effects of private fighters and enhancing their potential benefits. But what we have seen is that the appropriate cause and popular control components of the norm are far more important. The belief that mercenaries ought to be controlled or outlawed because there is something morally problematic about killing for money rather than ideals has played a large part in all four of the puzzles addressed in this book. States have had a long history of making decisions about which type of force to use on the basis of an ethical objection to mercenaries and their financial motivation. Their citizens have had a long history of worrying about whether using private force upsets popular control over the decision to wage war. We have seen states and regimes of all kinds and from all eras thinking ethically about which type of force to use and seeking to control mercenaries tightly or outlaw them outright on moral grounds. The long history of ethical objections to mercenaries suggests that states are indeed profoundly influenced by moral beliefs about war.

The norm against mercenary use is also an excellent example of a norm with a ‘dark side’.1 Norms are not always useful, good, or functional. They can lead states down negative or inefficient paths just as they can lead states to agreement and positive outcomes. The norm against mercenary use is in many ways a puritanical norm, which no longer applies to the actual behaviour that it initially regulated. Our moral dislike of mercenaries may no longer be grounded in the realities of mercenary behaviour, and the potential benefits of private force may be obscured by the great strength of the anti-mercenary norm.

Notes:

(1) Tannenwald (forthcoming).