The state monopoly on the discourse and delivery of security has been significantly eroded but its authority over the use of security is still strong. In contrast to common opinion, private security companies (PSCs) are actually a potential tool for states to remain relevant in global politics as such companies provide tools states can’t attain, which can deal with increasingly transnational global politics. Therefore, the erosion of the state’s monopoly on security is inevitable but it can still have a significant role. However, in order to utilise PSCs effectively, states must ensure that they retain a large level of control over them whilst ensuring that they are accountable to civil society. This requires reforms to international law and internal processes of accountability to more rigorously regulate the private security market so that it does not become a free-for-all with PSCs being used whimsically.




There is a clear trend in global security, which is that PSCs are growing exponentially in both scale and power. Admittedly, the private sector has long been a provider of military services to states; in fact it is arguably ‘the world’s second oldest profession’ (Finer, 1976: 129), yet it is the increase in scale and power of them – at least in relation to the post-Westphalian period – that is such a phenomenon. During the 1990s publicly traded stocks grew at twice the rate of the Dow Jones Industrial Average (Kelly, 2000), whilst between 1994 and 2002 US-based PSCs received more than 3,000 contracts worth $300 billion from the US Department of Defence (International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, 2002). The world’s largest PSC, Group4Securicor, operates in over 100 countries, employing over 530,000 people, with a reported turnover in 2007 of $9 billion (Abrahamsen and Williams, 2009). PSCs provide a wide range of services including operational support – such as that of Executive Outcomes in Angola and Sierra Leone – military advice and training, and logistical support. PSCs accounted for the second-largest contingent in the US-led coalition during the 2003 invasion of Iraq (Schreier and Caparini, 2005), which provides an example of how states have become so reliant on the private sector that warfare would be ‘difficult, if not impossible’ without them (Percy, 2007: 368).


Key PSC Capabilities and Problems


A key benefit of PSCs is that they provide a means to deal with conflicts that would otherwise be intractable (Shearer, 1998). Given the complexity of transboundary security issues, it is often viewed as too financially or politically risky for states to send public troops but with private contractors this is far less of an issue. In particular, Dyncorp has lost several planes and employees but there has been no public outcry. However, this comes with the cost of reduced accountability whereby governments can effectively evade public policy restrictions, such as congressional limits on troop numbers (Singer, 2002). Therefore, there is the potential that governments can use PSCs to go into more conflict zones, perhaps even being used covertly to achieve regime change, but not suffer the political damage or other negative consequences. Yet, the trend has been for PSCs to be far more accountable than before when ‘soldiers of fortune operated in the shadows’, as PSCs now have a corporate structure and ‘operate openly’ such as by writing papers (Avant, 2005: 29). Nevertheless, more still needs to be done to make government use of PSCs more accountable in order to prevent them from being whimsically used, although the inherently secretive nature of security operations complicates this.


PSCs seek commercial interests as much as they do stability. Without public accountability it is easy for the real threats and issues to be set aside, whilst defence policy is shaped by the profit motives and egos of a select few (Silverstein, 2000), particularly given PSCs abilities to shape security discourses as will be discussed below. PSC’s market-orientated nature means that they have a far weaker communitarian identity than public militaries and thus there is the potential that ‘a “good guy” image may be overridden by the need to fulfil a contract or by the desire to be seen as the kind of firm that gets things done’ (Singer, 2002: 214). One example is the use of indiscriminate use of force by Executive Outcomes in Sierra Leone and Angola (Musah and Fayemi, 1999). Yet, one must also question how communitarian a public military is as it can still be used very much in the same way, as could be argued of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Despite fears about excessive force, it is important to consider that the ability of PSCs to do complicated jobs that otherwise couldn’t be done actually aids the basic human right of prevention against being attacked. Perhaps, therefore, having less interference from an idealistic public is actually beneficial in dealing with some conflicts. Nevertheless, inequity is a valid fear, as PSCs can easily become ‘the advance guard for major business interests engaged in a latter-day struggle for the mineral wealth of Africa’ (Pech and Beresford, 1997: 8). Therefore, PSCs operate in the interests of too few people, whether they are working for governments or businesses, meaning that their value to civil society is far too limited.


PSC Power and State Power


Contemporary organisation of society, in which communities are tightly linked, exacerbates the dynamics of transboundary security issues (Kaldor, 2006). The key consequence of this is that risks are more fluid and thus unpredictable, thereby requiring close coordination between a number of groups, namely PSCs who can provide quick and specialist deployments that governments aren’t capable of providing. Therefore, the inherent nature of the global system means that PSCs are becoming more relevant and in demand, so thus can’t be sidelined by governments.


The rapid growth of PSCs has meant that their material capabilities, in terms of financial, technological, and organisational resources are often unmatched by governments, which enables them to fulfil a wider range of contracts that governments can’t fulfil, thus putting them in a position of strength. PSCs have also been diversifying, for example in the field of humanitarianism, which offers further opportunities for growth (Spearin, 2008). Further adding to the power of PSCs is their ability to attract high quality employees, many of who are former army personnel, thus providing a large number of reliable experts whilst draining militaries of valuable assets. PSCs offer a number of advantages to their employees, such as the removal of the threat of military law and an average salary per soldier of $3,500 per month (Howe, 1998: 311).


Yet, perhaps more importantly, PSCs have great ideational capacities as they form a body of expert knowledge, often aloof from the purview of the public sphere, which they can use to shape discourses (Abrahamsen and Williams, 2009). For example, former CIA director James Woolsey estimates that ‘about 95 percent of all intelligence comes from open sources and much of this is from private firms’ (Singer, 2002: 148). Therefore, PSCs provide a ‘growing share of the information that forms the basis of decisions on whether or not something is a security concern’ (Leander, 2005: 813), thereby ensuring that they are systematically advantaged by security practices, which they can use to ensure commercial advantages.


State power has been further marginalised by the rise of non-state actors, who were formally at a significant disadvantage operating within a system dominated by states. PSCs offer these groups ‘new options and new paths to power’ due to their relatively cheap nature and non-permanent contract basis (Singer, 2002: 212). For example, PSCs can aid non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which are ‘increasingly being drawn into situations where assistance activities are not sufficiently supported by efforts to resolve the conflict’ (Paul, 1999: 30). Therefore, with PSCs providing conflict relief and NGOs providing humanitarian relief there is potential for states to become largely redundant, particularly in service delivery. Yet, this is not necessarily a problem as it is arguably a highly efficient way of dealing with a conflict situation. Thus, whilst security has been increasingly removed from the realm of the state, its authority has not necessarily been eroded. Instead, PSCs have ‘sensed the marketplace’s boundaries’ by embracing the defensive instead of the offensive so that they can operate compatibly within the state-based international system (Spearin, 2008: 366; Zarate, 1998). There has been a ‘broad transformation in the form and exercise of public as well as private power’ with such ‘global security assemblages’ being crucial to the continuing functioning of state authority (Abrahamsen and Williams, 2009: 14). Therefore, without PSCs, states would be struggling far more to assert themselves, for example due to a lack of resources and political capital. Yet, if they are not in complete control states will struggle to have the final say, hence why greater controlling measures over PSCs are necessary. This can be done through international law, which currently reflects a weak anti-mercenary norm but is ‘legally flawed’ (Percy, 2007: 368), although countries particularly dependent upon PSCs may disrupt this.




The state monopoly on the discourse and delivery of security has been significantly eroded but this does not necessarily equate to a being an issue. PSCs can provide several benefits for states to remain relevant in 21st century transnational politics, for example instead of the problematically ad hoc United Nations Peacekeeping forces, but they need to be utilised better. However, not engaging with PSCs appropriately risks both marginalising the state as well as giving the state too much power, leading to a free-for-all emerging over the use of PSCs, which will create volatility and thus a wide range of problems. Therefore, states must take the lead and ensure that they retain a large level of control over PSCs, whilst making sure that they are legitimate and accountable to both national civil societies and the global civil society. This will require reforms to tightly regulate international private security law, as well as to internal processes of PSC accountability.





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