No peace and still no war: “Hybrid conflicts” as a form of enforcing national interests - or: Why the fight against the so-called Islamic State is no hybrid conflict

Lukas Bittner


The extensive condemnation of war by international law for certain states, in connection with an increasingly offensive appearance of some states - catchword “ return of geo-politics” - has led to new forms of enforcing national interests of states, thus leading to new forms of conflicts, “hybrid conflicts”. Whereas the “new wars” have manifested themselves as forms of civil war - even with sometimes international participation - “hybrid conflicts” in a certain sense represent the expression of the conflictive International System. Due to the fact that states are limited in their open means of violent enforcing national interests by international law, and that at the same time international order regimes are in many cases dysfunctional, other - multidimensional - “hybrid“ approaches are chosen. At the same time classic wars between states, therefore ”international armed conflicts” - as standardized by international law - have not become obsolete for this reason. The threat backdrop and/or the potential of escalation are a relevant element of hybrid conflicts. With it there will also be the risk of an unintended transition to an “international armed conflict” and/or war, if in a conflict between two or several states there is a lack of order regimes, or if political decision-makers make bad strategic decisions. In this respect, „hybrid conflicts“ are no „wars“ or „international armed conflicts”, but rather forms of (aggressive) intergovernmental relations within an international system of “world disorder”, as described by Carlo Masala. The special challenge when reacting to hybrid conflicts is the multi-dimensionality of applying violence. How are states supposed to face hybrid conflicts? First, a modern security policy has to discard the classic narrative of the contradictory notional pair war versus peace. Hybrid conflicts are interstages, a “tertium datur”, as described by Bernhard Koch. That means that there can already be a conflict, even if the population and/or parts of politics do not perceive the conflict as such. As a second step one ought to consider the statement by NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg: „Hybrid is the dark reflection of our comprehensive approach. We use a combination of military and non-military means to stabilize countries. Others use it to destabilize them.“ In inversion of this argument, therefore, it is necessary to use the actions which European states apply in the framework of a „comprehensive approach“ towards third states, to consider them as instruments for comparison, and measure the actions of other states with them. If this results in overlappings, one will have to assess nationally whether these actions are directed against the own national interest and, if appropriate, counter-measures are taken. For these actions, a total national approach must be chosen, as the hybrid attack vectors, too, are not directed against one certain political field alone.