Thursday, February 28, 2013

Scale and Scope of Proxy Wars by Greg Bissell

Scale and Scope of Proxy wars

Proxy wars were commonplace during late 1700’s and even in the times of the Vikings, and once again became popularized during the cold war to combat communism and to prevent the domino theory from becoming a reality. Through the use of third party combatants, both the United States and the Soviet Union were able to engage each other without actual combat and the use of nuclear weapons. Generally, the third party combatants that were fighting were rebel groups that sided with one or the other super powers, mercenaries, and religious groups, etc.  Examples of proxy wars are the Vietnam War, French/ Indian wars, the Afghan–Soviet war and the Syrian civil war. Even though the cold war has been over for more than 20 years, proxy wars still seem to spring forth.

Proxy wars are still fought today, though they are not between super powers or communists and democratic governments. Today’s proxy wars are fought between the West and its allies against Islamic militants and its supporters. Motives such as political, religious, and ideological states will fund these third party surrogates through whatever means they can afford. Even after the cold war, the United States, the emerged hegemonic power, has proxies chambered in its arsenal. Unlike proxy wars of the past, which prevented all out wars, the overall goals have changed.

Today Proxy wars throughout the world are used to keep whichever ideology, religious, or political groups in power. According to Al Jazeera, the United States is sponsoring countries from all over the world through means of military training, joint operations exercises with special forces and providing arms and information. Through these methods it helps support the U.S., and the West’s ideals of democracy and interests. This, of course is without having U.S. troops on the ground or at the very least limited numbers which keep U.S. soldier deaths to a minimum.

The Obama presidency has created the largest influx of proxy wars in Africa. U.S. funds have been stepped up from Libya, all the way to fight rebels like the Lords Resistance Army moving in various parts of Africa. The U.S has supplied regional drone campaigns, provided arms, supplies, logistics, and money.  This does not extend to Somalia, where the, “CIA campaign against Islamist al-Shabab militants that include intelligence operations, training for Somali agents, a secret prison, helicopter attacks and commando raids. Now, it is also backing a classic proxy war using African surrogates.”

Syria is a country that has the potential of facing a proxy war. Since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War rebel factions have been calling on the United States to supply them with “aid” in their fight against Bashar Al Assad. So far the United States has only provided communications equipment.  On the other side of the fence, the Russians are reluctant to give up their last military base in the Middle East, thus they help to maintain Assad’s military. Syria is a prime example of one of the last cold war proxies. Both the U.S. and its old foe Russia are battling it out, except this time diplomatically and over different ideological differences than the old domino theory. To prevent another Middle Eastern country from falling into the hands of Islamic radicalism the U.S. is trying to sponsor a group that will best suit the U.S. and Western ideals. The Russian’s on the other hand don’t want to give up their last foothold to the West in order to remain a global player. China is also helping Russia to maintain power via diplomatic engagements against the U.S.

Although Proxy wars have changed in terms of the cold war, as in the old standard of preventing a nuclear holocaust, proxies still seem relevant in the world today just under a different guise. Proxies have new enemies and old foes still vying for support. The main difference is that is that the enemy is not a super power; they are often non-state actors or small unstable states. The duration of proxies and how they are used is also different; they can start before a major player decides to enter a war or at the end of a war when a major power leaves and funds the war from its own country.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

U.S. Proxy War Policy During the Cold War

When studying the U.S. policy of proxy wars, the main option available is reading in between the lines.  Since the whole point of fighting a proxy war is to not get involved with your main adversary directly, there is virtually no official documentation that refers to proxy wars.  Instead, we have to look at the policies regarding known proxy wars, like Vietnam, and then infer what a war in Vietnam meant for the ultimate adversary, the U.S.S.R.  In discussing the Cold War policy of proxy wars, it’s important to note that U.S. policy went through an arch.  It started with simple aid, then evolved to boots on the ground, and then descaled back to aid.  Up until 1947, the United States did not really involve itself in proxy wars.  For the most part, all conflicts had been state v state, and it wasn’t until after WWII and the rise of the Soviet Union that the United States felt they had to tweak their foreign and military policy to better reflect the state of the world.  The main instigator of proxy wars involving the United States was MAD (previously defined by the WMD group).  Because the Soviet Union and the United States were so diametrically opposed, they were constantly gearing towards conflict, but they thought of nuclear war was enough to deter them both.  Instead, they sought to spread their own spheres of influence which directly led them into proxy wars.  While there A LOT of proxy wars during the cold war, I’m limiting my examples to the four which best exemplify the progression and subsequent regression of proxy wars: the Greek Civil War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan. 
The Greek Civil War
             The first Post WWII proxy war did not involve soldiers from either the Soviet Union or the United States, but did set a precedent in U.S. foreign policy for the following Cold War decades.  In 1947, President Harry Truman addressed Congress about the Greek Civil War, where Communists backed by Albania, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria (allies of the USSR) were rising against the Western backed Greek government.  Originally the United Kingdom was the Greek government’s only ally, sending weapons and money, but the U.K. was forced to back out in order to rebuild their own country after WWII, so they called on the United States.  In his address, now known as the Truman Doctrine, Truman asked for $400,000,000 to give in aid to Turkey and Greece because “the free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms.  If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world.  And we shall surely endanger the welfare of this nation.”[i]  It’s important to note that while Truman spends most of his address describing the conditions in Greece and Turkey, he ends on the previous quote that is so general that it sets the stage to be applied in other areas around the world that might be threatened by communism.  Also, at this point, with the United States still healing from its WWII wounds, he does not ask for boots on the ground, merely financial aid.  Truman was successful, and Congress granted the aid, thus creating the first proxy war that the United States took part in during the Cold War.  This intervention qualifies as a proxy war because both sides of the Greek Civil War were backed by larger states with opposing interests, and in this particular case, the United States was successful and the Communists were suppressed, which would directly inform the United States policy regarding the proxy Korean War.

Before we move on to the Korean War, it’s important to discuss containment.  With the Truman Doctrine already in place, the next major policy to influence United States involvement in proxy wars was the NSC-68.  The NSC-68 was a top secret document issued by the National Security Council in 1950 and signed by President Truman.  This document outlined the policy of containment, which is well known as the policy to stop the spread of Soviet influence, but can also be construed as proxy war policy.  It’s easy to state that containment is a policy to stop the spread of Soviet influence, but to make it a proxy war policy; we have to take it a step further and ask how do we stop the spread of Soviet influence?  The answer in NSC-68 was to create “a substantial and rapid building up of strength in the free world….to check and to roll back the Kremlin’s drive for world domination.”[ii]  The NSC-68 expanded upon strength to mean military strength, particularly troops in Europe poised to fight the Soviets back, and an all-around increase in military funding.  This was the proxy war way of containment, and its first official test was the Korean War.

The Korean War
               Not long after the NSC-68 was written the Korean War began, caused by the Communist North invading the democratic south, with the Communists supported by the Soviet Union.  The U.S. could not let this stand, but they were still weary from WWII.  With the North officially backed by the Soviet Union and the possibility of Communist China getting involved, it was clear that intervention would be a much greater commitment than the Greek Civil War.  Not to mention the fact that Korea was hardly of strategic importance in the grand scheme of things.  Thus, despite the new containment policy, Truman was wary of getting involved.  Ultimately containment won out, but Truman initially tried to limit the U.S. involvement by only sending a few troops to Korea and “avoided characterizing the conflict as anything other than a ‘police action’ or charging the Russians with direct responsibility for it.”
[iii]  Nevertheless, as the Korean War went on, the policy for the proxy war became more dramatic as the Chinese got involved.  Korea, though of little strategic import, was an ideological battle ground, and after three years of fighting, it ended where it started, at the 38th parallel.  Where before the U.S. had victory, now it seemed they had a tie, which signaled a need for a more dramatic shift in policy.  The next time the United States went to an ideological battle ground against the Soviet Union, they would not be so timid in their rhetoric or to commit military troops to the proxy war.

The Vietnam War
After the Korean War, tensions only escalated between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.  Involvement in Vietnam began the way most proxy wars do, with the President (Eisenhower at the time) sending funding and military equipment to the South Vietnamese, but a young politician ran on a stronger platform of crushing Soviet influence with military force.  John F Kennedy won the election against Richard Nixon (who we’ll discuss in a moment) and immediately in his inaugural address called the United States to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty,”[iv] a direct dig at the Soviet Union, and a suggestion that he was ready to send troops to any country under duress from Communism, which would instigate another proxy war.  JFK has been quoted as saying “now we have a chance of making our power credible and Vietnam looks like the place,”[v] a statement that directly reflects his proxy war policy, i.e. that he embraced it.  Sure enough, Kennedy started pouring troops and aid into South Vietnam, which had a terrible army to begin with.  This policy continued through LBJ, but for the first time in the Cold War, public opinion affect proxy war policy. The proxy war of Vietnam had become so unpopular in the States that Richard Nixon, previously defeated, managed to get elected on the promise he could end the war in Vietnam.  Once elected, Nixon completely changed the proxy war policy, starting it on its downward part of the arch.  Nixon introduced the policy of Vietnamization in a doctrine of his own where maintained the policy of “furnish[ing] military and economic assistance when requested” but also shifting the policy of boots on the ground to one of “look[ing] to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for its defense.”[vi]  Under this policy American troops would help train South Vietnamese troops to fight against the Vietcong, eventually letting the United States completely withdraw and the Southern Vietnamese win on their own.  This policy did not work, but Nixon did order the full withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam, leading the Vietnam War to be characterized as a failure.  It’s the main proxy war the United States completely lost, and saw the President turn the policy of proxy wars back to mainly funding, with an added element of training.

Soviet War in Afghanistan
In 1979 the United States was still reeling from its’ war in Vietnam, and the public in general were not in favor of another war, whether or not it’s a proxy one.  Still when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the United States couldn’t simply sit idly by.  What made this particular invasion so important were the spheres of influence or more specifically, spheres of influence over oil.  Oil was (and still is) a crucial resource and Afghanistan was in the center of many oil-rich countries, that the Soviets could potentially take control of if they succeeded in their invasion of Afghanistan.  Faced with the dilemma of needing to act, but not wanting to involve American troops, or even let the American public know they were engaging in a conflict, the U.S. policy continued in Nixon’s footsteps of consisting mainly of aid, the main change being that this time the aid was all covert.  The policy is best expressed in the words of former national security advisor Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski:

“We immediately launched a twofold process when we heard that the Soviets had entered Afghanistan. The first involved direct reactions and sanctions focused on the Soviet Union, and both the State Department and the National Security Council prepared long lists of sanctions to be adopted, of steps to be taken to increase the international costs to the Soviet Union of their actions. And the second course of action led to my going to Pakistan a month or so after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, for the purpose of coordinating with the Pakistanis a joint response, the purpose of which would be to make the Soviets bleed for as much and as long as is possible; and we engaged in that effort in a collaborative sense with the Saudis, the Egyptians, the British, the Chinese, and we started providing weapons to the Mujahidin, from various sources again - for example, some Soviet arms from the Egyptians and the Chinese. We even got Soviet arms from the Czechoslovak communist government, since it was obviously susceptible to material incentives; and at some point we started buying arms for the Mujahidin from the Soviet army in Afghanistan, because that army was increasingly corrupt.”[vii]

Thus the policy became the CIA would go to Congress, ask for money without officially specifying what for, Congress would grant it, and the CIA would buy the weapons and direct them towards the Mujahidin (the Afghani fighters against the Soviets).  It worked.  The covert funding and supporting of the Afghan rebels as a proxy drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan, and the United States could secretly pat itself on the back for a job well done, having reverted back to the original policy of funding. Granted this time it was through the CIA and all covert, but the principle in the policy remained the same.

What have we learned from the Cold War?
While there are distinct differences in how the United States treats proxy wars nowadays, the Cold War does still inform proxy war policies in the modern world.  For instance, the United States is more likely to provide aid or covert assistance, rather than put boots on the ground, as historically that policy has worked out the least.  Instead the two most successful proxy wars from the U.S. point of view were wars where strictly aid/weapons were provided (Greece and Afghanistan) as opposed to troops (Korea and Vietnam).  Granted the landscape has changed, but when dealing with proxy wars in the modern day it’s important for U.S. policymakers keep the Cold War in mind.

[iii] Gaddis, John Lewis. Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy during the Cold War. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. N. pag. Print.
[v] Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam, a History. New York: Viking, 1983. Print.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Proxy Wars: Post-Cold War Policy

Policy on proxy wars has essentially remained unchanged since the end of the Cold War. States utilize proxies as informal tools  to influence situations in a manner that would benefit their state. Cold War proxies, were heavily grounded on ideological influence.  The Soviets and the US used proxies to dismiss the others political ideologies in support of their own. Since the end of the Cold War there have been numerous proxies in the Middle East and across Africa. The commonalties between them seem to be rooted in geopolitical and geographic quandaries with minor a sectarian component in some cases. In this section I explore proxies in conflicted areas such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq ,Somalia  and  Lebanon.   In these cases civil disputes create regional power vacuums that entice regional actors and sometimes outside nations to try to attain greater influence.

Syrian Civil War  2011-Present

The civil uprising in Syria followed in the footsteps of other uprisings in the Arab world. However unlike in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, the Syrian uprising has resulted in a seemingly endless civil war.   Like the causes of the other uprisings, Syrians are malcontent with their government.  This discontentment has a lot to do with corruption and abuse of power on the part of the Basher al-Assad’s regime. Al-Assad’s desire to maintain power has resulted in mass casualties, and has created an environment where a multitude of states are vying for geostrategic advantage.

It is  important to note that within the Middle  East  there are sectarian tensions between the two main groups, Shiites, and Sunnis.  Syria is governed by the Alawite ( a  minority Shiite sect) minority, in a majority Sunni nation. Sectarian differences has not preoccupied the conflict between Syrians themselves but  it has created a clear division among supporters of the regime  (Iran) and enemies (The Gulf States). 

From the Iranian perspective , the Syrian civil war is not a  domestic issue but rather  it is a  “resistance axis  against the enemies  of Iran”. Syria plays a key role for  serves as a bridge between the Iran’s and Hezbollah, a pro-Iranian government allows easy distribution of weapons into Lebanon .  Not to mention, that if the Assad Regime falls  Iran loses their most malleable ally in the region, this in turn would limit Iran’s influence in the ever on going Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Syria plays a pivotal role in Iran’s “power projection” .

Gulf States:
Saudi Arabia  and other Gulf States  are known for having an incredible amount of oil  wealth. They are utilizing  their  resources to funnel money and arms to Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups.  The Saudis  have promoted resolutions at the UN demanding an end to the violence and strong sanctions against Syria. They have been big proponents of a  unified coalition solution, similar to the one used in  Libya.   The ultra conservative Sunni ruled Saudi Arabia is in a sense supporting the Free Syrian Army to promote a policy of containment.  Within the region there are two main sects, the Sunnis and the Shiites. Iran represents the most powerful Shiite force in the region and the Gulf, as aforementioned, is Sunni lead.  The Gulf states do not support the agenda set forth by the Iranian government and have taken it upon themselves to limit  the sway that the Iranians are gaining in the region.   The conflict in Syria is a good way for the Gulf to cut off some of the influence of the Shiite lead Iranian government in the region.  The Gulf States will use whatever tools are available to achieve this goal.

United States:
The United States has been a quiet actor in the Syrian drama. The Obama administration is wary of  getting involved in another conflict in the region but has authorized some aid in support of the opposition.  The US is assumed to be unofficially involved in providing arms and tactical help to the rebels. Unlike Saudi Arabia, the US does not recognize all Syrian opposition groups as legitimate. The CIA is said to be vetting groups to determine which ones the US would be willing to arm.  The United States  has supported UN resolutions  that impose sanctions on Syria. The US has called on other nations to join in demanding the resignation of  Bashar al-Assad.  The US is not keen on operating an intensive intervention and is instead seeking to adopt all other possibilities before utilizing its military power.  However, if the time comes the US is willing to work in a coalition type force, similar to the one that was used in Libya. The  toppling of Assad’s regime could severely sever Iran’s strength in the region which would be beneficial to the  US and its allies.  NATO Patriot Missile systems, under the direction of the US,  were recently installed in Turkey in response to Assad’s authorization of scud missiles against civilians in Aleppo. The Patriot Missiles serve as an intercepting mechanism should Assad chose to attack Syria’s borders. 

The Russians also have a hand in the Syrian  conflict . The Russians have been supporters of the Assad’s regime since the beginning. They maintain that the international community needs to respect the sovereignty of Syria and getting involved in the states matter is unnecessary. In accordance with this stance, the Russians have vetoed resolutions at the UN  n regards to Syria, on the grounds of protecting Syria’s right to sovereignty.  The Russians have expressed concern over US involvement as well as  displeasure of new sanctions placed against Syria.  Russia continues to serve as a provider of arms  to  the Syrian military.  And continues to supply them throughout the civil conflict, and has even provided humanitarian aid to the Assad regime. In recent weeks it has been assumed that the Russians have provided resources and troops to Assad’s cause, though this has been vehemently denied by Russia.   In response to NATOs instillations of Patriot missiles, the Russians have there own systems pointed at Turkey should there be an attempt by NATO to send in missiles. 

Yemen 2004-Present

Yemen is a state that is seldom mentioned in US media, but since 2004 there has been   is a minor proxy war involving Iran, Saudi Arabia and to a lesser extent the US. The situation in Yemen is grounded in a civil dispute between the Sunni led government and the Houthis (Shiite rebels). Yemen, like most states in the Gulf, has a Sunni led government, which creates friction between the minority sects.

As is the case with most Middle East proxies involving Iran, Iran is supporting the Shiite minority group. Iran has denied providing weapons and funding to the militants, but the interception of a boat containing supplies was deemed to have come from Iran.  As it often the case, Iran is trying to increase its sphere of influence around the region.  By supporting the Houthis they are threatening the stability of not only Yemen but Saudi Arabia as well.  
Saudi Arabia:
Saudi Arabia is fearful of both Iran spreading its influence around the region and that regime change could allow increased Iranian influence in Yemen’s government . Like Saudi Arabia, the current regime in Yemen is Sunni lead which allows for greater cooperation in the Gulf. Should Iran successfully help the Houthis gain influence or power this could jeopardize the system and create tensions in the region by completely disrupting the regional balance. In the eyes of Saudi Arabia, the situation in Yemen is a matter of national security. If Yemen is lead by a non-Sunni government there could be increased hostilities. Thus the Saudi’s have deemed there is no other action to be taken except militarily intervention against  Yemeni opposition. Saudi military has orchestrated operations against the Houthis rebels both on the border and within Yemen itself.  Saudi Security is of utmost priority but in order to maintain it they require regional normalcy.

United States:

In the case of Yemen the United States has different objectives than Saudi Arabia .   But a common goal is the conservation of the Yemeni government. Should the Houthis  gain control of the Yemeni Government it would lead  to potential advantage for Iran. The US has chosen not to enlist help of other states rather it is leaving the situation up to the Yemeni government.  The US  has  however provided intelligence to the Yemeni government in regards to the Houthi rebel operations.  For several years there had not been proof of how or by whom the Houthis were supplying themselves, but US intelligence led to the interception of a boat that was smuggling money, explosives ,and weapons.   With the approval of Yemen’s government the US has been discreetly using drones to attack what it claims are terrorist cells. Yemen is a breeding ground for terrorist  organizations such as Al-Qaeda. As part of the US war on terror, it is imperative that terrorist factions  are dealt with.

Iraq 2003-Present

Iran and Iraq have a long history of tension. In the 1980’s they fought in the  Iran-Iraq war which lasted eight years. Fast forward to 2003 when the United States invaded Iraq and toppled the Saddam Hussein regime, for the first time Iran had  an opportunity to infiltrate Iraq and try to influence  the  country.  As is the case with the Middle East, sectarian tensions are present in Iraq. Iraq has majority Shia population and minority Sunni population, however under Hussein’s regime the country was Sunni lead.   After the American aided in  creation of the New Iraqi Government, it became Shia lead. Iran chose to  fund both Shia and Sunni opposition groups. Iran provided funding, arms,  and even training for a variety of  opposition forces.  A typical assumption of the  Iranian government to want a Shia lead government, as it could serve as a safety net for their regime. However, perhaps due to  strong US  involvement they might  deem  a Shia led government to be unbeneficial.  In this context, Iranian support for Shia opposition is clear. But it seems illogical for the Iranians to support Sunni groups if the end goal is to have a Shia lead government that can operate in unison with the Iranian regime. This suggests that the Iranian goal in Iraq  is to further destabilize Iraq and the region, rather than puppeteering an Iraqi regime.  

 Somalia 2006

The conflict in the Horn of Africa created a power vacuum  in which the rivalries between Eritreans and Ethiopians erupted. In the absence of a formal federal government Somalis reverted to local forms of governing (often religious rebel groups).  In 2004 a Transitional Federal Government was established, but not all were in agreement.   Different local actors sought control, the struggle for power within Somalia, created the perfect environment for outside influence.  

The Eritrean government provided military aid to the Islamic opposition groups. Eritrea does not have much of an ideological reason for involving itself in Somalia rather, its assistance serves as a way to engage in a war against Ethiopia with out actually fighting one another.  Territorial disputes with Ethiopia resulted in a treaty that clearly indicated boundaries. However, Ethiopia refuses to respect the boundaries as stipulated in the agreement, which has augmented tensions. The Eritrean government had threatened war against Ethiopia but supporting the opposition provides Eritrea an easy out.

The Eritrean rivalry has been longstanding. While Eritrea funds the Islamic militants, Ethiopia recognizes and provides support for  Somalia’s interim government. Ethiopia has a Christian lead government, but is a Muslim majority population. The Ethiopian government is concerned, if the Islamist groups succeed in toppling the Somali government it might inspire Muslims in Ethiopia to revolt against the government. Thus it is in Ethiopians governments best interest   to support the Transitional government, as it t could bring stability to Somalia and then hopefully stability to the region.

Lebanon War 2006

For decades Lebanon has unfortunately operated as a staging ground for proxy wars between regional actors like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Syria as each nation vies for greater authority in the region.  This has lead to the intensification of historic sectarian tensions, which then impedes the ability of state institutions to properly govern.

The Lebanon war began with an attack by Hezbollah against Israel.   Hezbollah has long been regarded as a terrorist organization with ties to the Iranian government, thus the attack was viewed as a signal from the Iranian regime.  The Iranians supported Hezbollah and the United States supported Israel. Since 2005  Hezbollah has been an official actor in Lebanese politics, and their ideologies are in direct opposition with the security of Israel.

United States:
In 2006 the US was in the middle of two conflicts in the Middle East. It was not in a position to offer military assistance, but it fully supported Israel’s operation justifying it as   a protective measure. While Hezbollah does not pose a direct threat to the United States, the US views Hezbollah as an arm of the Iranian Republic.  The Iranian regimes utilization of proxies throughout the region serves as a destabilizing tool against US interests. The instigation by Hezbollah presented an opportunity to significantly weaken Iranian influence in the region. The defeat of Hezbollah would decrease legitimacy and credibility of both Hezbollah but more importantly Iran.  It would also reemphasize the position of the US and its Allies on the War on Terror.

However there were risks associated with US support of Israel during its bombing campaign. Just a year prior, the US had increased its clout with the Lebanese people after playing a crucial role in convincing Syria to retreat during the Cedar revolution.  The bombings committed by Israel took the lives of many innocent Lebanese civilians and conflict risked spillover into Iraq. Overall the US stood to gain a solution for the Hezbollah problem and delegitimize Iran’s growing influence.  

Hezbollah’s attack on Israel served as a way for Iran extend hegemonic power,  create chaos, and prove to the world that Iran has the strength to disrupt stability. It also served as a way for Iran to minutely signal that it would continue to seek nuclear proliferation.   Since Hezbollah’s formation in 1980’s, Iran has served as its major backer.  Iran continues to provide it weapons, training, and funding.

Proxy Wars in IR Theory: A Literature Review

            The modern international system, based at least nominally on the liberal principles of cooperation and universal respect for sovereignty, increasingly rejects the notion of direct military conflict between states. Additionally, with the destructive innovations in military technologies over the past decade, the costs of escalating a military conflict have become prohibitively high to most states. However, despite these contemporary changes, many international relations scholars argue that the assumptions of realism, in which states will seek to maximize their power within the international system, continue to hold today. In the place of direct military confrontation, states have increasingly acted through proxies over the past century to achieve military or quasi-military goals.
            Loveman argues that, in order to understand proxy wars, one must understand realism in the context of contemporary paradigm shifts in the international system and the prohibitively high costs of direct military engagement (Loveman 2002, 33-36). At first glance, the proxy war phenomenon may appear irreconcilable with realism, which traditionally has taken a distinctly state-centric approach toward the international system. States ceding power and freedom of action to non-state actors may therefore seem counter-intuitive to traditional realist scholars. However,

While accepting many of realism’s key assumptions, Loveman argues that realism “neglects three central trends in the modern world: … the erosion of the nation-state’s power and the concurrent increase in interdependence … the transition from international system to international society … [and] the growing unacceptability of war due to its risks and immorality” (Loveman 2002, 36). The first point regarding the declining power of the nation-state is perhaps the most difficult to reconcile with traditional realist theories. Within traditional realist theories, states are always the principal and most powerful actors. However, modern communication and military technologies have undoubtedly shifted the balance of power closer toward non-state actors over the past century. As states have found that they cannot reliably extinguish non-state actors, they have increasingly co-opted non-state actors as instruments of state interests. While the use of proxies has notable downsides, such as a loss of foreign policy autonomy, their use is often the most effective means of engaging in conflict without risking rapid conflict escalation (Salehyan 2010, 495).

By “the transition from international system to international society”, Loveman refers to the shift over the past century away from state-centrism toward the involvement of private interests, the public through democratic processes and civil society. Loveman argues that “law, norms and morality play a greater part in statecraft, and international institutions become increasingly significant” with the development and growing involvement of international society (Loveman 2002, 36). Members of international society – from the general citizenry to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and multi-national corporations (MNCs) – have little interest in engaging in armed conflict as a method of dispute resolution and virtually zero capability to do so. Therefore, the granting of more seats at the table of major global decision-making has decreased the militarization of global dispute mechanisms. With the days of states conquering sovereign territories behind us, the ambitions of the major players on the world stage have become primarily economic or defensive. However, states will continue to promote their security by increasing their power within the international system, despite the declining interest in military conflict among international society. In particular, strong states that maintain a strong appearance of adherence to international norms and a high concentration of international society institutions utilize proxies in the form of clandestine operations in order to project military power beyond their own borders.

With the increasing power and relevance of international society has come a greater role for liberal international organizations in determining and dictating events within world affairs. Organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) hold tremendous economic benefits for beneficiaries of their aid programs or, in the case of the WTO, their exclusive institutional benefits. Oftentimes, a state’s adherence to the liberal principles of respect for sovereignty, human rights and international cooperation significantly influences that state’s access to international aid programs. In addition, seats at the table of the world’s most influential decision-making bodies are restricted from states seen to be “breaking the rules” of the contemporary liberal international system. For example, Russian accession to the WTO required extensive persuasion that Russia had peacefully resolved the tensions between Russia and Georgia that led to their 2008 war (Associated Press 2011). Meanwhile, numerous states accused of exploiting proxies (i.e. Pakistan, Zambia, United States) enjoy WTO membership. Therefore, in order to gain the respect of the international system and derive access to foreign aid, states largely avoid direct state-to-state military confrontations. The use of proxies however, has not yet elicited a similarly restrictive posture from the international community.. The growing norm of international cooperation and respect of state sovereignty relates closely to Loveman’s third point regarding the growing immorality of war.

Of his three points, Loveman’s third point regarding the tension between traditional realism and the paradigm shifts of the modern world most neatly synthesizes with traditional realist conceptions of state-centric action within an anarchic international system. Under this third point, the “risks” of war constrain state action, rather than some higher principle or cosmopolitan ideal of international cooperation. States abstain from military action, not because they are told to do so, but because in an era of mutually assured destruction, states can no longer maximize their security outcomes by engaging in state-to-state military conflicts. Within the mutually assured destruction paradigm of the Cold War, we can observe this argument first-hand. The US and USSR’s inability to extract security benefits by engaging in state-to-state military engagement – which would have likely led to the extinguishment of both states – arguably led to the proliferation of proxy conflicts in Korea, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Latin America.

In the proceeding instances, the prospect of destruction at the hands of modern military technologies constrained the ability of global superpowers to engage in direct state-to-state military conflict and pushed them to use and exploit proxies to advance their foreign policy goals vis-à-vis their nuclear-armed rivals. However, superpowers risking total annihilation are not the only states that exploit third parties (either state or non-state) as proxies in the advancement of their own foreign policy goals. In particular, we see the phenomenon of state-sponsorship of terrorism most prevalently among relatively weak states seeking to challenge powerful states while maintaining plausible deniability (Conrad 2011, 530). Due to the clandestine nature of proxy relationships, and the classified nature of documentation linking states to such relationships, it is difficult to view or measure such activities empirically. However, there is a tremendous quantity of circumstantial evidence tying states to sponsorship of terrorism as well as the first-hand accounts of those involved.

Although scholars often discuss terrorism in the context of non-state actors in the international community, there are often close ties between state rivalries and the prevalence of terrorism. There is no doubt that terrorist groups benefit tremendously by exploiting state resources, which may explain why so many of modern history’s most infamous terrorist attacks (i.e. the September 11 hijackings, the Mumbai hotel attacks, the Lockerbie bombing) and groups (i.e. al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah) have or have had alleged connections to state-sponsors. Indeed, Conrad found that states with ongoing interstate rivalries have incentives to support terrorism as a means of advancing their power in the international system without experiencing the same risks of conflict escalation as other forms of military engagement (Conrad 2011, 531). For example, Iran allegedly sponsors terrorist activity against rival Israel through proxy support for Hezbollah and other anti-Israel terrorist groups. However, this activity has yet to escalate to the interstate level of direct military confrontation between Israel and Iran in the way that one might expect should Iran be directly implicated in an attack against Israel.

While state-sponsorship of terrorism is likely the most “in-vogue” method of engaging in proxy wars, the phenomenon significantly predates the post-Cold War rise in Islamic extremism. Particularly during the Cold War, the US and USSR engaged in proxy wars by providing material and other forms of aid to competing sides of conflicts, such as in the Cold War-era Arab-Israeli wars (Bar-Siman-Tov 1984, 263). However, this pre-Cold War scholarship on proxy wars focused predominantly on the use of proxies by superpowers to avoid conflict escalation and nuclear confrontation. Today, the use of proxies by relatively weak states in an effort to strike disproportionately at rivals without risking conventional war is arguably a more prevalent phenomenon than the use of proxies as a matter of constraint by powerful states.

To conclude, the cumulative message of this literature view is that the classical conceptions of realism need not be in conflict with the contemporary proliferation of proxy wars. Given modern military technology, the costs of engaging in direct state-to-state conflict is prohibitively high in most circumstances. In the absence of conventional military intervention options, proxies can serve as a useful and effective alternative. Therefore, the use of proxies enhances rather than constrains the foreign policy options of the state in many circumstances. While it is accurate that states give up a degree of autonomy in their use of proxies, this is in-keeping with a more broad trend in the relative decline in state-centric power.

Finally, additional trends in the use of proxies that will not be discussed in-depth in this particular literature review are nonetheless worthy of consideration. One example is a state’s exploitation of proxies in order to influence political outcomes in other countries. Oftentimes, states sponsor opposition rebel groups to influence civil conflicts rather than engage in direct military intervention. For example, the US and its allies have provided support to opposition rebels in Syria rather than engage in hostilities against the Assad government. Additionally, states may support proxies to advance identity-based conflicts, such as we see in Arab countries’ support for the conflict in Kashmir (Bhatt 2003, 219-220). As moral and identity-based considerations often underpin such support, it does not fit as neatly in the realm of realist international relations theory as does other forms of proxy war. Additionally, the escalating great-power confrontation in cyberspace, as states develop cyber-militarization capabilities on the backs of non-state hacking groups, warrants further study as a matter of proxy conflict.

Works Cited

Associated Press. 2011. “Speaker Says Russia’s WTO Entry Hinges on Georgia”. Fox News.

Bar-Siman-Tov, Y. 1984. “The Strategy of War by Proxy.” Cooperation and Conflict 19 (4) (January 1): 263–273.

Bhatt, Shakti. 2003. “State Terrorism Vs. Jihad in Kashmir.” Journal of Contemporary Asia 33 (2) (January): 215–224.

Conrad, J. 2011. “Interstate Rivalry and Terrorism: An Unprobed Link.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 55 (4) (February 21): 529–555.

Loveman, Chris. 2002. “Assessing the Phenomenon of Proxy Intervention.” Conflict, Security & Development 2 (3): 37–41.

Salehyan, I. 2010. “The Delegation of War to Rebel Organizations.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 54 (3) (January 7): 493–515.