Monday, February 25, 2013

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.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. This question could either fall under definition of proxies or this post. Many Realists demonstarte that states have a tendency to pass the buck to other states, or pass the cost of conflict onto states with a greater interest in seeing the issue resolved. Often the passer will provide supplies, training, and other services to the state receiving the buck, much like a principal state would to its proxy. To what extent are proxies and buck passing the same thing? If there is a difference, what is the threshold between passing the buck to another state and a proxy state/actor?

    2. Within Loveman's framework, I would argue that the determining factor would be whether or not the relationship meets the six criteria. For example, while the US provided its allies with material support in the interventions against Libya and Mali (some may say, "passing the buck" / "leading from behind"), I would argue that this was not a proxy relationship between the US and its allies, but standard alliance behavior. In that case, I would argue that the alliance more or less operates as a unitary actor. Additionally, there was not necessarily a "basis in a local conflict", as Loveman requires, in those interventions.

      So, unfortunately, as Professor Craig has said, often times "it depends" is the most satisfactory answer we can give when it comes to defining proxy wars, due to the challenges of classifying activities that, by definition, seek to dodge classification.

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