War by Proxy

What happens when a country is powerful enough not to fight its own battles? In this episode, SIS professor Dylan Craig joins Big World to discuss proxy warfare.

Professor Craig provides an expansive understanding of proxy warfare and how a proxy war differs from a traditional war or armed conflict (2:01). He explains why proxy wars are a “rediscovered classic” rather than a recent development in international affairs (3:34) and breaks down whether or not most modern conflicts are proxy wars (5:18).

Can the American Revolution be considered a proxy war (7:47)? Why do states engage in proxy warfare in the first place (14:41)? Professor Craig answers these questions and explains what “winning” a modern-day proxy war looks like in an era of “endless wars” (16:56).

Finally, Professor Craig examines the ethical considerations for a state when engaging in proxy warfare (19:00) and discusses the role of non-state actors in modern conflicts, including the US presence in Afghanistan and Iraq (21:41).

During our “Take Five” segment, Professor Craig tells us the five things he would do to reduce the prevalence of proxy wars around the world (10:30).

0:07      Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that truly matters. Since the beginning of recorded history, and probably before, whenever two groups of people couldn't agree, there has been conflict. That conflict has usually involved weapons and death for at least some of the parties involved. And then when the stated goal has been achieved, or the parties have exhausted all their resources, a truce of some type has been declared.

0:36      KS: But what happens in the modern world when a country is powerful enough not to fight its own battles? What happens when a nation wants to achieve a stated goal through violence, but they don't want to fight the fight themselves? Today, we're talking about proxy wars. I'm Kay Summers, and I'm joined by Dylan Craig. Dylan is a professor in the School of International Service. His most recent work is on proxy wars and that's the topic of his most recently published book, titled "Sovereignty, War, and the Global State."

1:05      KS: Dylan, thanks for joining Big World.

1:07      Dylan Craig: It's a great pleasure.

1:08      KS: Wonderful. As has been the case for our past few episodes, we're not in our usual studio inside the school today. As we record this, people in our area are advised to practice social distancing because of the risks of transmitting the novel coronavirus. So we are recording this from our homes. Dylan, thank you for joining us remotely.

1:27      DC: It's really nice to step out of the true conflict of childrearing and into the intellectual conflict of proxy war.

1:34      KS: Exactly. Dylan, the dictionary definition of a proxy war is a war instigated by a major power, which does not itself become involved. And I have to say that sounds really very convenient for the major power in question. So what do we need to know to start a conversation about proxy war and how does a proxy war differ from a traditional war or armed conflict?

2:01      DC: I think it's a good place to start looking at definitions because the definition of proxy war, the term itself is actually really recent. It comes from William Safire and it's a post World War II invention. What the definition that you've got is angling at is the presence of a major power. I think a better way to define proxy war is to think about a multipolar war, so more than two combatants in which different aspects of interstate and civil wars are being strategically mixed together for particular purposes by some or all of the actors.

2:37      DC: The benefit you get by mixing these two things together is that most of our law and policy is based on a stark division between wars between states and wars inside states. When you mix the two together, you get the advantage of being able to do things you wouldn't normally do. If you're having a civil war, but the superpower ally is leaning in and providing weapons, you don't, for example, need to source your own weaponry. But I would say a better definition of a proxy war is either as a civil war wrapped in the skin of an international war, mimicking an international war, or an international war wrapped in the skin of a civil war. There's a kind of a mystery box element there.

3:21      KS: And you mentioned that it is kind of a post World War II construct, the idea. Is the concept a new thing? Have we always had proxy wars or is this in fact a relatively recent development?

3:34      DC: I think I would call it a rediscovered classic. If you look at all of human history, you've got almost by definition and from the outset, the notion that you can strategically mix together whatever kinds of forces you like in the pursual of state agendas. So we've always had states pulling together pirates or arming the indigenous peoples of your enemy's colonial lands or sponsoring religious fundamentalists.

4:04      DC: What happened in the 20th century is that very briefly, we suppressed that and sidelined it because the dominant actors on the military landscapes were nation states with tanks and bomber fleets. And the way that you got things done strategically was using the kinds of weaponry and concentrated military force that only states could really provide. The thing with the era that Safire was talking about and the Cold War is that our return to that rediscovered classic of a very diverse and heterogeneous battlefield has happened really in the shadow of the Cold War. So I think that dictionary definition that you started off with, that a major power must be involved, ignores the degree to which proxy wars across the globe now are being fought by some very minor powers indeed. And it's not so much something that the big do to the small. Sometimes something that the small do to the big.

4:57      KS: And this idea of it being a rediscovered classic and that maybe the 20th century idea of war was really the different type. Would you say that most modern conflicts, definitely 21st century conflicts, including the Syrian civil war are considered proxy wars, at least to some extent?

5:18      DC: I think a lot hangs on that word considered. If you think about the way that they're treated in the media and in common sense discussions, yeah sure. I think it's unsurprising. I don't think anyone would fight you on the idea that things from the Syrian civil war onwards feature meddling by foreign actors. The thing is though, once you go beyond the kind of Starbucks level discussion of these wars and you go to policy and academic study, then I think you see far more paralysis, because from a study point of view, most proxy wars are actually put under the heading of civil wars with international involvement. So a decision is being made to bring forward the civil war dimensions and treat the international meddling as kind of a complicating factor to a civil war, which really is making a decision to look at it in one way and not another.

6:12      DC: And then from a policy point of view, I think you can see from the fact that all of these wars terminate in big peace conferences in which all of the foreign sponsors are usually involved, means that policy recognizes it, but it recognizes it without necessarily knowing how to fix it. So I think the answer is yes and no. I think it's something that most people on the street, from William Safire onwards, know that a thing is... Know it's happening, but we're sort of stuck with how to fix them, given that our laws and our study of these wars are really predicated on international and internal wars being two very different things.

6:51      KS: So how would you describe or explain the difference between a conflict where another power has an interest versus one that would be considered a true proxy war? And I just in my head went to the example of the American Revolution in which the French played a big role. They had their long time nemesis England involved and that's... Why were they involved? It wasn't...The French weren't fighting the British in a proxy situation using the US. It was the US against the British, but the French were involved versus a proxy war where it's more instigated by that foreign power that isn't actually fighting on the ground. It almost sounds like it's a continuum when you look at conflict at this point between the degree to which another power or state is involved. At what point does it become what you would consider a proxy war?

7:47      DC: I think that's a really good way of looking at it. And the American Revolution is such a fantastic example because the continuum you're talking about runs all the way from vocalizing support for the rebels, which has maybe the way that a country can say instigate a war while keeping its hands mostly clean. All the way through to what I would consider the gold standard or the default for proxy war, which is the provision of arms and training. If we look at proxy wars across time and the American Revolution is no exception, neither is the Syrian civil war. Almost your go-to move if what you want to do is affect a war for some or other reason is to provide the things that usually require a state or a powerful state ally, which is providing weapons and ammunition.

8:37      DC: And then all the way to the furthest end of that continuum, you get, again like the American Revolution featured, the presence of foreign troops alongside the rebels. So whether you're talking about Yorktown, whether you're talking about the Spanish attacking Florida to put pressure on the Southern Flank of the English colonial forces, the British colonial forces, proxy wars can sometimes really turn into a military alliance on the battlefield between soldiers from the sponsoring power and these non-state actors that they're usually coming in on the side of.

9:16      KS: And those bonds can, depending on the outcome of the conflict, those bonds can last for hundreds of years, as we've seen the bond established between two countries when one fought alongside whether in a proxy situation or for some other reason. There are real state alliances that spring out of this, right?

9:39      DC: Oh yeah. I think that that's absolutely the case, especially because revolutions are in general moments that get so deeply engraved into the national story, but we'll have to wait and see how time advances. I'm not sure if today's proxy wars will be as well and cleanly remembered as the proxy wars of 400 years ago, because we do have some differences.

10:12      KS: Dylan Craig, it's time to Take Five. This is when you, our guest, get to blue sky it and change the world as you'd like it to be by single-handedly instituting five policies or practices that would change the world for the better. Specifically, what are five things you would do to reduce the prevalence of proxy wars around the world?

10:30      DC: I loved this prompt and as I worked on it in the background, I decided to give you your five answers in increasing order of cynicism. So we can start with the assumption that the world is a good place and that everyone tries their hardest to make it better. And we're going to end in the most cynical place possible. So suggestion number one, working on creating nonviolent capacities for states to resolve their disputes. In many cases, we've got proxy wars that have lasted until a peaceful alternative to give whatever the combatants wanted comes about. So I think that ways of sharing resources, ways of sharing the pie are perhaps your best and most optimistic blue sky approach.

11:13      DC: Next is to bulk up the UN's role in proxy wars. This isn't necessarily because proxy wars will end quicker, but if UN troops are serving as essentially armed human shields in proxy wars, what they require proxy war sponsors to do is to commit to having their sponsored elements, sometimes their troops, fire on soldiers from a international organization and that severely ups the stakes. And I think that will help to restrain the kinds of wars into which these non-state actors or special forces troops are being injected.

11:53      DC: Next up, I think increasing the flexibility of states to use their formal arms. In other words, their regular militaries is a good idea. A lot of the trend towards proxy war that we've seen in the last hundred years has been the side effect of democratic states mostly not being willing to put up with the casualty lists of actual formal engagement. I think to some extent, reversing the clock and letting states send their troops will result in a world with fewer of these obscured, morally gray proxy wars and more wars in which states are forced to own their presence and hold themselves to an appropriate standard as a result.

12:36      DC: Fourth out of five, very simply, give the aggressors what they want. This is a more cynical version of the first point, where I said that creating nonviolent capacity is a good idea. But if you can't achieve that, consider just picking a side and letting it win. The multipolar proxy war in Somalia was to some extent if not won moved to a much less dangerous format when the US simply decided to pick one of the regional actors that had been intervening in that war for 30 years, and let it win. Find someone who is producing the proxy war or intensifying it and let them win.

13:16      DC: The fifth one is to really double and triple down on the notion of a cordon sanitaire or a protective bubble around conflicts. Here we're talking about no fly zones and patrols, but in an era of drones and forward deployed drones, I think we're really in a world in which it would be possible to break all of the links between a conflict and the outside world. And to do so using remote weaponry, which doesn't require the injection of actual troops into an area. If we make it impossible for civil wars to wrap themselves in an international cloak or international wars to dress themselves up as civil wars, I think we'll take some serious strides towards shutting down these hybrid conflicts, which we refer to today as proxy wars.

14:11      KS: Thank you and thank you for taking on the additional challenge of ranking them in order of cynicism. That's a new twist. Thank you so much.

14:20      KS: It sounds like the states involved in proxy wars have a variety of reasons. The one when you first read about this, it seems very simple. They don't want to use their own blood and treasure to achieve their strategic goals, but are there other benefits that prompt a state to engage in this type of action?

14:41      DC: Absolutely. And this is why I think it's so valuable to lift our eyes above the Cold War when we try and understand why proxy wars happen. In the Cold War, there's a very easy and simple answer. The clash between the Soviets and the NATO bloc gets exported out of Western Europe so that it doesn't turn into a nuclear tinged tank battle in Germany.

15:05      DC: It's a well-duh moment. Of course, you would prefer to fight your wars in Angola and Afghanistan than to fight them in the middle of Berlin. The thing is, though, if we look more broadly at other states that have used proxy wars through our times, we see that they're good for a range of very interesting things. Maybe the most interesting thing to point out about that range of success conditions though is, proxy wars aren't very good for producing a stable political outcome.

15:35      DC: They're not very good at producing the kind of things that 20th century war was all about, like regime change or the fall of an enemy. They tend to produce these flickering, ongoing, intractable conflicts that lead nowhere and rack up tons and tons of casualties. So when I look at why states use war, I tend to ask the question, why would states prefer that there not be peace in a certain region? As opposed to asking the question, what is the outcome? Because it's usually an outcome that states are trying to avoid by using proxy war. They want to defer a resolution of a conflict as opposed to provoke it or achieve it.

16:20      KS: That is very interesting. It kind of leads into the next question I have. We talk a lot about endless wars over the past two decades and the US is certainly a big part of the political conversation. And I think globally, we as people, no longer expect a conflict to end with anything resembling a formal armistice or treaty. That kind of thing just doesn't seem to happen. With that in mind, what does winning a proxy war look like, especially if the outcome for one of the states is for there to not be peace? What does winning look like?

16:56      DC: Well, that's the thing. I think that proxy wars are usually being won by the degree to which they persist. I think that in most cases, if what you are doing is, let's take a US example, weakening the USSR in Afghanistan. It's fine if Afghanistan expels the Soviets, but it's actually less attractive than if Afghanistan retains the Soviets and just costs the Soviet Union huge amounts of money. The goal isn't so much a resolution of the conflict as it is a specific strategic interaction between the sponsoring powers.

17:32      DC: So I think that while proxy wars can be won, they're not always won on the battlefield where the fighting is happening. They're won because one sponsoring entity extracts some sort of concession from another and as a result of getting what it wants, it pulls its aid from its forces in whichever civil war or proxy war it's engaged in.

17:55      DC: So these wars do end. They end for the reason that all wars end, which is that someone gets what it wants or everyone gets what it wants. But, what can often confuse that is if you're looking at what the fighters want. Fighters very, very, very rarely get what they want in proxy wars. In general sponsors tend to outlast proxies, either because they throw them under the bus or because they outlive their military utility, or because they hang them out to dry as a way of signaling that they're serious about whatever peace accord has been signed in some far away diplomatic lounge. So I think that dissociating the fighting from what the sponsors want is a way of seeing when these wars conclude and what winning looks like.

18:43      KS: So what I'm about to say seems to me kind of a strange question, because this topic seems by definition a little light on ethics for the people who are engaging in this, but what are the ethical considerations for a state when engaging in proxy warfare?

19:00      DC: Well, it's actually interesting, especially given that we've been talking a little bit in this interview about the American Revolution. I don't think it would be a hard sell to suggest to modern Americans that the sponsorship of the anti-colonial forces by France and Spain was the ethically right thing to do.

19:21      DC: I think that in general the problem, when it comes to making all other wars look as ethically clean as the American Revolution, is that we've located a lot of our oversight of ethical conduct in war under the aegis of states. So states are expected to hold themselves to certain standards, jus in bello and jus ad bellum are the Latin terms, basically the moral presets by which war is supposed to be conducted. It should be proportional. It should be conducted with a hope of victory. I think that proxy wars complicate that because not only do they dissociate the state sponsors from having to own any of the excesses of their proxies, but they also mix in several different other folks like the non-state proxies themselves, who may have a completely different standard than the states themselves do and have less to lose, for example, by abusing human rights or conducting war crimes.

20:27      DC: So I don't think that proxy wars produce or are fought in pursuit of uglier and less ethical objectives than regular wars. I do think though that they turn it into a situation in which it is very hard to force any actor to own trespasses against ethical consideration. And that makes it really hard to hold any actor to any kind of standard.

20:56      KS: And it's interesting when you view a place like Afghanistan through this prism when you think about the Soviet conflict in Afghanistan and how the US benefited from that. And then the US has been in Afghanistan since 2001, 2002, and that has been an exercise in Russia, perhaps looking at us, spending ourselves there, but the ultimate goal of helping the people of Afghanistan, has it ever been achieved? Or was it just the US and Russia or the Soviet Union trying to outlast each other in some way?

21:41      DC: Yeah, it's an interesting question. I think we do live in a world now in which security is largely managed instead of achieved. We don't really resolve conflict so much as we allow them to flicker at tolerable levels of violence. But I do think it's interesting that you mentioned the US presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both of those conflicts would be unpursuable, were it not for the presence on the battlefield of non-state actors on the same side as American and coalition troops.

22:15      DC: Tribal militias are a linchpin of the US strategy. And then if we raise our eyebrows a little bit and think about other kinds of non-state actors, the US couldn't, despite its incredibly advanced and efficient and expensive military, the US couldn't do what it does without contractors who operate all of the logistical chains who handle a lot of the tasks that US military personnel are now no longer able to do because of their military commitments elsewhere. The US can't but fight a proxy war. And I would argue that it is become unthinkable to have a modern conflict in which there isn't some mixture of non-state actors helping states out.

22:57      KS: Right. It's like if you squint hard enough, pretty much anything other than the World Wars looks like a proxy conflict. There's some element of that.

23:05      DC: Right. You're absolutely right. But again, let's not treat the 20th century as anything other than a brief movement away from this ideal type, because World War II is what gives us partisans. It's what gives us, for at least the first two years, a very strange relationship between the US and the combatants who were at war in Europe. I think if the World War II tells us anything, it's that we have turned World War II into perhaps more of a clean cut example of a war without proxies than it should be.

23:44      KS: Right. Dylan Craig, thank you for joining Big World to discuss proxy wars. It's been great to speak with you and really, really informative.

23:51      DC: Well, it's my absolute pleasure. I think this is an important topic and one that merits a little bit of focused thought.

23:57      KS: Absolutely. Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on iTunes, Spotify, and wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you will leave us a good rating or review, it'll be like an uncrowded day at the beach where you don't even get a sunburn. Our theme music is, "It Was Just Cold" by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

Episode Guest

Dylan Craig,
professor, SIS

Stay up-to-date

Be the first to hear our new episodes by subscribing on your favorite podcast platform.

Like what you hear? Be sure to leave us a review!

Subscribe Now