Writing in the RUSI Journal back in 1981, Philip Towle of the University of Cambridge used the wonderfully British turn-of-phrase “vicarious belligerency” to describe the age old phenomenon of waging war by proxy. Placing the concept firmly in the Cold War context of the time, Towle noted “There is a spectrum of aid to Third World states from financial assistance, through arm supplies and the attachment of advisers to the employment of pseudo-volunteers in combat and finally to the formal commitment of ground troops.” On this spectrum, everything to the left of the formal commitment of ground troops could be used to carry out these types of indirect interventions.
Flash forward to today:the phenomenon of “vicarious belligerency” has not gone away. If anything, the use of warfare by proxy has accelerated. The absolute scale and scope of such proxy wars may be smaller than during the geopolitical struggle of the Cold War, but powers large and small (but particularly large ) view such conflict as a useful tool of statecraft. The current situation in Syria illustrates this perfectly: Iranian advisors, Hezbollah forces, and Shi’a Iraqi militias fight for the Alawite regime against foreign fighter volunteers from 50-odd nations, with indirect military and non-military assistance from the Gulf States, Turkey, and the United States among others. Motivations for such support range from the sectarian to the strategic.
There are no indicators that such conflicts will go away. If anything there are warnings and indicators that such uses of “vicarious belligerency” may expand in the future.
The University of Nottingham’s Andrew Mumford has given much thought to the ways that proxy warfare has been used and will be used in the future. In a recent RUSI Journal article (subscription required) and book (Proxy Warfare) he lays out an interesting typology for how to think about this indirect way of war.
Mumford defines proxy wars as
…the product of a relationship between a benefactor, who is a state or non-state actor external to the dynamic of an existing conflict, and the chosen proxies who are the conduit for the benefactor’s weapons, training and funding. In short, proxy wars are the logical replacement for states seeking to further their own strategic goals yet at the same time avoid engaging in direct, costly and bloody warfare.
The introduction of non-state actors to the equation, whether they be terrorist groups or private security companies, is important. He sees state and non-state actors interacting through four types of relationships that help to shape the dynamics of these conflicts:
(1) “a state uses another state (as a surrogate force);”
(2) “a state uses a non-state actor;”
(3) “a non-state actor uses a state;” and
(4) “a non-state actor uses another non-state actor (as a surrogate force)”
For Mumford, state and non-state actors implement? their strategies of proxy war, much in the same ways as Towle described: through the provision of manpower (via surrogates), the delivery of materiel (weapons, ammunition, equipment, etc.), financial assistance, and non-military means.
Why is this strategy attractive? In the main, the attraction lies in the fact that this strategy can reduce the political and financial costs of full-born interventions. As Mumford argues,
The appeal of proxy strategies to policymakers, both then and now, comes couched in the perceived benefits of lower risk (no combat deaths, thus reduced political backlash) and plausible deniability (the symbolism of no direct intervention ensures no overt military defeat if the war is lost, but continued influence and enhanced interest if the war is won).
Still, the proxy approach is hardly a panacea. Mumford further contends that proxy wars can create “…dependence in the long run between the benefactor and the proxy (politically and financially); an elongation and/or intensification of the original war in which intervention was sought; and the creation of either conflict overspill beyond the initial boundaries of the war or unintended ‘blowback’ for the participants once the war has ended.” A perfect illustration, even if drawn from fiction, of the dangers of dependence between benefactor and proxy is this exchange between the mercenary Bane and the business man John Dagget in The Dark Knight Rises:*
Daggett: What. The hell. Is going on?
Bane: Our plan is proceeding as expected.
Daggett: Oh really? Do I look like I’m running Wayne Enterprises right now? Your hit, on the stock exchange, it didn’t work, my friend! And now you have my construction crews going around the city at 24 hours a day! How exactly is that supposed to help my company absorb Wayne’s?
Bane: [to Stryver] Leave us!
Daggett: No! You stay here, I’m in charge!
Bane: [puts his hand on Daggett’s shoulder] Do you feel in charge?
Daggett: I paid you a small fortune.
Bane: And this gives you power over me?
Daggett: What is this?
Bane: Your money and infrastructure have been important… ’til now!
Unsurprisingly, he sees a continued future, and even an expansion, for the use of this strategy, for four main reasons. First is the counter-insurgency fatigue and conditions of fiscal austerity in the West following a decade-plus of war, all of which make proxy strategies more attractive. Second is the rise in the use of, and desirability of using, private security companies in both direct and indirect uses of force. Next is the increasing use of cyberspace as a domain particularly conducive to waging war indirectly. Last is the rise of China as a global superpower. Mumford notes that, “Collectively, these four changes draw together the triumvirate of interest, ideology and risk, around which the need for proxy war has traditionally coalesced….”
China’s use of proxy war is particularly interesting because, as he notes “…talk of China’s peaceful rise to the status of global superpower needs to be heavily couched in terms that closely scrutinise China’s indirect forms of power projection and interest maximisation.” For example, China’s search for extractable resources in order to fuel its economic engine has driven it farther afield in its quest to fuel this growth. This, in turn,has led to its deeper involvement in Africa and other locales. In addition, the economic linkages between China and the United States may drive conflict into the indirect proxy sphere because neither party wants to jeopardize those very linkages. Things could get very messy, and not just along the East Asian littoral.
Mumford’s article and book (a quick read) offer a useful analytical prism through which to analyze the important topic of proxy warfare, in particular the possibilities and pitfalls that “vicarious” strategies create. The future trendlines that he sketches seem plausible, and his typologies for ordering thinking will be important for both implementing and countering this form of warfare. While largely theoretical, his thinking on proxy war would be useful in reading alongside more policy oriented writings such as, for instance, fellow WOTR contributor and? retired Army Special Forces Colonel David Maxwell’s work on undertaking and countering unconventional warfare. The allure of warfare on the cheap, what the late Harvey Sicherman called “cheap hawkery,” will ensure that proxy warfare strategies are implemented by states and non-state actors for the Thucydidean reasons, or admixture of reasons, of fear, honor, and interest. Sober assessments of this tool of statecraft are necessary, and Mumford provides a great service by helping us to understand its pros and cons.
*If you haven’t watched Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy yet you really need to take a weekend and do so. The three films are a wonderful exploration of violence and power with a super hero coating.**
** And yes, this is a situation where worlds don’t collide.
Michael P. Noonan is a contributor at War on the Rocks. He is the director of the national security program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom where he served on a Military Transition Team embedded with an Iraqi infantry battalion in and around Tal`Afar.
Photo Credit: John Buckler