The role of proxy wars are best known from the Cold War, when conflicts played out in the context of competing ideologies: communism and democracy. These wars were essential in the concept of nuclear deterrence, allowing the Soviet Union and the United States to compete against each other indirectly and without the involvement of nuclear weapons, via conflicts such as the Vietnam War. The end of the Cold War did not bring the end of proxy wars, however. The appeal of proxy wars today, especially for global powers, is two-fold: firstly, they avoid the possibility of going head-to-head with another power with nuclear capabilities and secondly, they allow for a power to be involved and ensure the protection of interests without the costs that a direct war would entail.
Out of the context of the Cold War, however, proxy wars are much more difficult and controversial to define. In the absence of two clear global powers competing within a bipolar system, the application of one definition over another can significantly alter the analysis of a conflict. -A definition that emphasizes the direct and equal involvement of two powers supporting opposite sides limits what would constitute as a “proxy war.”
Conversely, a definition that includes any war with the involvement of an outside actor acting on behalf of a specific agenda would encompass significantly more conflicts. As such, conflicts such as the Syrian Civil War are disputed as proxy wars between the United States and Russia. For the purpose of this article, proxy wars are defined broadly as conflicts in which outside states are involved in due to invested interests.
The realities of international warfare have been fundamentally changed since the end of the Cold War and conflicts have become more prolonged and intractable. In addition, the emergence of new ideologies, actors, and an evolving distribution of power have changed the nature of proxy wars. With the collapse of the Soviet Union came an abrupt end to the international struggle between ideologies that had defined conflicts across the world for a half a century.
As such, conflicts have developed on the premise of new ideology and interests. For example, the involvement of the United States in the civil war in Somalia was on the basis of humanitarian intervention. The ideological basis on which a proxy war is fought, however, does not necessarily entail long term success, regardless of widespread international support.
The financial and political benefits derived from proxy warfare on the part of major powers does not necessarily benefit the countries in which the conflict is playing out. This imbalance of benefits has impacted proxy conflicts both during the Cold War and in the years after. Today, the effects of this imbalance are seen in the increasingly prolonged civil wars and regional disputes characterized by international intervention. Conflicts such as the Syrian Civil War, the war in Darfur, and the Yemeni Crisis have lasted for years with fluctuating international interventions.
In part, the prolonged nature of proxy wars is intentional as a means of creating a type of stalemate and force the adversary to rethink strategy. The byproduct of prolonging a conflict via the resources of an outside party means that definitive victory is extremely difficult to achieve. Reminiscent of the intractability of Cold War-era conflicts such as Vietnam, despite a change in ideological justifications for international involvement, actors involved in proxy conflicts today face similar challenges that come with third party involvement.
In addition to the development of new ideologies, new actors, including non-state actors and emerging global powers such as China, have all shaped the role of proxy wars in international relations today. The United State’s War on Terror represents the willingness of the U.S. to protect their interests and combat terror organizations through proxy warfare. Terror organizations, as non-state actors, are difficult to combat and their forces can often transcend borders. As such, involvement in various proxy conflicts within a region allows the U.S. to combat such forces in different countries with proxy forces better acclimated to those specific regions, reducing American deaths and minimizing financial commitment.
Most notably, the U.S. involvement in the Syrian Civil War has been carried out through the proxy actors, mainly the Kurdish “People’s Protection Unit.” Supporting the Kurdish forces by providing training and intelligence solidifies American presence in the conflict, but without the commitment of a substantive amount of troops. In contrast, the U.S. war in Afghanistan demonstrates direct American involvement. Aligned with the Afghan government, a large number of U.S. troops and resources have been committed to fighting al-Qaeda and Taliban forces.
Private military companies (PMCs) have also emerged as an important tool for Western companies to engage in security practices and proxy conflict involvement. These PMCs have been utilized by governments to gather intelligence, protect civilian leaders, and procure weapons. For states, these PMCs have allowed for a sharp reduction in military personnel in their national armies. Additionally, the deaths of private military contractors do not carry the same political weight; private soldiers are buried without the official governmental ceremonies and media coverage that come with traditional military deaths. In the Iraq War, there were almost 200,000 private contractors in 2008, outnumbering national troops stationed there. The United States alone spent between $6-10 billion on PMCs in Iraq.
Private soldiers for hire are an important turning point in how proxy conflicts play out internationally as well. With the risk of losing national troops circumvented by the availability of private militaries for hire, states could be incentivized to become involved in more proxy conflicts. PMCs can also disrupt state relations. For example, in 2007, private contractors from the PMC Blackwater opened fire into a crown of unarmed Iraqi civilians in Baghdad, killing or injuring 31 civilians.
Denoted the Nisour Square Massacre, the shooting caused immense strain on Iraqi-U.S. relations. The Bush Administration had to convince the Iraqi government to allow the private contractors to be persecuted in American courts, leading to a decade of trials and retrials. The case also called into question the use of private contractors and their influence within the U.S. government.
The United States is not the only power that has involved itself in proxy conflicts. In Yemen, Iran, interested in supporting the Yemeni Shia minority, has utilized Houthi rebels to partake in most of the fighting on the ground while providing weapons. In response to alleged Iranian involvement, Saudi Arabia formed a coalition with other Arab states to restore the Yemeni government. Iran has also utilized Shia fighters outsourced from other countries, including Afghanistan and Lebanon, in the Syrian Civil War.
For an emerging global power like China, proxy wars are a way to protect its interests without facing a significant backlash from important Western states, that are important trade partners. As China continues to grow in power, proxy wars could be a means of exerting its international influence in regions such as Africa, where natural resources desired by both the U.S. and China exasperate tensions. China has cultivated substantial regional influence through efforts such as founding and funding Confucius Institutes that teach Mandarin to African students. The exertion of Chinese culture through these institutions has already instigated a sort of soft-power proxy war. Some countries, including the United States and Australia, have raised concerns that the such institutions are a means of spreading Chinese propaganda. With growing Chinese power threatening other global powers’ influence in the region, tensions will continue to increase.
Growing Chinese power represents perhaps the most disruptive evolution in the involvement of states in proxy wars today: a new distribution of power. During the Cold War, the bipolar distribution of power maintained that the United States and Soviet Union were the definitive superpowers that dictated the direction of international politics. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, most international theorists saw the United States as the sole power within a unipolar system. As more powers continue to emerge, the existence of a unipolar system has been challenged by the prospect of a multipolar distribution of power. The potential emergence of a multipolar system would challenge state behaviour and increase the complexity of relations.
Emerging powers are reliant on influential states such as the U.S. for trade opportunities and continued relations as a means of establishing their own influence. The political risk involved with directly attacking a power or one of their close allies deters any such action and rather encourages the use of proxy wars as a means of protecting their strategic interests. Additionally, with the realities of the atomic age, the threat of nuclear retaliation deters powers from directly confronting an adversary, especially in cases in which the existence of a state is not at risk as seen during the Cold War.
With the introduction of more powerful states within the international system, the stakes surrounding the distribution of power will continue to heighten. Direct relations between states will evolve to avoid conventional warfare and more international grievances will play out within the arena of proxy warfare.
New tools including private military companies have allowed for states to become involved in conflicts without the political risk involved in the commitment of governmental troops. Technological advances have also allowed for the development of Unarmed Aerial Vehicles, better known as drones, capable of carrying out attacks without risking the loss of troops. The use of drones began under the Bush Administration and increased immensely under the Obama Administration.
Today, the Trump Administration continues to utilize drone strikes in countries including Somalia and Libya. Perhaps most transformative, however, will be the evolution of warfare to a virtual arena. In the 21st century, the prospect of cyber-warfare has moved from science fiction to reality as technology continues to progress. Between 2006 and 2011, there were 78 cyber-related attacks on governments and companies. Government computer networks including those of the U.S. State and Defence department faced multiple hack attempts. In 2012, a virus designed by U.S. and Israeli computer scientists allegedly attacked the Iranian nuclear program in an attempt to compromise the development of uranium.
With this level of cyber-warfare, the concept of “proxy” has become twofold. Not only would cyber proxy wars involve the intervention of third parties in conflicts indirectly, but they would take place within the indirect arena of computer networks. As technology evolves, the physical tolls of conventional warfare such as the loss of human life, infrastructural damage, and ecological impacts can be circumvented by governments through the use of computer viruses. Already, the United States has developed a department within the Department of Defence for cyber operations and other powers such as Russia, China, and Canada have all been both the victims and perpetrators of network hackings.
The development of ideological conflicts, methods of warfare, and international power dynamics have all contributed to the transformation of proxy warfare in the decades following the Cold War. For almost a century, international conflicts have evolved to become less violent and frequent as changes in the international distribution of power and conventional warfare impact state relations. With the introduction of cyber-warfare in proxy wars, it can be expected that overall violence stemming from conflict will continue to decrease. However, the role and impact of technology will produce unknown effects on the future of international relations that will only become apparent as such conflicts play out in real time.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.
Feature image via Flickr Creative Commons.