What goals do states seek in waging proxy war? The biggest reason involves a desire to inflict costs on an opponent while minimizing the chances of escalation. Having examined proxy war from legal and historical vantages in a previous column, here we take on proxy war from an ends-means reasoning perspective.
States wage proxy wars in order to avoid the costs of fighting directly. This is particularly true during the Nuclear Age, when the costs of direct intervention became extreme indeed, but as we have seen countries waged proxy war before the development of nuclear weapons. Countries wage proxy war in order to avoid direct retaliation (which they often succeed at, notwithstanding the example of Pearl Harbor), to avoid mobilization, and to manage their level of political and military commitment.
Proxy wars exist, in large part, because nations view direct conflicts as both costly and perilous. But proxy fights can exert a terrible toll on the target country. The United States lost thousands of aircraft, many thousands of soldiers, and billions of dollars fighting a North Vietnam that was bankrolled by the Soviet Union and China. It takes nothing away from the bravery of the Viet Cong and People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) to note that Soviet weaponry made them extraordinarily more effective at killing Americans and destroying American equipment. Similarly, US support of Afghan forces in the 1980s and Ukrainian forces today has exacted terrible costs upon the Russians. In these cases, the supporter of the proxy hoped to leverage a small investment into a massive costs for the opponent, and in both cases they succeeded.
There are undoubtedly escalation concerns with respect to fighting proxy wars. Proxy wars can be concealed to an extent, but generally, they are at the very least open secrets. Iran kept its support for the Iraqi insurgency in the 2000s on the down low, maintaining deniability while supplying explosive devices to Shia militias. Similarly, Pakistan kept its support for the Taliban out of public view, even though US intelligence services were certainly aware of the ISI’s activities. But in other cases (Vietnam, Korea, Ukraine) states wage proxy war in the open. When that happens, there is necessarily the potential for political blowback and escalation.
In 1950, the United States led a coalition into the Korean War, hoping first to save South Korea and then to end North Korea. China and the USSR had been pouring weapons into North Korea and continued to do so after the US joined the fight, making it a proxy war. The US undertook an ill-conceived invasion of North Korea, triggering Chinese intervention and three more years of fighting. The Sino-Japanese War isn’t always regarded as a proxy war, but from 1937 on the United States, France, and Great Britain supported China’s war effort financially and through military and civilian supplies. In a series of escalating sanctions the United States cut off exports of steel to Japan, froze Japanese financial assets, embargoed the sale of oil to Japan, and facilitated the transfer of modern aircraft with American pilots to the Chinese. Japan’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor and seize British and Dutch possessions in Southeast stemmed in no small part from this proxy war.
The quantitative data supports no specific conclusions. A 2018 study by Benjamin Allison found that proxy wars seem neither to increase or decrease the likelihood of direct conflict between great powers, although the presence of nuclear weapons tends to increase the likelihood that states will choose proxy war as a tool of statecraft.
Is proxy war becoming more lethal?
In the Greek war of independence, the British could supply small arms, financial assistance, and Lord Byron. In Vietnam, the Soviets could supply advanced jet fighters and surface-to-air missiles. Today, the US can supply weapons, fighters, sanctions, and real-time intelligence about the location of Russian generals. Andrew Mumford of RUSI identifies two other changes, including the global dispersion of state-supported professional military companies (PMCs) and the ability of states to inflict pain in cyber-space, both of which exist in shadowy legal realms where proxy warfare tends to lurk. Arguably then, states have more tools to reach out and touch one another in a coercive way, potentially making proxy war more dangerous.
It’s unclear whether changes in military technology tend on balance to make proxy war more effective, although the transfer of certain systems (MANPADS or Explosive Formed Penetrators (EFPs), for example) can help remedy specific problems on the battlefield. Changes in information technology have arguably had a bigger impact, facilitating the transfer of weapons (Ukrainian soldiers can call customer support in the US when they have trouble operating new systems) but also the provision of useful, real-time intelligence. Information technology has also increased effectiveness of sanctions, if not in their ability to compel then certainly in their capacity to inflict damage. The “dumb” sanctions of the 1990s, to say nothing of the 1930s, have been replaced by measures that can tightly target economic and financial flows, as well as the income and assets of a regime and its supporters. Weaponized interdependence has only enhanced this vulnerability.
Does it matter whether technological change has made proxy war more lethal? If it changes how states react to a proxy war being waged against them, perhaps enough to consider moving up the ladder of escalation, then yes.
Proxy Wars: Ukraine and the Future
The relevant insight may be this; proxy war is not in nature different than it has been for a good long while, but the tools of proxy war have become more lethal. High technology weapons, sanctions, and the provision of intelligence are all far more effective today than they were in the 1960s. This may complicate the challenges that statesmen face when they contemplate whether to wage or how to respond to a proxy war.
Proxy wars hurt, but steps taken to make the hurting stop can cause escalation to direct conflict. Given the possession of nuclear weapons on either side, the chances of escalation in Ukraine are probably low, but they are definitely not zero.
Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.