Proxy War
The Least Bad Option
Tyrone L. Groh




WHEN THE decision to intervene in another state’s affairs becomes a public conversation, a decision maker can be left with only deciding how, rather than whether, to intervene. Senator John McCain consistently pushed the White House to arm Syrian rebels as a means to bring down the Assad regime without committing America’s regular forces. McCain publicly urged the president, “I want to hear him say we’re going to arm the free Syrian army. We’re going to dedicate ourselves to the removal of Bashar al-Assad. We’re going to have the Russians pay a price for their engagement. All players here are going to have to pay a penalty and the United States of America is going to be on the side of people who fight for freedom.”1 But the threat in Syria just doesn’t look threatening enough to the White House, or most American citizens, to warrant a direct intervention. Enter the idea of proxy war. If a civil war breaks out in another state and overtly threatens your own state’s security, then the situation clearly warrants a direct and overt response. Such circumstances allow the decision maker to quickly move to planning for a direct intervention. If the situation influences national security, but the circumstances do not so strongly engender public support for an overt commitment, then the decision maker has a more difficult choice to make: (1) choose not to intervene and suffer the consequences of political adversaries at home and rival states abroad viewing the administration as weak on security and unwilling to stand up to threats abroad; (2) choose to intervene directly and risk failure or being labeled as aggressive and unconcerned about the ensuing loss of life; or (3) find something in between.

This book is about understanding the “something in between” policy. When “doing nothing” is not perceived as an option, yet direct intervention appears to be a step too far, decision makers and their staffs seek ways to intervene indirectly. Under such circumstances, it may seem alluring to seize an opportunity to outsource the personnel needed for a foreign military intervention. To make such a prospect even more tempting, consider keeping the policy covert and making the involvement deniable. If such a prospect appears even remotely feasible, then the question “Why fight when someone else will do it for us?” will more than likely become a dominant part of the conversation. This kind of scenario is where proxy war makes its entrance into the field of possible policy options.

The term proxy war carries a lot of baggage. During the Cold War, the use of proxies allowed states to be far more adventurous in their efforts to influence world events and gain an advantage over their rivals. Small states on the periphery were often viewed as pawns in a much greater game, allowing the United States and the Soviet Union to compete globally without risking nuclear war. Local actors and conflicts were hijacked to serve the interests of Washington and Moscow. This Cold War image of proxy war continues to dominate the contemporary view of indirect interventions that involve a third party to influence civil affairs abroad and helps explain its continued use (and misuse) as an instrument of foreign policy.

The usefulness of proxy war has unfortunately been overblown. Indirect intervention, and more specifically proxy war, demands more rigorous exploration and study to remedy misperceptions and misunderstanding of its use as a tool of foreign policy. To avoid adding to the confusion about different methods of indirect intervention, I find it necessary to separate the action into two distinct categories: donating assistance and proxy war (concepts I explore in detail in Chapter 2). I define donating assistance as providing resources, without intending to direct the actions of a local actor, to influence political affairs in the target state. I define proxy war as directing the use of force by a politically motivated, local actor to indirectly influence political affairs in the target state. Both provide a middle ground for intervention and help bypass the thresholds for direct intervention and nonintervention.

Using proxy war as a means of indirect intervention requires considering both the policy’s utility—a short-term view that determines whether a proxy can actually provide the ability to intervene—and the efficacy—a long-term view that evaluates the likelihood that supporting the chosen proxy can produce a desirable outcome. Donating assistance is also a means of indirect intervention, the difference being that donating assistance cedes any control over how the local actor uses the support provided. Proxy war entails a hierarchical relationship between an intervening state and its proxy—in more formal terms, a principal-agent relationship. Proxy war requires a higher level of involvement from the intervening state. The trade-off is that proxy war offers an opportunity to help manage some of the uncertainty associated with indirect intervention. For this reason, proxy war is rarely a low-cost policy, and it is never risk free. Proxy war is also far more complex than a policy of donating assistance and therefore requires a much deeper understanding of the phenomenon if it is to be done well.

How does proxy war fit into today’s context? The United States has been fighting abroad on a relatively large scale since 1991. A perception of overstretch and increasing global competition have created a growing political and fiscal impetus for conserving resources and drawing down U.S. forces and deployments. The desire, and arguably the need, for U.S. intervention, however, continues. Discussions regarding the prospects of proxy war tend to focus on the benefits of such a policy. Developing partnerships and participating vicariously through them have become an answer for shifting away from the long-held requirement of having an armed force capable of fighting two major wars at the same time.2 Little work, however, has been done to understand the actual utility (short-term) and efficacy (long-term) of proxy war. Many studies in the realm of proxy war are made up of anecdotal compilations of superpower conflict taking place on the periphery during the Cold War. Because of that, the use of proxies continues to be portrayed as a way to reduce the costs and risks of military intervention abroad.3

To date, there is little consideration for the potentially negative implications of acting through a third party. For example, updates to the National Security Strategy discuss the importance of shifting costs and risks to partners due to fiscal constraints. Both the 2006 and 2010 versions of the Quadrennial Defense Review discuss the need to work with and through partners to pursue common security interests while simultaneously promoting U.S. security. There is no warning or caution about the potential for partners to use American support in ways that hinder U.S. interests, nor is there a discussion of the need to put monitoring mechanisms in place to protect against such activities. Proxies, like adversaries, are self-interested, a fact that can drive costs far beyond expectation and significantly increase uncertainty.

The world, however, is becoming increasingly competitive. Under such conditions, the United States will continue to focus on working with and through partners to pursue American interests abroad. When the United States is faced with difficult scenarios such as whether to intervene in Crimea, Syria, Egypt, or Bahrain, proxy war will likely gain popularity as a potential course of action. Before America commits to a strategy of developing partners with the intent to expand its influence via proxy, decision makers and strategists need a better understanding of the potential risks as well as the potential rewards. More importantly, policy makers and strategists need better ideas about how best to execute a proxy war under varying conditions.

Proxy war is risky, but it is not something to be avoided at all costs. This type of indirect intervention has its place; it just demands careful consideration. For the foreseeable future, proxy war will remain an integral part of any state’s foreign policy options that meet the following three conditions: (1) the state’s interests and identity push outside its own borders, (2) the security and well-being of the state is connected to conditions in other states, and (3) the state maintains the capacity to engage in international affairs. Naturally, the states that fit this profile best are those with significant regional or global interests and the means to pursue them, but proxy war as a tool of foreign policy does not belong exclusively to powerful states.

In today’s world, a rigorous study and understanding of proxy war will only continue to grow in importance. The United States has already started on the path to proxy war in Syria and may find it extremely difficult to change course even if the context changes significantly. Caught between fiscal needs to limit military involvement and political pressures—both domestic and international—to intervene, Washington faces a potentially recurring issue in world politics: there is no good policy option. Unfortunately, intervening in world affairs will likely become more about choosing the least bad option. When the perceived threat to national security remains below the threshold of direct intervention and the presence of a potential partner appears workable, proxy war often quickly rises to the top of the least bad options.


In this book, I address interests from two different communities. For academics interested in international relations or security studies, this study delves into the ontological nature of indirect intervention. Focusing mostly on proxy war, I develop a more specific definition of the phenomenon and explore the different ways states use it to intervene militarily in conflicts abroad. In addition, I discuss how proxy war has changed since the end of World War II and provide insights about how proxy war will likely operate in the future. For practitioners involved in strategy and foreign policy, this book offers a theory of how to conduct proxy war in a way that maximizes its utility and efficacy. Further, I provide recommendations for improving how to consider and deliberate proxy war as a potential policy option.

To help balance the needs and interests of these two very different communities, this book follows Alex George’s sage advice: “Scholars may not be in a good position to advise policymakers how best to deal with a specific instance of a general problem that requires urgent and timely action,” but “they can often provide a useful, broader discussion of how to think about and understand that general problem.”4 Proxy war, as a phenomenon, has only been lightly explored. Three recent works have engaged on the topic of proxy war to promote a better understanding for why states choose proxy war. Michael Innes explores new lenses for analyzing proxy war to escape many of the well-established views of proxy war that have been carried over from the Cold War.5 Geraint Hughes offers a brief but interesting exploration of proxy war seeking to shape the narrative about the viability of proxy war as a tool of statecraft.6 Hughes also develops ideas, looking at historical cases, for why and how proxy wars have been fought in the past.7 Andrew Mumford provides a similar effort, providing additional cases and examples that expand the scope of proxy war.8 Although I also engage on the reasons why an intervening state might choose proxy warfare, the principal focus of this book is to understand the phenomenon better in its application. This book offers insights and explanations about proxy war to those who study foreign policy from an academic perspective, as well as those involved in the development and practice of foreign policy. The principal idea behind this book is to leave the policy making to the professionals and focus instead on providing a useful way to think about a policy of proxy war.

To deliver on these objectives, this book makes three arguments. First, I argue that the phenomenon of proxy war requires sharper boundaries. The term proxy war continues to be used both too broadly and too vaguely. In Chapter 2, I lay out the constitutive elements of proxy war (its ontology) and explain how it fits into the context of indirect military intervention. Proxy war involves (at least) two actors—an intervening state and its proxy—cooperating to achieve some common security objective. Cooperation, however, does not automatically indicate the existence of a proxy war policy. The practice of giving support to a third party to act on your behalf exists in very different ways. People support lobby groups with resources to forward their desired agenda. The use of a third party in this sense reflects the practice of donated assistance. Some organizations outsource services to a third party acting on their behalf to make the most of existing opportunities. For example, the U.S. government has a federal postal service, but it uses Federal Express (FedEx) or United Parcel Service (UPS) to ship important cargo domestically. The U.S. Postal Service could deliver the item, but the government can send it either quicker or faster (often both) using a private, third-party carrier. The relationship provides opportunities for both; the U.S. government gets a cost-effective and time-efficient means of shipping goods with an extremely high likelihood that the service will meet its expectations, and FedEx or UPS profits from the U.S. government’s business.

Proxies, however, are not always so reliable. If you employ a tenant in an apartment building you own to shovel the snow off the sidewalks and walkways, the quality of the service may not be what you expect, but it does not have to be perfect either. In either case, you (as the owner) place a premium on not having to be involved on a daily basis. To manage costs, you will not pay much for the service, perhaps a small credit on the tenant’s lease. The tenant is self-interested—shoveling the snow may not be a priority the same way it is for you as the owner. Under such conditions, the tenant will likely encounter a day when he or she would rather do something else and is willing to take the risk that you either do not notice or are willing to overlook the lack of service on that day. Proxies operate with the same mind-set. Having different goals and objectives complicates the relationship between an intervening state and its proxy—each wants something from the relationship and each has different priorities. Looking at a similar relationship put into another context, intervening in another state’s civil war indirectly through the use of a proxy adds risk and uncertainty—the proxy may not want the same things or hold the same priorities unless made to do so by the intervening state.

Unlike direct intervention where a state’s relative capability is on full display, indirect intervention affords an intervening state the ability to influence affairs in another state without such commitment. The benefit of indirect intervention comes from the avoidance of displaying those capabilities, preserving those capabilities for times of greater need, and obscuring its level of commitment and involvement to obtain a particular outcome. Direct intervention requires a win to sustain an intervening state’s reputation and position in the international system. Indirect intervention broadens the spectrum of acceptable outcomes and opens the possibility that winning is not always the goal of an intervention. From this perspective, proxy war improves the state’s ability to control the situation, especially when the proxy functions as intended—when it pursues the intervening state’s objectives with the same commitment and vigor as if it were fighting alone. Such commitment from a proxy, however, requires an exorbitant amount of control. Without control, the proxy will likely pursue its own agenda with little regard for the costs to the intervening state. If the outcome is relatively unimportant, however, intervening indirectly through the means of donated assistance might be best. Donated assistance reflects a policy that provides an indigenous third party with the means to fight but cedes all control to the third party. Donated assistance helps reduce an intervening state’s involvement in an indirect intervention but bears an equal reduction in the intervening state’s ability to control the outcome.

To expand the understanding of proxy war as a means of indirect intervention, I argue that it can be divided into four distinct types: in it to win it, holding action, meddling, and feed the chaos. Each has its own purpose and utility depending on the context surrounding the intervention of an intrastate conflict. All four adhere to the idea that a state perceives that “doing nothing” is too weak and committing the state’s own forces is too risky. Caught in between, an intervening state will look for opportunities to advance its vital and desirable interests.9 Balancing the pursuit of these two types of interests contributes to how an intervening state might use the different forms of proxy war.

In it to win it should occur when a state perceives a greater need to influence the outcome of an intrastate conflict because of the intervening state’s vital interests, such as its pursuit of security, or when an intervening state strongly desires a specific outcome based on its worldview and will offer more support and a higher level of commitment to enable its proxy to win. A holding action approach applies when localized threats to vital interests in and around the target state are low, yet the likelihood that instability could spread to other states or regions in a way that would threaten vital interests precludes nonintervention as an option. In some cases, the available proxy lacks the capability to actually win the conflict, but helping prolong the civil war may improve the outcome in terms of the intervening state’s interests. A good example of this is when the available proxy has little political capacity and correspondingly engenders only minute or no support among the target state’s population. In this situation, extending the conflict reduces the opposition’s claim to power because it cannot control the violence within the borders and may pave the way to greater concessions that do less harm to the intervening state’s interests. In any case, a holding action comes in when an intervening state wants to maintain the status quo (or at least some semblance thereof). Meddling finds its place when an intervening state has a desirable interest in altering the status quo, yet such a move contributes little to nothing in terms of vital interests. Further, it would enhance the state’s position without risking any loss in capability or prestige. If the risk of escalation with a peer or near-peer competitor is high or there are significant constraints (internationally and/or domestically) restricting the amount of resources that can be made available to the proxy, then meddling offers a viable option. Lastly, feeding the chaos comes in when a state perceives that gains to either vital or desirable interests are unnecessary or unlikely, but supporting a proxy to alter the status quo remains possible. In cases where gains are not needed, but prolonging the violence indefinitely prevents the opposing side from adding to its own power and influence, feeding the chaos becomes attractive. This approach is similar to a holding action, except the intervening state wants to alter rather than uphold the status quo. Without the ability to connect support to a specific interest or threat, feeding the chaos is often conducted covertly to avoid international or domestic blowback.

My second argument is that how and when states use proxy war has changed since the end of World War II, but what has not changed is why states use it. In Chapter 3, I look at how the use of proxy forces has fluctuated over time. Observing different uses of proxy war since the end of the Cold War, I break them up into three separate periods that highlight the influence of different world orders: bipolarity from the end of World War II to the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, unipolarity from the early 1990s to 2006, and what I define as quasi-unipolarity from 2006 to the present. Considering systemic- and state-level influences, I explain that states choose different types of proxy wars for different reasons and that those choices have relevant effects on frequency and duration of civil wars. I acknowledge that this approach may seem a bit antiquated in light of more recent scholarship in the field of international relations. Nevertheless, I have chosen systemic-level theories to analyze changes in proxy war over time to highlight the continuing relevance of such “big” theories and for their explanative value, especially when “bridging the gap” between academics and policy makers. I also include state-level theories in my analysis because of the importance of how a state perceives the influence of world order on intervention decisions. Although some may suggest that this analysis is overly simple, I argue that the interplay between state- and systemic-level theories provides an elegant means of analyzing the changes in proxy war.

During the Cold War, the international system reflected a bipolar order. The United States and the Soviet Union stood atop the other countries in terms of capability and reach. With a few exceptions, states and relevant nonstate actors chose one side or the other. Adding to this, the presence of nuclear weapons made escalation between the United States and the Soviet Union extremely dangerous and undesirable. As a result, the two superpowers competed against one another using proxies. Smaller, regional powers engaged in proxy war on occasion to avoid drawing in one of the two superpowers. These types of external intervention prolonged intrastate conflicts and arguably contributed to initiation of many civil wars.

After the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the United States became the only state capable of global reach and engagement. During this period, the duration of civil wars decreased significantly. Lacking the peer competition from the Soviet Union, the United States no longer feared uncontrollable escalation, reducing the need for indirect intervention and proxy war. Instead, proxy wars were primarily used by smaller, regional powers rather than those with global reach and interests. Without powerful intervening states backing indigenous fighters, many civil conflicts did not have the resources needed to continue the fighting. Although outside intervention occasionally helps end civil wars, “empirical studies actually suggest that interventions by other states generally tend to prolong civil wars and make conflicts more severe.”10

The terrorist attacks on 9/11, however, saw the United States return to the use of proxy war to enable the removal of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and aid in the capture or killing of Osama bin Laden. By the mid-2000s, intrastate conflicts and interventions once again began to increase.11 The use of proxies increased as well. As the unipolar order slipped into a somewhat quasi-unipolar order, one where the hegemony of the United States continued to exist, but only tentatively, other states began to use proxy war more broadly.

My third argument is that proxy war can provide a useful and efficacious option, even under suboptimal conditions, so long as the intervening state sustains the coherence of the policy as conditions change and maintains near-absolute control over its proxy’s actions. Coherence refers to the degree to which all aspects of the policy contribute to the intervener’s desired objectives, and the policy’s ability to adapt to changing conditions. Coherence demands that an intervening state tailor the policy specifically to account for local (target state), global, and domestic conditions. Ethnic and/or ideological factors found at the source of a conflict define what I call the character of a conflict.12 Paying attention to the character of the conflict yields important information about the motivation of a proxy and informs an intervening state about the scope of its objectives and the potential need for additional control measures. If there are doubts or unknowns about the character of a conflict, serious consideration should be given to avoiding a proxy option no matter how enticing it may appear.

To better explain the importance of coherence in proxy war, I borrow from the work of Kichiro Fukusaku and Akira Hirata that focuses on the role of coherence on the effects of the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) policies to improve development efforts.13 Using Fukusaku and Hirata’s description of the necessary elements for development efforts, I propose that a proxy intervention policy’s coherence stems from five areas:

1. Internal coherence: the consistency of the intervening state’s objectives with the policy, strategy, operations, and tactics used by all contributing agencies and departments when carrying out the proxy intervention.

2. Intrastate coherence: the policy and supporting actions that reflect the political and military situation on the ground in the target state.

3. International coherence: the consistency of support, or the degree of adversarial support, among states that influence those involved in the proxy intervention.

4. Domestic coherence: the consistency of support and/or opposition among parties inside the intervening state that influence the conduct of the proxy intervention.

5. Proxy coherence: the consistency of policies used by the intervening state to employ and control the proxy to achieve objectives.

Based on this model, formulating a coherent policy requires considerations for how to create and coordinate interactions with three different actors: its proxy, the international arena, and the domestic arena. Sustaining a coherent policy means that strategists must predict and manage their leaders’ changing expectations, understand and work through how the uncertainty associated with proxy warfare will affect the policy over time, and deal with emerging conditions—those self-inflicted as well as those beyond control—that hinder policy coherence.

Chapter 4 also explains that regardless of the premise under which the proxy policy was selected, control can help ensure the utility (emphasizing the short-term perspective) and efficacy (emphasizing the longterm perspective) of the policy. Under ideal conditions, this is simple. If the proxy has similar political objectives, has a sophisticated understanding and a high degree of capability in the use of force, yet remains highly dependent on the intervening state for support, then the intervening state will have no issues controlling its proxy.

Intervening states can operationalize a proxy war policy more effectively if they understand the importance of the different aspects of the ideal type. Having similar political objectives minimizes the negative effects of the proxy’s agency—its desire and ability to pursue its own agenda in a way that compromises the intervening state’s objectives. A highly capable proxy, in terms of warfare, helps ensure that it does not have to resort to desperate tactics that rise to the level of war crimes or crimes against humanity.14 A militarily capable proxy also minimizes the need for the intervening state to provide training or advising that risks the lives of its own forces and could potentially drag the intervening state to a higher level of involvement. Lastly, when a proxy remains highly dependent, the intervening state has more control over the proxy and can more easily bend the proxy to its will. Thus a proxy’s isolation from other avenues of support has a significant impact on its resource dependence. A proxy that is highly isolated—geographically and socially—is less likely to establish and/or capitalize on outside sources of support, making the proxy easier to control. If the proxy is too isolated, the intervening state may have trouble providing the resources it needs, and it may not have the social connections needed to succeed politically. The perfect balance reflects a highly capable proxy with no option other than to subjugate its own desires and objectives to those of the intervening state, or face extinction. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as an ideal proxy. Any shortfall in any area leads to a suboptimal condition.

Once the decision has been made, an intervening state must structure its support for the proxy in a way that balances results with control. In some cases, performance-based incentives help keep a proxy focused on its performance. In others, outcome-based incentives can keep a proxy in check. The trick, however, is knowing which form of incentive is required given the conditions on the ground. Even more difficult, an intervening state must translate its intentions for incentives from the executive or highly placed government official directing the policy down to the tactical operator who is working directly with the proxy. During the execution of the proxy war, coherence demands that an intervening state continue to observe closely the opinions of domestic and international audiences and its ability to adjust the policy when warranted. Although keeping the policy covert may alleviate some of those issues in the short-run, policy analysts and strategists need to prepare for the moment when the proxy war becomes public.

In Chapter 4, I also explain how control depends largely on three conditions: compatibility of objectives, capability of a proxy, and the dependence of a proxy on outside support. Understanding how these three conditions affects the relationship between an intervening state and its proxy offers decision makers a reasonable means to assess the utility of a proxy war policy. First, a proxy war policy demands an in-depth study of a proxy’s motivations. Policy makers should be wary of situations where an intervening state and its proxy have convergent objectives in only one particular area; this can lead to a quick decision for short-term gains and can result in long-term losses. An intervening state should weigh the overall convergence and divergence of its objectives with its proxy’s, knowing that the proxy will likely withhold information that could hurt its ability to attract support. If necessary, an intervening state must be ready to limit its objectives to match its perceived ability to control the proxy.

Second, a capable proxy can lead its movement/forces and engage an adversary with relatively minimal assistance, ensuring that an intervening state can minimize its involvement. Capability, however, has two aspects: political and military. The relevance of the proxy’s political capability increases as the intervening state’s objectives increase in scale. For example, if an intervening state engages in a proxy war that reflects either an in it to win it type or a meddling type, meaning it wants to depose an existing regime and replace it with its proxy for the long term, then the political legitimacy and capacity of the proxy becomes an important issue in the policy’s success. The intervening state must be more careful in managing how its proxy fights and how it engages the civilian population it will (hopefully) later govern. If an intervening state wants to simply perform a holding action or feed the chaos in an existing intrastate conflict, then it should limit its objectives and its support to enable the proxy to achieve tactical military victories.

With capability, however, there is a balance. As a proxy’s capability increases, it challenges an intervening state’s ability to control its proxy. Rapid military success can be difficult to control. The proxy may overreach and actually work against the intervening state’s overall objectives. Under such conditions, a high degree of capability warrants additional monitoring to ensure control. In some cases, a proxy may be capable, but it may lack the necessary resources to enable its activities. This is how capability and dependence differ. A high-level of proxy dependence provides the means to control a proxy and counteract the negative effects of having divergent objectives or an overly capable proxy.

To put the concepts of coherence and control into practice, I recommend three maxims to help policy makers guide the formulation and sustainment of a proxy intervention policy. First, know your enemy, but know your proxy even better. As mentioned earlier, a state must realistically evaluate its objectives and compare those to the objectives of its proxy. If the proxy’s objectives closely match those of the intervening state, then costs are likely to be low and benefits high—there is no incentive for the proxy to cheat, the intervening state does not have to offer incentives to get the proxy to do something it does not really want to do, and the intervening state saves the cost of having to implement strict measures to monitor and control its proxy. What behaviors signal a change in the proxy’s stated (revealed) objectives? If a change has occurred, an intervening state must now ask what objectives are attainable with an uncooperative proxy? As objectives diverge, costs are going to increase because the policy now demands more stringent control and monitoring measures. Changes in the proxy’s objectives also increase the possibility that a proxy will pursue methods or means that can harm the intervening state’s interests. This becomes particularly important if the intervening state desires the ability to negotiate a settlement. If the proxy goes off the rails, its actions could damage the intervening state’s ability to end the conflict when desired. Knowing your proxy also involves continuously monitoring the proxy’s access to resources, its leadership capability (militarily and politically), and how the character of the conflict changes over time.

Second, let the proxy lead, but only so far. This maxim addresses issues connected to a proxy’s self-interest and autonomy. By definition, war by proxy requires the creation of a hierarchical structure between an intervening state and an actor selected to serve as a proxy. Both sides will have their own desires and agendas, but the proxy’s need for support and the intervening state’s ability to provide that support creates a hierarchal relationship that places its desires above those of the proxy. If an intervening state doesn’t get what it wants out of the relationship, it usually has the option to take its support elsewhere. An intervening state must understand the dynamics of these challenges to have the best opportunity to successfully execute a proxy war under suboptimal conditions. Autonomy must be managed carefully because of proxy self-interest; if able, the proxy will naturally tend to apply resources toward its own ends—a phenomenon that increases as autonomy increases. Having a proxy that can lead is desirable, but it requires limits. An intervening state must cultivate its proxy’s ability to lead both politically and militarily, while at the same time restricting its proxy’s opportunity to lead in areas that can damage or hinder the desired objectives.

Third, cultivate proxy dependence. A high-level of proxy dependence appears to provide sufficient control to counteract the negative effects of having divergent objectives. Cultivating dependence requires two simultaneous actions: (1) providing enough support to enable the proxy to accomplish the intervening state’s objectives without the excess that can motivate or enable damaging, self-interested behavior, and (2) isolating the proxy from sources of outside support. The basic logic of agency theory (see Chapter 2) holds up in terms of incentive structure under each of the proposed conditions, except when an intervening state and its proxy have highly divergent objectives. In the absence of strong control measures or if an intervening state desires a settlement between its proxy and its adversary, an intervening state needs to assess its incentive structure and consider shifting to some form of outcome-based incentives. In addition to the use of resources to control a proxy, supporting multiple proxies and playing them off one another to deter each from pursuing their own interests offers an additional means of control. Having additional proxies does, however, add to the complexity of the policy and demands additional resources to minimize the negative effects previously mentioned regarding proxy war.


1. Quoted in Eugene Scott, “McCain Rips Trump Administration over Syria Policy,” CNN Politics (April 5, 2017),

2. United States and Barack Obama, National Security Strategy of the United States: The White House (2010): 26,; Stephen Daggett, Congressional Research Service Report R41250, “Quadrennial Defense Review 2010: Overview and Implications for National Security Planning” (May 17, 2010),

3. Philip Towle, “The Strategy of War by Proxy: Faculty Working Paper 20,” Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian University at Canberra (1980); Bertil Duner, “Proxy Intervention in Civil Wars,” Journal of Peace Research 18, no. 4 (1981): 353–361; Chris Loveman, “Assessing the Phenomenon of Proxy Intervention,” Journal of Conflict, Security, and Development 2, no. 3 (2002): 30–48; Jeffrey Record, “Collapsed Countries, Casualty Dread, and the New American Way of War,” Parameters 2 (2002): 4–23; Richard Andres, Craig Wills, and Thomas E. Griffiths, “Winning with Allies: The Strategic Value of the Afghan Model,” International Security 30, no. 3 (2005–2006): 124–160.

4. Alexander George, Bridging the Gap: Theory and Practice in Foreign Policy (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1993): xix, xxiv.

5. Michael Innes, ed., Making Sense of Proxy Wars: States, Surrogates and the Use of Force (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2012).

6. Ibid., 10.

7. Geraint Hughes, My Enemy’s Enemy: Proxy Warfare in International Politics (Portland, OR: Sussex Academic Press, 2012).

8. Andrew Mumford, Proxy Warfare: War and Conflict in the Modern World (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2013).

9. Robert J. Art, “The Strategy of Selective Engagement,” in The Use of Force: Military Power and International Politics, eds. Robert J. Art and Kenneth N. Waltz, 6th ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004): 302.

10. Kristian Skrede Gleditsch, David Cunningham, and Idean Salehyan, “Transnational Linkages and Civil War Interactions,” paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association, Town & Country Resort and Convention Center, San Diego, California, March 22, 2006,

11. Scott Gates, Haavard Mokleiv Nygaard, Haavard Strand, and Henrik Urdal, “Trends in Armed Conflict, 1946–2014,” Conflict Trends (January 2016),, %20Nyg%C3%A5rd,%20Strand,%20Urdal%20-%20Trends%20in%20Armed%20Conflict,%20Conflict%20Trends%201–2016.pdf.

12. This concept comes from Carl von Clausewitz’s distinction between the nature and character of warfare. In this sense, the term character refers to the underlying impetus behind an intrastate conflict. See Carl von Clausewitz, Michael Howard, Peter Paret, and Bernard Brodie, On War, Book 1 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984).

13. Kichiro Fukusaku and Akira Hirata, “The OECD and ASEAN: Changing Economic Linkages and the Challenge of Policy Coherence,” in OECD and ASEAN Economies, The Challenge of Policy Coherence. OECD, eds. Kichiro Fukasaku, Michael Plummer, and J.L.H. Tan (Paris: OECD, 1995): 312.

14. War crimes are actions taken against an adversary’s armed forces that go against international laws of war during periods of hostility. Crimes against humanity are attacks that generally violate international laws of human rights “directed against any civilian population” and require that the actions were centrally orchestrated and executed. For a more detailed explanation of both definitions, see UN General Assembly, Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, Articles 7 and 8 (July 17, 1998),–5752-4f84-be94-0a655eb30e16/0/rome_statute_english.pdf (last amended 2010).