Home / Articles / Dueling Dyads: Conceptualizing Proxy Wars in Strategic Competition
Strategic competition with the Russian Federation and People’s Republic of China has become the new orienting challenge for the U.S. national security community. While many officials and writers envision strategic competition across many domains, the increased likelihood of proxy wars in strategic competition does not gain much purchase in the strategic planning documents of the U.S. government, including the recent Biden administration’s Interim National Strategic Guidance. Both the 2017 National Security Strategy and the supporting 2018 National Defense Strategy acknowledged that the United States faces a re-emergent period of strategic competition from both China and Russia. The Biden administration appears to embrace the competitive nature of the relationship between democratic states and authoritarian rivals, and the necessity of military modernization, but does not address the range of malign methods that the competition could lead to. In response to the strategies, the U.S. military is adapting from protracted counter-terrorism missions to deterring large-scale, conventional wars. This is a natural reflex for the Pentagon, yet strategic competition does not automatically generate symmetric and conventional contests.
As Aaron Stein and Ryan Fishel recently observed, “The U.S. military will need to resist the urge to conflate direct, head-to-head conflict with great-power competition. Napoleonic, linear conceptions of war may be less relevant between large, nuclear-armed states in the 21st century.” Proxy wars, an area of increasing study and rigor in the academic community, represent an indirect and non-Westphalian mode of conflict that is increasingly relevant in future conflict.
The purpose of this article is to explore the character of proxy wars in the context of the emerging strategic environment. It offers insights into the array of forms that proxy wars can take, identifies shortfalls in how such conflicts are currently conceptualized, and offers recommendations to update U.S. military doctrine to prepare for this more prevalent and likely form of armed conflict in this century.
Types of Relationships in Proxy Wars
Proxy wars reflect a wide range of relationships between Principals and their supported Clients. The latter can be state or non-state actor(s). The Principal will select the type of support that it desires to offer based on its assessment of its own strategic interests and the alignment of its interests with those of the Client. A number of other factors will come into consideration as well. Overall, the character of a Principal-Client relationship is based upon an assessment by the Principal of:
Alignment of Interests. There is often a mismatch between Principal and Client in terms of interests and goals.
Capabilities of the Client. Usually, the agent is weaker than desired, and thus requires support of some type.
Degree of Risk Tolerance. The Principal is taking risk in delegating the achievement of an interest to a second party and needs to measure that risk.
Leverage/Conditionality. Whether or not the Principal can achieve some control over the client is described as leverage or the ability to withhold support assets as a condition of ensuring compliance with the Principal’s agenda and aims.
Deniability/Covert. The Principal must decide how covert it desires the proxy relationship to be and how much plausible deniability it requires.
These factors are sometimes mutually reinforcing, but they need not be so. For example, as the capabilities of a Client increase, a Principal’s leverage decreases over the supported client. As the Client increases its capabilities, it may expand its objectives and resist a political settlement that satisfies the other parties in the conflict. The interaction between these factors can bring to the fore some of the drawbacks of using proxies dealt with later in this article.
Degree of Proxy Relationship or “Proxiness”
A number of potential frameworks to examine the range of Principal and Client relationships in proxy wars have been offered. Here, we offer a simpler and linear continuum that incorporates projected aspects of the strategic context that are relevant to U.S. policymakers. For this work, the Principal-Client relationship is conceived as a continuum with various attributes of delegation, risk, and resource application. We offer a continuum of such relationships, ranging from simple materiel assistance to indirect violent support via surrogate forces:
Security Assistance. Support to the Client is limited to the provision of weapons and materiel. (Ex: U.S. weapons support to Mujahadeen fighters in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union.)
Advise/Train. Support to the Client extends beyond financial or military equipment, but is limited to strategic advice, intelligence, campaign planning, and training. The latter can be done in the Client state but does not include participation in field operations. (Ex: U.S. training to Cuban counter-revolutionary forces.)
Advise/Assist. Limited augmentation of the Client by the Principal in an advisory capacity to include observation and guidance during field operations but not active fighting. Could include situations where military officers are actively engaged with the direction of field operations. (Ex: U.S. support to El Salvadoran government against pro-Soviet revolutionary group, Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN))
Limited Partnership. Overt augmentation of the Client by military forces of the Principal in actual field operations, usually limited to air cover, medical evacuation, and indirect fires. (Ex: U.S. special forces conducting operations with Kurdish militias in Syria in the Counter-ISIS campaign.)
Surrogate. Direct use of, or augmentation of, fighting forces from the Principal that is masked for deniability, usually provided by covert forces, special contingents (Flying Tigers or “Russian volunteers”), or commercial sources such as Private Military Companies (PMC). A surrogate may be used by itself as the primary actor supported by the Principal or as an auxiliary or augmentation to a Client. (Ex: Russian pilots flying combat missions during the Korean War.)
This continuum offers a range of options that have different degrees of sponsorship/affiliation, different levels of opacity and risk, and different costs to the sponsor state. We find the surrogate option to be increasingly likely given that it generally offers a more competent and controllable actor with better alignment/incentives for a Principal than less organized local forces. Given the increased use of PMCs by China and Russia, we believe this continuum captures the range of proxy relationships that can be anticipated or employed. The Russian PMC known as the Wagner Group is only one of several units that appear to operate as a subsidiary of the Kremlin or its intelligence agencies. Likewise, China has expanded its security options with 20 international PMCs employing over 3,000 personnel in Iraq, Sudan, and Pakistan.
Some recent scholarship argues that technologies like cyber/computer network attacks or drones represent a new wrinkle to the proxy war arsenal. These analysts have expanded the concept of surrogates to include technologies not actors. There is a logic to this since many actors are using these technologies indirectly for the same political objectives as proxy forces, and with the same intent of masking their role and minimizing risk. But they are not actors and remain employed—overtly or covertly—under the control of the Principal state or by its delegated Client. This article centers on the actors and uses of surrogates as a specific subset within the proxy war history.
Conceptualizing the Entire Proxy Set
While often conceived of as a binary relationship, the potential for multiple sponsors and/or Clients is possible. The scholarship around proxy wars emphasizes a two-party relationship , the one between the so-called Principal (external actor) and the Client (proxy actor). However, more study should be given to the entire suite of actors actually involved, particularly in great power competition. Generally, it involves a four-way relationship between the two major external actors, and their respective proxies or target states. The literature is often silent on the Principal’s ultimate competitor, the other strategic competitor. To understand the context of the entire game, one has to appreciate all the players and take a systemic view of the political and proxy relationships at play. Instead of a single Principal-Client dyad, we have to consider the larger context in strategic competition with major powers (dueling dyads) and potentially multiple proxies or what might be termed polymorphic proxy fights.
Limits of Proxy War
One of the tensions and paradoxes of proxy sponsorship is that the stronger and more effective a group becomes, the greater its ability to stay independent or at least express more of its own agency against the Principal’s interests. There is both some promise and clear reservations about the use of proxy forces:
Proxy wars tend to be long and difficult to win—to the disappointment of policymakers expecting cheap and easy solutions to regional security challenges. Sponsors and proxies inevitably encounter principal-agent problems. Sponsors must be ruthless; the point is to get proxies to fight and die for the sponsor’s objectives. Proxies, in turn, try to maneuver sponsors to assume greater risk and commit more resources while pursuing their own more parochial agendas.
Efforts by a proxy to draw their sponsor further into the conflict could lead to escalation. With greater sponsor support, proxies might demonstrate a form of moral hazard wherein they will remain wedded to violence underwritten by the coercive power of their sponsor. The divergence of objectives between proxies and sponsors can continue into the post-conflict period. A proxy force once organized, armed, and trained does not disappear once a war ends. Instead, as was demonstrated in Afghanistan by formerly U.S.-backed Mujahadeen fighters turned Taliban and al Qaeda insurgents, a former proxy can evolve and inflict serious damage on its erstwhile sponsor. While the allure for policymakers of an indirect “limited” proxy war is dampened by these pathologies, the use of proxies remains attractive in many situations for its presumed low costs compared to a direct and overt military intervention. Yet, they are not a silver bullet and have been described as a medicine that is best when not “over-prescribed.”
Proxies in U.S. Joint and Service Doctrine
While proxy wars are recognized as a recurring phenomenon present since at least the Peloponnesian Wars, there is limited U.S. Joint Doctrine on the subject. The term “proxy” is not contained in the official doctrinal dictionary—as it is a term that connotes active subordination of potential proxy partners—so euphemisms, such as “Building Partner Capacity,” are often used. Joint doctrine in the United States uses the term “Unconventional Warfare (UW)” to describe the development and employment of proxy forces. The Defense Department’s definition of UW states that it consists of “operations and activities that are conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary, and guerrilla force in a denied area.” This definition comports with the binary and narrow conceptualization of UW, that is when the United States is supporting a resistance movement inside a state. This captures the creation of indigenous forces well, as in supporting an insurgency. But the definition falls short in recognizing the larger challenge posed in proxy conflict and offers no room for operations conducted to counter/limit a proxy force supported by a major external actor. Given the risk for escalation, such an approach would have to be carefully designed. Appropriate policy and doctrine are needed to assist in framing and planning this type of operation.
The shortcomings in U.S. doctrine have been noted previously by the Special Forces community. In 2014, the U.S. Army Special Operations Command published a thoughtful white paper, entitled “Counter-Unconventional Warfare,” capturing this gap. It highlighted the hole in the current U.S. approach by defining counter-UW operations as seeking to “decrease the sponsor’s capacity to employ unconventional warfare to achieve strategic aims.” This offers a lot of additional value when examining proxy wars where both of the protagonists have the support of a major power as a sponsor. Moreover, this expansion holistically addresses the strategic context in which U.S. support to a state or resistance movement is provided.
In 2015, the Joint Staff issued an updated doctrine for UW. The document, consistent with Army doctrinal publications, offers valuable considerations to frame joint operations in support of a resistance movement. Moreover, it provides useful advice for military interaction with both governmental and nongovernmental agencies and multinational forces. But the doctrine is framed around historical practices and needs refreshing to better support future U.S. engagement in UW missions for strategic competition. Congress has recognized this need and tasked the U.S. defense establishment with developing a strategy to offset foreign UW efforts in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act. Rather than a generic strategy, as a good first step, we recommend that U.S. military reconceive and expand the understanding of UW and extend its doctrine and educational programs to include those situations where support to the opposing state or proxy from its sponsor state is eliminated or reduced.
We propose an expansion of Unconventional Warfare beyond the current definition to better capture counter-UW:
Activities conducted by military forces to enable a State, resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow another actor by operating through or with the supported actor’s forces. UW may also include military and other activity designed to minimize support from an external state, which is directed against a supported actor’s sponsor.
This definition is offered for consideration into new Joint Doctrine.
Operations in Iraq and Syria have awakened U.S. military leaders to the shortcomings in the prevailing conception of UW and the lack of Joint Doctrine. General Joseph Votel, when he led U.S. and coalition operations in Iraq against ISIS, conceived of the mission with an evolution of the traditional U.S. formulation that UW is operationalized “by, with and through” (BWT) local forces. The “by” means working with indigenous actors on the ground who carry out operations by themselves without putting U.S. forces at risk. The “through” is meant to convey the option to operate through surrogates (private military contractors or front organizations) to conceal U.S. involvement or minimize risk to U.S. military forces or agents. The “with” covers those situations when U.S. elements are in the field working directly with the supported party inside the operational area. The evolving role of Special Operations Forces (SOF) in applying enablers, including intelligence, precision fires, and logistics SOF, has expanded the meaning of the “with” component of this operational approach.
General Votel’s conception is somewhat more limited than the traditional definition of the approach, as it confined BWT to supporting local forces with U.S. enablers (precision fires) and through U.S. legal authorities. More importantly, General Votel, the former commander of U.S. Central Command, found that current doctrine to guide his activities was lacking.
This could be done by expanding BWT to BWTA to include Against, to account for counter-UW against external sponsors, especially major powers to diminish or block their effectiveness. The historical precedent for this could be when the United States mined Haiphong harbor to block the provision of external support from its sponsors. Other cases may include efforts to interdict arms shipments from Iran to violent semi-state actors like Hezbollah.
In sum, an era of great power competition will undoubtedly spawn a number of proxy fights and see the continued proliferation of surrogates. These surrogates may be large and well-funded PMCs with high-tech capabilities, or quasi-government maritime militias at sea undercutting well-established rules of the road in international waters. While the Pentagon focuses on conventional scenarios in the principal theaters, off of Taiwan and the Baltics, our competitors are more likely to continue building upon their history of indirect approaches. The combination of mercenaries and masked Russian soldiers (or “little green men”) used by Russia in the ongoing proxy war in eastern Ukraine exemplifies what we can expect from Russia in the future. Likewise, China’s use of PMCs and its various armed law enforcement activities can be anticipated to undermine U.S. credibility and its alliance architecture in Asia and beyond. Policymakers and military planners need to study the evolution of unconventional warfare and update U.S. doctrine to prepare for the greater prevalence of this mode of war and its potential protracted and polymorphic character.
The views expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily represent the position of the Department of Defense, other institutions with which they are affiliated, or the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.