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Proxy war

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Soviet military advisers planning operations during the Angolan Civil War (1975–2002), a proxy conflict involving the USSR and United States

In political science, a proxy war is as an armed conflict fought between two belligerents, wherein one belligerent is a non-state actor supported by an external third-party power. In the term proxy war, the non-state actor is the proxy, yet both belligerents in a proxy war can be considered proxies if both are receiving foreign military aid from a third party country. Acting either as a nation-state government or as a conventional force, a proxy belligerent acts in behalf of a third-party state sponsor.[1] A proxy war is characterised by a direct, long-term, geopolitical relationship between the third-party sponsor states and their client states and non-state clients,[2] thus the political sponsorship becomes military sponsorship when the third-party powers fund the soldiers and their matériel to equip the belligerent proxy-army to launch and fight and sustain a war to victory, and government power.[2]


During classical antiquity and the Middle Ages, many non-state proxies were external parties that were introduced into an internal conflict and aligned themselves with a belligerent to gain influence and to further their own interests in the region.[3][4] Proxies could be introduced by an external or local power and most commonly took the form of irregular armies which were used to achieve their sponsor's goals in a contested region.[4] Some medieval states like the Byzantine Empire used proxy warfare as a foreign-policy tool by deliberately cultivating intrigue among hostile rivals and then backing them when they went to war with each other.[2] Other states regarded proxy wars as merely a useful extension of a pre-existing conflict, such as France and England during the Hundred Years' War, both of which initiated a longstanding practice of supporting privateers, which targeted the other's merchant shipping.[5] France used England's turmoil of the Wars of the Roses from their victory as a proxy, siding with the Lancastrians against the Yorkists who were backed by the Burgundian State. The Ottoman Empire likewise used the Barbary pirates as proxies to harass Western European powers in the Mediterranean Sea.[6]

Frequent application of the term "proxy war" indicates its prominent place in academic research on international relations. Distinct implementations of soft power and hard power have proved to be unsuccessful in recent years. Accordingly, great failures in classic wars increased the tendency to use proxy wars.[7] Since the early twentieth century, proxy wars have most commonly taken the form of states assuming the role of sponsors to non-state proxies and essentially using them as fifth columns to undermine adversarial powers.[2] That type of proxy warfare includes external support for a faction engaged in a civil war, terrorists, national-liberation movements, and insurgent groups, or assistance to a national revolt against foreign occupation.[2] For example, the British government partially organized and instigated the Arab Revolt to undermine the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.[3] Many proxy wars began assuming a distinctive ideological dimension after the Spanish Civil War, which pitted the fascist political ideology of Italy and Nazi Germany against the communist ideology of the Soviet Union without involving these states in open warfare with each other.[8] Sponsors of both sides also used the Spanish conflict as a proving ground for their own weapons and battlefield tactics.[8]

During the Cold War, proxy warfare was motivated by fears that an armed conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union by conventional warfare would result in nuclear holocaust, which rendered the use of ideological proxies a safer way to conduct hostilities.[9] The Soviet government found that supporting parties antagonistic to the U.S. and other Western nations was a cost-effective way to combat NATO's influence compared to direct military engagement.[10] Besides, the proliferation of televised media and its impact on public perception made the U.S. public especially susceptible to war-weariness and being skeptical of risking life abroad.[11] That encouraged the American practice of arming insurgent forces, such as the funnelling of supplies to the mujahideen during the Soviet–Afghan War.[12] Other examples of proxy war include the Korean War[13] and the Vietnam War.[14]


The governments of some nations, particularly liberal democracies, may choose to engage in proxy warfare (despite their military superiority) if most of their citizens oppose declaring or entering a conventional war.[15] That featured prominently in US strategy following the Vietnam War because of the so-called "Vietnam Syndrome" of extreme war weariness among the American population. That was also a significant factor in motivating the US to enter conflicts such as the Syrian Civil War by proxy actors after a series of costly drawn-out direct engagements in the Middle East spurred a recurrence of war weariness, the "War on Terror syndrome."[15]

Nations may also resort to proxy warfare to avoid potential negative international reactions from allied nations, profitable trading partners, or intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations. That is especially significant when standing peace treaties, acts of the alliance or other international agreements ostensibly forbid direct warfare. Breaking such agreements could lead to a variety of negative consequences due to either negative international reaction (see above), punitive provisions listed in the prior agreement, or retaliatory action by the other parties and their allies.

In some cases, nations may be motivated to engage in proxy warfare because of financial concerns: supporting irregular troops, insurgents, non-state actors, or less-advanced allied militaries (often with obsolete or surplus equipment) can be significantly cheaper than deploying national armed forces, and the proxies usually bear the brunt of casualties and economic damage resulting from prolonged conflict.[16]

Another common motivating factor is the existence of a security dilemma. A nation may use military intervention to install a more favorable government in a third-party state. Rival nations may perceive the intervention as a weakened position to their own security and may respond by attempting to undermine such efforts, often by backing parties favorable to their own interests (such as those directly or indirectly under their control, sympathetic to their cause, or ideologically aligned). In that case, if one or both rivals come to believe that their favored faction is at a disadvantage, they will often respond by escalating military and/or financial support.[17] If their counterpart(s), perceiving a material threat or desiring to avoid the appearance of weakness or defeat, follow suit, a proxy war ensues between the two powers. That was a major factor in many of the proxy wars during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union,[18] as well as in the ongoing series of conflicts between Saudi Arabia and Iran, especially in Yemen and Syria.[19][20][21]


Proxy wars can have a huge impact, especially on the local area. A proxy war with significant effects occurred between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Vietnam War.[citation needed] Operation Rolling Thunder, a U.S bombing campaign in North Vietnam destroyed significant amounts of infrastructure. Many bombs were also dropped on North Vietnamese supply routes in Cambodia and Laos.[22] Equally, if not more, significant was the Soviet–Afghan War, which saw the U.S. fund the Afghan mujahideen against the invading Soviet forces (see Operation Cyclone). This war cost hundreds of thousands of lives and billions of dollars,[23] bankrupting the Soviet Union and contributing to its collapse.[10]

The conflict in the Middle East between Saudi Arabia and Iran is another example of the destructive impact of proxy wars. Since 2003, nearly 500,000 have died in the Iraqi conflict.[24] Since 2011, more than 500,000 have died in the Syrian Civil War.[25] Over 377,000 people had died in the Yemeni Civil War by early 2022.[26] In the war in Afghanistan, more than 176,000 were killed between 2001 and 2021.[27] In Pakistan, more than 57,000 have been killed since 2003.[28]

In general, lengths, intensities, and scales of armed conflicts are often greatly increased if belligerents' capabilities are augmented by external support. Belligerents are often less likely to engage in diplomatic negotiations, peace talks are less likely to bear fruit, and damage to infrastructure can be many times greater.[29][30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Osmańczyk, Jan Edmund (2002). Encyclopedia of the United Nations and International Agreements. Abingdon: Routledge Books. p. 1869. ISBN 978-0415939201.
  2. ^ a b c d e Hughes, Geraint (2014). My Enemy's Enemy: Proxy Warfare in International Politics. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press. pp. 5, 12–13. ISBN 978-1845196271.
  3. ^ a b Williams, Brian Glyn (2012). Innes, Michael (ed.). Making Sense of Proxy Wars: States, Surrogates & the Use of Force. Washington DC: Potomac Books. pp. 61–63. ISBN 978-1-59797-230-7.
  4. ^ a b Carr, Mike (2016). France, John; Rogers, Clifford; De Vries, Kelly (eds.). Journal of Medieval Military History, Volume 10. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press. pp. 163–166. ISBN 978-1-78327-130-6.
  5. ^ Heebøll-Holm, Thomas (2013). Ports, Piracy and Maritime War: Piracy in the English Channel and the Atlantic, c. 1280-c. 1330. Leiden: Brill. p. 8. ISBN 978-9004235700.
  6. ^ Watson, William (2003). Tricolor and Crescent: France and the Islamic World. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Books. pp. 17–19. ISBN 978-0275974701.
  7. ^ S. A. Hashemi and M. Sahrapeyma, "Proxy war and US's smart power strategy (The case of Syria, 2011-2016)," Q. J. Polit. Stud. Islam. World, vol. 6, no. 24, p. 1, 2018. http://psiw.journals.ikiu.ac.ir/article_1351.html
  8. ^ a b Axelrod, Alan (1997). The Real History of the Cold War: A New Look at the Past. New York: Sterling Publishers. p. 20. ISBN 978-1402763021.
  9. ^ Wilde, Robert. "Mutually Assured Destruction." About Education. About.com, n.d. Web. 23 April 2015. [1] Archived 5 April 2015 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ a b Prof CJ. "Ep. 0014: Fall of the Soviet Empire." Prof CJ, 21 July 2014. MP3 file.
  11. ^ Curtis, Anthony R. "Mass Media Influence on Society." The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, 23 June 2012. PDF file.
  12. ^ The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. "Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., n.d. Web. 23 April 2015. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1499983/Soviet-invasion-of-Afghanistan Archived 29 April 2015 at the Wayback Machine>.
  13. ^ "The Korean War, 1950–1953". U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian. Office of the Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs, United States Department of State. Archived from the original on 2 July 2015. Retrieved 7 July 2015.
  14. ^ "Vietnam War History". History.com. A&E Television Networks, LLC. Retrieved 9 July 2015.
  15. ^ a b Mumford, Andrew (1 April 2013). "Proxy Warfare and the Future of Conflict". The RUSI Journal. 158 (2): 40–46. doi:10.1080/03071847.2013.787733. ISSN 0307-1847. S2CID 153479115.
  16. ^ "War on the cheap?: assessing the costs and benefits of proxy war". repository.library.georgetown.edu. Archived from the original on 29 September 2015. Retrieved 28 September 2015.
  17. ^ Jervis, Robert (January 1978). "Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma" (PDF). World Politics. 30 (2): 167–214. doi:10.2307/2009958. hdl:2027/uc1.31158011478350. JSTOR 2009958. S2CID 154923423. Archived from the original (PDF) on 1 May 2015. Retrieved 28 September 2015.
  18. ^ "How to stop the fighting, sometimes". The Economist. ISSN 0013-0613. Archived from the original on 16 August 2017. Retrieved 28 September 2015.
  19. ^ "Iran and Saudi Arabia's cold war is making the Middle East even more dangerous". Vox. 30 March 2015. Archived from the original on 5 July 2017. Retrieved 28 September 2015.
  20. ^ Bednarz, Dieter; Reuter, Christoph; Zand, Bernhard (3 April 2015). "Proxy War in Yemen: Saudi Arabia and Iran Vie for Regional Supremacy". Spiegel Online. Archived from the original on 29 September 2015. Retrieved 28 September 2015.
  21. ^ "Saudi Arabia, Iran and the 'Great Game' in Yemen". Al Jazeera. Archived from the original on 30 October 2014. Retrieved 28 September 2015.
  22. ^ "Operation Rolling Thunder." History. A&E Television Networks, LLC., n.d. Web. 28 April 2015. [2] Archived 8 April 2015 at the Wayback Machine
  23. ^ "The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan and the U.S. Response, 1978–1980." U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian. U.S. Department of State, 31 October 2013. Web. 28 April 2015. [3] Archived 2 May 2015 at the Wayback Machine
  24. ^ Sheridan, Kerry. "War-related deaths near 500,000 in Iraq." Your Middle East. Your Middle East, 16 October 2013. Web. 28 April 2015. [4] Archived 18 May 2015 at the Wayback Machine
  25. ^ Total death toll | Over 606,000 people killed across Syria since the beginning of the "Syrian Revolution", including 495,000 documented by SOHR
  26. ^ "Yemen: Why is the war there getting more violent?". BBC News. 14 April 2023.
  27. ^ "Human and Budgetary Costs to Date of the U.S. War in Afghanistan, 2001–2022 | Figures | Costs of War". The Costs of War. Retrieved 1 September 2021.
  28. ^ "Fatalities in Terrorist Violence in Pakistan 2003–2015." SATP. SATP, 26 April 2015. Web. 28 April 2015. [5] Archived 7 January 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  29. ^ "Why Proxy Wars in the Middle East Are (Probably) Here to Stay". Political Violence @ a Glance. 27 August 2015. Archived from the original on 5 September 2015. Retrieved 28 September 2015.
  30. ^ Balcells, L.; Kalyvas, S. N. (1 January 2014). "Does Warfare Matter? Severity, Duration, and Outcomes of Civil Wars". Journal of Conflict Resolution. 58 (8): 1390–1418. doi:10.1177/0022002714547903. hdl:2072/205395. S2CID 220536755.

Further reading[edit]

  • Tom Stevenson, "In the Grey Zone" (review of Eli Berman and David A. Lake, Proxy Wars: Suppressing Violence through Local Agents, Cornell, 2019, ISBN 978 1 50173 306 2; Tyrone L. Groh, Proxy War: The Least Bad Option, Stanford, 2019, ISBN 978 1 5036 0818 4; Andreas Krieg and Jean-Marc Rickli, Surrogate Warfare: The Transformation of War in the 21st Century, Georgetown, 2019, ISBN 978 1 62616 678 3), London Review of Books, vol. 42, no. 20 (22 October 2020), pp. 41–43. "Nuclear weapons – judged, for now at least, to be too powerful to be used – seem to preclude wars of destruction between major powers today." (p. 43.)

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