Strategic Insights: Proxy War Norms


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Dr. C. Anthony Pfaff Current trends in international relations suggest the United States will place a greater reliance on international partners in securing vital national interests. Growing assertiveness by regional state actors, increasingly capable nonstate actors, and a “war-weary” American public suggest the emergence of a “polyarchic” world order that will strain the United States’ ability to maintain sufficient forces overseas, where it currently exchanges defense commitments for access and basing.1 Rather, the United States may have to commit to a strategy broadly described as “off-shore balancing” that would rely on regional partners to uphold the balance of power in their own neighborhood, exchanging indirect U.S. support for the partner’s willingness to act in the interests of the United States.2 Even if it does not commit to such a strategy, current events suggest working through others to achieve strategic ends will be a feature in any future approach to international relations. Such a strategy will not only encourage proxy relationships, but as these state and nonstate challenges arise, they encourage proxy wars as well. In fact, there are a number of proxy wars underway in places like Yemen, where the United States supports Saudi Arabia’s efforts to contain Iranian influence; Syria, where the United States, Iran, and Russia support different factions to achieve a variety of foreign policy goals; Iraq, where the Government of Iraq relies on militias to confront the Islamic State on its behalf; and Ukraine, where Russia backs a separatist movement ostensibly to protect Russian citizens, but more likely to keep Kiev off balance and prevent Ukraine’s drift toward the West. Surprisingly, there is little written on the norms of proxy wars. While there is some international law that governs state sponsorship of foreign nonstate actors,3 the default position is if the proxy war is just, then so is the proxy relationship. However, entering into such relationships creates massive opportunities for moral failure. These opportunities arise because the introduction of the benefactor complicates already complex and somewhat subjective decisions made with regard to resorting to war and introduces a corrupting influence that risks distorting the reasons that drive those decisions. Because benefactors bring these moral complications, they bear the greater burden to address them. This point does not entail proxies have no responsibilities. What it does entail is that most moral decisions regarding proxy wars are often in the hands of the benefactor, without whom there would be no proxy relationship to judge. Since proxy wars are wars, moral analysis should start with the traditional provisions of jus ad bellum, but also reflect the potentially corrupting influence a benefactor brings. In what follows, I will first discuss how the character of proxy war impacts its ethics, and then I describe that impact through the application of jus ad bellum conditions, as well as examine the kinds of moral hazards proxy wars give rise to even when those jus ad bellum conditions are met. THE CHARACTER OF PROXY WAR Andrew Mumford defines proxy war as “indirect engagement in a conflict by third parties wishing to influence its strategic outcome.”4 It is the indirect nature of the benefactor’s involvement that distinguishes a proxy relationship from other supportive relationships, such as, for example, an alliance.5 This point does not suggest that direct action by the benefactor is incompatible with proxy relationships. In Libya, for example, the international coalition provided support to rebel forces while at the same time directly attacked Gaddafi’s forces from the air. So, while air strikes did contribute to Gaddafi’s defeat, the coalition limited its risk—as well as its costs—by supporting proxies on the ground that acted as a surrogate for ground forces it would have otherwise had to commit.

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