Strategic Competition, World Order and the Recurring Role of Proxies

A U.S. Navy destroyer, foreground, steams alongside a Soviet freighter outbound from Cuba after the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

By Dr. Graeme P. Herd, Marshall Center professor, and Matthew Funk, researcher for the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy

After World War II, the previously predominant way of direct, interstate warfare came to an end, replaced by indirect, irregular warfare, or war by proxy. The Cold War paradigm was defined by political-ideological competition, military confrontation and economic opposition between the First and Second worlds (the United States and its allies versus the Soviet Union and its allies), and as a struggle for influence in the nonaligned Third World, now understood as the Global South. The major proxy-war flashpoints in the Cold War were located outside the European theater and included the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cuban missile crisis and the Afghan-Soviet War. China was also an actor in this respect, with what Dominic Tierney, a professor of political science and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, characterized as its “militant anti-imperialist (and anti-Soviet) foreign policy” and sponsorship of “wars of national liberation.” Superpowers avoided direct interventions that might lead to interstate conventional clashes that risked nuclear Armageddon by recruiting, training, arming and leading third-party military surrogates or proxy forces to further their interests and hamper or reduce those of the adversary. Ideologically driven insurgencies were the proxy wars of choice.

The following assumptions, conditions and characteristics appear to be common features of proxy wars in the modern era. Two or more parties have conflicting political-ideological, military or economic interests, leading to the proxy of third-party forces. In addition to domestic irregular armed forces that use violence (separatists, insurgents, paramilitaries, vigilantes and militias), proxies can include private military companies (PMC), transnational terrorist groups, transnational organized crime gangs and cartels and, more recently, “cyber warriors” or hackers for hire. The relationship between the external actor and the proxy is sustained through the provision of direct assistance, including lethal material aid, by the external actor to its proxy. Assistance from the external sponsor to the proxy is conditional and represents some sort of alignment between the aims of both parties against a common target. Proxy relationships suggest that the sponsor seeks a number of possible benefits, including reducing costs, limiting the risk of escalation to interstate conflict, obscuring casualties and avoiding legal challenges and political exposure. If the proxy sponsor remains unrecognized as a party to the conflict, it reserves the option to act as mediator (combining arsonist and fireman roles). State sponsors of proxies can use their own territory as a haven, base of operations, and training and recruitment facility. Proxy force conflicts are more manageable than interstate war. Many proxies offer additional benefits, such as their greater knowledge of local physical and human terrain, as well as specific tactical and operational capabilities that the external sponsor otherwise lacks.

The End of the Cold War — In Search of a Paradigm?

After the collapse of the bipolar world order, proxy wars — and so proxies — continued to operate, with new ones emerging, but within a different international order paradigm. In this new order, the ideological constraints of the Cold War became much less relevant. The stable balance-of-power system gave way to uncertainty, ambiguity and unpredictability. Old alliances withered and the seemingly enduring sets of patron-client relations were weakened. Resource wars and illicit political economies run by nonstate and state-sponsored actors increased. The assumptions of Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye, in their book “Power and Interdependence,” was that multilateral interstate negotiations between multiple actors would lead to complex interdependence — that is, reciprocal mutual cooperative gains, entanglements and the emergence of decentralized networks that generate new opportunities for cooperative diplomacy. Power would become “power with,” rather than “power over.” This understanding translated into the notion of market-democratic universalism in the 1990s as proposed by Francis Fukuyama in his “End of History” thesis. Within this paradigm of ever-expanding peace, proxy wars would be redundant. However, as economic interdependence increased and nuclear weapons proliferated, not least to South Asia (India and Pakistan), major interstate war became less likely. Global order became more uncertain, unpredictable and ambiguous.


A Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket carrying 60 Starlink satellites stands ready for launch at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 2020. Ukraine’s military depends on the satellites.  THE ASSOCIATED PRESS


By the early 2000s, in an increasingly multipolar and polycentric world, we could envisage a “Global Concert of Great Powers.” This would be the equivalent of the 19th century European Concert of Nations. In this world-order paradigm, a “Yalta-2” or “Helsinki III” conference of the five U.N. Security Council permanent members (P5) and India and Japan, which collectively represent 70% of global GDP, would exercise an influential leadership role on the world stage. Through transactional strategic dialogue and informal negotiation, this Global Concert would direct and manage the global strategic agenda (for example, over WMD proliferation, climate change, regional crises and terrorism), while each great power member of the Concert would still be able to take unilateral action in its sphere of privileged interest. In this context, proxies would not have a global role — mitigation and management of such conflict would be the prerogative of resourced United Nations-mandated multilateral peace operations. Proxies would operate regionally, within their geographically defined spheres of influence, on behalf of the center. Their role would be to police elites, enforce the doctrine of limited sovereignty and discipline states within their spheres. Clearly this is not the case, as our case studies demonstrate.

Rather than a Global Concert, are we reaching a Cold War 2.0 inflection point as relations between the U.S. and its friends and allies on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other, rapidly deteriorate? If this is the case, we can expect that “proxy war” will also take on a Cold War 2.0 hue. However, national interests likely place limits on the inevitability of a slide into a new Cold War. First, unlike the late 1940s, the world is globalized and increasingly multipolar. In this context, Cold War-style “containment” is not possible. Second, in the current context of strategic competition short of war, the U.S. prioritizes countering China over Russia. From a U.S. perspective, countering China is enabled by the support of coalition partners, not least Germany, Japan and South Korea. Thus, trans-Atlantic unity is at a premium. This suggests a targeted Containment 2.0 in that the political West seeks to contain (or constrain) Russian aggressive and malign strategic behavior within stable and predictable lines. Moreover, a Russian alliance with China would expose Moscow’s asymmetric dependencies on Beijing and render Russia a junior partner within a Sino-centric bloc (Pax Sinica 2.0), with little or no strategic autonomy.

By the 21st century, key global economic networks have converged toward “hub and spoke” systems, with important consequences for power relations. Adversaries, understanding the structure of internet, food or energy supply networks, can directly — or using proxies — exploit network chokepoints to weaponize interdependence. Analysts point to 50 “black spots” globally where we witness the entangled threats of crime, corruption and terrorism. At a national level, transnational organized crime groups try to infiltrate state structures to protect themselves from, and so avoid, state law enforcement intervention. But internationally, and in the context of strategic competition, a state can seek to expand and institutionalize its malign sphere of influence, as Pavlo Troian’s article on Russia’s “occupation” of Belarus in this edition of per Concordiam illustrates, or strengthen the statehood (territorial integrity and sovereignty) and resilience of democratic partners, as Dr. Kseniya Sotnikova’s contribution to this edition makes clear.

Civil wars evolve into multiple proxy wars waged by regional and global actors. Regional crises and fragile states are driven by economic and demographic inequalities, the rise of ethnic and sectarian violence, climate change, the growth of technology and the failure of current institutions to respond. Given the proliferation of nuclear weapons and rise of global economic interdependence, as during the Cold War, states avoid direct interstate war and advance strategic competition through various proxies, including militarily capable ones. For example, in this digital age of space-enabled warfare, SpaceX shapes Ukraine’s ability to wage war because Ukraine is dependent on the U.S. company’s Starlink satellite network for military communications and command and control. Market principles apply: demand signals (sponsors in need of proxies) generate supply (proxies). Increased financing, expanded recruitment opportunities based on a glut of foreign fighters, and more advanced communication technologies enabled the emergence of more lethally capable (e.g., drones, cyber weapons and antiship missiles) PMCs, such as Blackwater (U.S.), the Wagner Group (Russia) and SADAT (Turkey), and other proxies.

The New G-Zero World Order Paradigm

These trends, drivers and dynamics highlight the difficulties of a group of states exerting leadership and management of the global strategic agenda. The U.N. Security Council is increasingly paralyzed by the use of the P5’s veto power. This world order can be termed G-Zero, i.e., a group in which no members lead; or put another way, leadership of the global strategic agenda is absent. A G-Zero world order favors states that thrive in ambiguity, unpredictability and contestation, where transactionalism is the order of the day. States with well-developed alliance systems are disadvantaged, while states without (not least, Russia, China and North Korea) are freer to maneuver. A Russia in decline can participate in asymmetric competition by embracing asymmetric strategies and the use of proxies, irregular warfare and hybrid tools to close the gap. States with a spoiler-role ability and a higher tolerance for risk-taking thrive and flourish. A G-Zero world order best secures and protects the influence of a Russia in power decline relative to China. Russia cannot achieve G3 status and can hardly accept unipolarity, or even bipolarity, if it cannot be one of the poles. Russia’s order-producing and managerial role in its shared neighborhood is increasingly compromised by third parties, not least the European Union, Turkey and China. This G-Zero world order is the default and most likely outcome of current confrontation, systemic rivalry and strategic competition.


The PMC Wagner Center, an office complex associated with Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner private military group, during the center’s opening in
St. Petersburg, Russia, in November 2022.  THE ASSOCIATED PRESS


Given that a G-Zero world order will be heavily shaped by the nature of Sino-Russian strategic alignment, what are the trends for and significance of proxy war? A Xi-Putin summit on February 4, 2022, declared a friendship with “no limits” and “no forbidden areas of cooperation,” and described the nexus between the two as superior to Cold War alliances. We see multifaceted, broad security and other policy coordination between China and Russia, facilitated by respective State Council-Security Council and Xi-Putin dialogue.

China and Russia have not formed a treaty-based alliance with mutual defense commitments for defensive or offensive military collaboration against shared threats. They retain their strategic autonomy, flexibility and policy independence. They do, though, share a great-power pragmatic alignment based on a common interest of providing a strategic counterweight versus the U.S. hegemony/liberal international order. However, China and Russia have different development trajectories and so there is no “deep-rooted and long-lasting convergence” between them. Rather, China determines the level/tempo of bilateral engagement and as Russia becomes less integrated in the global economy, cooperation becomes more challenging for China — there is no replacement for the Western market. Russia aligns its positions with India, Japan and Southeast Asia to counterbalance China’s geopolitical influence and become a third pole and leader of a new Non-Aligned Movement.


China, as a core contemporary external sponsor of proxy groups, builds on a rich Cold War history of proxy use. But today, China’s use of proxies has broadened to include PMCs guarding One Belt, One Road projects and shadow “police stations” abroad to monitor its own diaspora. It embraces cyber actors and algorithmic authoritarian surveillance. But China and Russia seek different global orders — Beijing wants a revisionist, stable sphere-of-influence system in which China exercises global leadership via control of Asia, but Moscow wants a revolutionary G-Zero world order of uncertainty and crisis with no global leadership. As a result, proxy wars fought to prevent escalation are pregnant with the risk of accidental and unintended escalation.

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