In a recent article, Vladimir Rauta evaluates the progress of the proxy wars debate. He finds that there are three different generations of scholars: the founders, framers, and reformers. This conceptualization is helpful in thinking how to take research on proxy wars forward.
In the first half of 2020, the Syrian civil war entered its tenth year, while the Libyan civil war became the Middle East’s most important proxy war. Iraq is turning into a battleground for foreigners once again, still scarred by its civil war and the international efforts against ISIS. At the same time, the latter’s factions are quickly adapting to regional proxy games, with the Islamic State in Yemen, for example, transforming into an entity resembling a proxy or a tool in a broader conflict between regional players.
What is more, the renewed prospect of ethnic strife in Ethiopia comes only a year after the momentous awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to its Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed. The award was in recognition of Ahmed’s efforts to normalize its relationship with neighbouring Eritrea, ending a decades-long cycle of proxy wars. That Ethiopia faces the prospects of proxy wars once more is testimony to the enduring appeal of wars on the cheap and the frailty of agreements designed to end them. As such, proxy wars are neither new nor rare, and the same can be said about their study.
Over the last decade, proxy war research has matured in recognition of the multiple problems proxy wars pose to the international system. This presents an opportunity to take stock of the proxy war debate in order to understand its past, present, and future. Two questions are relevant here: First, how has proxy war literature evolved? And, second, how has proxy wars research added up?
In answering the first question, we can think about the debate as evolving across three “generations”: (1) founders, (2) framers, and (3) reformers. The founders refers to a generation of scholarship emerging during the Cold War and its immediate aftermath. This identifies the pioneering work on proxy wars as a point of reference to theoretical and conceptual accounts emerging in the distinct socio-political context of the Cold War and its aftermath.
The framers contributed to the scholarship emerging in the aftermath of 9/11 and around the time of the Arab Spring. Not only did they register the absence of a debate on proxy wars, but they set out the trajectory for their future study in a programmatic shift that drew on creativity, intuition, and intellectual vigor.
Finally, the reformers captured the rise of proxy wars as the Syrian, Yemeni, and Libyan civil wars collapsed under the external pressures of proxy dynamics. The Russian annexation of Crimea, the ensuing proxy war in the South-East of Ukraine, and the transformation of the so-called Obama Doctrine into a set of strategic responses through proxies added empirical weight.
Thinking about the debate through the lens of “generations” serves to show how much we actually know, how diverse research is (in terms of discipline, sub-fields, and methodologies and theories), and helps set a benchmark for where research might go.
The second question invites us to reconsider the assumptions informing each generation’s innovative research. One the one hand, the three generations show that we have come to know a lot about proxy wars. On the other hand, this is undermined by the debate’s insistence that proxy wars are still “under-analyzed”, “under-conceptualized”, or “under-theorised”.
To assess the tension between framing the debate as “under-researched” and its actual advancements, we should consider, first, the enhancement and expansion of the historical basis of proxy wars research, and, second, the development of theoretically rich accounts of the strategic interactions behind proxy relationships.
In short, we should assess the role of both history and strategy for the future development of proxy war research. Because proxy wars invite a narrow reading of history which locates them at the centre of the Cold War superpower competition, future research should consider a historiography of the idea of “proxy war”.
What we need a long term perspective that rethinks proxy war beyond the confines of the Cold War to show the trans-historical character of considerations and constraints over decisions to go wage war by proxy. A reappraisal proxy war against a wider historical background has the potential to minimize myth-making, errors in analogy, and provide insights serving as more than sources of data.
Similarly, strategy helps understand why proxy wars are now seen, as General Sir Richard Barrons put it, the most successful kind of political war being waged of our generation. The basic intellectual structure of strategy–ends, ways, means, and assumptions –serves because proxy wars are a set of choices: over whom, by whom, against whom, to what end, to what advantage to wage indirect war.
Strategy and strategic interaction are a productive framework allowing policy and scholarly debate to move forward by shifting the focus on strategic bargaining between actors. Through this, we can then appreciate the extent to which proxies are invested in warfighting, how other states might respond to proxy strategic environment, and how to balance escalation with inaction or retreat.
Vladimir Rauta is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom. He is the author of “Framers, founders, and reformers: Three generations of proxy war research”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.