Episode 6, Season 1 of the Social Science of War podcast examines the role of proxy warfare in strategic and great power competition, and how the Army, the military, and the US government as a whole need to prepare for this distinct form of conflict.
Our guests begin by defining what proxy warfare is and whether it will be relevant in strategic competition. They then outline the reasons why states engage in proxy warfare and the unique challenges that delegating security to proxies poses for states. A large part of the conversation explores proxy warfare through the framework of principal-agent theory, to include a discussion on the role of interest alignment between principals and their proxies, and whether a principal can overcome interest misalignment.
Following discussion on the theory of proxy warfare, our guests discuss the implications of proxy warfare for the Army and the broader national security community. The US Army’s Special Forces, or Green Berets, are a force organized, trained, and equipped specifically to engage in proxy warfare. However, our guests note that throughout history conventional military leaders—to include in the context of large-scale combat operations during World War I, World War II, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and beyond—have often incorporated proxy forces as part of their broader war plans. If history is precedent, then within strategic competition both special operations forces and conventional forces will need to understand and be prepared to employ proxy warfare approaches.
Dr. Nakissa Jahanbani is an assistant professor in the Department of Social Sciences at West Point and a researcher at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. She studies political violence, focusing on questions of state-proxy relationships, specifically Iran’s network of proxies. She has published widely on Iran’s use of proxy warfare, and today’s episode is motivated by her coauthored article, “Iran Entangled: Iran and Hezbollah’s Support to Proxies Operating in Syria.”
Dr. Vladimir Rauta is a lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Reading and a fellow at the Irregular Warfare Initiative. He is widely published on proxy warfare, to include as the editor of the forthcoming Routledge Handbook of Proxy Wars for which both host Kyle Atwell and guest Nakissa Jahanbani have contributed chapters.
Lieutenant General Ken Tovo retired as a career Special Forces Officer with almost forty years of experience in the Army, culminating with command of US Army Special Operations Command. He graduated and commissioned as an infantry officer from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1983. His wide operational experience includes the first Gulf War, refugee relief operations in northern Iraq, noncombatant evacuation operations in Sierra Leone, peacekeeping operations in Bosnia, five tours in Iraq, and one tour in Afghanistan.
The Social Science of War podcast is produced by the Department of Social Sciences at West Point. Visit our website if you would like to be a student or teach in the Department, or if you would like to connect with any of our instructors based on their expertise.
Kyle Atwell created and is the host of the Social Science of War. Please reach out to Kyle with any questions about this episode or the Science of War podcast in general.
Image credit: Emmanuel Rios, Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force–Arabian Peninsula
In order to better understand such things as "proxy wars" today, one must do this, I suggest, from the perspective of a New/Reverse Cold War; that is, from the perspective of:
a. The U.S./the West, post-the Old Cold War, being the ones engaged in "expansionist"/"revolutionary"/"modernist" causes and related activities:
“Since the 1990s the focus of American international security policy has been focused on creating conditions for extending zones of security and prosperity to other states under the theory that ‘political as well as economic globalization would make the world safer — and more profitable — for the United States.’ Consequently, the United States saw expansion, rather than retraction, of American military presence around the world.” (See the bottom of Page 2 of the Introduction chapter of the above-referenced book.)
"Dhofar, El Salvador and the Philippines are all campaigns driven by fundamentally conservative concerns. When we are looking to Syria right now, (however,) it is not just about maintaining order or even the regime, but about larger political change. In Afghanistan and Iraq too, we represented revolutionary change. So, perhaps we should read Mao and Che Guevara instead of Thompson in order to find the appropriate lessons of how to achieve large-scale societal change through limited means? That is what we are after, in the end. And in this coming era, where we are pivoting away from large-scale interventions and state-building projects, but not from our fairly grand political ambitions, it may be worth exploring how insurgents do more with little; how they approach irregular warfare, and reach their objectives indirectly." (See the Small Wars Journal article "Learning From Today’s Crisis of Counterinsurgency" — an interview by Octavian Manea of Dr. David H. Ucko and Dr. Robert Egnell.)
b. And from the perspective of such diverse entities as Russia, China, Iran, N. Korea, the Islamists — and even conservatives/traditionalists here at home in the U.S./the West — having their power, influence and control thus threatened by the U.S./the West post-the Old Cold War — being engaged in "containment"/"roll back"/"anti-revolutionary"/"anti-modernist" causes and related activities. (Such seemingly unconnected things as September 11, 2001, January 6, 2021 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine ALL to be understood from this such perspective?)
“For Putin, he suggests, the populist wave in Europe was a predictable response to the permissiveness of European societies, particularly with regard to immigration and gay rights. And in the rise of the right across the continent he sees an opportunity to address himself to a wider audience. ‘The Russian conservative turn . . . must be exported, and Putin sees himself as the harbinger of that anti-modernist movement.’ ” (See the Mar 24, 2018 The Irish Times article “Inside the Mind of Vladimir Putin: Two Takes on the Russian President” by Raudhan Mac Cormaic.)
"Liberal democratic societies have, in the past few decades, undergone a series of revolutionary changes in their social and political life, which are not to the taste of all their citizens. For many of those, who might be called social conservatives, Russia has become a more agreeable society, at least in principle, than those they live in. Communist Westerners used to speak of the Soviet Union as the pioneer society of a brighter future for all. Now, the rightwing nationalists of Europe and North America admire Russia and its leader for cleaving to the past." (See "The American Interest" article "The Reality of Russian Soft Power" by John Lloyd and Daria Litinova.)
In the Old Cold War of yesterday — such things as "proxy wars" — these were understood from the perspective of (a) the Soviets/the communists being engaged in "expansionist"/"revolutionary"/"modernist" activities and (b) the U.S./the West and indeed conservatives/traditionalists everywhere to include even in the communist countries themselves — thus threatened — being engaged in "anti-expansionist"/"containment"/"roll back"/"anti-modernist" activities.
In the New/Reverse Cold War of today — such things as "proxy wars" — these must be understood from the perspective of (a) the U.S./the West being engaged in "expansionist"/"revolutionary"/"modernist" activities and (b) such diverse entities as Russia, China, Iran, N. Korea, the Islamists — and conservatives/traditionalists everywhere to include even here in the U.S./the West — thus threatened — being engaged in "anti-expansionist"/"containment"/"roll back"/"anti-modernist activities.
Re: the first quoted item that I provide above, an "above referenced book" is referred to. This such book is the 2016 edition of the book “Exporting Security: International Engagement, Security Cooperation, and the Changing Face of the US Military” by U.S. Naval War College Professor Derek S. Reveron.
Given that the title of our podcast above is "Theory and Practice of Proxy Warfare in Strategic Competition," note how I have attempted, above, to define "strategic competition" today; this, in New/Reverse Cold War terms;
That is, in terms of the U.S./the West now being engaged in "expansionist"/"revolutionary"/modernist" activities both here at home and there abroad (much as the Soviets/the communists were in the Old Cold War but, in their case, re: communism) and in terms of the U.S./the West's diverse opponents today (those both here at home and there abroad) being engaged in "containment"/"roll back"/"anti-modernist" activities" (much as the U.S./the West was during the Old Cold War).
In this regard, note the important the role that religion — and social conservatism more generally — played/plays — this, for those entities doing "containment" and "roll back" — (a) in the Old Cold War of yesterday (that would be the U.S./the West back then) and (b) in the New/Reverse Cold War of today (that would be such diverse entities as Russia, China, Iran, N. Korea, the Islamists, etc., today):
a. First, from the Old Cold War of yesterday:
“Without the Pope, no Solidarity. Without Solidarity, no Gorbachev. Without Gorbachev, no fall of Communism. In fact, Gorbachev himself gave the Kremlin’s long-term enemy this due, ‘It would have been impossible without the Pope.’ ”
(See the Public Broadcasting System [PBS] “Frontline” article “John Paul II and the Fall of Communism” by Jane Barnes and Hellen Whitney.)
b. Next, from the New/Reverse Cold War of today:
"The civil war in Syria was a unique catalyst that intensified Iranian economic, political, and religious activity in the country, which was ongoing since the 1980s. During the conflict, Iran demonstrated the ability to exert influence tactically while also building a religious and social support base in Syrian society."
(See the first paragraph of Dr. Nakissa Jahanbani's [one of our interviewees in this podcast] article “Iran Entangled: Iran and Hezbollah’s Support to Proxies Operating in Syria.”)
c. Finally, an observation relating to both such Cold War periods:
"During the Cold War, the USSR was perceived by American conservatives as an 'evil empire,' as a source of destructive cultural influences, while the United States was perceived as a force that was preventing the world from the triumph of godless communism and anarchy. The USSR, by contrast, positioned itself as a vanguard of emancipation, as a fighter for the progressive transformation of humanity (away from religion and toward atheism), and against the reactionary forces of the West.
Today positions have changed dramatically; it is the United States or the ruling liberal establishment that in the conservative narrative has become the new or neo-USSR, spreading subversive ideas about family or the nature of authority around the world, while Russia has become almost a beacon of hope, 'the last bastion of Christian values' that helps keep the world from sliding into a liberal dystopia. Russia’s self-identity has changed accordingly; now it is Russia who actively resists destructive, revolutionary experiments with fundamental human institutions, experiments inspired by new revolutionary neo-communists from the United States. Hence the cautious hopes that the U.S. Christian right have for contemporary Russia: They are projecting on Russia their fantasies of another West that has not been infected by the virus of cultural liberalism."
(See the December 18, 2019, Georgetown University, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs article "Global Culture Wars from the Perspective of Russian and American Actors: Some Preliminary Conclusions," by Dmitry Uzlaner. Look to the paragraph beginning with "Russia and the United States as screens for each other’s projections.")
LTG (ret.) Cleveland and GEN (ret.) Votel, et. al, below, these folks seem to see the strategic environment, today, in New/Reverse Cold War terms. And, accordingly, seem to know which "proxies" that we should be trying to work with. Herein, note that the foreign individuals and groups that LTG Cleveland and GEN Votel seem to suggest that we should try to work "by, with and through," they DO NOT appear to be of the "social conservative" and/or of the "anti-modernist" type.
Rather, these such "proxies" seem to be those individuals and groups desiring "revolutionary" state and societal change — specifically — more along contemporary western political, economic, social and value lines:
“The Achilles’ heel of our authoritarian adversaries is their inherent fear of their own people; the United States must capitalize on this fear. … An American way of irregular war will reflect who we are as a people, our diversity, our moral code, our undying belief in freedom and liberty. It must be both defensive and offensive. Developing it will take time, require support from the American people through their Congress, and is guaranteed to disrupt the status quo and draw criticism. It will take leadership, dedication, and courage. It is my hope that this study encourages, informs, and animates those with responsibility to protect the nation to act. Our adversaries have moved to dominate in the space below the threshold of war. It will be a strategy built around an American way of irregular war that defeats them.”
(See the Rand paper “The American Way of Irregular War: An Analytical Memoir; therein, see the “Conclusion” of the “Summary” Chapter, at Page xxiii.)
GEN Votel (et. al):
“Advocates of UW first recognize that, among a population of self-determination seekers, human interest in liberty trumps loyalty to a self-serving dictatorship, that those who aspire to freedom can succeed in deposing corrupt or authoritarian rulers, and that unfortunate population groups can and often do seek alternatives to a life of fear, oppression, and injustice. Second, advocates believe that there is a valid role for the U.S. Government in encouraging and empowering these freedom seekers when doing so helps to secure U.S. national security interests.”
(See the National Defense University Press paper “Unconventional Warfare in the Gray Zone” by authors Joseph L. Votel, Charles T. Cleveland, Charles T. Connett, and Will Irwin; therein, see the major section entitled “Doctrine.”)
As yet another example of how religion, a traditional way-of-life philosophy and/or social conservatism (quite logically?) is "weaponized" by (a) those parties who are threatened by the "expansionist," "revolutionary" and/or "modernizing" efforts of a rival/enemy and who have (b) adopted strategies of "containment," "roll back" and/or "anti-modernism" — so as to defend themselves against same accordingly; as another example of this such phenomenon — in this case in the New/Reverse Cold War of today — consider the following — "strange bedfellows" — case of China currently:
“This may, in fact, be the missing explanatory element. Ideologies regularly define themselves against a perceived ‘other,’ and in this case there was quite plausibly a common and powerful ‘other’ (to wit: Western liberalism) that both (Chinese) cultural conservatism and (Chinese) political leftism defined themselves against. This also explains why (Chinese) leftists have, since the 1990s, become considerably more tolerant, even accepting, of cultural conservatism than they were for virtually the entire 20th century."
(Items in parenthesis above are mine. See the April 24, 2015 Foreign Policy article “What it Means to Be ‘Liberal’ or ‘Conservative’ in China: Putting the Country’s Most Significant Political Divide in Context” by Taisu Zhang.)
Thus, as with the New/Reverse Cold War of today — and much as with the Old Cold War of yesterday — proxies — and proxy wars — these must be understood from the perspective of:
a. One party (the U.S./the West in the New/Reverse Cold War of today; the Soviets/the communists in the Old Cold War of yesterday) seeking to achieve — both at home and abroad — "revolutionary" political, economic, social and/or value "change" (re: the U.S./the West in the New/Reverse Cold War of today, in the name of such things as "Western liberalism;' re: the Soviets/the communists in the Old Cold War of yesterday, in the name of such things as communism and socialism) and
b. One party (comprised of the world of "conservative"/"status quo-loving" and/or "status quo anti-loving entities) — thus threatened — seeking to (a) prevent these such "revolutionary changes" from taking place and/or (b) seeking to reverse such "revolutionary changes" as have already been realized.
Thus, from the perspective of my item "b" immediately above, to see such things as (a) Islamic "conservative" resistance to unwanted "revolutionary change" causing such things as September 11, 2001, (b) Western "conservative" resistance to unwanted "revolutionary change" causing such things as January 6, 2021 and (c) Russian resistance to unwanted "revolutionary change" causing the Russian invasion of Ukraine?