Proxy Wars Cover

Proxy Wars

Suppressing Violence through Local Agents

Edited by Eli Berman and David A. Lake

Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 2019, 354 pages

Book Review published on: June 7, 2019

Proxy warfare is as old as time. States have used other states or nonstate actors to act on their behalf in order to gain influence, undermine an adversarial power, or further their interest in a region. The use of proxies enables states to avoid potential negative international and domestic reaction, influence events at a lower economic cost, and avoid long, drawn out engagements. Proxy Wars: Suppressing Violence through Local Agents, edited by Eli Berman and David A. Lake, is a timely study that presents world-leading ideas and research that explores the historical use of indirect control or proxies in warfare and implications for future U.S. foreign policy. The intent of this book is to understand indirect control and how to motivate local leaders to act in sometimes costly ways to do what the United States wants.

The book opens by describing the principal–agent framework that consists of two players. First, there is a principal, a relatively powerful actor interested in minimizing the occurrence of some disturbance (e.g., terrorism, illegal activity, human rights abuses, instability). The principal might be a neighboring government or the government of a great power interested in minimizing disturbances from other countries. Second, the agent or proxy, whose actions the principal might influence, can suppress disturbance at lower costs than the principal can. By offering agents or proxies incentives to act on behalf of the principal, the principal attempts to minimize disturbance through indirect control. Building proxy capacity is an alternative strategy to indirectly controlling threats by use of funds, training, and equipment.

Among the editors’ many significant observations and reflections, three stand out. First, the alignment of interests, or objectives, between the principal and the agent is of paramount importance. As an example, the relationship between the United States and South Korea during the North Korean invasion of South Korea in 1950 is used, which threatened the survival of South Korea and could have resulted in the expansion of communism. Prior to this invasion, South Korean President Syngman Rhee, fearing a military coup, simply ignored the United States’ demands for professionalizing the South Korean military. However, Rhee and South Korean elites found themselves aligning to the United States in a bid for survival as the Korean People’s Army pushed south toward Pusan. Potential loss of the southern peninsula forced Rhee and the elites to acquiesce to the United States’ demands for professionalization and capacity building of the South Korean military forces and to accept the 38th parallel as the recognized border between North and South Korea.

Second, agents do respond to incentives. The authors found when the disturbance becomes increasingly noticeable to the principal or the cost of effort increases for the agent and the principal responds with higher powered incentives, the proxy responds with greater effort. The pressure placed on Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki by U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker during the Iraq War “surge” is an example of how and why it is essential to use incentives (or changes in the level of an incentive) in motivating the proxy’s behavior. Another example is that when Petraeus discovered that a national police brigade in Baghdad was murdering Sunnis, he informed the Iraqi Ministry of Interior that he was withholding all support until the killing stopped and the sectarian leaders were replaced. Suddenly, the brigade had no fuel, spare parts, money, or equipment. As a result, the Baghdad police brigade backed off as did similar units.

Third, the authors found when indirect control is not attempted or is partially implemented, the principal will lack sufficient leverage to induce the proxy’s cooperation, thus eventually forcing the principal to take direct action or admit that indirect control is too costly. The relationship between the United States and Pakistan was used as an example. Faced with dependence on Pakistan for logistical transit routes, concerns of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, and potential violence from militants associated with the country, the United States attempted to engage Pakistan as a proxy. After initial cooperation, Pakistan increased transit fees and ignored the United States’ requests for the country to sever ties with the Taliban and its affiliates. Eventually, the United States decided for direct control by using drones to attack the Taliban and its affiliates in Pakistan.

Proxy Wars goes beyond traditional works that report research efforts by including a chapter by Stephen Biddle that offers policy implications for the United States. In the chapter titled “Policy Implications for the United States,” Biddle examines the implications for United States national security policy in five steps: (1) using national security policy effectively; (2) knowing when it should be used; (3) the overall utility of proxy reliance as a national security option; (4) what proxy reliance implies for U.S. force structure; and (5) summary observations in the light of theory, cases, and policy implications. This book is a must read for researchers investigating proxy wars, but it also provides a valuable resource to security stakeholders at policy and practitioner levels.

Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas