In contrast with the large-scale counterinsurgency operations that have characterised the first decade of this century, the second has seen an increasing use of “activities short of combat operations to achieve influence”. Efforts to relabel contemporary military engagement that uses indirect control as foreign policy to counter threats ‘at a distance’ has led to a rich collection of “war-type concepts”: remote, liquid, vicarious, surrogate and proxy warfare. Albeit being what Rauta & Monaghan (2021) call a “terminological quagmire”, which indeed for us researchers is sometimes difficult to navigate, the emerging literature reveals interesting findings.
There are several drivers for indirect engagement in a changing socio-political and geo-strategic context. Our times are marked by high political and military risk aversion but ever decreasing resources, after costly interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and further budgetary constraints following two years of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Technological innovations, alongside weaknesses of local partners (who find themselves in difficulty to respond to complex threats) have further contributed to influencing the way states engage abroad.
Further, whether these trends are traced back to the 1950s or more recent post-Iraq and Afghanistan security environments, research captures both Western and non-Western countries’ efforts to shape the international security environment to promote and protect interests through military means. For example, during the Obama and Trump administrations, the US has sought to minimise its military footprint by engaging in more drone strikes, more Special Operation Forces (SOF) raids, and a continued reliance on security cooperation in Yemen and Somalia. It did so for counterterrorism and to address inter-state strategic competition.
However, in analysing the remote character of the Saudi/UAE intervention in Yemen, mine and Ed Stoddard’s research article observed clear evidence of attempts to shape military outcomes whilst limiting ground commitments but for different reasons. Counterterrorism is just a marginal driver, “remote forms of military operations” having helped states to deal with intrinsic weaknesses, pursue own security interests, further wider regional positions and retain a large proportion of ground forces ready for any potential conflict with Iran. In the case of Ukraine however, Rauta (2016) finds that Russia seeks to fulfil its interrelated territorial and ideological outcomes: the territorial seizure and annexation of Crimea and a political buffer-zone facilitated by a frozen conflict in the Southeast.
Regardless of the terms used, the literature signals that these forms of engagement are problematic, rarely low cost and never risk free, their multilateral nature making the management of relationships “tricky”. The lack of public exposure or complex alliances makes difficult tracing lines of responsibility. Efforts are hindered by political instability in partner countries, and in certain cases it generates counterproductive effects and significant strategic harm by providing political and military elites the opportunity to secure their authoritarian regimes. Implementation in poorly understood contexts sees donors offering Weberian style blueprints that do not take into account local power sharing arrangements.
Not aiming to end on a pessimistic note, which seems to be prevalent these days, there are also opportunities for improvement, should there be the so much needed political will to implement changes. Noting a need to strike a balance between short term aims of improving military interoperability, tactical capacity or immediate counterterrorism assistance, and long-term aims that seeks to find lasting solutions, Watling and Reynolds (2021) provide a pragmatic answer to achieving success in times when “proxies are back in fashion”: states need clear strategic aims, resources and a commitment to a better understanding of the environment and partners.
The sources below (and their own bibliographies) are a good starting point should you find yourself wanting to know more.
- Ansorg, N. (2017). Security sector reform in Africa: Donor approaches versus local needs, Contemporary Security Policy, 38:1, 129-144, DOI:10.1080/13523260.2016.1278343
- Biegon, R, & Watts, T. (2017) Defining Remote Warfare: Security Cooperation. Remote Control Project, Oxford Research Group
- Biegon, R., & Watts, T. (2020). When ends Trump means: continuity versus change in US counterterrorism policy. Global Affairs, 6(1), 37–53. https://doi.org/10.1080/23340460.2020.1734956
- Demmers, J., & Gould, L. (2018). An assemblage approach to liquid warfare: AFRICOM and the ‘hunt’ for Joseph Kony. Security Dialogue, 49(5), 364–381. https://doi.org/10.1177/0967010618777890
- Groh, T. (2019). Proxy War: The Least Bad Option. Stanford University Press.
- Krieg, A., & Rickli, J. M. (2018). Surrogate warfare: the art of war in the 21st century? Defence Studies, 18(2), 113–130. https://doi.org/10.1080/14702436.2018.1429218
- Mumford, A. (2013). Proxy warfare and the future of conflict. RUSI Journal, 158(2), 40–46. https://doi.org/10.1080/03071847.2013.787733
- Rauta, V. & Monaghan, S. (2021). Global Britain in the greyzone: Between stagecraft and statecraft, Contemporary Security Policy, 42:4, 475-497, DOI:10.1080/13523260.2021.1980984
- Rauta, V. (2016). Proxy agents, auxiliary forces, and sovereign defection: assessing the outcomes of using non-state actors in civil conflicts, Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, 16:1, 91-111, DOI: 10.1080/14683857.2016.1148416
- Stoddard, E. & Toltica, S. (2021). Practising remote warfare: analysing the remote character of the Saudi/UAE intervention in Yemen, Defence Studies, 21:4, 447-467, DOI: 10.1080/14702436.2021.1994395
- Waldman, T. (2018). Vicarious warfare: The counterproductive consequences of modern American military practice. Contemporary Security Policy, 39(2), 181–205. https://doi.org/10.1080/13523260.2017.1393201
- Watling, J. & Reynolds, N. (2020). War by Others’ Means: Delivering Effective Partner Force Capacity Building. Routledge