Deputy wars' hidden interests

Proxy Wars. Suppressing Violence through Local Agents
PROXY WARS: The United States and Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia have an indirect involvement in conflicts that is quite different from conventional warfare.


Deputy war is a well-known concept. It has existed far back in history, and in modern times it has become a very common part of the conflict picture around the earth. For superpowers, or for regional powers, this can be an opportune way to fix things. On the one hand you get others to do the dirty work, and if something goes seriously wrong, you can close the waterproof shutters, disclaim responsibility and sit back with seemingly clean hands.

Just look at the current situation in Yemen. The country is bleeding and falling into human suffering, and sometimes it is seen as yet another abominable civil war. The fact that neighboring Saudi Arabia has been involved in the support of one of the warring parties is naively explained by the fact that the Saudis simply want to make peace in the Arabian Peninsula. But a little closer analysis shows that Saudi Arabia has a very active interest in dominating Yemen, which is only seen in the perspective of rival Iran wanting the same. But because the two regional powers have an outstanding standing, they each hold their own party in Yemen, and do so so that one can not misunderstand, but still under semi-discreet cover. So they play their war with each other with Yemen as a throwing ball, and behind it all lurk the US and Russia, which also have hidden interests in the area.

This is not just deputy war, but multi-level deputy war.


The pattern and strategic interests are in themselves clear enough. But behind it all lies a dynamic that is not quite straightforward, and like any war consisting of many and often conflicting interests, there are also some complex decision patterns behind it all. Eli Berman, a professor of economics at the University of California, and David A. Lake, a professor of political science at the same place, have created an anthology in which they exemplarily let a number of colleagues explain the deeper aspects of the case.


Deputy war is first and foremost about indirect control. Basically, a superpower that could be the United States has a political or strategic interest somewhere on the map, and the question is therefore how to influence the client or client state, which thus becomes the deputy in the course of the war, to act as desired. The interests of the superpower and the deputy are to some extent coincidental, but rarely identical, and sometimes there is a dramatic difference. The greater the difference, the greater the incentive the superpower must employ to influence the deputy to the desired behavior.

Korean War

This issue addresses the book in a number of concrete examples, which, though drawn from different places in the 20th century, have great relevance for understanding the current scenarios. One of the very well-written chapters is by Julia M. Macdonald, a researcher in international politics at the University of Denver. She is based on a real classic, namely the Korean War 1950–53.

Deputy war is first and foremost about indirect control.

Most people today see this as a dramatic result of the Cold War, which could easily have ended in the great confrontation between the superpowers. But even though the Americans thought they had an interest in preserving southern parts of Korea as a bulwark against communism, the war was in fact quite different. It all actually started with a series of communist protests in South Korea, with President Syngman Rhee quickly restoring calm by deploying the army.

The United States had long wanted Rhee to create a small and professional army suitable for more than just cracking down on local unrest. But the president had another, and more dangerous opposition to tumble, namely the country's conservative and wealthy elite, whom he feared would gain influence. Therefore, he chose a poorly organized army which was corrupt and thus could be bought to back his rule. But when the North Korean regime attacked with a military offensive, his South Korean army was largely powerless. This forced the Americans to deploy troops to bolster President Rhee and his regime, and then ran the Korean War – the United States Deputy War.


In light of all this, the continuous assessment of the necessary amount of military support needed to keep the client state or deputy in the fire runs, and this is compared to the economic and political costs of the superpower, which in the case of Korea was the United States. In the following chapters, the book expands the game's many elements and variants by highlighting similar conflicts that are nevertheless radically different.

Saudi Arabia has a very active interest in dominating
Yemen, which is only perspective by the rival Iran wants

There is thus a thought-provoking analysis of the German occupation of Denmark 1940–45, where the Danish cooperation policy in the first actually made the country a Nazi client state. And one should not draw parallels when a few other chapters look at Israel and the occupation of the West Bank. There are also some covert political deliberations behind them, but they must all be understood in a concrete context. Against this background, it also makes sense to have a chapter (by Abigail Vaughn) on the US offensive against the Colombian drug cartels in the years 1990-2010. This was also led by indirect control, which also reduced internal instability in Colombia, but on the other hand, the country today stands as the fifth largest recipient of US military support. Author Vaughn of the University of California rightly asks if this is worth the many billion dollars, and this is exactly the deputy war dilemma
- if you for a moment disregard moral and ethical aspects.

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