Book review: ‘Making Sense of Proxy Wars: States, Surrogates & the Use of Force’ by Michael A. Innes

Reviewed by: Lauren Dickey

Michael A. Innes (ed.), Making Sense of Proxy Wars: States, Surrogates & the Use of Force (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2012).


A Futile Attempt to Make Sense of Proxy Wars

At the end of the Cold War, and especially in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the study of war gradually shifted from a realist-dominated, state-centric discourse to emphasise instead the role of non-state actors and asymmetric dynamics in conflict. The ‘old wars’ were increasingly being replaced with arguments in favour of a new sort of warfare, with explanations pointing to ‘new’ or different motivating factors, support (state versus non-state), and/or forms of violence.[1] Despite this shift, a crucial gap in the literature on war persists: proxy warfare.

Michael A. Innes edited a volume which boldly sets out to ‘make sense’ of proxy wars, poising the text to make an important and timely contribution to the history of conflict itself. Once seen as superpower-induced wars fought on the soil of a third party, proxy wars have since appeared to be shaped instead by regional powers and the cross-border dispersion of armed groups. The growth of proxy warfare is a direct threat to state sovereignty, and a challenge made even more real through the growth of robotics and cyber technologies that enable an inclusion of non-state actors on the battlefield. Proxy warfare is thus a highly fluid concept; it is undefined insofar as there is much about it that remains unknown.

The most significant shortcoming of Innes’ edited volume rings clear within its attempt to lay the groundwork for the contributions of other scholars. Nowhere in the text is ‘proxy war’ explicitly defined. Each successive chapter evades the very concept this book endeavours to parse apart. A brief preface is offered in place of a literature review, as it seems in Innes’ attempt to address the complexities of proxy war, he opted for a brief analysis of the text’s central concept. However, in choosing to omit this critical component, the volume skirts around explanations of why the text should be taken as more than a disjointed compilation of case studies.

Each of the case studies offered by the eight contributing authors is informative when examined on their own. The first chapter, places the concept of proxy warfare at the beginning and end of the analysis with a stated intention of explaining why terrorism creates space and opportunity for proxy wars. Yet the chapter never details how a proxy relationship can come into being; nor does it devote any space to explaining the structure of a proxy conflict, the benefactor, proxy agent, and target agent.

The following chapters offer rich case studies, but little conceptual clarity on the role of non-state actors in proxy warfare. The second chapter on the IRA’s proxy bomb campaign of 1990 challenges basic assumptions about suicide bombing, arguing that scholars and analysts alike should question the intent of the action, rather than assuming such attacks are always acts of martyrdom. The authors believe that the IRA’s main purpose in shifting to proxy bomb operations was to shift tactics and ‘teach British security forces a lesson they would not soon forget.’[2] But public opinion ultimately checked the growth of the IRA’s proxy tactics, angering the community and ultimately weakening the overall legitimacy of the IRA’s struggle.

Chapters three and four offer respective interpretations of proxies in historical context, each drawing comparisons to US counterinsurgencies in Iraq or Afghanistan. Both argue, in one form or another, that the mistakes of the past can be lessons for the US and its coalition partners in the present; yet, both simultaneously fail to recognize the unpredictability of current events and the often subjective interpretations of history. The only true lesson to be garnered from history is that no two wars – not to mention proxy conflicts – are cloned images.

Chapter five makes the closest attempt to anything that has ‘made sense’ of proxy warfare in the volume. Proxyization is traced briefly from classical times when rulers preferred to hire trusted foreigners as mercenaries through to present-day use of private military and security companies (PMSCs). A case is made to assess the activities and services of PMSCs to ascertain what policy and governance mechanisms should be implemented, but does not move its policy recommendations any further. The final chapter is adopted from a RAND report on Shell’s activities as a ‘proxy’ in the oil-rich Nigerian Delta, tactics of both hard and soft security that enable it to maintain its profit margins, but still do not ‘sway the operating environment in the Delta.’[3] The singular study of Shell as a multi-national corporation (MNC) proxy highlights the role of non-state actors stepping in to provide public goods in areas where the government is largely absent, thereby removing some of the sovereign authority of the state.

The case studies within this edited volume unfortunately equivocate proxy strategy with proxy tactics, failing to acknowledge important differences therein.[4] It further neglects an acknowledgement that proxy warfare describes a specific mannerism involving the interaction between benefactor, proxy agent, and target agent. The manuscript was framed by the need to more actively and accurately account for non-state proxies in counterinsurgency and war alike. But in failing to paint a clear picture of what proxy warfare actually entails, there is little meat on the bones of the book. The in-depth case studies make for a compelling read, but its approach to the phenomenon of proxy warfare is lacklustre at best; and, ultimately, the Innes volume falls far short of its attempts to ‘make sense’ of this contemporary facet of warfare.



Lauren Dickey is a PhD student in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London and the Political Science Department at the National University of Singapore. Her research focuses on Chinese strategy toward Taiwan in the Xi Jinping era. She is a member of the Pacific Forum Young Leaders program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC.





[1] See the notable work of Mary Kaldor, New & Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era, 3rd ed. (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2013).

[2] Bloom and Horgan, ‘Missing Their Mark: The IRA’s Proxy Bomb Campaign,’ in Innes (ed.), pp. 49.

[3] Rosenau and Chalk, ‘Multinational Corporations: Potential Proxies for Counterinsurgency?,’ in Innes (ed.), pp. 149.

[4] Akin to the mistake of employing strategy as a synonym for strategy. On this point, see, e.g., Strachan, The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013), pp. 11-14.

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