History of Military Stalemates: Why We Have Proxy Wars
In recent weeks, the U.S. Congress has been considering bills for funding military support in Israel, Ukraine, and the Indo-Pacific (code for Taiwan).
What is the historical perspective behind funding wars that are not “directly” in a country or on its borders? Why do nations use proxy war strategies, and what are ancient and modern examples of them?
What is a Stalemate?
- Chess: a condition on the board where no progress can be made or no advancement is possible because to do so would put their crucial piece (their King) in grave jeopardy.
- Politics: a condition where neither side is able to be successful but has reached an intractable impasse or a deadlock.
- Military: a condition where neither side can strike a decisive enough blow to utterly defeat the enemy without exposing itself to great harm.
What is a Proxy War?
The story of Proxy Wars goes back as far as recorded history. It is a conflict between two groups where at least one is a non-state actor supported by an external power, usually a third country or nation. Stated differently, it occurs when a major power instigates or plays a major role in supporting and directing a party to a conflict but does little or no actual fighting itself.
Ancient Historical Proxy War: Sparta vs. Athens at Sicily
One of the most colorful ancient proxy wars was fought almost two and a half millennia ago between the mighty Greek city-states Sparta and its stronger opponent, Athens. The war lasted 27 years; neither side could defeat the other with a single knockout blow. History books call this the Peloponnesian War, named after Peloponnesus, the home of Sparta.
This was almost 50 years after the renowned Battle of Thermopylae, made famous by the film 300, which depicted the 300 Spartans (and other Greeks) who fought the Persian invasion.
The ancient Greek historian Thucydides recounts in his book The Peloponnesian War how the second phase involved the Sicilian Expedition, a proxy war on the island off the southern coast of the Italian peninsula between 415 and 413 B.C.
Athens desired the prosperous state of Syracuse on Sicily, where Greek colonists had settled there over two centuries earlier, bringing Greek culture. Sparta sent General Gylippus to Sicily to organize the inhabitants to fight against the Athenian fleet.
Several failed battles damaged the morale of the Athenians. Thousands of their soldiers and sailors could not be successfully evacuated 800 nautical miles back home; two hundred ships were lost. This was a significant percentage of Athens’ military force. Athens had already suffered a severe loss of manpower a decade earlier, losing 25% of its population, including their preeminent politician and General Pericles, in the Plague of Athens in 427 B.C.
This proved to be a turning point in the larger war and emboldened Sparta’s allies, the Persians, to enter the third phase of the war and defeat Athens back home and in their holdings in Asia Minor (modern Türkiye.) Athens was ultimately defeated, ending its “Golden Age.”
Other Relevant Proxy Wars
American Revolutionary War
While the American War of Independence from England, begun in 1775, was fought primarily in America, it served as a proxy war amongst major European powers; France, the Netherlands, and Spain had been fighting against England. The French provided considerable resources, troops, and ships to America to ensure victory over the English.
The French had more troops at the decisive Battle of Yorktown than the Americans, almost bankrupting France. The Anglo-French War subsequently erupted again in Europe in 1779; the French funded it by securing loans. The French Revolution in 1789 was another result.
“Lawrence of Arabia” War
The film Lawrence of Arabia depicts the efforts of T.E. Lawrence, an English officer, as he organized and chronicled the Arab Revolt to undermine the Ottoman Empire via a proxy war for England during World War I.
Modern Proxy Wars
North Korea (and China) fought against South Korea (and the United Nations) in the early 1950s. Many Eastern European countries, including the Soviet Union, supported the North. The South was supported by the U.S. – as active combatants with boots on the ground – and over two dozen allies from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and South America. The conflict, described by President Harry Truman at the time as a “U.N. police action,” was a stalemate that exists today.
Taiwan Strait Crisis
The first crisis between 1954 and 1955 included, on one side, the People’s Republic of China (modern China), supported by the (then) Soviet Union, against the Republic of China (modern Taiwan), supported by the U.S. This ended in a stalemate. The second crisis in 1958 involved the same participants, ending again in a stalemate. That stalemate exists today.
In the First (French) Indochina War of 1946-1954, one side involved Viet Minh (North Vietnam), supported by China, the Soviet Union, the Polish People’s Republic, and (Communist) East Germany. The other side was led by the State of Vietnam (South Vietnam), France, Cambodia, and Laos – supported by the U.S.
Once France exited the conflict, the U.S. became more heavily involved in the Second Indochina War between the late ’50s and early ’70s, especially under the presidencies of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon. The North Vietnamese were supported alternatively by the Soviet Union and China. The war lasted about 20 years, with the U.S. withdrawing its military in 1973.
Today’s Proxy Wars
At the top of this article, I mentioned three geographies where the U.S. has been considering military funding. The U.S. is involved in proxy wars against three opponents:
- Ukraine as a proxy war against Russia
- Israel-Gaza as a proxy war against Iran
- Taiwan as a (not yet) proxy war against China
I’ve written here and here about the history of Ukraine leading up to the recent Russian invasion. Despite the fact that the Cold War with the Soviet Union ended and the Berlin Wall fell, modern Russia is expanding its hegemony west into former Soviet territories that are now independent.
NPR reports that according to U.S. and Israeli intelligence, Iran supports groups attacking U.S. (and Israeli) targets in five separate locations in the Middle East:
- Hezbollah in regular rocket/missile exchanges on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon
- Hamas in the current Israel-Gaza War
- Yemen’s Houthis firing on commercial cargo ships in the Red Sea
- Smaller militias attacking U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria
In almost all these battles, Iran, a Persian country, uses Arab forces as proxies without needing to confront the U.S. or Israel directly. Meanwhile, Iran has been fighting another proxy war against Saudi Arabia.
While there is no current military conflict over Taiwan, mainland China has announced its intention to “reunify” the island nation, to be achieved peacefully or with force if necessary. Taiwan has been governed independently of China since 1949. Recently, China has been conducting aggressive military exercises over the island and in the strait between the mainland and the island. Meanwhile, the U.S. has made “assurances” to support Taiwan since 1982. The U.S. “rejects the use of force to settle the dispute,” sells arms to the island for self-defense, and maintains a stance of “strategic ambiguity.”
Taiwan is not just an ally of the U.S. but a significant business and technology partner. The most successful company in the world ($3T), Apple, has been using microchips manufactured by the world’s largest chip foundry, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC).
Apple currently buys every 3 nanometer (3 nm) chip that TSMC makes for its iPhones and Macintosh computers. In 2020, TSMC had a 54% worldwide market share for semiconductor contract manufacturing. Taiwan-based companies own 63% of the world’s market share.
The Taiwan-headquartered Foxconn is one of the largest employers worldwide. A decade ago, they manufactured 40% of all consumer electronics sold. Its factory in Shenzhen, China, manufactures Apple’s iPhones and iPads. But they also manufacture equipment for Nintendo, Sega, Sony, Google’s Pixel, and Microsoft’s Xbox. They have also built Cisco, Dell, and H.P. products.
Soft Power vs. Hard Power during Military Stalemates
Other than overt military conflict, different tools have been used in proxy wars. Various temperatures of “cold war” have existed between major powers. Trade restrictions have limited the exchange or sale of highly sophisticated technologies from the U.S. to these foreign countries. Cyber warfare and exchanges of A.I. “moon shots” continue between the countries.
The U.S. has restrictions against using Chinese hyperscale cloud computing platforms and 5G cellular products. Some local governments in the U.S. prohibit using the TikTok social network app on employees’ cellular devices.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Proxy Wars
Why have major world powers used proxy wars throughout history? Here are some of the advantages and disadvantages:
- Supply arms, ammunition, supplies, and logistical support, but not military personnel. Cheaper and safer.
- Keep the combat “over there” away from home, avoiding the destruction of infrastructure and property.
- Deniability: distant battles may covertly hide the identity of the sponsoring country. This is temporary and, upon discovery, may involve blowback.
- Avoiding direct conflict may not be a permanent solution. The U.S. has made drone strikes in Iran-controlled Iraq, much closer to Iran itself.
- Proxy wars may not use the full power and resources of the supporting nation. Troops may not be as well trained or supplied, limiting effectiveness and prolonging the conflict.
- “War Weariness” may result as proxy wars carry on for years, demotivating the supporting countries. An example of this was the “Vietnam Syndrome,” where Americans at home, watching battles on the evening televised news, grew weary of continued involvement and soldiers returning home dead.
Beyond the military and political advantages and disadvantages of a proxy war, there are the more subtle but frequently more profound economic consequences.
A proxy war widens the geography and expands the number of participating nations involved in a conflict. The disruptions of war on foreign soil and waterways can have a cascading and cumulative impact on participants and non-participant states.
The current proxy war in the Middle East involving the Yemen-based **Houthis** is a useful illustration of this.
- Ten percent of the world’s trade passes through the Suez Canal and the adjacent Red Sea.
- But 60% of the trade between China and Europe passes through that location.
Houthi drone and missile attacks on commercial vessels there have led to the rerouting of shipping container boats around the southern tip of Africa. This adds two weeks in some cases to shipping times and more than doubles the cost.
According to a report by Reuters:
The Suez Canal is used by roughly one third of global container ship cargo. Redirecting ships around the southern tip of Africa is expected to cost up to $1 million in extra in fuel for every round trip between Asia and northern Europe.
These costs can be reflected in higher consumer costs, delayed oil shipments and associated higher prices, and a general shaking of the global supply chains, resulting in “near-shoring” strategies, in contrast to far-flung global off-shoring.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian