Warfare in Peacetime: Proxies and State Powers

Warfare in Peacetime: Proxies and State Powers
(Dr. Christopher Harmon, September 18, 2023)

Transcript available below


Robert R. Reilly:

Hello and welcome to the Westminster Institute. I am Robert Reilly, its director, and today we are privileged to welcome back Dr. Christopher Harmon who is a professor at The Institute of World Politics.

About the speaker

He formerly held the Bren Chair of Great Power Competition at Marine Corps University (MCU) in Quantico. Dr. Harmon also directed the counterterrorism course at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. He directed academics in the counter-terrorism program of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. Earlier, he was Legislative Aide for Foreign Policy on a congressional staff.

He taught for years on the strategy and policy faculty at the Naval War College, and then served at length as a professor of international relations at the Marine Command and Staff College in Virginia. From 2005 to 2007 Dr. Harmon held an endowed chair for Insurgency and Terrorism Studies at Marine Corps University. He held another chair there from 2010 to 2014, researching low intensity conflicts in Asia and writing A Citizen’s Guide to Terrorism and Counterterrorism.

Dr. Harmon has edited or written eight books, including Toward A Grand Strategy Against Terrorism and The Terrorist Argument. Modern Advocacy and Propaganda. The latter book’s thesis was presented by him at a Westminster Institute lecture back in 2017. He also spoke at the Westminster Institute on How Terrorist Groups End. I invite our audience to go back to those lectures, which are on our YouTube channel. Today Dr. Harmon will be speaking on the subject of his latest book: Warfare in Peacetime: Proxies and State Powers, published by the Marine Corps University Press. Chris, welcome back.

Dr. Christopher C. Harmon:


Well, thank you. It is a pleasure. I was enjoying the chance to study, while at Marine Corps University, the problem of proxy warfare, and got quite intrigued with why states get into the business and all the difficulties, and in fact the book emphasizes the difficulties, of being involved in proxy warfare relations.

It makes sense, I think, to start with the definition that I used in the book. I say that for international relations purposes a good one might be this, that the proxy is a state or sub-state actor that, either in part or wholly, knowingly acts internationally on behalf of a stronger party and thus serves interests of that dominant party, so there are plenty of possible definitions for a proxy. It is a familiar term for us in law and in many other ways, but that is not a bad start for international relations maybe.

Case Studies of Proxies and State Powers

I chose a number of case studies. I was interested in at least four of the great powers, and some of the minor powers as well, so we could get multiple perspectives of who is involved in a proxy relationship. And the book also includes quite a lot of sub-state actors, as the poli-sci types would say today.

Factors and Actors in Case Studies

I chose some 11 factors to look at in each of the case studies in the hope of linking these together with some sinews, and I think that was a successful enterprise. It certainly shows in the beginning the uniqueness of some of these states and their rationale for engaging in proxy relations to be sure, but then many of the 11 factors allowed me to look at things which run common through the cases.

The factors’ strength or weaknesses were often variable. They might be strong, they might be neutral, there might be a real weak relationship in a certain pattern, as with, say, arms traffic, but then that changes during the course of the study, so it was then a combination of state powers of multiple sizes, sub-state actors, and trying to understand factors which are common to all of them. I start, among these 11 then, with the attention to what is unique about a particular relationship between a proxy and a sponsor.

China and Myanmar

There is a chapter on China. It is very interesting because very few people know about the United Wa State Army, but it is a heavily armed insurgent group that controls a lot of territory within Burma, now called Myanmar, and not since, say, 1976-77 have the Chinese been involved too much overseas with revolutionary parties, and certainly not so much today. But in the case of the United Wa State Army, this is a substate actor which is truly a proxy, and has territory, and is armed, and it is not particularly Maoist in ideology, but it is in fact a proxy and an insurgency.

Cuba and East Germany

I look at the political character of groups, so when we think about Cuba and East Germany, two of the states I examine in the book, it is clear that the linkage there is that of Marxism-Leninism. They both adhere to Moscow’s purposes, but it is a deeper commitment to ideology that I think we want to attend to. It unites the East Germans with the Cubans, with the Soviets, and with many of their third world allies.

India and the Tamil Tigers

I try to look at the strategic context of each, so India, for example, is an interesting chapter because I am examining the relationship they have with the LTTE Tigers, the Tamils, who were destroyed in 2009. I have not been able to find a really good argument in power, in realpolitik, why India should be so involved with that particular group. They did not have a need to wreck Sri Lanka. It is too small for them to worry about. They did not see a particular threat from another great power, so I will speak to that. But they have an unusual strategic context in that they do not do this as a direct weapon against another capital city.

New Jewel Movement in Grenada

I looked at formal status when I could, including written accords, so one of the exciting things I know you would remember from the 80s very well is all the Grenada papers which were brought back from the New Jewel Movement archives in Grenada in 1983. These thoroughly document their integration with the Soviet Bloc, which was an effort that Mr. Reagan nipped in the bud by invading the island and saving the medical students there. But those were some formal relationships which were developing, and we have the papers on that, and it is quite amazing to read through many of the Grenada papers. They show a formal status for this proxy relationship.

American support for UNITA in Angola

Political support, obviously enough, is important. For example, the United States, when it worked with UNITA in Angola, had an indulgent view of Jonas Savimbi and the UNITA movement, and Savimbi even got a White House appointment. He spoke at the Heritage Foundation. He had lobbyists in Washington, and there was a strong, developing relationship between the American people and the tribe he led in Angola.

East Germany and Africa

I look at arms flow. Of course, that is always an important indicator in our international relations terms of a proxy relationship, or it could be a partnership. African groups were getting weapons from the Warsaw Pact generally, not just Moscow, and I think some of our security studies literature could do with more emphasis on that. The Czechs and the East Germans were providing weapons, not just the Soviets, in the Third World fights.

Intelligence coordination is very important. It is a hallmark of a good relationship between allies, but it also is something that develops with proxies, and so I looked at those, [and] logistics, economic and political integration.

Primary Source Statements

The last couple I looked at include primary source statements. I believed (in developing a lot of that terrorism work you kindly referred to) that we tend to pay attention to terrorist incidents, the number of people killed, what some professor or journalist says about it. We do not tend to look at the primary sources of the groups.

We should read their founding documents. It would teach us a great deal, and in the case of Hezbollah, which I know is a group you have studied closely, their 1983 open letter states specifically about the relationship with Tehran, “We abide by the orders of Khomeini.” What a remarkable statement of subordination to Tehran that is made by these Lebanese of Hezbollah, so it struck me as one of the most important things that Hezbollah ever published. But I have got to say, when was the last time I ever saw that line in print? It is readily available. It explains a lot about the relationship between Iran and their Shia friends in Hezbollah.

Third Level Extensions

The last part is pretty, I hope, original. I took a look at what I call third level extensions, and I am looking there for the right language to show where a proxy has a proxy, and that one begins to develop its own proxies. Grenada is a good case. I mean, the Soviets work with Cuba, and then Cuba turns out to be key to the future of the New Jewel Movement in Grenada, and so that is a good example of these sort of third level extensions.

But it also points ahead to that interesting question about how much control the original sponsor has. If he creates, in effect, or partners with a proxy, but that one then goes off on its own, is that factor of control significant? Could that cause problems for them in the future?

German Democratic Republic

Well, to turn to the first case study, I looked at the German Democratic Republic, an interesting name, not wholly German, certainly not democratic, and not a republic. An important state, an important part of the Warsaw Pact, I found the unique part about them is just being openly avowed to Moscow. They were not too shy about being discussed as part of the Soviet Bloc. They seem to openly want to be identified as the most potent, the most willing, the most helpful in the overall Marxist Leninist effort that the Soviets were running, so they were not shy.

Bonn-Berlin Rivalry in Africa

Something else unique about them in this was they were fighting for proxies and partners and fellow travelers overseas, as in Africa, because they were in competition with Bonn, so Berlin did not want to be outpaced diplomatically, and so they were in direct competition for setting up formal diplomatic relations with some of these new states emerging in southern Africa or emerging anywhere in Africa.

A parallel would be today with the Taiwan and China relationship. They are both looking for partners overseas, and frankly Taipei is well behind Beijing at this point, but it is a natural rivalry. So I found that the East German relationship then was truly highly developed and very sophisticated, that it was a product of their foreign ministry, their intelligence services, [and] their defense ministry, and their engagements in Africa were quite impressive at the time.

Aid and Education

They were tech savvy, of course. East Germany had that to offer. They had a booming economy given the comparison with most Third World or communist states. They were doing well, not West German well, but they were doing well, so they could provide economic aid.

They saw a role in educating Third World peoples and they would bring them to Germany or send programs overseas into Central America, into Africa, and so forth. They obviously had a great deal of proficiency in martial terms. So if you are a young man trying to figure out how your armored personnel carrier works, and you have got the Germans there, who made it, to train you, and perhaps know your language as well, that is a wonderful thing. So they were able to do not just arms provision but a lot of training with those on the ground.

And then they were involved in a lot of covert efforts as well. I have a remarkable document, which I have had translated from German, which is all about Carlos’s coming and goings in the Soviet Bloc, Hungary, East Germany. Quite a few international terrorists had a safe haven there when they needed it, or integration in some way with various German enterprises, so the East German state is extremely important, and it was a good study in proxy warfare.


I took a look next at Cuba. I found the relationship with Cuba to be well known to Americans, more so than the East German one, but [very] valuable to look at. The Soviets certainly do not begin that rebellion against the authorities in Cuba in the late 50s, but they capitalize on it. They are able to capture, eventually, that movement.

Che Guevara has intelligence links into the Soviets, as described by a very nice book by John Lee Anderson, a big biography of Che. It is out in a second edition. Castro himself, Fidel, will not announce he is a communist until two years into the new state’s existence, but 1961 brings that news. Raul, we know of. There is an integrated treaty system in which they are a part of, Commie-Con, the Council of Mutual Economic Aid, not part of the Warsaw Pact, but they do have an official role in that respect.

The intelligence linkages are a very, very important set of factors to look at. [It is] extremely significant to see in the late 60s. People [see] an increasing takeover of the DGI, the intelligence service of Cuba, by the Soviet sponsors, and eventually the two are working absolutely in tandem. They had a place with no less than 1500 technicians and specialists, in a place called Lourdes in Cuba, which is interesting today to remember that given the now Chinese footprint, however large or small, in Cuba, which is the most recent news from the Wall Street Journal. So it is an important relationship and developed on quite a lot of levels, and I think most Americans know a great deal about the economic aid, for example, that the Soviets gave. The Cubans and the East Germans, then, were central to the Soviet enterprises.

Reagan Doctrine

To turn to the United States, they, of course, are a full-blown participant in in the Cold War. They are looking to match Soviet gains or reduce them when they can. The Americans under Mr. Reagan had a particularly influential thing called the Reagan Doctrine, which explicitly tried to aid anti-communist guerrillas in their own country, so that could be Cambodia, that could be Afghanistan, the famous case.

They are also in Angola, and the United States partner in that case is an extremely impressive man named Jonas Savimbi. [He had a] Ph.D. from a Swiss university. [He made] a former couple of visits to Mao Zedong’s China. [He] was willing to learn wherever he could. He is not a Maoist, but in this case study he has begun to build within his sector of Angola a very broad, and well-governed, and reasonable political entity, and the United States is engaged with him and begins to supply weaponry.

I knew a marine who was an intelligence liaison at that time. He has passed, unfortunately. The United States provides Stinger missiles to Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA guerrilla organization. It was called UNITA. And that all develops, I think in part, due to the amazing personality of Dr. Savimbi because the very first contacts we had with Angolan rebels, which were very limited, were with a different group, the FNLA of Holden Roberto, and the United States did little with him, withdrew, and then comes back interested in working with UNITA in Angola.

Like a lot of proxy war stories, this one does not end too well. It was promising. They did a great job against the MPLA government of Angola, which was heavily, heavily funded and backed by no end of Soviet Bloc activities, equipment, commitments, air forces, you name it. Savimbi did well, he was a natural guerrilla leader, but the United States had a couple of issues about that. The Secretary of State at the time felt that too much aid to this man in Angola could damage the overall concerns about southern Africa, a great illustration of one of the problems in proxy war, larger interests sometimes are more important. That was an issue.

There was also a kind of red herring. The UNITA organization had taken a limited amount of aid from the Republic of South Africa under apartheid, and at the time, of course, there is a national and international movement against everything apartheid, so this was electric in Congress, as you would remember, Bob, from your time around the hill, the mere mention of any aid from the South Africans to Savimbi was toxic and it really made the debates difficult in terms of our assistance to Angola.

I say a red herring [because] it is pretty unimaginable that this this [man] coming to power in Angola on the basis of his tribal strength, as well as national Angolan strength, that he would be a toady to the apartheid people is literally comical, but only in the black comic way because it hurt the USAID assistance to the UNITA, and they did not win, and the MPLA communist government prevailed. And it is in that sense a sorrowful story.

India and the Tamil Tigers

A couple of case studies in Asia here might be interesting. I mentioned the Indian program of assistance to Tamils. Initially it was promiscuous. The Indian state and the sub state of Tamil Nadu, one of the states within the federal system of India, were openly supporting Tamil insurgents and militancy in Sri Lanka, the small island off the southern coast.

They had a range of groups. One or two had strong Marxist interests and most were nationalists. The LTTE emerges largely by brute force and skill of their leader Prabhakaran, but he also murdered other Tamil militants. So purportedly a Tamil nationalist, he was quite willing to murder Tamil nationalists who were not in the LTTE Tigers. This is a good a good premonition about the way this group is going to fight and the way it is going to master terrorism in its region.

The Indians, for a variety of reasons, starting with sympathy for Tamils who were a minority in Sri Lanka but of tens of millions by number in southern India, [aided the Tamils]. There is a sentimental kind of cultural link up there in religion, language, and so forth. I think the Indians also, as part of the non-aligned movement, were always looking to champion an underdog.

There was as close as you can get to a great power controversy here. The Indians judged, apparently, that the United States was becoming too interested in one or two of the harbors in Sri Lanka. At the same time, they were liaising with China under the Kissinger Nixon plan, and some think this created tension in India. And the concern was that the United States was sort of moving into the area and therefore, perhaps, it would make sense to give assistance to Tamil militants and have a stronger impact against the government in Colombo, the Sri Lankan government.

That is a bit far-fetched, but that is as far as we can go in terms of a real rational purpose. We do know that India systematically, within the state of Tamil Nadu, trained and led and educated these guerrillas. They gave them no end of weapons [and] money. They sent them back and forth across the Palk Strait into Sri Lanka. It caused horrible problems in a democratic state, the Sri Lankan state, and it was a nasty thing to do. And the interesting thing is it did not work at all. [It was] another case of proxy war failure.

India, having tried, as we might say, to ride the tiger, having cultivated the Tamil tigers and given them everything they could imagine from weapons to medical assistance, loses control, which is a great problem in proxy warfare. Ask Mr. Putin about [the] Wagner group. So India loses control of the Tamil tigers and in the end feels compelled with the government of Sri Lanka to introduce an Indian so-called peacekeeping force for three years at the end of the 80s. They end up fighting the very Tamils they had trained and armed, and they also get in quarrels with all kinds of other Sri Lankans. It goes very badly. The Indians withdraw from Sri Lanka, bloodied actually, a great state causing problems for a very small one and in the end not even successful in achieving anything.


[There is] one other Asian study [I want to mention] before I turn to kind of some closing remarks about what the book tries to do. With Christopher D. Booth, an army specialist, we took a look at the situation in Myanmar, which is somewhat inchoate. There is no end of kind of semi-autonomous political entities, zones of control.

I am not sure it is any more disciplined now under the colonels’ regime, but the remarkable rise over the years on the China border and the Thai border has been these peoples, the Wa, who are in what is called Shan state within Burma. They are armed, uniformed, everything else by the Chinese. They have third generation MANPADS, the shoulder-fired missiles that can take down aircraft. They have fine new assault rifles and uniforms. They are a professional looking, well-trained group. They are within Myanmar, but they are on the border with China, and they are able to dominate all kinds of influences that go back and forth across that border, too.

Robert R. Reilly:

How many are there?

Dr. Christopher C. Harmon:

There are at least twenty to twenty-five thousand, I think, under arms. It is a serious group and they do control a zone within Myanmar. That is a relationship to watch. What is fascinating and unique about it is China’s relations with the capital in Myanmar remain very good. China’s economic roles there are very powerful, so China has two weapons here. China has all the usual state-to-state weaponry that any partnership involves, and China has this special weapon of its proxy within Myanmar called the United Wa State Army, and they can use that, gun it up, you know, turn the heat up or down with that little tool. We have not seen them doing it so much, but they have that potential, and I think it is a fascinating case in which China has clearly shown a powerful interest in what is going on abroad.

Robert R. Reilly:

If I could just interrupt with a question, with what objective in mind would China ramp them up?

Dr. Christopher C. Harmon:

Well, if the, for example, the Burmese government was unfavorable about particular economic relations or was questioning some of their part in the Belt and Road Initiative, we have seen some pressures exerted on that front, so it is the problem of being a small state beside a great one like China. They are not trying to spread Maoism, they are using power, and so I think that is a relationship which is probably successful.

Problems of the Proxy Owner

So we have seen a balance of successes and failures in this short chat here, and the way I want to close, the way the book closes, is with a chapter about all the problems that a proxy owner has, a proxy manager has, so if we have a limited relationship with a lawyer having to do with a proxy relationship on a house sale or something, that could become complicated state to state affairs, and sub-state actors cause just the same kinds of problems and troubles. So if we think about Ukraine today and the attention given to the Wagner group, it is a good example of the kinds of stress factors that I outline at the end of the book.

First of all, the state, it could be Moscow, or it could be Washington, if trying to work with a proxy is on the table, that will always have to compete with another large issue. You might have the greatest initiative in the world, but if it competes with what your government is doing with China, with Russia, with NATO, that could cast a pall over your plans for developing some spicy, covert proxy somewhere. State concerns are often much larger.

Today the Ukrainian issue is so big for Putin that I am sure he does not worry as much about Wagner group as we do. I think he worries a lot more about the Ukraine situation and it rather dwarfs, right now, his attention to remnants of the Wagner group.

Fear of Exposure

Fear of exposure: Wagner has been getting exposed for a long time. When you are a democratic state, as we remember with the Contras arguments, for example, that tore up Washington in the ’80s when we were working with the Contras as a partner in Central America, we were very concerned about levels of exposure. There are certain things we were doing covertly. Many of the regional partners, for example, there, or with Afghanistan and the mujahideen, wanted covert action. They did not want everything to be transparent, and voted on, and discussed on the floor of the House.

So we might discuss something one day in the Senate, and the House, and the next day we might do something quietly. We had complex relations like that with some of the Polish interests like Solidarity, so [there is the] question of exposure. Putin would not want most of the press that he is getting now. The United States often did not want press.

Concern About Control

Concern about control could not be clearer. When you hire a proxy, you often get a gunslinger, you often get somebody with no allegiance. You might get a Viktor Bout. You might get any number of people. It is unclear what you have really got, and it can be dangerous as a matter of statecraft. You have intelligence services, you have a Ministry of Defense, you have a lot of other ways, [and] you have allies who might help do your will abroad. When you hire mercenaries, you are not sure you can control them.


Costs: very frequently these wars get embroiled in things, the costs start to rise, and the complexity of a situation can be overwhelming, so you might hire your proxy to do certain things and it turns out the situation is immensely more complex, or you are bogged down in a foreign war where you thought you were doing a quick coup d’état. So states have had trouble with the rising costs. Being bogged down is one of the things I address in the book. And then there are physical restraints and legal restraints. The moral and legal ones are very interesting for us as democracies.

After watching for a long time the workings of the Reagan Doctrine, Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming wrote an article in Strategic Review basically saying this is too hard to do with anything covert, if we are going to do this, we may as well do it all above board. If we are going to have these partners in foreign wars, we better tell the American people and we better make the authorizations public. I have mentioned how contentious that can be.

Many partners do not want aid like that. They actually want it quiet for their own purposes, but it is an example of the way in which these things become public and then they might become a legal issue or a moral issue. And with the Iran Contra, the problems we found ourselves enmeshed in both, and that too ends badly, does it not? It ends with a really great idealistic concept. It is resistance to a regime in Nicaragua which was in the papers last week for closing yet another university. Daniel Ortega is doing precisely what he has been doing all of his life since 1979, and so we had a kind of limited proxy relationship with the conference, which ended up being a sad conclusion.

Watch the rest of their discussion on YouTube