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The expression “proxy war” has been bandied about the last few weeks, but not many people really know what it means. And that is a problem for Christians who seek to engage the state on such matters. That being the case, the following is a brief summary of some “rules of a proxy war” to help Christians make informed decisions about issues related to justice and the right use of state-sanctioned violence.
What is it?
Proxy wars have been called “the least bad option” by Tyrone L. Groh, an apropos label indeed. It is an indirect war, waged openly or covertly by powers that do not want to (or dare to) go head-to-head in full scale warfare. The fighting itself is in another country or region away from the homeland of the major powers. In many cases, the consequences of an actual war between major powers (especially nuclear armed ones) precludes a direct war. For instance, a direct war between NATO and Russia would be devastating beyond imagination; but an indirect proxy war in the Ukraine is a different – yet dangerous – matter.
Proxy wars are nothing new, although the threat of nuclear war between major powers is. The last seventy years has seen a number of proxy wars, mainly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. One of the most well-known proxy wars at the height of the Cold War was the Vietnam War, a war waged by the US/South Vietnam (capitalism) versus Russia/North Vietnam (communism) in Vietnam.
The number of proxy wars since the nineteenth century to today is staggering. And the list just keeps getting longer. There are a number of proxy wars being waged today, such as in Yemen, Ukraine, and Syria. And as Groh argues, the decline of western hegemony and the challenging of US power by rising powers means that proxy wars may become even more common in the decades to come.
Why does it matter?
As I note in my recent book and blogs, Christians need to engage the state on the proper “use of sword” (Romans 13).But how can they engage in a meaningful way when do not really know what is going on? Proxy wars are especially difficult to understand because rarely is anything as it seems. It is often a covert and complicated situation that is ever fluid, making an informed position on the justice of the cause very difficult indeed.
The following is a brief summary of some of the “rules of a proxy war” to provide a basic primer to help Christians make an informed decision.
Note that the rules vary according to whether or not you are one of the major powers or one of the weaker powers on whose land the fighting is actually occurring.
Note also that I am not saying these rules are morally defensible – I am simply identifying what actually is the case. And once you know the rules you can begin to formulate a thoughtful and responsible form of engaging the state on such matters.
Six Rules of a Proxy War
Never go head-to-head against the other major power if it means a catastrophic war. This is the most important rule. Proxy wars are conflicts of brinkmanship – you need to know just how far to push and how far to go…but no further. Of course, the degree of political savvy and responsibility required for such a high stakes situation necessitates competent leaders.
Getting involved in a messy quagmire of blood, destruction, and expense requires a lofty rationale. And what better motive than to say you are saving the world! Or at least save the people of the nation from the evil powers of the dark side. And, oh yes, neglect to mention any culpability or self-interest in the conflict. In other words, portray the conflict as a good versus evil Manichean battle (and of course, don’t forget to ratchet up the media propaganda that you are saintly and the enemy are minions of the devil.)
Make sure that the leadership of the nation in which the war is actually being waged is hand-picked and unequivocally supportive of your military intervention. Whether elected or imposed, a puppet leader is what is needed for the war to be waged to a successful conclusion. Of course, make it clear that any other government claiming legitimacy is bogus.
Take advantage of the conflict to test your new weapons and tactics. And take keen interest in the other power’s weapons and tactics. Such wars are also great opportunities to demonstrate your weapon systems to interested weapons purchasers, something that provides an economic boost for the home front war industries.
Proxy wars can be bloody affairs, but often it is the blood of other people that is being shed. Major powers have often faced serious casualties in twentieth century proxy wars, but the suffering of the citizens of the nation where the war is being waged often ranges in the millions. In other words, keep the war going as long as viable – at the end of the day, it is not your people being destroyed.
(This rule applies to the weaker power that is a puppet in the midst of the major power conflict.)
You know that the major powers are using you and your nation in a larger conflict, so make sure you negotiate the best deal you can. Playing off major powers against one another – perhaps by making a threat to switch sides – is often a ploy that brings more support in the form of financial assistance and weaponry. But be careful, too much independence may get you ousted and a new more amenable puppet installed.
Proxy wars are here to stay. The responsibility of Christians to remind the state of its God-given mandate to use the sword for justice also remains. The vexing and pressing issue is how to carry out that mandate to speak for justice when the “rules of proxy wars” seem so skewed and unjust.
There is no easy answer to Christian prophetic witness, but the starting point for any meaningful and thoughtful engagement is to learn how things work and start from there.
 Tyrone L. Groh, Proxy War: The Least Bad Option (2019).
 Of course, there were many other allies of both sides involved.
 See also https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2017/11/16/the-new-era-of-the-proliferated-proxy-war; https://www.newamerica.org/international-security/reports/twenty-first-century-proxy-warfare-confronting-strategic-innovation-multipolar-world/a-new-age-of-proxy-warfare/