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HomeBlogAmerica’s Perilous Choice in Ukraine: How Proxy War Accelerates Great Power Decline

America’s Perilous Choice in Ukraine: How Proxy War Accelerates Great Power Decline

Image credit: Taras Gren

By Michael Vlahos

Proxy wars represent a most dangerous game in great power competition. Danger here has two dimensions. First, easy and early success can trigger strategic euphoria in the proxy-master. The empire can be swept up by the tantalizing prospect of a great strategic victory, paying a small price in treasure and nothing of its own blood. This leads directly to occluded judgment. Victory, so desired, is suddenly believed to be almost at hand, so why not pile on, and bring a hated rival quickly to defeat? This dynamic leads to“opportunistic escalation”.

The second strategic danger emerges when early success turns into a proxy enterprise at risk of failure, when reality breaks through and victory can no longer necessarily be achieved by proxy efforts alone. Easy and early victory is replaced by the prospect of possible failure, unless the great power “goes all in.” The prospect of losing the proxy war becomes as loathsome as seeing one’s own battalions beaten in battle. Here, the collective ecstasy of victory through proxy makes proxy abandonment and defeat unacceptable, leading to ever-intensifying, “double down escalation” that could invite direct war.

In light of Washington’s ongoing proxy war with Russia in Ukraine, these two dangers now threaten the American nation. Once Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine, NATO enthusiastically embraced proxy war against Russia.

Yet, much of Washington’s understanding of proxy war effectiveness comes from Cold War-era memories of twin successes: U.S. proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Soviets’ own proxy war against the United States in Vietnam. And that is just where the trouble lies. Our collective memory goes back no further than Vietnam and Afghanistan, but the proxy wars we no longer remember are far more instructive.

The American nation, in fact, survived as an imperial target in two great-power proxy wars: one, from 1776-78, in which a fledgling republic served as the proxy of a Franco-Spanish Bourbon proxy-master; and the other, from 1861-63, in which the British Empire targeted a beleaguered Union, using the Confederate States of America as its eager proxy.

Together, these two experiences form an historical counterpoint. 1776-78 is an example of a dual-empire (France-Spain) seduced by a siren America, fervently embracing opportunistic escalation, only to fall prey to double-down escalation. This in turn led to the 18th century’s third “world war”, which initiated the downfall of the Bourbon dynasties and their ancien régimes.

1861-63 is the counterpoint. At first, Britain embraced an opportunistic proxy war. Yet Whitehall resisted the seduction of a not-so-siren Confederacy. When faced with a crisis that presaged a strategic catastrophe for the Empire, Britain cut its losses, pulled back proxy support, and restored friendly relations with the United States postwar.

Proxy (no) Panacea

Using a willing third party to fight for you against a detested rival power may seem like a dream come true. The proxy-master embroils its hated enemy in a destructive war, but the enemy can do more than punish the proxy in return.

Yet, great power proxy war is a snare and a delusion. The prospect of a low-risk, high-reward engagement is the dangling bait—a war-that-is-not-a-war—which promises all the upsides and none of the downsides of actual battle. The truth, however, is that losing a great power proxy war is just as much a defeat as if one’s own battalions had been vanquished in battle—not to mention that the great power loses here without even the honor of commitment and sacrifice.

But there are even more strange trappings in wars of this kind: When it comes to proxy war, short-term success is more dangerous than failure. Early victories in a great power proxy war promotes soaring, even ecstatic emotions, leading people and leaders alike to embrace maximalist war aims. The rush of emotion and the impression of victory, however, often occludes the strategic eye. The target of the proxy war may not, in fact, be yet defeated. Contrary to self-serving appearances, a wounded great power may not actually be broken. It may move from accepting you as a proxy enemy to tackling you directly as the main enemy.

Today’s United States is on a proxy collision course to open war with Russia. This is the warpath that seized France in the 1770s, and stands in marked contrast to the more careful proxy role Great Britain played in the 1860s.

The American Empire stands today at a proxy war fork in the road. Will we take the path of the Bourbon alliance in 1778-79, toward eventual world war, or will we, like Great Britain, pull back?

Une catastrophe: Or, Louis’ Doomed fête Americaine

In the globalized conflict that was the Seven Years War, Bourbon France and Spain were humiliated, stoking a desire for revenge. The American colonies’ rebellion against their English cousins thus presented an irresistible opportunity.

Once the colonies declared their independence in 1776, Versailles went all in on “lethal military aid”—90 percent of the Continental Army’s muskets were French—while sheltering American warships and privateers in their fortified Caribbean safe harbors. Moreover, France and Spain provided American revolutionaries with massive loans and aid in millions of gold livres, and as a bonus, numbers of high-ranking French military advisers in combat.

The French proxy war saved the colonial American war effort. When Britain lost a small field army at Saratoga, Versailles assumed victory to be near. The Court could no longer hold back its impulse to finish Britain off and, in the process, unravel London’s imperial holdings around the world. Together with his Bourbon cousin Spanish monarch Carlos III, Louis XVI doubled down on war.

France’s proxy war in America led to a global war, which ended in near-total victory for the Bourbon alliance in 1783. Second-order consequences, however, were felt immediately. War debt was crushing. By 1786 the French finance and tax system was unable to manage debt service which was exceeding half the national budget. Runaway inflation and tax resistance cascaded into the French Revolution. 1789 led to 25 years of crisis and war that eventually brought down the entire Franco-Spanish globe-wide empire and the ancien régime with it.

Benjamin Franklin, a honey-tongued American Casanova of imperial court intrigue, was highly responsible for setting Versailles on the path of downfall. In his beaver hat and homespun clothes, he was the loveable beau savage and honest frontiersman that ci-devants courtiers and ladies so desired to see.

In Franklin’s insinuated narrative, 1) American victory was inevitable; 2) Victory needed a full French buy-in to achieve; 3) This victory would redound to French Enlightenment values; and, 4) Britain was an imperial paper tiger, demoralized and incompetent, so for France there was little to lose (and, in their starstruck eyes, a world to gain).

Franklin won over Versailles just as Volodymr Zelensky has lately melted the hearts of NATO ministers and American cosmopolitans alike. When the bedazzled imperial court succumbs to the charms of its self-created mesmeric client, the patron is in trouble.

Britain’s Pyrrhic Proxy: Whitehall’s Restraint

In the 1850s, the United States and Russia were Britain’s greatest strategic rivals: the latter was a military threat, but the challenge from the former was economic and struck to the very heart of British world power. By 1860, the U.S. was the world’s biggest shipbuilder, with the biggest merchant marine. American GDP was on course to surpass the UK by 1870. Finally, Britain’s economy was hostage to the South’s “King Cotton.”

The American civil war was therefore a serendipitous strategic event for Britain on three levels. First, under false flag, the UK had free rein to raid the rival Yankee merchant fleet. Second, arming the Confederacy might split the American republic, with the Confederacy allied to Britain. A rump U.S. would be a diminished power, caught between Canada and the Confederate States of America. Third, in cultivating an alternative cotton industry in Egypt, the UK would be less dependent on American cotton, while making American cotton wholly dependent on British protection. This echoes contemporary U.S. policies (pursued more half-heartedly than Victorian Britain) to reduce strategic dependence on foreign minerals, semiconductors, and other resources.

For nearly three years (1861-63) the British Parliament conducted an aggressive proxy war against the United States. It armed the South with a million rifles and advanced artillery, and it established a strategic safe haven in Bermuda for Confederate blockade runners only a few hundred miles from Hatteras ports. The U.S. Navy asserted a legally recognized blockade on the South, yet the cream of the British battle fleet in Bermuda (aka Britain’s “Gibraltar of the West”) effectively nullified the interdict on Confederate commerce. Hence, Britain rendered the Union’s blockade significantly less effective without accosting a single Federal ship. Most provocatively, UK naval industries built, outfitted, and manned Confederate commerce raiders—which sank or drove the Yankee merchant fleet to other flags, and effectively destroyed Maritime America.

Britain’s proxy war on the Union federal state was, in the very near term, highly successful. Here it must be remembered that, although Whitehall may have preferred an independent Confederacy, Britain’s true goals were more limited: to slow American power, and most important, to eliminate the United States as a rival maritime power. With the Civil War, this objective was achieved — Yet within a decade the advantage gained had been emptied of strategic value. In spite of the tragic burden of civil war, a reunited U.S. still shot past UK GDP by 1870, Britain’s entire Empire economy by 1890, and then reduced London to strategic dependence on Washington by 1914. The best that can be said of Britain’s proxy war against America is that Parliament and No.10 showed strategic restraint.

In fact, Lincoln himself triggered this restraint. He invited the entire Russian fleet to spend the winter-to-spring of 1863 in New York and San Francisco. Russia was Britain’s avowed enemy after Crimea, so the specter of an alliance between two rising world powers—compounded by a shift in the British electoral opinion after the Emancipation Proclamation—prompted Whitehall to back off from its proxy arming of the Confederacy. Moreover, as penance, Britain in 1869 bowed to a massive sanction at the Hague for eviscerating the American merchant fleet (aka, the Alabama Claims).

Two Diverging Paths

Conducted under the auspices of NATO, America’s proxy war with Russia seems at a crossroads. The recent series of Russian bombings have exposed the hidden danger of such a war: an eyes-wide-shut entry into an escalatory spiral. This is no place from which to exercise restraint and push for a diplomatic ceasefire.

Moreover, proxy wars of living memory will not help the U.S. foreign policy establishment awaken to its strategic overreach. Russians and Americans of the Cold War actually inhabited a more stable standoff, in which two equals feared face-to-face confrontation and the dread certainty, once it started, of nuclear escalation. Truly existential nuclear fear imposed strategic caution and diplomatic tolerance. Hence, the Soviet proxy war against the U.S. in Vietnam and the UN in Korea, and the U.S. proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, occurred within a framework of heightened restraint. Similarly, Britain was restrained in its proxy war against the Federal Army, from 1861-63, by the fear of losing Canada in a world war with the U.S. and Russia.

In contrast, the Bourbons’ headlong plunge into full global war in 1778 after two years of successful proxy war (which went superbly from the American perspective) was a profound misjudgment. In Versailles, only Turgot, the Navy Minister and former Finance Minister, opposed the expanding war, declaring that France could not afford even a proxy war. Unlike Franklin, however, Turgot was no pied piper, and the court had already flocked to the genial genius from Philadelphia.

Proxy seduction shows just how dangerous a relationship of psychological intimacy and emotional co-dependence between proxy and client can be. Moreover, as the great power makes the proxy its ward, its commitment to proxy welfare is assumed, leading inevitably to unbreakable empathy and solidarity. Hence, the proxy war effort becomes indistinguishable from any all-out great power war.. Indeed, the bond can become almost religious in its zeal, as we see everyday in the pious outpourings from the Twitterverse, Mainstream Media, and NATO Governments in support of the Western war effort in Ukraine. In contrast, Confederate envoys lacked the charm to propagate and solidify a weak Southern claim on British popular sentiment, which tanked quickly after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Proxy wars that spiral into full-on escalation and direct warfare can produce calamitous second order effects. This was the fate of France and its Ancien Régime. Great Britain only barely avoided a similar fate due to a prudent course correction that came because of its fear of a likely U.S.-Russian alliance (heralded by the Russian war fleet wintering in New York and San Francisco). Hegemonic proxy wars involving great powers risk going global by their very nature—an eventuality that threatens the very decline the great power fears most of all. Washington would be well-advised to look to the fateful lessons of history before doubling down on its latest proxy war against Russia.

Michael Vlahos (@Michalis_Vlahos) is a writer and author of the book ‘Fighting Identity’. He has taught war and strategy at Johns Hopkins University and the Naval War College. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Peace & Diplomacy. He is a weekly contributor to ‘The John Batchelor Show’. Follow him through his blog: anewcivilwar.com.

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  

Panelists:

Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security

 

Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.

Panelists:

Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.

 

Panelists:

Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 

Panelists:

Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 

 

Panelists:

Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.

 

Panelists:

Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor