Theses Doctoral

Friends with Benefits? Power and Influence in Proxy Warfare

Borghard, Erica

This dissertation analyzes patterns of power and influence in the context of proxy alliances between states and armed, non-state groups. In particular, I explore the following questions: Why do some states have leverage over their non-state proxies, while others find themselves at the behest of their far weaker allies? Put differently, why doesn't a state's enormous material advantage systematically translate into an ability to influence the behavior of proxy groups? Governments often find themselves stymied by belligerent proxies and drawn into unwanted conflict escalation with adversaries--precisely what states sought to avoid by relying on covert, indirect alliances in the first place. I argue that the very factors that make proxy warfare appealing to states--its clandestine, informal nature--threaten to undermine governments' abilities to exert leverage over their proxies.
Governments seek out proxy alliances when the material or political costs of directly confronting an adversary are unappealingly high, driven by the logic that proxy groups can help states achieve their foreign policy objectives "on the cheap" and in a way that allows states to plausibly deny involvement in a conflict. However, the actions states must take to ensure plausible deniability, specifically the decisions political leaders make about how they will manage and oversee a proxy ally, can undermine their leverage. The decisions political leaders make about alliance design and management, which have negative effects on their bargaining power, are fundamentally driven by two related logics: the requirements of plausible deniability, and attempts to navigate the preferences of domestic political veto players and bureaucracies.
Plausible deniability requires establishing as much distance as possible between a decision maker and a proxy and/or operating with a minimal footprint on the ground. To do so, political leaders often delegate authority for managing tasks pertaining to the proxy alliance to covert organizations with the security sector (e.g., intelligence organizations). However, this clandestine and informal delegation is problematic in two respects. First, the bureaucratic actor to whom the political leader delegates authority for carrying out tasks pertaining to the proxy alliance has a general incentive to ensure its organization is abundantly resourced. Therefore, it has a vested interest in the perpetuation of the proxy alliance. Second, bureaucratic leaders (as well as all of the other individuals to whom authority is delegated) may have personal, political, or ideological preferences that differ substantially from those of the political leadership.
If the effects of delegating authority in this way are so perverse, why do leaders do it? And why don't they reign in wayward bureaucrats? At the most basic level, leaders have a high valuation for plausible deniability for international or domestic political reasons (to avoid retaliation from an adversary or keep things secret from domestic political actors), and powerful, entrenched bureaucracies are difficult to control. Digging deeper, however, there is a compelling domestic political story that existing accounts of proxy alliances have neglected to tell. Political leaders often abdicate authority to other bureaucratic actors or individuals--even when they may foresee the issues identified above--as a strategy for protecting themselves from domestic political veto players with strong policy preferences that diverge substantially from their own.
To evaluate the explanatory scope of the theory, I explore patterns of influence in proxy alliance in a series of comparative case studies, in which I use process tracing and structured, focused comparison to assess whether and to what extent decisions about alliance management affect a state's leverage over its non-state proxy. Specifically, I analyze bargaining power in six different proxy alliances: the Syria-Fatah alliance in the 1960s-70s; the alliance between the FNLA and UNITA in Angola and the United States from 1975-76; the India-Mukti Bahini alliance in East Pakistan in 1971; the United States-UNITA alliance in Angola in the 1980s; the alliance between the United States, Iran, and Israel, and the KDP in Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1970s; and the alliance between India and Tamil insurgents in Sri Lanka in the 1980s. I compare the explanatory scope of my theory to the interstate alliance politics literature, and find that my theory not only accounts for the unexplained variation in the universe of cases, but also offers a more complete understanding of the dynamics of state-proxy relationships.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Snyder, Jack Lewis
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 7, 2014