Krieg and Rickli – Surrogate warfare: the art of war in the 21st century?

This week we are looking at the topic of Surrogate Warfare in an article by Andreas Krieg and Jean-Marc Rickli. The article is available here. The piece covers ideas of surrogacy in warfare thorugh all sorts of interesting means, from mercenaries and militias to drones and satellites. We hope you enjoy the article. Let us know what you think in the comments.


In this article, the authors note the modern tendency towards ‘surrogate warfare’, in which States externalise the burden of war in order to distance themselves from the violence exercised by their surrogates (5). While the authors argue that surrogate warfare is ‘probably not the panacea for fighting wars in the twenty-first century’ (15), they do concede that surrogate warfare is going to become more common as risks and conflicts are not likely to recede any time soon (15).

I found this article interesting, though somewhat lacking in analysis, and I was left wondering how much of it is really ‘new’. Furthermore, I struggle to find the actual argument put forward by the authors who focus primarily on explaining what surrogate warfare is, and why it’s so prevalent. They don’t propose any solutions, nor even any remedies or genuine responses – or even make a sufficiently strong case as to why surrogate warfare might be a bad thing. Surrogate warfare may not be the panacea, but then the world is a very different place to it was in the time of Carl von Clausewitz.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University


I thought this article was a little misplaced, in that whilst it was really interesting it did not seem to fit well as an academic journal article. As it gives a very thorough overview of states using surrogates in their acts of war, it seemed that this would be a better fit for a textbook chapter. I struggled to find anything that felt truly ‘new’ in this article, it felt as though a history lesson on state use of mercenaries and militias was being put together with some thoughts on modern warfare technologies and PMC’s and given a gloss of conceptual paint under the term ‘surrogate warfare’. I’m sure this would be really interesting to scholars of security and war studies who want a new perspective spin linking current conceptions of PMC’s to historical views of mercenaries, but it didn’t really chime with me in any way. That said, if I were teaching on mercenaries and PMC’s, I would definitely recommend this to my students as a primer document full of great information.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University


UPDATE: Added 22/04/2019

In this paper, the authors argue that the Westphalian era of nation state sovereignty is over, and the motif of 21st-century war is the practice by governments and other groups of ‘surrogate warfare’ as a means of distancing themselves from their employment of force around the world, whilst still allowing them to do so in order to achieve their geopolitical aims. The authors use ‘surrogate warfare’ as an umbrella term for ‘all forms of externalization of the burden of war to supplentary as well as substitutionary forces and platforms’, including (but not limited to) the Cold War staple of the ‘proxy war’.

Surrogate warfare is not new. ‘Since Ancient times, empires and states have entrusted auxiliaries, substitutes and proxies, at least partially, with the execution of military functions on their behalf.’ Arguably, the history stretches even further back – the God of the Old Testament, despite his omnipotence, utilised the Israelites to achieve his geopolitical aims of clearing the Promised Land. It may well be that the Westphalian period may have been but a historical blip, although the paper’s authors argue that there are some elements of our contemporary surrogate wars are unique. They are uniquely ‘globalized, privatized, securitized and mediatized’.

The author’s conclusions are well-argued. Though the line that ‘surrogate warfare is a return to… the cabinet wars of the medieval and early modern ages’ reminded me of a previous paper’s talk of using royal marriage to ensure peace and makes me wonder if some political scientists are looking a little too fixedly backwards, the four elements proposed as unique to 21st-century war are all certainly present, although how unique they are is less certain. For example, one could argue that the ability to control the success or failure of operations through the successful manipulation of the media was perfected with Hearst and the Spanish-American War of 1898, and what we see now is a difference of degree rather than kind. Most interesting is the ‘securitised’ aspect, as authors write that ‘threats have given way to risks as the drivers of security policies in the “global North”’.

The reality of surrogate war can be best shown with a recent example. President Trump made waves with the surprise announcement of the impending withdrawal of US troops from Syria. However, this amounts to only around 2,000 soldiers. Remaining in Syria will be the 60-75,000-strong Syrian Democratic Forces, primarily the Kurdish forces who were instrumental in turning the tide against IS. Also presumably remaining will be some 5,500 US contractors, of whom almost 3,000 are US citizens. On the one hand, Trump has ordered the withdrawal of US troops and declared the war against IS over. On the other, he’s only moving some 2% of the US’ overall force, including its surrogates, out of theatre.

Ben Goldsworthy, Lancaster University


Let us know what you think.