As U.S. competition with China intensifies, conflicts in developing nations may again constitute a battleground for influence. Some observers have argued that the United States and China are likely to engage in the sort of proxy warfare that was so common during the Cold War. Others foresee a brewing contest of covert operations. The United States should tread carefully. The benefits of covert interventions and proxy wars rarely outweigh their costs. And there is one Cold War pattern that the United States would do well to avoid entirely: efforts to discredit, undermine, and, in some cases, remove inconvenient national leaders or governments in developing countries.
Cold War Lessons
During the Cold War, the United States became obsessed with the perceived threat posed by Soviet-leaning regimes in the developing world. The result was a dismal parade of covert actions, proxy wars, economic aggression, and assassinations stretching from Central America to Africa through the Middle East and Asia. The most extensive catalogue of such schemes, by the scholar Lindsay O'Rourke, counts some sixty-four covert regime change operations.…
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Michael Mazarr is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared on Modern War Institute at West Point on December 8, 2021. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.