Opinion / Strategy

Bad Idea: Winning the Gray Zone

Bad Ideas in National Security Series

The next U.S. National Defense Strategy will be about winning the strategic competition with China (and to a lesser extent, Russia). Much of this will play out short of armed conflict, in the ”gray zone” between peace and war. But trying to “win” gray zone competition is a bad idea, for three reasons. First, gray zone competition provides a relief valve in the international system which reduces the chances of war. Second, the gray zone exists due in part to the deterrent effect of U.S. hard power. Any erosion of this through an over-focus on competition in defense strategy increases the chances of war. Third, the United States is uniquely positioned to excel in any competition for influence and advantage. It should extend the competition rather than end it.

1. Gray zone competition is the international system’s relief valve

First, the gray zone offers a relief valve for the pressure of motivated revisionists in the international system which – most of the time – should remain open. Dissatisfied powers often pursue confrontation simply to enhance their status and recognition. Gray zone strategies–if correctly calibrated–are the perfect foil, generating just enough attention for the purposes of status-enhancement while avoiding serious repercussions. These tactics of measured revisionism are also a form of Thomas Schelling’s tacit bargaining – but over the modality of conflict, rather than its outcomes. On some level, such ‘hybrid threats’ are an appeal to restrict confrontation to horizontal escalation across domains rather than vertical escalation within them.

The potential of gray zone competition to limit confrontation is one reason to consider what levels and forms can be tolerated, not just defeated. Preventing every minor gray zone transgression is not only impossible but may risk a hybrid “forever war” and undermine the very fabric of society being protected. That said, because the relief valve principle only applies to the point where damage is done – from attacks on critical infrastructure to land-grabs to compliance with the rules and norms themselves – the challenge is knowing how much steam to let off before low-level belligerence boils over or adds up to something more serious. As the late Robert Jervis explained, such emergent outcomes are difficult (if not impossible) to predict. And even beforehand, heightened tensions between major powers are dangerous: miscalculation might be the single biggest cause of war in history.

But these are, in part, the tragic perils of intensifying international competition; they come with the territory. The point is the gray zone can serve as a buffer zone in an unpredictable and increasingly fraught international environment to reduce the chances of miscalculation and conflict. Consider what would happen if some magic recipe for stopping gray zone aggression were discovered and the relief valve were shut off: status-seeking belligerents who remain motivated would have no choice but to intensify their efforts. The ‘boiling peace’ might boil over into war. Like squeezing a balloon, revisionist pressure will emerge somewhere – rather below the threshold of war than beyond it, if it can be helped.

The current situation in Ukraine provides a case in point. On the one hand, as the UK Intelligence and Security Committee’s has assessed, “Russia’s substantive aims, however, are relatively limited: it wishes to be seen as a resurgent ‘great power.’” This is evident in its current efforts to bring the United States to the negotiating table by threatening to intensify its occupation of Ukraine and demand regional ‘security guarantees.’ An audience with the White House and a sphere of influence are some of the trappings of great power status the Kremlin yearns for. Yet beyond these status-enhancing allowances, the relief valve should be shut. Any concessions would further undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty and the basic principle that nations may decide who their friends are and what clubs they join. Instead, in the words of Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, “the United States and its European allies should talk to Putin to win time while strengthening Ukraine to the extent that Russia will simply have no feasible military option for invading it”.

2. DoD, this is not the strategic competition you are looking for

For the Department of Defense (DoD), winning the gray zone is not the strategic competition “you are looking for.” Gray zone competition entails (by definition) lesser threats than the armed aggression and war defense forces exist to prevent. By refocusing on gray zone competition DoD could offer plenty of enticing pieces for White House strategists to move around the global chess board in a game of strategic whack-a-mole, but this temptation should be avoided.

The reason is simple: as analysts of the Ukraine crisis have pointed out, the primary role the U.S. military plays in gray zone competition is to deter conventional and nuclear aggression. This system effect creates the gray zone in the first place as it takes armed action off the table in all but the most severe circumstances. It also dissuades more serious forms of gray zone aggression – although, as shown by Chinese cyber-attacks and island building, Russian land-grabs and election interference, and Iranian proxy warfare, coercion short of war is easier said than done. Deterrence erosion opens the door to aggression – armed or otherwise.

The real competition that should absorb the U.S. military’s attention–and budget–is the one over future advantage in high-end conflict. Modernization, lethality, technology and combat power should be the foundation of the U.S. defense strategy–not daily competition and forward presence for the sake of it. While there is no strict dichotomy between forces for high-end warfare and global engagement–consider the UK Carrier Strike Group’s recent tour of the Indo-Pacific–taking future warfighting seriously will inevitably require either trade-offs in routine global commitments or a larger defense budget to foot the bill of doing both well.

The U.S. military’s combat edge in high-end warfare and nuclear deterrence shapes gray zone competition and provides a crucial latent advantage should the competition transcend the threshold of war. DoD’s recent Global Posture Review can be seen in this light, enhancing global access and presence in the name of deterrence (bolstered by over $11 billion in funding for the Pacific and European theatres). The same goes for initiatives that strengthen the combat power of allies and partners, such as the recent AUKUS agreement or efforts to bolster the resilience of Ukraine and Taiwan.

Rather than introducing new gray zone missions, the United States should encourage fertile competition beneath the threshold of war by maintaining one – through a laser-focus on winning the war. The gray zone exists because U.S. adversaries are deterred from breaking out of it: long may that be so.

3. The United States holds all the gray zone cards

The final reason to cultivate rather than call time on gray zone competition is the United States already holds all the cards – or at least four important ones.

First, in the words of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin: “The United States has an advantage that no autocracy can match: our combination of free enterprise, free minds and free people.” That these freedoms are targeted by adversaries – through election interference or disinformation – only highlights their potency. Second is America’s unrivalled soft power. Although work is needed at home, America’s global image has rebounded under the Biden administration while views of China remain at historical lows. In the competition for global influence and friends, the ace card of America’s alliances provide a big advantage over its rivals.

Third, the United States is a powerhouse of innovation, at the forefront of academia, research and dominant in global technology and financial markets. Even though China wants to catch up, in Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s words America has the ability to “out-compete anyone” on industry and innovation. Hence the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence’s (NSCAI) advice to “embrace the AI competition”.

The fourth card is the ultimate source of advantage or leverage in any system: the rules, norms and paradigms which govern behavior. Inspired by Roosevelt’s ‘four freedoms’ vision for the world, America helped found the existing rules and rights-based international order and institutions which help stabilize international relations and protect people. For example, the peace-war divide which underpins international law discourages bargaining through violence and normalizes peaceful competition. Where violence is required to enforce rules or protect people, it is subject to just-war principles of proportionality, prudence, and protection of non-combatants.

These are not just laudable features in their own right – they provide an advantage because they favorably define the terms of the competition in the first place. This is why gray zone aggression seeks to degrade and subvert existing rules to change the very paradigm of the competition. For example, it is to Russia’s advantage that frozen conflicts, state-sponsored assassinations, election interference, and hybrid threats become normalized as these tactics play to their strengths. Likewise, it benefits China over the United States if trade wars and cyber espionage become routine, not to mention its sweeping claims over the South China Sea and purpose-built military islands.

Rules and paradigms are the highest form of competitive advantage while tit-for-tat responses offer minor returns and exposure to downside risk (via escalation or miscalculation). As Hal Brands points out, rather than suggesting weakness, “the prevalence of gray zone approaches is actually a testament to the strength of the liberal international order that America has led since World War II”. The rules-based international order is the real prize: preserve it through vigorous competition in which the United States can out-compete its rivals.

Long live the gray zone

This is not an argument for losing the gray zone. It is a plea to see the bigger picture. Winning the gray zone is a bad idea if it is viewed through a narrow, zero-sum lens: there is no Clausewitz-style decisive victory on offer here. Instead, gray zone competition should be viewed as a chronic condition to be managed or a dynamic equilibrium to be maintained. Nor is it an argument to appease gray zone aggression: relief valves can be open and shut. But given the likely frictions of the coming decades, confining strategic competition to something short of war may be a good outcome – especially compared to the historical alternatives. Gray zone competition gives rival states a medium through which to compete using (mostly) non-violent means. This should be welcomed and sustained through a combination of relief-valves, reinforced deterrence, and open competition.

This has been done before. As General Joseph Votel reminds us: “The Cold War was a 45-year-long Gray Zone struggle in which the West succeeded in checking the spread of communism and ultimately witnessed the dissolution of the Soviet Union.” Today’s strategic competition is not the Cold War: the competition with China is complex rather than complicated. As Joseph Nye suggests, it may also be “measured in half-centuries and centuries rather than a few decades.” Long live the gray zone.

(Photo Credit: DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Steve Cushman, U.S. Marine Corps/Released)

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