Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here: You Cannot Save the Gray Zone Concept

December 30, 2015

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In a previous article here at War on the Rocks, I argued that the “gray zone” concept — used to describe the strategic behavior of everyone from the Islamic State to Vladimir Putin — is hopelessly muddled and does not contribute much of value to the defense policy discussion. However, Michael J. Mazzarr thinks that there’s more to the concept than I give credit for. Mazarr concedes the main points of my critique, noting that I am correct to say that the gray zone concept is hopelessly muddled and is not novel. However, Mazarr nonetheless asserts that gray zone campaigns today differ in their “coherence, intentionality, and urgency,” thus justifying them as a “distinct approach to strategy.”

While Mazarr is certainly correct to express concern over enemy strategies — novel or otherwise — I nonetheless remain unconvinced that the gray zone concept is not just another example of the strategic studies community needlessly confusing itself by generating new terminology to replace what is not broken. Specifically, I argue once again that the gray zone concept is neither novel nor useful on its own terms. While Mazarr’s re-articulation of the concept rectifies some of its most egregious flaws, Mazarr ultimately cannot save gray zone theories from their own gaping conceptual holes.

Is the Gray Zone Novel?

I have argued, in part, that the gray zone concept merely puts a new spin on older and more well-understood ideas from political science, military history, and strategic theory about how actors pursue strategic objectives under constraint.

A partial taxonomy of various ideas and activities that gray zone concepts encapsulate

Mazarr argues that gray zone campaigns are distinct, novel, and uniquely dangerous because they combine integrated campaigns to achieve objectives in a gradualist fashion with non-military and quasi-military tools, and stay under the enemy’s threshold for retaliation.

Mazarr’s definition of the Gray Zone

While Mazarr’s articulation of the concept is certainly more coherent than those of others I have criticized in that it at least bounds the range of “gray” phenomena, it is difficult to see what value it adds. Mazarr states that U.S. rivals and adversaries looking to achieve their objectives will try to coercively do so in a way that: (1) does not trigger retaliation; (2) relies on non-military and/or quasi-military tools; (3) is gradualist in nature; and (4) integrates varying lines of effort. In essence, Mazarr’s “gray wars” concept is simply a more elaborate variant on two kinds of strategies of erosion.

First, the boiling frog folk anecdote: If the frog is kept in cold water that is slowly heated, it will eventually be cooked to death over time. However, if the water heats up too dramatically, the frog will leap out and thus avoid being cooked. This is not really new. Game theorists who study the topic of escalation bargaining, and students of negotiation theory, know the boiling frog quite well. On the subject of escalation, game theory, and bargaining, the military strategist and economist Thomas Schelling also famously favored a strategy of gradual escalation, increasing the costs of resistance until the opponent could not take it anymore. Most famously, Schelling advised that the strategist remain under the opponent’s direct threshold for retaliation while increasing the pressure on the opponent. Schelling called this the “rocking the boat” approach, in which the strategist steadily destabilizes the situation to force the opponent to give up so that both can avert a clash that neither wants.

Given the sheer scope of activities that Schelling witnessed in his lifetime that combined aspects Mazarr casts as novel, it is hard to see what is actually new about “gray wars.” Going further back, Mazarr’s conceptualization of the gray zone also would account for much of the 19th-century “Great Game” between various European imperial powers. Certainly, Mazarr has unintentionally described the doctrinal root of Soviet strategy as well as that of other Cold War actors. But we can go back even further. In the 1930s, Adolf Hitler’s Germany utilized a careful combination of integrated campaigns, non-military, and quasi-military tools to pursue a gradualist campaign to dominate Europe while remaining under the threshold for Franco-British retaliation. While Hitler’s attempts to lop off territory took the form of fait accomplis, the ground was often meticulously prepared through propaganda operations, subversion, military maneuvers, and political and economic preparation of the targets.

One of Mazarr’s other test cases is the slow motion naval competition between China, the United States, and China’s neighbors over disputed maritime territory. Yet, as the history of so-called “gunboat diplomacy” attests, the attempt to utilize conspicuous displays of naval force to achieve objectives is not novel. Mazarr would likely counter that the “gray” novelty would lie in how the effort is an integrated campaign, utilizes non-military and quasi-military tools, and is gradualist in its pursuit of Chinese strategic objectives. But, given that Chinese strategic theorists are stereotypically known for indirect strategies of erosion, is it really the case that China’s “gray” efforts to seize key maritime terrain are novel?

This is a strange argument given that the Chinese Communist state’s origins lie in a successful integrated campaign by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to seize power in the first half of the 20th century. The PLA has utilized irregular operations and tactics to seize naval territory in the past, as well. In terms of remaining below the threshold for retaliation and winning gradually, it is somewhat bizarre to argue that Chinese behavior is novel given that the founder of Communist China himself was a guerrilla that famously developed a strategy of erosion — and the founder of the modern Chinese regime system also famously counseled his comrades to “hide your strength, bide your time.”

Finally, Mazarr ignores China’s long history of territorial competition with India. Ever since China and India clashed in the early 1960s, the two countries have contested their land boundaries. While Mazarr portrays sneaky tactics such as China’s construction of artificial islands as novel, Beijing has utilized similar tactics in the past to establish basic facts on the ground. Today, both India and China are scrambling to construct strategic roads, economic hubs, and settlements to advance their objectives. In general, both Beijing and New Delhi have also utilized economic and diplomatic, as opposed to purely military means, to contest their frontiers as well.

Is the Gray Zone Useful?

It would be one thing if Mazarr’s gray zone theorizing was a useful abstraction and parsimonious simplification of these older, overlapping sets of activities — though Mazarr would in the process have to surrender a claim to distinctiveness and novelty. However, as I will argue, the gray zone concept is not useful.

First, Mazarr’s causal motivation for gray zone activities is theoretically undetermined. Mazarr argues that revisionist states enter the gray zone because of economic interdependence and the threat of nuclear warfare. But while Mazarr casts this as a reason for their sneaky activities, the basic fact of economic interdependence and the threat of nuclear war may be what actually enables the activities in the first place. Russia feels free to do its thing in Ukraine because it sits behind a protective wall of nuclear weapons. And is it just China that is supposedly deterred by the fact of economic interdependence with the United States?

Mazarr also casts the gray zone concept as the tool of revisionist states, but it is not clear that revisionist states are particularly motivated to use gray zone strategies. Given that the United States itself has historically utilized economic, military, political, and other means to attempt to gradually undermine its adversaries during the Cold War and elsewhere, we can use gray zone-like operations despite regarding ourselves as a status quo power that benefits from the existing structure of the international system. The assertion that gray zone stratagems are for revisionist states becomes even more absurd when we look at similar French and British trips into the gray zone over the last century, despite both being status quo powers.

Certainly, one can concede that revisionist states might be strongly motivated to pursue gray zone strategies as formulated by Mazarr, but it is also not clear that understanding them as revisionist states really is useful. Mazarr’s primary two examples are China and Russia. When Mazarr looks at them and sees apparently novel integrated campaigns and the use of non-military and quasi-military tools, he ignores the basic historical fact that neither regime has distinguished ideologically between war and peace. Vladimir Lenin, though a fan of Clausewitz, inverted Clausewitzian theory by arguing that politics was war by other means.

This totalizing view of every aspect of political life as a component of armed struggle has strongly influenced both Russian and Chinese conceptions of war and politics. And this, in turn, renders problematic Mazarr’s fixation on the idea of gray zone operations as occurring in a seam between war and peace. Such a seam, the Chinese and Russians might say, is little more than a Western invention. If one side does not see a distinction between war and peace and the other does, does the suggestion that the opponent operates in a twilight zone between war and peace that they do not ideologically recognize in the first place help?

The Chinese and Russians also consider themselves besieged by U.S. “information warfare,” and view their own “gray” responses as symmetrical to the threat they face to their sovereignty and regime security from U.S. efforts. It is tempting to dismiss this as propaganda, but it may also be explained by mirror imaging. If Beijing and Moscow do not distinguish between war and politics, they might assume that the United States similarly does not. Whatever the motivation for their particular usage of gray strategies, merely calling them “revisionist” is to oversimplify the complex ideological and security motivations behind their behaviors that may better explain their uses of force.

Lastly, one can question at a basic level whether it makes sense at all to attach a myriad of concepts and labels to adversary behavior and treat those labels — rather than the content of the goals and strategies that motivate them — as the focus of policy analysis. At the end of the day, the character of a conflict is dependent on the goals of both sides. Actors may utilize multiple kinds of strategies and tactics concurrently to accomplish goals. Making a particular label we have for the output of these strategies and tactics the focus of our efforts myopically blinds us to other strategies the enemy may utilize both in the present and the future.

The policy utility of a concept like gray zone strategy is decidedly low if it means that we end up more interested in labels we attach to the observable character of enemy behavior than the goals and strategies that motivate the behavior, The United States risks being trapped in the strategic equivalent of Plato’s Cave, obsessing over various shadows cast on the walls of the cave without the ability to ever grapple with what is casting them in the first place. The responsibility of the strategist is to predict, thwart, and counter the enemy’s operational behavior, not necessarily to name and classify it. If the task of naming the beast overshadows the task of slaying it, it is time to reconsider why we are investing so much attention to naming it.

The Gray Zone Still Doesn’t Make Strategic Sense

Mazarr’s argument that the gray zone strategy is a qualitatively distinct form of statecraft is weak. Even if we concede that the concept is somehow a useful abstraction for a set of diverse activities, it is nonetheless internally underdetermined and weak in overall policy utility. Strategists, despite Mazarr’s valiant attempt to rescue the concept from its own historical illiteracy and incoherent nature, still should find other ways to analyze the phenomena that Mazarr describes rather than rely on the questionable gray zone concept.


Adam Elkus is a PhD student in Computational Social Science at George Mason University and a columnist at War on the Rocks. He has published articles on defense, international security, and technology at CTOVision, The Atlantic, the West Point Combating Terrorism Center’s Sentinel, and Foreign Policy.


Photo credit: Mstyslav Chernov

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4 thoughts on “Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here: You Cannot Save the Gray Zone Concept

  1. It seems to me in this debate we’re going around and around in what my undergraduate philosophy professors would’ve called a “hypothetical-inductive-deductive” argument loop.

    Perhaps the “gray zone” phraseology has its best value in providing a relatively more easily understood label — a rubric for a whole raft-load of more specific operations beneath it. That kind of thing can be handy, especially when you’ve got to explain or report on a potentially complex idea to policy makers who have little patience for over-articulation from the intelligentsia, eh?

    1. Concur. As much as I enjoy taxonomy and theoretical banter, having alternatives available to explain concepts that are not easily understood is very useful. Simple models (or simplistic, if you like), so long as they are not too far off the mark, have the benefit of being easy to convey and relatively easy to apply. In the end, Mr. Elkus might as well be arguing against yoga because medical science is more complete and accurate. The truth is that both are useful.

      1. Folks,

        The most basic and practical way to look at a problem is to begin with an adversary’s goals and how we believe they will go about achieving them. We can talk about this without need for a category or type distinction. Lukas Milevski talks about such a way of going about the matter here (https://www.doria.fi/bitstream/handle/10024/117607/MILEVSKI%20Lukas_WG6_Abstract_The%20Nature%20of%20Strategy%20Versus%20the%20Character%20of%20War.pdf?sequence=3). Whether or not the character of X or Y has changed is not really as important as what we believe an opponent is going to do to achieve their aims. In other words, if the problem is Beijing wanting A or B and doing C or D to achieve it, we can just state that outright without much need for theorizing.

        If you want a formula for it, the “threat = capabilities + intentions” idea expressed in intelligence analysis and other related domains is sound. The “gray zone” people are the ones bringing theory and abstraction into the picture. So direct your angst about practicality to them, not me. If you want something to slap on a PowerPoint slide or to scribble on a memo then you can’t go wrong with “this is what we believe the enemy wants, this is what we believe the enemy is prepared to do to get it, these are our available courses of action” or some variant theoref.

        However, if we are talking about the more esoteric question of whether X or Y has changed or whether an abstraction for a set of unchanging activites is useful, then several, well, more esoteric considerations become relevant:

        (1) Is it true that thing are, in fact, different? What evidence is available for the claim that the thing is different?

        (2) Is the model useful? All models are “wrong” but some explain and/or predict better than others.

        The answers to these questions have operational implications.

        In terms of #1, asserting that the thing of interest is different robs us of previous knowledge and experience that might be applied to dealing with the matter. The ability to draw connections between past and present is vital to getting insight about what has worked in the past and what hasn’t. Declaring that something is totally novel renders this futile and privileges pure speculation. If you are attempting to stop a gang of bank robbers, for example, calling what they are doing “New Wave Bank Robbing” and declaring it to be meaningfully different from mundane bank robbing means that the standard body of knowledge for stopping bank robbing simply won’t do. You had better have a good reason for making this distinction given its evident costs in making it more difficult for you to apply previous knowledge and experience about how to stop bank robbery to the problem.

        As per #2, the thing about developing a model is simply that a model is neither true or false. The risk in relying on something simply because it arranges a set of observed data points particularly well is that it’s possible to explain a bunch of data points abstractly and elegantly an inumerable number of ways. You might, for example, state that violent extremism is caused by gender inequality, something another WOTR contributor dispenses with here (http://warontherocks.com/2015/12/gender-inequality-and-terrorism-this-is-not-the-causal-relationship-youre-looking-for/). The “domino theory” in the Vietnam War is a simple, elegant, and totally wrong model that got 58,000 Americans killed. And so on. Whether or not the model is internally consistent also is a basic question before we talk about how well it explains or predicts.

        Regardless, I am obviously more sympathetic to the idea of “gray zone” as a useful abstraction than as a report on an emerging threat that is somehow distinct and novel. If you are too, you should ask Mr. Mazarr and others to justify it in those terms rather than declare that it is new and different. Perhaps treating it purely as a useful abstraction might make it, well, more useful. At present, for reasons I’ve spent two pieces articulating, it isn’t.

        1. Thanks for that response — you make strong and clear points.

          In the purely practical sense, though, given that the “gray zone concept” has made (and apparently is continuing to make) such strong inroads into the media and analytical worlds, aren’t you fighting a terminological battle that’s effectively already been lost?

          Further, in doing so, aren’t you then also effectively cutting the ground from under your own feet, in that it identifies you — at best — as an “outlier” to those decision-makers you’re otherwise trying to influence?

          I ask those things not to provoke, but to get at your appraisal of this problem at the practical level: that of what terminology is best to use to maintain/grow analytic credibility when briefing the politicians, generals and admirals.