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


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