Struggle in the Gray Zone and World Order


Few national security issues have received more sustained attention over the last year or two, both inside and outside government, than the concept of “gray zone” challenges. Some believe that these campaigns pose significant threats to U.S. interests and global order. Others, such as Adam Elkus in his recent War on the Rocks article, worry that we are giving too much weight to a stale and ill-defined notion. In a new study on gray zone campaigns, I review the evolution of the concept and its role in U.S. strategy. I conclude that something like the gray zone is real: Revisionist states, constrained by risks of escalation and economic interdependence, do appear to be in the market for subtle ways to achieve their objectives. The most important finding, though, was that the rise of the gray zone is symptomatic of bigger trends in world politics.

Elkus doubts that the gray zone represents an analytically coherent category for two main reasons. The concept, he writes, is hopelessly muddled. On top of that, it is nothing new. He’s right on both counts — but only to a degree. Gray zone campaigns are real, identifiable, and likely to pose growing challenges to U.S. interests.

While discussions of gray zone campaigns often jumble together various categories of conflict — gray, hybrid, asymmetric, unconventional — the concept takes firmer shape when we think of it as a carefully planned campaign operating in the space between traditional diplomacy and overt military aggression. It is typically employed by aggressive, somewhat revisionist states with grand geopolitical ambitions. But these revisionists’ dependence on global trade and markets, along with fear of escalation and other constraints, make them anxious to achieve their goals with techniques short of major conflict — more gradual, less violent, and less obvious.

Gray zone strategies can be hard to distinguish from aggressive versions of garden-variety diplomacy. Much of what goes by the name gray zone today — economic coercion, fifth column activities, clandestine disruption and sabotage, and information operations or propaganda — merely reflects what states have been doing for centuries to advance their interests in a competitive international system. To me, the biggest differences relate to the coherence, intentionality, and urgency of these campaigns, which is why it makes sense to discuss the gray zone as a distinct approach to strategy.

Gray zone strategies pursue political objectives through calculated and integrated campaigns to achieve specific and often quite ambitious goals within a certain period of time. In spirit and execution, they are more like military campaigns than the diffuse ebb and flow of diplomacy, but they employ mostly non-military or non-kinetic tools. They strive to remain under key escalatory thresholds. And, finally, they are willing to edge gradually toward their objectives rather than making an all-out grab.

This definition distinguishes the gray zone both from asymmetric violence like terrorism and insurgency, and from hybrid campaigns that combine classic military operations with asymmetric techniques, as in Lebanon in 2006. Those are forms of warfare, not gray zone campaigns, though all may share the use of some specific tools. (One could argue whether Russia’s Ukraine campaign counts as gray zone or hybrid, based on the significant amount of violence involved.)

Elkus is correct that much of what goes by the name gray zone today is nothing new. But two developments suggest that this incarnation may be different. First, nuclear weapons and economic interdependence create an unprecedented aversion to major war — and thus, for revisionists, a powerful appetite for campaigns short of that threshold. And second, states have a wider array of tools at their disposal — from sophisticated information campaigns to cyber attacks to feats of engineering magic like manufacturing islands — to achieve more decisive results in this ambiguous zone. Together these point to the potential that the gray zone will be a central arena for rivalry and conflict over the coming decades.

If we take that potential seriously, it will be important to understand the character of gray zone conflict. My own study suggested two major lessons.

First, gray zone strategies are not the smoothly efficient threats we sometimes make them out to be. Recent experience suggests that the targets of gray zone campaigns recognize them for what they are — aggressive efforts to overturn the status quo. Gray zone aggression, it turns out, often prompts exactly the sort of reactions it’s meant to avoid.

Russia provides an obvious example, in terms of the wide-ranging political, economic, and military costs it has borne for its supposedly threshold-exploiting actions in Eastern Europe. But an even better case may be China, whose efforts have been less ham-handedly belligerent, and thus a more paradigmatic example of gray zone techniques. Beijing’s creeping effort to change the order in East Asia has prompted significant reactions: Countries in the region have launched diplomatic protests, bolstered their military presence in disputed areas, and forged new regional partnerships to balance China’s power. Most damaging perhaps from Beijing’s perspective, East Asia seems more supportive of a strong continued U.S. military role than it was five years ago, and many states are cozying up to Washington in new ways.

These facts point to a second lesson: The most important answer to gray zone tactics is not to build a whole suite of counter-capabilities — fishing fleets, battalions of “little green men,” propaganda campaigns. Some of that would be useful, especially for the United States, whose military is traditionally oriented toward major combat operations. But gray zone campaigns are most likely to fail when they cannot sneak under the radar of the international system. The most important and ultimately effective response will therefore be to reaffirm and strengthen the norms, rules, and institutions of the international order in ways that render these campaigns even more provocative and self-defeating than they already are.

The United States can continue to lead global reactions to violent gray zone aggression, using international forums and norms to contrast such behavior with that of responsible members of the international community. It can solidify international compacts (such as the Law of the Sea) in ways that circumscribe gray zone activities. It can promote specific regional rules and norms — maritime rules of the road or military rules of engagement. It can help assemble confidence-building institutions to reduce the chance of escalation.

But treating the symptoms is only part of the challenge. The real significance of gray zone campaigns is in their relation to the most fundamental challenge of the coming decades: finding a way to integrate rising, quasi-revisionist powers into the international order. Our inability to do so is the basis for gray zone conflict; progress in that direction would make such campaigns less necessary and less worrisome. To do this, U.S. strategy must seek to multilateralize the international order, providing a more shared sense of ownership, and offering peaceful and constructive quasi-revisionists a greater say and stake in the system. The result would be a strategy of endorsing partial revisionism to discredit more radical varieties, and allow rising powers to shape events without investing in gray zone aggression.

At its extreme, this sort of shared responsibility could be seen as appeasement. But if we cannot find a way to make Russia, China, India, Brazil, Japan, and many others feel that the order is just and that they have an adequate voice, it won’t survive no matter how big the U.S. defense budget becomes. The solution is hardly straightforward, because these states are testing the order as much out of a sense of injustice and besiegement as any clear appetite for aggression. They have a belief in their rightful place in the world, and a conviction that it is being actively and bitterly denied. To the extent that they are using gray zone campaigns to grab more influence and shift the terms of regional orders, it is because they feel justified in doing so.

We don’t yet know what ultimate mindset these perceptions will produce in China and Russia. We could be seeing the limit of their belligerence, or in a decade one or both could have become far more angry, nationalistic, and militant. This is the ultimate importance of the gray zone, and the approach we take to deal with it. The strategies that go by this name are strategic reconnaissance missions, dispatched by states committed to changing the terms of the international system but probably not sure, themselves, just how far they are willing to go.

As a result, the American-led response to this challenge must achieve two simultaneous and often conflicting goals. It must demonstrate the limits of tolerance while at the same time offering respect, shared governance, and mechanisms for resolving issues that take the interests of these challengers seriously. Responding to gray zone aggression along the lines suggested here is as good a place to start as any.


Michael J. Mazarr is the acting director of RAND Arroyo Center’s Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program, and a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.