Small Wars Journal

Paradoxes of the Gray Zone

Paradoxes of the Gray Zone by Hal Brands, Foreign Policy Research Institute

Gray, it seems, is the new black. The concept of “gray zone” conflict has generated significant attention and controversy recently, within both the U.S. government and the broader strategic studies community. Some analysts have identified gray zone conflict as a new phenomenon that will increasingly characterize, and challenge, the international system in the years to come. Others have argued that the concept is overhyped, ahistorical, and perhaps even meaningless. “The ‘gray wars’ concept lacks even the most basic strategic sense,” writes Adam Elkus. “Beneath the hype is something rather ooh-la-lame rather than ooh-la-la.[1]

So what is gray zone conflict, to begin with? Gray zone conflict is best understood as activity that is coercive and aggressive in nature, but that is deliberately designed to remain below the threshold of conventional military conflict and open interstate war. Gray zone approaches are mostly the province of revisionist powers—those actors that seek to modify some aspect of the existing international environment—and the goal is to reap gains, whether territorial or otherwise, that are normally associated with victory in war. Yet gray zone approaches are meant to achieve those gains without escalating to overt warfare, without crossing established red-lines, and thus without exposing the practitioner to the penalties and risks that such escalation might bring…

Read the entire E-Note.


Is it possible that Morgenthau below -- clearly describing the post-World War II world as non-Westphalian/post-Westphalian -- has also provided us with, via this explanation, something of a "Rosetta Stone" for understanding:

a. What occurred in the Old Cold War of yesterday. And, also,

b. What is occurring in the New/Reverse Cold War of today?

In this regard, let us consider his immediate follow-on thought to his non-Westphalian/post-Westphalian explanation provided in my February 9, 2016 - 5:41pm comment below:

"Here is the dynamic force which has led the two superpowers to intervene all over the globe, sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes openly, sometimes with the accepted methods of diplomatic pressure and propaganda, sometimes with the frowned upon instruments of covert subversion and open force."

Thus to understand -- in the post-World War II non-Westphalian/post-Westphalian world Morgenthau describes above and below -- why, in the Old Cold War of yesterday,

a. The communist said they had the right, and indeed the responsibility, to both seek and protect their fellow communists (and potential communists); this, in whatever country these communists/potential communists might be found. And why

b. We democratic capitalists said we had/have similar rights and responsibilities; this, re: our fellow democratic capitalists and potential democratic capitalists -- again, wherever in the world these folks might be found.

And why, in the New/Reverse Cold War of today (which continues to be, for all practical purposes, non-Westphalian/post-Westphalian?):

a. We democratic capitalist say that we retain these rights and responsibilities -- of recruitment and protection -- re: our fellow democratic capitalists and potential democratic capitalists, wherever in the world these folks might be found. And why

b. Those of other persuasions (certain Russians, Chinese, Iranian, Sunni, Shia, etc., etc., etc., ad infinitum) suggest that they, also and accordingly, have similar rights and responsibilities; this, re: their respective cohorts/ethnic brothers/co-religionists, etc. -- wherever in the world these such individuals are to be found.


a. Want to understand the world -- and the dynamic forces shaping same -- in the Old Cold War of yesterday and also in the New/Reverse Cold War of today? Then

b. Do not look to the long-since-dead-and-gone Westphalian international system -- and to the exceptionally outdated ideas of sovereignty enshrined therein.

Look, rather, to the non/post-Wesphalian concepts suggested by Morgenthau.

Post-World War II, these appear to explain everything -- right up to, and including:

a. Who the combatants in today's wars are. And

b. How and why they might operate as they do.

(For example via "political warfare," via UW/hybrid warfare in support of same and in the "gray zone" between war and peace.)

From COL Maxwell's comment below:

"It is in our national interest to ensure a stable international system based on the concept of sovereignty."

Hans Morgenthau observed, in his 1967 "To Intervene or Not to Intervene:"

" ... the Cold War has not only been a conflict between two world powers but also a contest between two secular religions. And like the religious wars of the seventeenth century, the war between communism and democracy does not respect national boundaries. It finds enemies and allies in all countries, opposing the one and supporting the other regardless of the niceties of international law."…

This (to wit: a post-Westphalian world?) thus -- for all practical purposes and for the reasons outlined by Morgenthau above -- being the "international system" within which we have operated in since World War II?

Thus, not a world in which the United States -- or our opponents -- believe that their best interests can be realized, and thus should be pursued, only within the confines and constraints of long-since-already-dead sovereignty.

This such thinking being particularly true for the United States who, as the clear, distinct and decisive winner of both World War II and the Old Cold War, believes that it has both the right (of the victor), and more importantly the responsibility (of same), to transform other states and societies more along its own political, economic and social lines. And, in this manner, make the world a safer, more prosperous and overall better place to live.

Thus, it is in this additional paradox of a Westphalen -- but really non-Westphalen -- world that we might, in the New/Reverse Cold War of today, and as in the Old Cold War of yesterday (see Morgenthau above) better understand our, and our opponents, past, and contemporary, activities in the "grey zone?"

In order to get our heads screwed on correctly -- and so as to, thereafter, be able to move out smartly in the right direction -- first we must address what appears to be critically wrong with the following statement by our author in his second paragraph above:


Gray zone approaches are mostly the province of revisionist powers —- those actors that seek to modify some aspect of the existing international environment -- the goal being to reap gains, whether territorial or otherwise, that are normally associated with victory in war.


Note that this opinion appears to clash with the "gray zone" environment suggested by such notables as Joseph L. Votel, Charles T. Cleveland, Charles T. Connett, and Will Irwin; wherein, in their recent article featured in Small Wars Journal, these folks point to the Old Cold War -- numerous times -- to address where, and how to, understand "gray zone" activities; yesterday and today.…

The obvious difference/distinction between these two opinions/views of the "gray zone?":

a. In the Votel, Cleveland, Connett and Irwin Old Cold War/New-Reverse Cold War scenario, it is (1) a "superpower" that is (2) seeking to liberate populations from their oppressive regimes and, via this and other approaches, (3) modify some aspect of the existing international environment more in the superpower's favor. Whereas,

b. In the "revisionist powers" scenario offered by our author of this thread, (1) no such "superpower" is driving the train, (2) no such "liberation" activities by a superpower are envisioned or discussed, and the goal is -- not so much to regain lost populations, territory or power -- but, rather, and via this approach, to (3) prevent the further loss of same?

(This, in the face of such "superpower" expansionist designs, and superpower "liberation" activities, as are more-properly understood, and addressed, by Votel, Cleveland, Connett and Irwin in their "Old Cold War/New-Reverse Cold War" scenario above?)

Dave Maxwell

Sat, 02/06/2016 - 11:13am

A very important addition to the discussion on the Gray Zone. Hal Brands has done an excellent job outline the 8 paradoxes excerpted below. I would add a couple of things. I am heartened to see the recognition of what is old is new again. Although he does not use unconventional warfare and counter unconventional warfare I think those concepts are implicit within his essay and these 8 paradoxes.

“Gray zone” cannot mean everything if it is to mean anything
Gray zone challenges are the wave of the future—and a blast from the past
Gray zone conflict reveals both the strengths and weaknesses of the international order
Gray zone strategies are weapons of the weak against the strong—and of the strong against the weak
Confronting gray zone challenges requires both embracing and dispelling ambiguity
Gray zone conflict is aggression, but military tools are only part of the response
America is not poorly equipped for the gray zone—but it may not be fully prepared
Gray zone challenges can be productive and counterproductive at the same time

First in the gray zone we are going to see a continued struggle between unconventional warfare and counter-unconventional warfare ( We are have seen, are seeing, and will continue to see nation-states and non-state actors exploiting the conditions of revolution, resistance and insurgency ( to achieve their strategic objectives. This causes some conflict between the vital interests of the US and our fundamental values. It is in our national interest to ensure a stable international system based on the concept of sovereignty. Until a new international system can be devised (which may theoretically require nation states to give up sovereignty which I do not see happening as long as the US remains in existence) the US must support the Westphalian nation state system. Yet our fundamental values rely on self determination of government by the people. This interest and value are seemingly incommensurable. When the sovereign nation state system is being challenged we have a national interest to protect it and this of course rests on the foundation of respect for and protection of sovereignty. When countries and non-state actors (e.g., Russia, Iran, China, Al Qaeda, and ISIL/ISIS/IS) are exploiting the conditions of revolution, resistance, and insurgency to destabilize the nation-state system we have an interest in countering them. This requires more than the application of Foreign Internal Defense (FID), interagency support for Internal Defense and Development (IDAD) Programs or Security Force Assistance (SFA) to help our friends partners, and allies to defend themselves against lawless, subversion, insurgency and terrorism. It requires a strategy to counter the strategies of those who are exploiting the conditions through execution of unconventional warfare with their own unique characteristics. Thus we need a strategy to counter the adversaries' unconventional warfare strategy. This is an important distinction because we overly focus on the conditions within the contested nation or region and we end up wanting to get involved by leading with expeditionary counterinsurgency and thus we become a de facto occupying force. Resistance and insurgency are the internal domestic problems of the government and its population and the US military and civilian agencies cannot fix the problems that give rise to the conditions of revolution resistance, and insurgency. We can advise and assist and provide support but we need to realize that our adversaries who are exploiting these conditions often have as an objective seeing the US sucked into a domestic conflict because they know the US will go "all in" and focus on the internal problems and try to fix them for the host nation while the real adversaries benefit from the conditions that are created. We fail to see the bigger picture and how our adversaries are exploiting internal conflicts for their interests. The solution to this is perhaps conducting an economy of force mission to help our friends, partners, and allies to defend themselves against resistance and to solve the problems that give rise to the resistance while focusing our main effort of strategy on countering those conducting unconventional warfare for their objectives. This is the essence of countering unconventional warfare (

Of course there are times when the conditions that give rise to revolution, resistance, and insurgency may need to be exploited by the US. Oppressive and illegitimate regimes conducting crimes against humanity or posing threats internally to their people and externally against other nation-states may also need to be countered in order to protect the international nation state system. This situation may warrant US support to revolution, resistance, and insurgency and this of course is a national decision and not one of SOF, the IC, State or DOD. Unconventional warfare may be a part of this national strategy but it may require more than the application of SOF. We may want to do this in way such as perhaps the French did to support the American Revolution. Of course many will say that is an anachronism and no longer applicable in the 21st century. But in fact while the conditions and situation are much different in the 21st Century the concept remains sound. One of the things that we should admire about the French is that not only did they provide some key advice and assistance, they provided important logistics support and their Navy was instrumental in the outcome of the Revolution. We might want to keep this concept in mind when we decide to support a revolution, resistance, or insurgency which leads me to support another point to emphasize.

The other aspect of Dr. Brands important essay is that unconventional warfare and counter unconventional warfare in the gray zone are not SOF exclusive or SOF dominated operations. It requires a national decision, and a nationally led effort that exploits the capabilities of SOF integrating conventional forces where appropriate, and employing all the required elements of national power in support of a strategy. We can look to the French for an example but we can also look to the Russians in Crimea and Ukraine and how they are employing their full range of military and civilian capabilities in a holistic manner to exploit revolution, resistance, and insurgency for their strategic objectives. The Iranians are conducting similar operations and the Chinese do in their own way. I am not at all advocating that we copy any of these adversaries but we can study and understand what they are doing and we know that effect joint military operations and effective integration of multiple integration of elements of national power are superior to the piecemeal application that is often focused on the wrong the problem -(note the importance here of concept of design - and Frank Hoffman's proposed principle of war - Understanding).

And I fully concur that America is well equipped for the gray zone but is not well prepared. The foundation of being prepared is the ability to "do" strategy in the gray zone. We have tactics, techniques, and procedures, we have the units and organizations, we have the ability to campaign in the gray zone and we have the instruments of national power. The question is whether we are prepared to orchestrate all these tools, organizations, and elements as part of a holistic strategy with balance and coherency among ends, ways, and means. And a fundamental question is who (a singular person and a specific organization) is responsible for developing and executing the strategy to address the conditions that exist in the gray zone. I would submit that it is not SOF and it is not in DOD. There has to be a national level organization that must be responsible. The question is do we have national security structure capable of operating in the gray zone?