Reclaiming Strategic Initiative in the Not-So-Gray Zone: Winning Big Conflicts Inside Small Ones
Spencer B. Meredith III
The Gray Zone is becoming less gray. Not because US adversaries are adhering more to the laws of war, quite the opposite in fact. Nor are they becoming less hostile or less prone to provocative actions under the threat of overt violence. Instead, the Gray Zone is becoming less opaque, less undefined because emerging analytical frameworks are finding their footing in the Department of Defense. The enterprise that is tasked with countering Gray Zone threats from states and non-state actors alike is building a solid knowledge base that taps into a wealth of scholarly research and practitioner experience. The results have been a growing body of realistic assessments of the problems facing the United States and its allies. These then lay the foundation for feasible policy recommendations to address emerging threats, whether from Russian Hybrid Warfare, Chinese Unrestricted Warfare, Iranian influence operations in Latin America, or the likely emergence of ISIS 2.0 after the current iteration fades to the background. At the center of those efforts are two types of initiatives. Both highlight the effectiveness of the Department of Defense’s growing analytical clarity on the Gray Zone, and help the United States reclaim the strategic initiative from rivals across the spectrum of international conflicts.
The first example occurred during a recent US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) Senior Leader Seminar looking at competition short of armed conflict. Framed as a wargame, this seminar simulated several scenarios where traditional power politics and violent extremism collided. Participants were asked to dig deeply into the underlying causes of threats, and how perceptions shape everything from core interests to immediate grievances. Yet the event did much more than explain why stability is so elusive, and peace even more so. It also raised several key areas where the United States and its partner nations can mutually support each other.
One centrally important area is in building responsive governance. The notion rests on several claims, foremost that nations and the governments that govern them need not homogenize their interests, to say nothing of values, in order to cooperate. This pragmatism stands in contrast to nearly three decades of idealistic foreign policy that claimed the universality of certain collective goods, but which really defined them along a US-centric vision of what they needed to look like, even when the substance was foreign to the nations being “helped”. This idealistic vision took many forms, from economic liberalization that forced developing markets open through IMF austerity measures; to military imposition of democracy in places that had neither centralized governance capacity, nor the social consensus to build it; to more recent social reengineering to fit a narrow vision of Western pluralism. All have run headlong into local values, competing national interests, and ultimately, contending visions of what the global order should look like and what leadership among peer and near-peer rivals can realistically be.
Responsive governance also requires that states establish and defend parameters for public debate. Yet like pragmatism, this does not have to mean democracy in any particular form. NATO partner nations have a range of electoral systems that speak to a variety of cultural, historical, and normative differences about who should govern, how, and under what constraints. By relying on the core concept of responsivity, rather than the vastly over-used “democracy”, the analytical frameworks expressed in the USSOCOM event have traction within solid scholarly research, and equally important, with buy-in from partner nations on whom the United States will continue to rely and give support.
In conjunction with the USSOCOM Seminar, a longer-term initiative has yielded similar successes, but with a broader timeframe and set of issues. Overseen by the Department of Defense’s Joint Staff “Strategic Multilayer Assessment” (SMA) program, several engagements with academic and USG personnel have taken up the “4+1 problem set” (Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and violent extremist non-state actors). One particular example is worthy of note, not because it stands above the others, but rather that its high standard of excellence exemplifies the overall SMA efforts.
Administered for the Joint Staff SMA program, the University of Maryland runs a series of simulations designed to provide short, sharp scenarios that evolve over multiple iterations. Harnessing real-world events and massaging them into realistic near-term future situations, the ICONS project (International Communication & Negotiation Simulations) brings together subject matter experts to play various roles in real-time, web-based engagements. Several lessons emerge from the simulations. The most important are the complexity of the problems each party faces, and the battle for strategic initiative as more ebb and flow than a sole power defending against all comers. These perspectives provide vital reminders for both academia and practitioners with our respective checklists for analyzing the “facts on the ground”. In addition, the potency for non-state spoilers remains incredibly high, higher than a cursory glance of the configuration of forces would otherwise reveal. Much like small parties in coalition political systems that can swing the balance of power either way, non-state proxies can serve as force multipliers for larger states, as much as independent agents seeking their own highest good at the expense of others. The ICONS simulations highlight these challenges, while providing avenues for practical courses of action for the United States and its partners of concern.
Therefore, as noteworthy exemplars of the de-graying of the Gray Zone, both the USSOCOM Senior Leader Seminar and the Joint Staff Strategic Multilayer Assessments show that the goal of reclaiming the strategic initiative must rely on more than the oft-cited “whole of government” and “more interagency cooperation” responses. Both also produce innovative approaches for integrating existing, tried and tested scholarship with hard-won practical wisdom. At their core, the emerging modular analytical frameworks are both grounded and adaptable, while offering more than simply filled out “elements of national power” tables and charts. Doing so allows for discussions with diverse political interests around common goals, like identifying ways to inoculate vulnerable populations from hostile external influence operations, one of the biggest challenges of the Gray Zone.
This growing analytical clarity allows us to understand why the Gray Zone is not solely populated by either rival states or violent non-state groups. As such, the United States and its international partners require more than a return to 19th century realpolitik or Wilsonian-esque liberal utopianism with a GWOT military face. Instead, they must be able to identify commonalities across contexts by first accepting the differences within our own alliances. Doing so will also ensure that the uniqueness of each challenge does not get lost in a rush to resolve it. Only then can feasible policy recommendations arise to reclaim the strategic initiative and put our common adversaries back on shaky ground.
About the Author(s)
Now to ask a most critical question:
If the U.S./the West has been forced -- significantly by our state and non-state actor opponents -- to abandon our revolutionary raison d'etre; which is: to transform outlying states and societies more along modern western lines --
(This, much as the Soviets/the communists were forced -- significantly by their state and non-state actor opponents -- to abandon their revolutionary reason to exist -- which was: to transform outlying states and societies more along communist political, economic, social and value lines.)
Then can we say that our article above (which seems to suggest that we must abandon our raison d'etre in order to restore stability to the world); that this such article, and its such thinking, suggests a clear and compelling defeat of the U.S./the West in the post-Cold War period?
(This, much as the end of Soviet/communist efforts -- to transform and incorporate the Rest of the World -- acknowledged a clear and compelling defeat of the Soviets/the communist in Old Cold War days?)
If my portrayal of the situation above is correct, then how can we say that:
a. By abandoning -- for the sake of "stability" -- our "raison d'etre" (our goal of transforming outlying states and societies more along modern western lines),
b. That we have or will (from the title of our article above) "Win the Big Conflict????"
(As to the common revolutionary expansionist/universalist raison d'etre of the U.S./the West, and the Soviets/the communists, consider the following from Hans Morgenthau:
"The United States and the Soviet Union face each other not only as two great powers which in the traditional ways compete for advantage. They also face each other as the fountainheads of two hostile and incompatible ideologies, systems of government and ways of life, each trying to expand the reach of its respective political values and institutions and to prevent the expansion of the other. Thus 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. 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.")
(This is from Morgenthau's "To Intervene or Not to Intervene.")
Bottom Line Question:
Thus with the election of President Trump, and the associated move to seek stability over transformation, can we say that the U.S./the West (much like the Soviets/the communists before us) has (a) abandoned its raison d'etre and, thus, (b) now lost its portion of the "Big Conflict" -- known as the Old Cold War -- also?
(When one places "stability" over "transformation" -- to wit: over one's revolutionary "expansionist"/ "universalist" raison d'etre and "DNA" -- then is not "defeat," indeed, the conclusion that must be reached?)
From the second to last paragraph above:
"Doing so allows for discussions with diverse political interests around common goals, like identifying ways to inoculate vulnerable populations from hostile external influence operations, one of the biggest challenges of the Gray Zone."
So let me be clear -- and hopefully consistent with my thoughts provided below --
In consideration of the U.S./the West post-Cold War strategic initiative, which has been to (a) gain greater power, influence and control throughout the world by (b) transforming outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines, I consider as "the most vulnerable populations" -- to wit: those populations who are most susceptible to the "hostile internal and/or external influence operations" of our opponents -- I consider as these such most vulnerable populations the conservative elements of various states, societies and regions.
(Thus to note that I DO NOT consider as "the most vulnerable populations" -- much as those pushing for such things as "sustainable development" obviously do -- the poor, the jobless, the less-educated, etc.)
So: Why do I select this alternative group, to wit: the conservative elements of the world's population (the real or potential traditional way of life, traditional way of governance, traditional values, etc. "patriots"/"defenders") as the most vulnerable groups?
a. Given the U.S./the West's decades-old goal of attempting to (a) gain greater power, influence and control throughout the world by (b) transforming outlying states and societies more along our, often alien and profane, political, economic, social and value lines,
b. These "conservative groups," these "guardians"/"champions," quite obviously, are the individuals and groups that are most susceptible to hostile influence operations of our state and non-state actor opponents (ex: Russia, China, Iran, the Islamists); ALL OF WHOM, we should note, have come to describe themselves in somewhat similar "guardian"/"champion" of traditional ways of life, traditional ways of governance and traditional values, etc., terms.
Much as we were able to seize the strategic initiative from the Soviets/the communists in the Old Cold War of yesterday -- by rallying our own populations and those of the Rest of the World to the common way of life, common way of governance and common values, etc., threat that Soviet/communist expansionist/ universalist efforts posed to us all (such things as "containment" and "roll back" being achieved significantly in this way?) --
Likewise post-the Old Cold War have the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians and the Islamist -- and re: our similar expansionist/universalist initiatives today -- been able to (a) do the very same thing to us now, (b) for the very same reason and (c) in the very same way.
Thus, if we seek to reverse this trend -- to re-claim the strategic initiative -- then we cannot be so confused as to not recognize (a) who "the most vulnerable populations" actually are (to wit: the more-conservative elements of the various populations) and (b) why (because our efforts to "transform" their states and societies -- more along our alien and profane political, economic, social and value lines -- this clearly threatens their, cherished and time-honored, way of life, way of governance and values, attitudes and beliefs).
Look hard at this, the third paragraph of our article above:
"One centrally important area is in building responsive governance. The notion rests on several claims, foremost that nations and the governments that govern them need not homogenize their interests, to say nothing of values, in order to cooperate. This pragmatism stands in contrast to nearly three decades of idealistic foreign policy that claimed the universality of certain collective goods, but which really defined them along a US-centric vision of what they needed to look like, even when the substance was foreign to the nations being “helped”. This idealistic vision took many forms, from economic liberalization that forced developing markets open through IMF austerity measures; to military imposition of democracy in places that had neither centralized governance capacity, nor the social consensus to build it; to more recent social re-engineering to fit a narrow vision of Western pluralism. All have run headlong into local values, competing national interests, and ultimately, contending visions of what the global order should look like and what leadership among peer and near-peer rivals can realistically be."
This paragraph appears to both admit, and indeed to confirm, that the U.S./the West believes that its problems today stem from our decades-long effort to transform outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines. Herein, the U.S./the West believing earlier, due to such things as "universal western values" thinking, that such things as "stability" would not need to be sacrificed so as to achieve these such favorable "transformational" goals." In this, of course, and as we all know now, we were terribly and amazingly wrong.
Thus we see the current recommendations, being made in our article here, suggesting that we should abandon our effort to transform outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines and focus, instead, on demanding now only something which is being called "responsive governance."
But, having been "burned" once, let us ask ourselves: From the perspective of the U.S./the West, what is the actual "master" that we want "responsive governance" to serve?
At first blush, one might think -- based on our "lessons learned" noted in the quoted paragraph above -- that this "master" would be, for example, the many and diverse, often dangerously conflicting, individual wants, needs and desires of the various and sundry populations groups, and states and societies, of the world.
But is this actually the case?
So what I did was look up the term "responsive governance" -- and what I appear to have found is that:
a. "Responsive governance" -- as currently defined -- does not appear to be designed to serve the individual and diverse, often conflicting, wants, needs and desires of the various and sundry states, societies and population groups of the world.
b. Rather, "responsive governance" -- as defined today -- appears to be designed to service and serve the wants, needs and desires of what appears to be a western-centric idea of what is being called "sustainable development" (to wit: sustainable efforts to transform outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines).
So should we believe, based on the recommendations of our article above, that both the definition and understanding of "responsive governance" -- and the definition and understanding of "sustainable development" -- these will both be changed so as to provide for the individual, diverse, and often conflicting wants, needs and desires of the various states, societies and population groups of the world? (In this manner, "stability" to be achieved/to be reestablished?)
Or, in the alternative, do we believe that the terms "responsive governance" and "sustainable development" will continue to be defined and understood more as per the U.S./the West's goal of achieving "stability" via the advancement, throughout the non-western/less-western world, of our way of life, our way of governance and our values, attitudes and beliefs?
a. From the second to last paragraph of our article above: "Doing so allows for discussions with diverse political interests around common goals, like identifying ways to inoculate vulnerable populations from hostile external influence operations, one of the biggest challenges of the Gray Zone."
b. From the concluding paragraph of our article above: "This growing analytical clarity allows us to understand why the Gray Zone is not solely populated by either rival states or violent non-state groups."
Re: "a" immediately above: Let us understand that the populations of various states and societies are vulnerable -- to hostile external influence operations today -- specifically because of the U.S./the West's long-running strategic objective, which is (as this article seems to point to directly) to transform outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines.
Re: "b" immediately above: Let us likewise understand that it is specifically because of our such long-running strategic objective that our enemies, quite logically, include BOTH rival states and violent non-state groups. (As to the latter, when populations believe that their governments are not able to protect their individual and unique ways of life, ways of governance, values, attitudes and beliefs, etc. -- or if these populations believe that their governments are in league with the U.S./the West to overthrow and replace same -- then it is quite understandable that these populations might take "resistance to unwanted transformation" matters into their own hands.)
Thus, the U.S./the West today, much like the Soviets/the communists yesterday, face problems common to great nations with expansionist/universalists designs.
Thus, it would appear that the corrective action -- now being recommended here in this article today re: these such problems -- is to adopt a less-direct, a less-in-your-face and/or a less-urgent approach to these such transformative requirements?
Given, however, the U.S./the West's, shall we say, (a) transformative "DNA" -- and (b) our corresponding record of transformative efforts over so many decades -- will this attempted "masking" of our true intentions, under the guise of, shall we say, "stability;" will this such "change effort" be believed by our state and/or non-state actor opponents? (And by the vulnerable populations?)
Indeed, even if our such "step back" intentions are true, is it in our state and non-state actor opponents' interest to admit and/or to confirm same? This, given that these such opponents have been, and indeed continue to be, making so much progress by claiming that they are the champions/the guardians of such things as traditional ways of life, traditional ways of governance and traditional values, attitudes and beliefs? (Much as the U.S./the West did in the Old Cold War and re: Soviet/communist expansionist/ universalist designs back then?)
Thus, re: our changed strategic approach suggested in this article above -- a changed strategic approach which specifically admits to and seeks to correct the problems common to great nations which pursue expansionist/universalist strategic designs -- to suggest that our state and non-state actor opponents will make every effort to show, and indeed to prove, that the apparently less-aggressive, less-demanding and now more-accommodating U.S./the West really is:
a. STILL an expansionist/universalist "wolf;" one who is now attempting to "get close" by
b. Appearing in, less apparent, "stability" sheep's clothing?
(Just look at how far we have fallen from the heady "soft power" days of "universal western values," "the overwhelming appeal of our way of life" and "the end of history." Thus, note now -- in the article above -- how we consider, for example, [a] our values, etc., as, in fact, [b] liabilities?)