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.