Grey Zones

If we want to preserve the rules-based system, we must resist the grey zone divide-and-conquer tactics. We must work to form coalitions of people who may agree on nothing other than the fact that they still want to live under the rule of law.


I was going to write a post about how excessive restrictions on immigration are bad for the U.S. in terms of economics, foreign policy, moral leadership, and national/international security. However, plenty of other people beat me to it, and you can find economic cases here , here , and here ; Senators McCain and Graham here ; a bipartisan group of national security professionals here ; a bunch of Nobel Prize winners and other academics here ; more experts here  and here ; the intelligence repercussions here , and countless others .

So, instead of that, I want to talk about one way I think we can understand the approach this administration appears to be taking, and what that means for how to respond to it. I’m going to argue that what this administration is doing looks an awful lot like what security people are now calling “grey zone conflict”. That matters for two reasons: first, it gives us a preview of some possible effects of this approach. Second, it gives us some idea of how to respond … and how not to respond.

“Grey zone conflict” is a term coined fairly recently to describe the behavior of Russia in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, and China in the South China Seas. It is an approach used by revisionists against the status quo, but specifically by revisionists who appear to be rising in power and/or “near-peer competitors” to the status quo power. It is an approach that can be used to achieve both short and long term goals, and it is particularly attractive to state actors who already own the presumption of legitimacy (as opposed to, e.g., insurgency, which is done by non-state actors who want to attack the status quo and create legitimacy for themselves). Grey zone conflict is generally defined by NOT meeting the generally accepted standards of armed conflict or terrorism. It frequently involves cyber attacks, information warfare, faits accomplis, and disruptions (sometimes violent) caused allegedly by private citizens (e.g., Russia’s “little green men” in Ukraine). Mike Mazarr describes it like this: “The central strategic concept of gray zone strategies is to confront their targets with a conundrum. Any one specific act in the chain will have limited stakes, but responding to it has the potential to escalate and create a crisis … Gradual gray zone tactics are thus designed to place their intended targets in a no-win position” (Mazarr, “Mastering the Gray Zone”). This is what Schelling called “salami slicing”: each individual action is insufficient to cause/justify a backlash, and as they come in piecemeal, there never seems to be a clear point at which the line has been crossed, but at some point, the line has clearly been left far behind, and the status quo actor is at a massive disadvantage.

What the new administration is doing looks a lot like grey zone conflict. If one recognizes the feeling among many conservatives that they have been on the losing end of the culture wars since at least the 1990s, but that now they have a chance for a counteroffensive; if one considers the populist forces mobilized by Trump as a sort of revisionist power against the increasingly progressive order within the US; if one considers the upset or avoidance of all the usual “rules” of politics as parallel to avoiding the usual “rules” of international conflict; if one notes that the chief executive is in a better position to produce faits accomplis than anyone else; if one recognizes the salami slicing and the standard techniques of information warfare in the twisting of language and narrative … then that is what this looks like. Others have insightfully pointed out that this kind of behavior helps the Trump inner circle identify who is with them and who is against them, but the crucial part of that insight is that it does so without provoking sufficiently effective backlash, and that is the heart of grey zone conflict.

There has, of course, been backlash, but note how it gets sapped of potential: e.g., immediately most people on the left began calling the immigration EO a “Muslim ban” – and they justified this by saying that although it’s not *technically* a ban on Muslims as such, it should be called out as one, because Trump himself had said he planned one, and Rudy Giuliani claimed that that was what Trump asked him to help do, “legally”, and the order clearly disproportionately affected Muslim people. But what was the reaction to this from the middle and the center-right? From the many people who would normally be pro-legal immigration and pro-getting intelligence from refugee applicants and pro-undermining ISIS by showing the world how many Muslims can’t stand them and want nothing to do with them? Their response was defensive. “Hey, it’s not a Muslim ban. That’s not accurate. Look at the left overreacting again. Maybe this IS just a reasonable, temporary measure …”

You see what the administration did? They pushed up against the boundary of the broadly unacceptable, but without going over it in a way that everyone agreed on. This not only does all the things other people have pointed out – identifies potential opponents, helps to normalize the behavior, adds to resistance fatigue – but it is also the classic way to drive a wedge between people who might otherwise join forces against something.

This, in my view, is the key characteristic of grey zone conflict, and also a clue to how to respond. The “conundrum” pointed out by Mazarr is not just designed to confuse the targets and make it hard to decide when to fight back, it is designed to sow disagreement among those who might want to fight back, by providing just enough ground for an alternative narrative that those who fear the costs of resistance can decline to join the more passionate resisters. The revisionist avoids effective opposition, not just because his actions are unclear and their legality/illegality is hard to pin down (frequently resulting in faits accomplis), but also because those who might fight back will be divided over whether the actor has actually crossed the generally accepted line or not.

The best example of this is Russia’s tightwire act in Ukraine and the Baltics, where it stayed just far enough below the threshold to avoid forcing NATO into a united response. Instead, NATO states that really did not want to get involved were able to argue that nothing really threatening or really justifying an Article V (in Estonia in 2007, for example) was happening, and that they should not overreact. The result was an essentially uncontested territorial grab and (probably more gratifying to Russia) a weakened NATO.

Regardless of the specific goals of the administration, one inevitable effect of this approach is to undermine the rules-based system. One cannot use such tools as misleading narrative, constant questionably-lawful behavior followed by justification, and “work to rule” delaying tactics (“I just want to review the policies to make sure they are the best possible policies!”) without breaking down the general consensus on what is lawful or right, and what is not. Unfortunately, rule of law works only when everyone believes in and – at least to some extent – self-enforces the law. If obedience to the system comes primarily through fear of enforcement rather than belief in legitimacy, it is hardly a rule of law system. Thus, once consensus among the people has broken down, and there is no longer agreement on what is lawful, what is legitimate, or what is true, then there is no longer a rule of law system. This opens the way for an authoritarian leader of the type who could never achieve legitimacy through coup or conquest.

If the chief executive/enforcer in a system chooses to ignore or undermine the law, then the legislature making more laws will not help, nor will a judiciary ruling that his behavior is unlawful.

So how does this discussion help? Primarily in that it tells us that, if we want to preserve the rules-based system, we must resist the grey zone divide-and-conquer tactics. We must work to form coalitions of people who may agree on nothing other than the fact that they still want to live under the rule of law. This means that people must at all costs avoid demonizing, mocking, or dismissing those potential coalition partners who disagree with them. We must try to listen, to understand, to accept that some disagreement is really allowed among decent people. It also means recognizing that imprecise language, even when it is probably pointing out a truth, will play into the hands of the salami slicers. Language should neither preach to the choir, nor scream derision into the face of the revisionist; language should aim to build coalitions.

WE should aim to build coalitions.

Author: pslcohn

PhD, Political Science (IR/Theory), Duke 2007. Research concentrations in civil-military relations, political economy, international law, asymmetric conflict, and foreign policy. All views posted here are my own and do not represent the views of the U.S. Naval War College, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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