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War or peace? Understanding the grey zone

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John Raine


Much has been made of hybrid or ‘grey zone’ conflict between states in recent years. However, as John Raine argues, the ever widening list of actions viewed as belligerent only increases the likelihood of escalation.

The long and costly clean up after the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and the international debate on Huawei as an instrument of Chinese state power are reminders of the multifarious forms of state activity in the area between war and peace.

Similarly, President Trump’s reported obsession with intelligence briefings that relate to Germany and China’s commercial positioning rather than counter-terrorism matters, and President Macron’s recent broad definition of what constitutes a threat to Europe, are examples of how this area is being increasingly characterised as a domain of war rather than peace. It is the ‘grey zone’ where hybrid or asymmetric warfare is conducted.

But if this domain does constitute a battlespace, it starting to look very congested, with a steadily growing number of players, capabilities and agendas. Organised crime should be considered as part of this domain, as well as state-backed troll farms, terrorists, political activists and IP thieves.

Policymakers shaping national security strategies attempt to apply as elastic a definition of the threat as possible, while ensuring that such strategies still meet conventional, standing defence obligations too. But given the incremental growth of designated threats, this is not sustainable. What principles might help them in navigating the grey zone?

Discipline in definition

The impulse to designate this domain as a place of conflict rather than competition is strong. After all, conflict is more likely to command attention and resources than peace. Yet much, but not all, of what we see being conducted in this space could be characterised as features of the difficult, new peace as much as the new warfare.

The range of means being used to project state power is wide and the tempo fierce, but that does not mean that a state of war exists. The contestation we are seeing through unregulated means, in particular in the field of information and subversion, might for all its bumpiness be what the new peace rather than the new war looks like.

The so-called ‘battlespace’ needs decluttering by designating with rigour what activities by foreign states are ‘warlike’, in that they are tantamount to the use of force, and which ones amount to unregulated (and possibly unlawful) competition.

Understanding the difference will help to determine appropriate responses. It will also encourage a more careful use of martial language and a better understanding of the inherent risks of choosing to adopt it.

Broadening the range of activities that are classified as belligerent effectively lowers the threshold for escalation. Governments can’t not respond if they talk of their jurisdiction being attacked. But if they use the language of peacetime, even if the peace is a dirty one, the threshold will be higher. It leaves room for competition, engagement and arbitration. It may ultimately, and importantly, allow for the evolution of rules.

Calibration of response

Sufficient political capacity and appetite needs to be conserved for responding to egregious threats, rather than allowing it to be dissipated in adversarial responses to all perceived activities in the grey zone, many of which constitute a crude form of competition.

There is a conceptual difficulty here, especially for Western powers, whose tolerance for what constitutes competition may have changed in tandem with the shifting balance of global power. Many grey zone activities are functions of a rewired and restructured global economy.

To take three of the most potent weapons – information, credit and capital – these used to be monopolised by the same powers that possessed superior firepower and moral authority, namely the US and its allies. That is no longer the case. The weapons, the power and the narratives are more disparately distributed.

China is using its capital and extending its credit on a scale previously unimaginable, and the strategy is paying dividends. Russia has become the most subversive player in cyber space, while China is helping itself to Western IP. It is no surprise that in this new ranking competition is tough and unsettling for those who used to dominate, and it feels sufficiently hostile to be a war.

States will continue to conduct hostile actions against or in foreign jurisdictions by clandestine or deniable means. These actions can be breathtakingly aggressive and occasionally heinous. This small category of activities can constitute a war-like act. Salisbury was close. Sustained cyber pillaging or disabling of national infrastructure might qualify. But the category is best dealt with through existing conventions, robustly applied by law-enforcement agencies and legally governed by intelligence and security counter measures.

Promotion of regulation

Activities in the grey zone are subject to very little, if any, regulation. It is fanciful to imagine a regulatory agreement between states on intelligence or information operations other than in the most exceptional circumstances. But it is possible to imagine at least hot-line exchanges over the most egregious examples of grey zone activity and, incrementally, a setting of boundaries. Historically, this is how regulation to manage new weapons systems has evolved.

More importantly perhaps, it is now possible to imagine the development of a relationship between states and tech and media companies around the ways in which their services are used for propaganda or subversive purposes. There is a delicate balance to be struck between their liberties and new responsibilities, which come as a consequence of being distinctive and powerful actors in the grey zone. There is much to build on given the progress that has made in counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation.

The strategic goal should be to extend existing conventions and regulations into the activities and means observed in the grey zone. That will require sustained, multilateral effort, and the gains will be incremental. But it will result in the promotion of the rule of law and an inclusion of the grey zone in the realm of peaceful relations between states.

The danger is to accept that the grey zone is by definition a place where rules do not apply and that it is growing. This encourages bad behaviour on all sides and raises the risk of miscalculation and escalation. Pacifying the grey zone could prove to be the generational challenge for those states committed to updating and preserving the rule of law. 

Credits| IISS


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