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A "gray zone" of conflict that is "neither fully war nor fully peace" has become ubiquitous in American strategic thinking.  Believers place this zone somewhere between war and peace, but their failure to define war leaves a zone with no boundaries and no definition. Their gray zone starts to look like Ambrose Bierce's definition of hash: "There is no definition for this word—nobody knows what hash is."

Skeptics of the gray zone, in contrast, define war, thereby separating peace from war and leaving no space between the two. War shows many degrees on one side of the dividing line, and peace shows many on the other, gradations that allow for what is sometimes called a dialectic.

Gray Zone Defenders and Doubters

After the fall of the Soviet Union, contends Michael Mazarr in Mastering the Gray Zone (2015), that zone became "the strategy of the weak" for Russia, China, Iran, and others who resort to a kaleidoscopic assortment of actions: "economic coercion, fifth column activities, clandestine disruption and sabotage, and information operations or propaganda." Mazarr shies away from a definition of war: "Exactly what constitutes being 'at war' becomes something in the eye of the beholder." But with no defined borders, the gray zone becomes "incoherent," just a new label for "sneaky activities," in the view of skeptic Adam Elkus. And partial skeptic Theodore Jensen in 2019 calls the gray zone just "a placeholder for something…not yet…defined…or…not fully understood"; if understood, it would no longer be called a gray zone.

Aggressors in Mazarr's gray zone operate "below the threshold of major war," an idea that "is hardly new," long predating the gray zone by "thousands of years." To the gray zone, David Kilcullen's The Dragons and the Snakes (2020) adds "liminal warfare," a new term he coins for recent Russian actions just short of the "threshold" that would "trigger a military reaction." But moves beneath that threshold have been intrinsic to the gray zone all along.

When skeptic Elkus criticizes the gray zone as incoherent and nothing new, Mazarr allows that he is "right…but only to a degree" and makes a modest claim: If a new spin on old ideas "helps decision-makers to understand current patterns of behavior, I frankly don't see the problem." Mazarr stands by his gray zone, an "ambiguous no man's land" where schemes hatched in Moscow, Beijing, or Tehran "blur the dividing line between peace and war, and between civilian and military endeavors."

Blurring that line is the gray zone's biggest problem for skeptics Donald Stoker and Craig Whiteside. In "Blurred Lines: Gray Zone Conflict and Hybrid War" (2020), they urge us to "differentiate between war and peace, and properly identify the arenas of power within which we are operating." They find differentiation in Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz's definition of war as "an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will"—an act of violence to achieve a political objective. Conversely, for Thomas Hobbes, peace is the absence of war. Clausewitz's definition of war forms a bright line dividing peace from war. A line in geometry has but one dimension—length—with no thickness, leaving no room within that line for a gray zone. There is no space between peace and war.

For context, Stoker and Whiteside urge us to "return to the core principles of strategic analysis." At the highest level, grand strategy encompasses diplomatic, informational, military, and economic (DIME) means. Below it lies strategy, the military element of grand strategy. Peacetime competition "among all states, friendly or not, is a norm—and to be preferred" over war, they note. However fierce, peacetime competition becomes war only when one side turns to violence. War can include the subversion that starts in peace, but peace can never include the violence that defines war. Blurring the line between peace and war runs the risk of costly miscalculation and overreaction, triggering a warlike response to an act that was not war.  

Recent Russian and Chinese actions fall within no gray zone because they either are or are not acts of war, argue Stoker and Whiteside. China's construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea's disputed waters is against international law but not an act of war. On the other hand, Russia's infusion of disguised ground troops into Ukraine is war. Neither Russia nor China is now at war with the United States, despite their hacking, theft of intellectual property, or interference in political campaigns. If cyberspace opens up new arenas of competition, it makes no change in the core meaning of war. As of 2017, Thomas Rid found "no known acts of cyber 'war,' when war is properly defined" according to Clausewitz. For Rid, cyberattacks are only "sophisticated versions of three activities…as old as human conflict itself: sabotage, espionage, and subversion."

Nadia Schadlow comes to the defense of the gray zone in two articles, one in 2014 arguing that between peace and war lies a realm of conflict all its own, without calling it a gray zone; and another in 2020 calling it a gray zone. She sees between peace and war as "a landscape churning with political, economic, and security competitions that require constant attention." Like Mazarr, she avoids a definition of war: "The gray zone might sit uncomfortably between war and peace, but that is due to our narrowly defined constructs of war and peace." 

In Schadlow's view, a "binary lens" of peace and war leaves American policymakers blind to the space between, where political and economic competition can catch them off-guard until too late: "American foreign policy risks being reduced to a reactive and tactical emphasis on the military instrument by default." For Schadlow, then, the gray zone offers a useful concept, and turning a blind eye to it makes war more likely; for Stoker and Whiteside, however, it offers only confusion and treating it as valid makes war more likely.

Stoker and Whiteside are hardly blind to peacetime competition—again, in their words, the form "to be preferred." They place political and diplomatic competition not in some gray zone but in the realm of grand strategy, where they and many other strategists start the discussion. Grand strategy, for Peter Layton, "is useful across peace and war." Antulio Echevarria explains that "military strategy differs in scope from…grand strategy. Grand strategy deals not only with military power but also with economic power and diplomacy, as well as other tools of statecraft." Like Rid, Stoker and Whiteside see peacetime competition filled with subversion, espionage, and sabotage, all part of grand strategy.

Peace and War, Dialectic and Degrees

The relation between war and peace "is not binary; it is dialectical," for Stoker and Whiteside. "War and peace are best defined in opposition to one another, as one is the antithesis of the other." Their view is binary in the sense that you either are or are not at war, but the relation can at the same time be dialectical, an elastic term often used to describe Clausewitz's method. While Stoker and Whiteside offer no elaboration on the term, Hew Strachan and others do. In contrast to the thesis-antithesis-synthesis of Georg Hegel, explains Peter Paret, "the dialectic of thesis and antithesis in Clausewitz's theoretical writings does not insist on resolution; its intent is to clarify differences." Clausewitz's dialectic teases out differences, interactions, and gradations between poles or pairings: theory/reality; absolute war/real war; war/politics; action/inaction, attack/defense, and others.

Clausewitz devotes scant space to a pairing between peace and war, probably because his focus is on war, not the "indolent inertia of peace," a state that "does not often reign in Europe." He tells us that war's ultimate "object must be a favorable peace," but tells little of peace itself. If Clausewitz develops little dialectic between peace and war, Stoker and Whiteside offer no more. 

We can venture more using Clausewitz's framework. His most pointed pairing of peace and war appears in his unfinished classic, On War, written in the wake of the Napoleonic wars. Before Bonaparte, Clausewitz explains, European wars were "tame and half-hearted…nothing more than armed neutrality….in which the hostile spirit of true war is held in check." Clausewitz considers the "old way…an anomaly since, in essence, war and peace admit of no gradations."

That war and peace admit of no gradation—or dialectic──applies only to war "in essence," what Clausewitz calls absolute war as opposed to real war.  In Azar Gat's reading, Clausewitz equates war in essence with absolute war, his realm of "pure theory" where escalating interactions force foes to extremes of violence, unconstrained by practical limits. Clausewitz's absolute war "would not apply to reality," where politics, inertia, friction, finite resources, and the "timidity of man" constrain hostilities, leaving us with real war, "something incoherent and incomplete." Clausewitz at times suggests that only "in recent times did the extreme danger emanating from Bonaparte" make incarnate the abstraction of absolute war: We "have seen warfare achieve that state of absolute perfection…. Bonaparte brought it swiftly and ruthlessly to that point." Yet in almost the same breath, Clausewitz, a Prussian officer decorated "For Bravery" against French infantry squares at Borodino, declares that "absolute war has never in fact been achieved." Though Napoleon came close, absolute war remains out of reach, a "general point of reference" for the strategist, a benchmark for comparing real war.

The dialectic for peace and war differs from absolute war and real war. A bright line, the definition of war, divides peace from war. For absolute war, the dialectic runs only on the peace side of that line, with degrees ranging from Edenic harmony to ruthless subversion just short of war. On the war side, Clausewitz's absolute war admits of no gradations because it is a convulsive and complete discharge of violence, the logical extreme of each enemy's need to eclipse the violence of the other. "All places are distant from heaven alike," observes Robert Burton, and so too are all distant alike from Clausewitz's abstract hell of absolute war, beyond the reach of dialectic, degrees, or even reality.

The peace side of the line shows the same gradations, whether we are pairing peace with real war or absolute.  But if absolute war admits of no gradations, real war, Clausewitz tells us, "can be a matter of degree." On the war side of the line, real war ranges from a brief and half-hearted "flaring-up" to a Napoleonic conflagration. While absolute war presents gradations only on the peace side of the line, real war presents gradations of war on one side and of peace on the other. Whether real or absolute, war stands separated from peace by a line that remains bright, leaving no room for a gray zone between peace and war.


Patrick Brady's articles and reviews have appeared in The Journal of Southern History, The Journal of Military History, Civil War History, The V V A Veteran, RealClearDefense, NW Lawyer, and other publications. A retired attorney, he taught United States History at the University of California, Riverside, and served as an Army Civil Affairs officer in Vietnam.



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