Countering Competition in the Space between War and Peace
Report of the 2018 Global Security Forum Experts Workshop
Over the past 27 years, the United States has often planned and operated as though competition has ended and that there would be an inexorable pull toward U.S.-led institutions and world views. The growing reemergence of state-based competition, even when it falls short of military conflict, signals that the optimism of U.S. policy has outpaced the reality of other countries’ own ambitions to create their own realities.
Events over the past decade have led to a growing realization by many in Washington that several states have been investing in the tools and concepts necessary to gain advantage—economically, politically, and geographically—in ways that do not involve the military. Some of the most well-known examples are Russian efforts to sow discord in national elections throughout NATO member countries and China’s building of military outposts in international waters in the South China Sea. Many other examples exist of states competing while avoiding the risk of war. It has taken Washington some time to realize that these activities are deliberate efforts to advance a country’s interest and are often at the expense of the United States or a U.S. ally.
Earlier this fall, CSIS convened a day-long workshop to examine the range of challenges the United States faces in this re-emerging area of state competition. The workshop brought together more than 70 national security experts from a range of disciplines and from across the political spectrum. Over the course of the day, participants engaged in a robust—and respectful—discussion about the challenges and opportunities facing the United States in an increasingly competitive world. The discussions led to proposed initiatives the United States could undertake to better advance U.S. interests over the coming decade.
The workshop continued CSIS’s long history of bridging the political landscape in Washington and looking at the substance of problems to find solutions that can contribute to a stronger, more secure United States. Seemingly now, more than any time in recent memory, Washington needs more of these efforts to focus on developing real solutions to real problems, with shared purpose overriding partisanship.
John J. Hamre
Definitions and Assumptions
Problem delineation is often the most difficult aspect of strategy development. For an emergent challenge set like modern gray zone competition, where terminology is not yet common, the challenge is particularly daunting. Our GSF Experts Workshop validated the lack of a shared national security community definition of gray zone challenges. At the same time, our experts were universal in their agreement that there is a problem set, roughly defined between peace and war, besetting U.S. policymakers.
The CSIS research team proffered a working definition for use in the day’s discussion, one it had previously formulated for CSIS’s Countering Coercion in Maritime Asia report. That report defined coercion in the gray zone as follows:
An effort or series of efforts beyond steady-state deterrence and assurance that attempts to achieve one’s security objectives without resorting to direct and sizable use of force. In engaging in a gray zone strategy, an actor seeks to avoid crossing a threshold that results in open war.
Although participants in the GSF Experts Workshop identified a broad range of extant and potential gray zone challenges to U.S. interests, some actors and tactics garnered more attention than others. China and Russia were clear foci of concern, as were non-military threats seemingly designed to erode public faith and trust in, and the comparative advantage of, free market democracies.
The CSIS research team did not proscribe the actors and actions that the working groups should discuss or prioritize. Moreover, groups were composed of experts spanning multiple regional and functional disciplines. Participants recognized Iran as a powerful regional influencer, demonstrating the ability to use a breadth of tools. They also acknowledged that North Korea has begun to develop sophisticated global reach in a few narrower aspects of gray zone competition. Yet almost all participants gravitated toward a focus on China and Russia as the gray zone competitors of greatest concern. The assembled experts could have been unduly influenced by the contents of the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, both of which emphasized competition with China and Russia over other challenges. However, based on its observations of experts in the GSF Workshop, the CSIS study team assesses that a genuine consensus exists around this prioritization among experts across the ideological spectrum.
Some of the participants conceptualized challenges for the United States in the gray zone in terms of perceived U.S. weaknesses or vulnerabilities. A recurrent theme was the perception that the United States fails to act swiftly and clearly to signs of gray zone competition. This seems to contrast with the relative agility of its competitors. Competitors’ tools for dividing free market democracies, both internally and against each other, are numerous. For example, Russia uses its control over state-run energy companies and infrastructure to leverage gas deliveries to achieve desirable political outcomes in Europe or to discourage undesirable outcomes like the rerouting of gas supplies to Ukraine.
Both Iran and Russia have also used proxies to achieve security or political aims in part because doing so effectively slows response by exploiting divisions in the United States and elsewhere over the legality of response options aimed at the sponsor state. North Korea has conducted cyberattacks against Western companies that took years for the U.S. government to publicly attribute to North Korea. China denied U.S. accusations that it was militarizing reclaimed land in the South China Sea, side-stepping the potential for direct confrontation over the matter.
These examples demonstrate how competitors have succeeded in creating hurdles to response in scenarios or domains where attribution may not be straightforward or where domestic and allied consensus cannot be reached on an appropriate policy response. Workshop participants expressed the greatest concern about threats from disinformation and political and economic coercion. Participants noted the United States’ relatively tepid and reactive response to foreign disinformation campaigns and its reliance on sanctions as the sole arrow in the U.S. economic statecraft quiver.
Of final note, the discussion of challenges in one group brought forward an intensive debate over defining U.S. national security interests. Nowhere in the workshop’s activities was the diversity of assembled viewpoints more on display than in the genuine points of disagreement on national interests. The debate appeared to hinge on differing views of the U.S. role in the world. For instance, some experts sought to emphasize U.S. democratic norm-setting in the international sphere as an important interest. Other experts wanted a narrower focus on preventing attacks on the United States and maintaining the nation’s prosperity. There was also frustration from some that resource constraints were not being considered, which might force a needed reprioritization among interests. In short, the discussion seemed to mirror debates ongoing in the public and academia over the basic tenets that ought to underlie U.S. foreign policy.
A common theme throughout the discussions, despite divergence in how to view the challenges, was that a primary U.S. shortcoming is its ineffectiveness in leveraging its strengths and capitalizing on opponents’ weaknesses (which is the adversary’s goal in the gray zone). Demonstrative of this core takeaway was the groups’ arrivals at similar views of U.S. strengths.
In addition to laying out challenges to U.S. gray zone competitiveness in the context of the threats it faces, the groups largely conceptualized the United States’ “opportunities” through the context of its strengths. There was a distinct and notable convergence over the sources of U.S. geopolitical and domestic strengths and widespread sentiment that many of its supposed weaknesses could be used as strengths if properly employed or leveraged. The breadth and competency of the tools at the United States’ disposal was itself considered a source of great strength. Within the toolkit, standouts appeared to be the U.S. economy, alliance and partner networks, military capability, and cultural suasion.
Priorities for Action
The outcomes presented in this paper from the 2018 GSF Experts Workshop are only the first fruits of a national security dialogue and action plan for building feasible bipartisan approaches to countering challenges manifesting in the gray zone. CSIS scholars will build on the foundations set in the Global Security Forum event with additional research in 2019 focused on developing a campaign planning framework for countering gray zone challenges and making associated recommendations for changes to U.S. policies, organizations, and authorities.
The workshop also succeeded in its secondary goal of building bridges of understanding across disciplines and ideologies to strengthen the quality and endurance of U.S. national security solutions. In a period of U.S. history otherwise notable for domestic divisiveness, it was important that a large bipartisan group were able to come together in unified purpose, eager to tackle one of the most pressing and complex security challenges of our time and ready to forge new thinking about how to meet this challenge.
About the Authors
Senior Vice President; Henry A. Kissinger Chair; Director, International Security Program
Kathleen H. Hicks is senior vice president, Henry A. Kissinger Chair, and director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Research Associate, International Security Program
Michael Matlaga is a research associate with the International Security Program at CSIS, where he focuses on NATO and European defense policy.
Fellow, International Security Program
John Schaus is a fellow in the International Security Program at CSIS, where he focuses on defense industry and Asia security challenges.