Gray Zone Project

The United States is being confronted with the liabilities of its strengths. Given the significant costs of engaging the United States in combat, and the growing range of indirect and non-military tools at their disposal, rivals are seeking ways to achieve relative gains without triggering escalation. From fake news and online troll farms to terrorist financing and paramilitary provocations, these approaches often lie in the contested arena somewhere between routine statecraft and open warfare—the “gray zone.”

The gray zone phenomenon is also referred to as hybrid threats, sharp power, political warfare, malign influence, irregular warfare, and modern deterrence. Although it reflects an age-old approach, it is newly broad in its application. Today, the toolkit for coercion below the level of direct warfare includes information operations, political coercion, economic coercion, cyber operations, proxy support, and provocation by state-controlled Forces. China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, as well as non-state actors, are increasingly turning to these strategies to overcome U.S. strengths in global diplomacy, law, and commerce.

CSIS’s International Security Program has analyzed these threats and how the United States can best deter, campaign in, and respond to gray zone approaches. Meet our scholars and explore our work here.