By Alessandro Sereni
Guest Writer for
Colours have always been an intrinsic part of the array of symbols, flags, and expressions used in times of war and peace. Traditionally, two particular hues are associated with the polarized conditions defining the state of the international system: black for war and white for peace. However, a new colour has come to the fore in foreign policy and security circles in the last decade: the colour grey. In colour symbolism, the latter is synonym for boredom, predictability, and neutrality. Conversely, in current international affairs speak, it means tension, unpredictability, and ambiguity.
Grey-zone conflict is nowadays commonly defined as the ensemble of covert and not so covert activities – including cyber-attacks, disinformation campaigns, and economic coercion – by state or non-state actors, targeting countries with the ultimate goal of gradually unravelling their cohesive economic, political, and social fabric in order to gain strategic advantages. As the Chinese master strategist Sun Tzu wrote centuries ago: ‘The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.’ Grey-zone conflict aims to achieve just that via low to medium intensity coercive and/or disruptive aggressions shy of any escalation leading to open warfare.
In its current conception, the term grey-zone conflict was first officially employed in the United States Department of Defense’s ‘2010 Quadrennial Defense Review’ and became popular in both American academia and government security agencies from 2015 onwards. It has now become a major topic of discussion among governments, militaries, and foreign policy and security experts worldwide. It is recurrently employed to primarily define Russian, Chinese, Iranian tactics against Western countries in a variety of theatres of conflict both geographical (e.g., Ukraine, Syria, the South China Sea) and virtual (e.g., foreign electoral intervention via social media platforms). Supporters of the concept say its adoption is necessary to overcome the traditional ‘war-peace’ dichotomy that Western democracies have employed to determine which foreign policy strategy and tools to use in response to subversive threats. According to this view, the grey zone sits in the centre of an imaginary war and peace continuum. It is the new global status quo, and countries need to devise and implement novel strategies to counter these new antagonistic behaviours. I beg to differ.
The activities grouped under the term grey-zone conflict do exist, but they have not simply been “magicked up” in the last ten years or so. Quoting again from Sun Tzu – who by the way lived between the 5th and 6th century BC –, ‘[i]n peace prepare for war, in war prepare for peace.’ This is understandably not the maxim one would wish to live by. Nevertheless, over millennia of human civilization, political entities, and their representatives, when not at war, have never stopped employing their resources and tools (economic and diplomatic, but also clandestine and subversive) to compete, on friendly or unfriendly terms, amongst each other for perceived benefits and/or to advance their own agenda. This is the very definition of statecraft.
It seems Western foreign policy and security experts and agencies have suffered from a collective complacency “Blip”. Since the end of the Cold War, they have failed to detect a continuation and build-up of statecraft’s darkest side by antagonistic state actors, only to wake up three decades later and rally behind an alleged new theory. It is also important to note that those same grey- zone practices, now a trademark of Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran, were employed by Western countries before and during the Cold War – for example, the United States’ regime change interventions in Latin America from 1898 to 1994.
Accordingly, the grey-zone conflict is nothing new under the sun and, as a concept, does more harm than good. In fact, by employing the ‘war/grey-zone conflict/peace’ continuum model, proponents of this concept basically place every country in a perennial state of grey-zone pseudo-war. In the latter, heightened insecurity, sharpened tensions, and conflict increase the likelihood of war-triggering military responses that would not have been considered under the optics of a peace time situation. The language used to frame the grey zone is also more likely to convey a hawkish posture unconducive to open dialogue between rival countries.
Washington D.C., London, and Brussels can and should build their capacity to respond to their regional and systemic rivals’ undermining operations without having to spend time rewriting their strategy books in order to address adversary tactics that have been around for centuries. Western democracies can and should boost their domestic security capabilities, promote news literacy, improve online accountability in concert with tech companies, and much more, without losing themselves in “fifty shades of grey” and thus running the risk of making grey, war’s new colour.
 Belo, D. (2020), ‘Conflict in the absence of war: a comparative analysis of China and Russia engagement in gray zone conflicts’, Canadian Foreign Policy Journal, vol. 26, no. 1, pp. 73-91; Bothwell, H. M. (2021), ‘Gray Is the New Black: A Framework to Counter Gray Zone Conflicts’, Joint Force Quarterly, Issue 101, 2nd Quarter, US Department of Defence; Brands, H. (2016), ‘Paradoxes of the Gray Zone’, E-notes, Foreign Policy Research Institute; Dostri, O. (2020), ‘The Reemergence of Gray-Zone Warfare in Modern Conflicts – Israel’s Struggle against Hamas’ Indirect Approach’, Military Review, January-February.
 Tzu, S. and Sawyer, R.D. (1994), ‘The Art of War’, Basic Books.
 Stoker, D. and Whiteside, C. (2020), ‘Gray-Zone Conflict and Hybrid War—Two Failures of American Strategic Thinking’, Naval War College Review, vol. 73, no. 1, art. 1, Fall issue.
 Ibid. 4.
 Tzu, S. and Sawyer R.D. (1994), ‘The Art of War’, Basic Books.
 In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the term refers to the disappearance of half of Earth’s population and then its reappearance several years later in a seemingly changed world due to the Infinity Gauntlet’s powers. See here.
 Technological advancements and the prominent use of the cyber sphere confer a false sense of novelty to grey-zone operations.
 A reference to the novel ‘Fifty shades of grey’ by E.L. James and its film adaptation, where the traditional expression ‘shades of grey’, meaning “the fact of it not being clear in a situation what is right and wrong” (Cambridge Dictionary, 2021), is further modified to ‘fifty shades of grey’ to describe the male protagonist’s extreme ambiguity and unfathomableness.