The Defender’s Dilemma: Identifying and Deterring Gray-Zone Aggression

  • Published

The Defender’s Dilemma: Identifying and Deterring Gray-Zone Aggression by Elisabeth Braw. American Institute Press, 2022, 348 pp. 

The West is no stranger to gray-zone aggression. Faced with Soviet disinformation, forgeries, and subversive activity during the Cold War, the US government formed the Active Measures Working Group—an interagency body with representatives from the Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Defense Intelligence Agency, State Department, Defense Department, Justice Department, and US Information Agency. The group developed a strategy for countering disinformation and malign influence, extensively coordinating and publicizing its findings.

Forty years later, the attacks continue. Below the level of armed conflict, China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran labor to undermine liberal democracies. Their methods are not new, but the pace, scale, and brazenness of their efforts have crescendoed, forcing a response from the West.

How, exactly, do western nations identify and deter this aggression? Elisabeth Braw sets out to answer this question in The Defender’s Dilemma: Identifying and Deterring Gray-Zone Aggression, a 2022 work defining the elusive gray zone and compiling recent examples as a playbook for liberal democracies seeking to respond. Braw’s role as a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, focused on emerging national security challenges, lends her an authoritative voice on the road ahead.

The Defender’s Dilemma first seeks to define and identify gray-zone aggression, then offers suggestions for deterrence. Terms such as hybrid warfare, synchronized attack packages, coordinated instruments of power have all been assigned to the phenomenon, but Braw opts for simplicity in her definition: “hostile acts outside the realm of armed conflict to weaken a rival country, entity, or alliance.”

Given the difficulties of identification and attribution, gray-zone aggression has vexed decisionmakers. A single malign act can be lost in the noise. Further, attributing aggression is often technically difficult or politically sensitive. Are cyber operations an act of war or a modern extension of traditional intelligence collection? Does China’s pursuit of dual-use technology constitute a grave military threat or a reasonable desire for commercial artificial intelligence? The very process of resolving these quandaries can further divide the West, raising questions that it is ill-equipped to answer through nonmilitary means.

Worse yet, coordinated gray-zone aggression campaigns often slip past the radar of liberal democracies. The West’s porous economies and information environments create gaps for malign actors to exploit. When one vulnerability is patched, aggressors identify another and quickly pivot. Without an international framework or coordinated national legislation to identify and sanction bad behavior, Braw posits that actors have resorted to “whataboutism” and “geo-political gaslighting”—denying rogue behavior while actively engaging in it.

The Defender’s Dilemma excels when it delves into recent examples of gray-zone aggression. Drawing from case studies and interviews with political, military, and civil society figures, Braw illustrates the disorienting, uninhibited assault on democracies through both licit and illicit means. The distinction between the two is increasingly faint, as nations perfect a blend of methods to sow confusion and muddle response times.

In the legal realm, the likes of China and Russia exercise influence through sponsorship of interest groups, nongovernmental organizations, and celebrities. They cite civil unrest and coerce civil society under the cloak of First Amendment rights. They purchase foreign property, fund venture capital in critical technologies and national infrastructure, and create energy dependence. Braw homes in on subversive economics as an emergent, understudied threat. The “most poisonous form of gray-zone aggression today” exploits the openness of capitalism, seizing on the ease of foreign direct investment and doing business in the West.

Some legal examples prove more convincing than others. The Defender’s Dilemma categorizes coercion via diplomacy as gray-zone aggression when it might better fit the bill of routine foreign relations. Attempts to shape the information environment, such as celebrity sponsorship and information operations short of disinformation, also carry echoes of US soft-power projection. Additionally, the book makes a brief nod at efforts by Congress and the interagency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to identify, sanction, and deter gray-zone activity, but fails to capture the sweeping progress made by the US government to harden against threats since 2016.

Illegal aggression presents another intractable problem, running the gamut from cyberattacks and intellectual property theft to territorial violations. Braw begins with familiar cases, such as the series of Russian cyberattacks disabling the Ukrainian power grid and its runaway NotPetya virus, then turns to lesser-known examples. Salami tactics around national borders and resources have proven difficult for the West to combat without escalation. China’s incursions into Taiwanese airspace, expansion of roads and military outposts in Bhutan, construction of islands in the South China Sea, and illegal fishing operations all represent individual acts in a campaign to undermine sovereignty in East Asia. Similarly, Braw raises Russia’s incursions into NATO airspace and illegal operations across borders in the Baltics and Ukraine. Published in 2022, the book preceded Russia’s war in Ukraine; nonetheless, it overlooks the possibility of pivots from illegal aggression below the threshold of war to full kinetic conflict. 

The Defender’s Dilemma concludes by offering a path forward: establishing dynamic deterrence. Deterrence by denial (improving defenses) and by punishment (imposing cost) offer complementary and escalatory options for liberal democracies. The theory is drawn from traditional nuclear deterrence literature, encouraging nations to communicate intent, individually calibrate, and constantly refine. Crafting a strong denial of gray-zone aggression requires a resilient and vigilant civil society and private sector. Knowledge and preparation eliminate the element of surprise and close gaps for rivals to exploit. Conversely, deterrence by punishment uses criminal justice, diplomatic bans, trade suspension, and the threat of kinetic force to impose cost and compel behavior.

It has been almost a decade since modern gray-zone activity began making headlines in the United States. Questions remain as to whether liberal democracies—decentralized by nature—can deter this aggression or even identify and patch societal vulnerabilities quickly enough to make a difference. The Defender’s Dilemma misses a rich opportunity to draw from the past to strengthen its case, overlooking historical successes in gray-zone deterrence.

Nonetheless, the work represents the greatest anthology to date of contemporary malign activity. Providing both the tools to identify coordinated gray-zone campaigns and a roadmap for deterrence, The Defender’s Dilemma deserves a place on any policymaker or military strategist’s bookshelf.   

Alexandra Vreeman

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."