Many Chinese and Russians would argue that Western countries are likewise waging gray-zone conflicts against them. After the Chinese stock market collapsed this year, Lin Zuoming, a powerful figure within one of China’s largest state-owned enterprises, insisted the crash was “without any doubt … an economic war” led by the United States to undermine the Communist Party’s rule. Russian state media constantly blame the U.S. for cunningly coordinating everything from CNN to oil majors, Google, and NGOs to undermine Moscow.
The United States undoubtedly possesses some massive economic weapons; it can threaten, for instance, to ban Russia from the international SWIFT banking system. And Western countries have their own long traditions of covert operations. But liberal democracies in the West can also find it very difficult to act in the gray zone.
On a journalists’ tour of NATO headquarters this year, I asked senior officials how the alliance dealt with new threats. The answer was essentially that when it came to the use of money, media, or cultural warfare, NATO was only starting to work out how to respond. Tanks and nuclear missiles, and increasingly cyber attacks, they were on top of. Anything “gray” was only in development.
While it is relatively easy for authoritarian regimes to fuse the efforts of military, media, and business entities, in democracies the interests of these groups are often diametrically opposed. For example: When the U.K. government signed a deal this fall allowing China to invest in a new British nuclear reactor, the money men at the Treasury were delighted; the moral men in the media appalled by the United Kingdom selling out on human rights; and the military men worried by Chinese penetration of British energy and telecommunications infrastructure.
Of course, Western powers can unite money, media, and the military to devastating and diabolical effect when a war is declared (the lead-up to the Iraq campaigns being the most obvious recent example), but they are more at a loss when responding to not-quite-wars that are undeclared. Is Russia an enemy of the European Union or a partner with whom normal relations could be resumed? After all, Russia has never officially declared war on Ukraine, let alone the EU. For all of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s sternness about maintaining Ukraine-related sanctions against Russia in 2015, the year ended with Germany signing an energy deal for a new pipeline between the two countries—a major coup for Moscow.
And what does one do with a creature like ISIS, which is not recognized as a state but has all the appearances of one? When the U.K. voted on whether to bomb ISIS after the Paris terrorist attacks, one of the arguments against the action was that the British military would be conducting raids inside what was still de jure Syrian territory, when Assad’s government, unlike the Iraqi government, had never invited the U.K. to do so. The speeches in Parliament were the stuff of the 1930s—neo-Churchills and neo-Chamberlains invoking appeasement, fascism, and civilizational challenges. It was a discourse belonging to 20th-century wars, not to the endless subtleties and permutations of the 21st.