IR Theory and the Gray Zone

Recent trends in conflict have highlighted the growing importance of unconventional warfare and the “Gray Zone.”  Events such as China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea and Russia’s annexation of Crimea have reminded U.S. policymakers that not every conflict fits into the binary notion of war and peace.  Instead, conflicts can straddle the line, presenting policymakers with a difficult choice on how to respond.  Much of this difficulty stems from the inadequacy of U.S. policy tools for operating in the Gray Zone.  These deficiencies have been well-documented in recent years.  However, it will be difficult to correct these shortfalls without first understanding and correcting their root causes.  One such cause, I believe, is the current state of International Relations theory.

In IR theory, war is treated as the dependent variable.  Each theory attempts to explain why war happens and therefore predict when it may occur again in the future.  War, in the case of IR theory, is defined as any conflict that produces 1000 battlefield deaths or more.  From the very beginning, therefore, IR theory accepts, reinforces, and operates within the binary divide between war and peace.  According to IR theory, a conflict cannot straddle the line.

Given that IR theory serves as the foundation for much of the strategic education and thinking that occurs in the United States, it is easy to see how this framework could leave policymakers unprepared to think about and act within the Gray Zone.  To overcome this flaw, IR theory needs to adapt to include the more ambiguous and diverse setting that is the Gray Zone.  Such a change would likely require new ways of thinking about threats and warfare, and how these issues trigger responses across all three images of IR theory.

For example, Moscow’s support for pro-Russian and anti-EU political parties inside many European countries is not a traditional threat as defined by IR theory.  It does not threaten the territorial integrity or the lives of the citizens of the states it targets.  Yet it is undoubtedly an act of political warfare with serious implications for European unity, democracy, and economic development.  Providing a theoretical framework that explains why states undertake such actions is increasingly vital.  After all, it’s highly unlikely that Russia’s support for opposition political parties in Italy will trigger a war as defined by IR theory.  Consequently, Moscow’s actions will continue to fall under the radar of our key explanatory frameworks for international relations, therefore leaving the United States poorly prepared to address them.

IR theory developed as an academic discipline in response to the horrific conventional wars of the 20th century.  Theorists sought to explain how European states could have stumbled into World War I and then repeat the slaughter all over again just twenty years later.  However, as the century progressed, conventional state-on-state conflict rapidly declined as both a percentage of all conflicts and as a cause of battlefield deaths.  In response, the discipline shifted focus to new forms of conflict, such as civil wars, rebellions, and ethnic conflicts.  IR theory’s ability to adapt to this change allowed it to provide critical insights into previously ignored but increasingly prevalent issues.  Today, a similar change is needed with regard to the Gray Zone.  The discipline must adapt to provide better explanatory power for these types of ambiguous conflicts so that future generations of policymakers can be better prepared to confront them.  The binary choice between war and peace was never true and it’s time our theoretical frameworks reflect this reality.

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