Analyzing the Gray Zone

October 2022 No Comments

Speaker(s): Potter, P. (Associate Professor of Politics and Founding Director of the National Security Policy Center, University of Virginia)

Date: 19 October 2022

Speaker Session Summary

SMA hosted a speaker session with Dr. Philip Potter (Associate Professor of Politics and Founding Director of the National Security Policy Center, University of Virginia) as part of its SMA General Speaker Session.

The Gray Zone is defined differently by many organizations, academics, and think tanks. Dr. Potter commented that despite Gray Zone being used mostly as a trendy term relating to strategic competition, its concepts were created from real life obstacles facing decision makers. However, because it has many different definitions, the Gray Zone is difficult to encapsulate using analytical tools. Inconsistencies among the multiple definitions of “Gray Zone” inhibit effective conversations and the term Gray Zone can be used too frequently as a political talking point. Additionally, the academic literature discussing the Gray Zone is lacking. There are many reports from think tanks, but few academic articles that discuss what the Gray Zone is and its implications for modern strategic competition.

Competition in the Gray Zone is comprised of four main elements: 1) the strategic use of the Gray Zone, 2) ambiguity of actors involved, 3) escalation control, and 4) actions short of conflict. Dr. Potter emphasized that Gray Zone competition cannot occur without both deterrence and diplomacy between two states. Competing states will usually strike a bargain to avoid the costs of war. Upon striking this bargain, the adversarial states will continue to compete while avoiding military conflict. Competition in the Gray Zone is multi-faceted and occurs in many forms and in many places simultaneously. A country usually exits the Gray Zone when it can no longer achieve its objectives without using military force. However, because war is extremely costly, stronger and larger states can be forced into Gray Zone competition with smaller and weaker states, levelling the overall playing field.

Speaker Session Recording

Briefing Materials

Biography: Dr. Philip Potter is an Associate Professor of Politics and Founding Director of the National Security Policy Center in the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia. He is also a University Expert with the National Ground Intelligence Center, US Army INSCOM. Dr. Potter has published in a wide array of peer reviewed and popular outlets. He has served on the editorial boards of the Journal of Politics and the Journal of Global Security Studies and is an Associate Principal Investigator for Time-Sharing Experiments in the Social Sciences (TESS). Professor Potter has been a fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point, Harvard University, and the University of Pennsylvania.


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