Innovation by authoritarian nations in the ‘grey zone’ is becoming one of the most serious challenges facing contemporary democracies. It has long been recognised that future conflicts might be won before any shots are fired. But knowing that is cold comfort, because authoritarian states are continually evolving their capacity to develop and deploy offensive tools in their cyber-enabled, information and hybrid warfare arsenals.
Meeting this challenge requires democratic nations, including Australia, to reconceptualise how they think about strategy: its core purposes, its main instruments and capabilities, and what success or failure looks like. Democracy’s authoritarian rivals—chiefly China and Russia—play by different rules, have different ideas about vulnerabilities and strengths, and measure outcomes in broad wholistic rather than tight linear terms.
Strategy is a long game and democracies must overcome their tendency to view conflict as an end-state with a precipitating cause, rather than an ongoing phenomenon. Australian Defence Force chief Angus Campbell highlighted this, in a 2019 speech to an ASPI conference on future conflict, by tracing General Valery Gerasimov’s stages of war. Importantly, Campbell noted that Western powers tended to only react when a crisis point had been reached—when the war was already half-won.
Although there’s disagreement about a ‘Gerasimov doctrine’, much like China’s ‘three warfares’, authoritarian states do seem more suited than democracies to longer-term political warfare. Authoritarian leaders don’t have to face periodic elections (or if they do, the outcome is hardly in doubt), which aids continuity in strategic planning and execution. But beyond government structures, both Russia and China have long invested in weaponising political, economic, psychological and social tools for use in grey-zone activities.
This includes using civilian assets for quasi-military means, like China’s military–civil fusion efforts, or Russia’s use of ‘little green men’ and the Wagner PMC group as a transnational proxy defence asset. It also extends to using economic levers as strategic instruments, as witnessed by Beijing’s investment campaigns in the South Pacific, and the Kremlin’s manipulation of gas dependencies in Europe. In the information domain, reflexive control—getting your adversary to act in a way that suits your interests without being aware of it—is coupled with other hybrid tactics like adapting international law, mobilising diasporas, and employing useful idiots and cyber-proxies to spread misinformation and disinformation.
A longer view of conflict gives authoritarian states escalation control, allowing them to dictate the tempo of strategic interaction, and to achieve their objectives by presenting others with a fait accompli—as in the South China Sea and Crimea.
It’s false to argue that the West is helpless against such behaviour. But to combat it more effectively it must learn to intervene earlier, put more effort into ensuring a united approach, seize control of narratives, and be prepared to more frequently use coercive economic and other non-kinetic measures. All of these are necessary from an early stage, rather than eventually offering up sanctions and reprimands as responses to bad behaviour that has already accomplished its objectives. Democracies must act more strategically, and more proactively.
A common lament is that democracies lack freedom of action compared with authoritarian states in countering grey-zone activities because they’re bound by laws and norms. But assuming that the West’s challengers would forever be content to play by those laws and norms too, rather than sidestepping, adapting or ignoring them, remains a glaring oversight. Democracies must be flexible and adaptive.
Russia’s ability, with seeming impunity, to take over Crimea, attempt to kill dissidents abroad, co-opt politicians, bomb munitions depots in the Czech Republic, and launch adaptive cyberattacks and information operations against NATO members serves as a force multiplier. It suggests Russia is strong and assertive while democracies are flat-footed, reactive and incapable of firm united responses. It’s a similar story when Beijing changes the maritime geography of the South China Sea, targets diaspora communities with transnational repression, buys influence in Australian society, and undermines the multilateral trading order with its deliberately bilateral Belt and Road Initiative.
This underscores the need for democracies to find ways to be adaptive without compromising their core values. Indeed, to alter an adversary’s behaviour in the grey zone—to deter it—will require a dynamic process with a variety of partners, rather than a static one in which the game and the players are fixed.
That doesn’t mean that laws and norms are useless, or that the West should abandon them. But it does mean that they’ll be increasingly unreliable as instruments to constrain behaviour, especially in a more fluid environment where varied interpretations of law will allow states to forum-shop to advance their interests.
Like laws, appealing to common values should be done with clear eyes rather than rosy spectacles. In many cases, coalitions to counter authoritarian states will be based on shared threat perceptions, rather than a sense of kinship that some potential allies don’t share (and even sometimes resent). In its recent integrated review, the UK has abandoned the term ‘rules-based order’, stressing that while it seeks to work with democracies, it also will also cooperate pragmatically with those with different values. We shouldn’t fear this. If liberal democratic theory is correct, then the shared habits learned through cooperation will reinforce stability, not undermine it.
Although Australia is a leader in recognising the threat of grey-zone activities, especially in terms of combatting foreign interference, democracies have often been slow to realise that building resilience goes beyond government. Protecting Australia from such pressures can’t be done by regulation and legislation alone. For democracies to successfully insulate themselves from cyber-enabled information warfare, attacks on critical infrastructure, attempts to undermine and fragment their societies, and efforts to marginalise them from their allies requires a whole-of-society effort.
Leaders must shore up public trust in government and democratic institutions and avoid instrumentalising disinformation for political purposes, and civil society must promote information hygiene. The business, industry and education sectors need to become engaged stakeholders in ensuring transparency over hostile foreign influence and cyberattacks.
There are no easy ways to generate democratic resilience, but it is a crucial endeavour. Information sharing—rarely a strong suit for siloed government departments and businesses wary of negative press—will need to become the norm rather than the exception.
Counter-hybrid fusion centres, net assessment capabilities and other long-range tools and methodologies will be critical to building knowledge about vulnerabilities, identifying threat vectors, and devising appropriate countermeasures. So too will the experience of other nations with potentially useful models. These might include the Swedish notion of ‘total defence’, or Singapore’s ‘six pillars’ (incorporating military, civil, economic, social, digital and psychological components).
Taken together, a longer-term view of strategy characterised by earlier intervention, a flexible and adaptive approach to coalitions and partnerships, and a more integrated effort to unify governments with societies are the keys for democracies to effectively meet grey-zone challenges.
The task is not easy, but pursuing it may also help democracies rediscover that their supposed weaknesses—responsiveness, openness to change and the ability to build trust—are their greatest strengths.