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A Missing Shade of Gray: Political Will and Waging Something Short of War

Countering hybrid threats that come from illiberal governments and non-state actors that don't follow international/domestic laws and norms is a significant issue and challenge for liberal democracies to overcome. (source: War on the Rocks)

Countering hybrid threats that come from illiberal governments and non-state actors that don't follow international/domestic laws and norms is a significant issue and challenge for liberal democracies to overcome. (source: War on the Rocks)

June 12, 2018 | Source: War On The Rocks, warontherocks.com, January 2017, Phillip Lohaus

The legal framework for countering hybrid threats is certainly a significant issue and challenge for liberal democracies to overcome considering hybrid threats come from illiberal (partial democracy, low intensity democracy, empty democracy, or hybrid regime) governments and non-state actors that don't follow international/domestic laws and norms.  If improperly address through the application of political, economic and military tools, these situations can escalate into hybrid warfare where the role of the military and likelihood of violence increase significantly.


The term “political will” is frequently used to explain the disposition of individuals and groups to take action. When it comes to the use of force, America has a political will problem. After more than 15 years of conflict, Americans are increasingly likely to express “war fatigue,” though fewer Americans are connected in any meaningful way to the military than ever before. Americans seem tired of hearing about conflict and of seeing images of wars being fought in their name.

Yet at the same time, many argue that American reticence to leverage its military has and does make the world a more dangerous place for America and its friends. In an attempt to square the circle, successive administrations have attempted to use the military in ways that have strategic impact without a high risk of casualties, contributing to a phenomena described recently by Rosa Brooks as “everything becoming war.” Yet, success at waging these protracted campaigns outside of “traditional” war has so far eluded the U.S. military and also the larger government.

In one sense, this is surprising. Within the Department of Defense, many of the specialties useful for waging campaigns short of war — such as information warfare, psychological warfare, civil affairs and security force assistance — reside principally within special operations forces, who have become go-to for a wide variety of politically sensitive missions. Conventional forces, too, are increasingly equipped to conduct short-of-war missions, particularly with respect to security force assistance. Moreover, the positioning of conventional forces as well as military exercises are routinely intended to influence adversary decisions in ways short of war. The necessary tools for doing so are available within the military, and when they are not — “moral hazard” problems aside — they are often available via the use of proxies. So why has America had such difficulty waging long-term campaigns in this space?

Further, why does the United States consistently fail to find its feet when it comes to international competition short of war? There are a few reasons.

First, at a national level, the development of a strategy for campaigning short of war would need to be nested within a larger national strategy. It is impossible to “shape” an environment if there is a lack of clarity as to what purpose the nation is “shaping” toward.

Second, although the tools to wage short-of-war campaigns are well established, this is not as true for the military’s capacity to use them—current operational models show that “shaping activities” still remain a low priority. And, even if this weren’t the case, there are not yet effective mechanisms established to coordinate all of the shaping activities of the U.S. military, let alone those of the U.S. government.  Overly compartmentalizing shaping activities limits the scope of what is possible, even if and when the end goal of shaping is identified.

Third, hazy escalatory dynamics complicate the risk calculus for taking action in the gray zone. The current conflict in Syria, China’s aggressive island building, and recent actions taken by the Russian government to meddle in the U.S. election all present opportunities for unconventional responses. But the confusing and confounding nature of interactions in the lower space of the escalatory spectrum have stymied effective American action. There are no established rules of engagement in this space, nor are there established off-ramps along the path to escalation. Further, because actions in this realm are often taken opportunistically, it is difficult to discern which adversarial actions reflect minor interests and which reflect critical ones.

These issues, though problematic in their own right, are part of a more fundamental problem: Political will acts as a constraint on “short of war” campaigns more than it does for conventional campaigns