25 February 2018

ISW Report - America's Global Competitions: The Gray Zone in Context

by Institute for the Study of War

The international community is grappling for its future, but the wrestling is more complicated than Carl von Clausewitz’s “pair of wrestlers.” The U.S. is part of three ongoing regional and global competitions. At stake: the future of the international order. The first competition involves revisionist powers — Russia, China, and Iran. This competition is below the threshold of war so far, but recent events in Syria show just how easily that threshold might be crossed. Revisionist powers seek to revise the current global order to their advantage, increasing their regional and global influence while decreasing that of the United States and its allies and partners. The second has already crossed the threshold of war. 

This competition involves revolutionary powers — Al Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS), and their ilk. These groups are not mere terrorists. They are waging (and have been from the start) a global revolutionary (and therefore ideological) war, a form of insurgency which is initially local and regional but already has global implications. The United States has waged, with few exceptions, a counterterrorist war. Ultimately, these revolutionary powers seek to overthrow the current international order set in place after World War II. The third competition involves the rogue power, North Korea. This competition is also below the threshold of war, but as recent events have shown it is pressing right against that threshold. Brinkmanship describes this competitive space. Kim Jong-un seeks to maintain enough tension so that he can use it to maintain the legitimacy of his regime and remain in power. America, her allies, and partners should think of themselves as “leading powers”2 seeking to adapt the post-World War II international order to the myriad of changes brought about by the emerging information age, globalization, the revolution in digital technologies, and the end of the Cold War. The United States, with its allies and partners, are wrestling all three sets of competitors simultaneously, and wrestle they must. For these powers have more at stake in adapting the post-World War II rule-based international order than they seem to think.

Taking on one at a time, as desirable as that approach might be, is simply not possible. Like it or not, the U.S., with its allies and partners, faces three, interlocked challenges. How the eroding post-World War II international order adapts or crumbles will be a function of the degree of success the U.S. and its allies have in each of these interrelated challenges...

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