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Home > Reviews > The Defender’s Dilemma

The Defender’s Dilemma

Author Elisabeth Braw


Review date 03/07/2022

No of pages 320

Publisher AEI (American Enterprise Institute) Press

Publisher URL

Year of publication 19/10/2021


Our Review


£ - freely downloadable

Grey zone (or gray zone) aggression is quite a new idea, but it has become well appreciated; indeed, the April print edition of Professional Security magazine ran a page on it, arising from a webinar by the defence manufacturer Qinetiq. An analyst in the field has brought out a timely, up to date, and useful book on this ever more pressing subject, writes Mark Rowe.

While the author works for and has been published by an American think-tank, she does have a European and UK background; she has worked at the Whitehall-based think-tank, RUSI, and as a senior consultant for Control Risks (who are drawn upon in the book).

First, we had better define gray-zone aggression. Elisabeth Braw dates this phenomenon from the 2014 invasion of Ukraine by Russia; not only might unmarked troops be used, so as to lend deniability to the assault, but invisible (but with all too tangible harm) cyber attacks and a campaign of disinformation could confuse the public and weaken their resolve and attachment to democracy.

The merit of gray-zone aggression is plain for some countries - the author comes straight out with names: "The concept of gray-zone warfare is age-old, but for the past several years, it has been comprehensively used by China, Russia, and, with a more limited focus, Iran and North Korea." Such countries can pursue their aims, without triggering a war.

The meaning of the title is that the 'Defender's Dilemma' is that the west cannot turn the other cheek; 'as long as the West lacks effective defence and deterrence against these activities, they will continue to grow and morph'. Nor, however, can the west go to the other extreme and use too much or indeed any military force, or else that is playing the enemy's game. Besides, the aggressors may well not be interested in taking territory from western countries; only undermining civil society and states, which may serve to protect and building up the aggressors. Further, as the author states early on, 'almost any area of life in a liberal democracy can be targeted by gray-zone aggression', such as free speech in universities, or a corporate trying to do business in or with China.

Although Russian influence has been the subject of a parliamentary report (by the cross-party Intelligence and Security Committee), featured in the September 2020 print edition of Professional Security magazine, the UK establishment has been unwilling to face the obvious question about the biggest controversy of these times; did Russia affect the vote for Brexit, in the 2016 referendum? Braw comes straight out: "Disinformation has, for example, been used by Russia in the 2016 US presidential election campaign, the UK’s 2016 Brexit referendum campaign, and France’s 2017 presidential election campaign." Pretending it's not happening or that we can shrug it off, doesn't work, Braw argues; it only gets worse; the gray zone is, as the author puts it, 'increasingly busy'.

Everybody has done gray-zone aggression, short of war against an adversary - during the Cold War, the United States broadcast at the Soviet Union, as the author fairly points out. This book sets out how business and civil society (not only during election campaigns) is attacked, legally and not so. This book is contributing to a gradual hardening of the west, which has turned a blind eye to intellectual property theft and the like, and hoped to win adversaries over to international rules (which the author suggests has been 'optimism bias') and now is calling a spade a spade. While the book devotes a goodly section to how countries are facing up to the threats, Scandinavia in particular, the author states that 'no country has so far come close to establishing comprehensive defence and deterrence'.

She concludes by taking her examples up to the summer of 2021, and argues that events are making 'deterrence in the gray zone', whether by being resilient and denying the attackers the advantage they seek, 'even more urgent'. She hopes also for 'an inspired discussion among policymakers' and among business leaders and the wider public. For if those parts of western societies do not work together, and countries do not support one another, 'gray-zone aggression will continue to flourish', she says at the very end.

It makes a change that this publication is free; which makes sense, as the AEI like any think tank wants to influence public policy by spreading their ideas as widely as they can. Don't get the idea that free means this is somehow less worthy than if they had slapped a big price tag on it; the book is heavily annotated, but never at the cost of readability. This is an ideal place to turn, to learn and form your own opinions about the 'gray zone', whether you are a corporate security manager or more generally interested in current affairs.