Book Reviews
The Defender’s Dilemma: Identifying and Deterring Gray-Zone Aggression

The Defender’s Dilemma: Identifying and Deterring Gray-Zone Aggression

Author: Elisabeth Braw
Published: 2022
Publisher: American Enterprise Institute
Pages: 348

Reviewed by: Dr. Cameron Carlson

Elisabeth Braw’s central thesis in The Defender’s Dilemma: Identifying and Deterring Gray-Zone Aggression is that gray-zone aggression has become an increasingly more pervasive and complex challenge for nations than traditional war and that defense strategies are often inadequate to address gray-zone aggression. Braw pointedly argues that gray-zone aggression, which refers to acts of aggression that fall between the traditional definitions of peace and war, has emerged as the preferred mode of modern conflict as states seek to assail Western institutions and values through non-traditional means, such as cyber-attacks, disinformation campaigns, and economic coercion.

Braw concisely illustrates that 2014 was “A Decisive Year” in which gray-zone aggression was placed center stage internationally. Russia’s unprecedented actions in combining cyber and disinformation operations as an advanced move into Crimea and then Ukraine served to demonstrate the efficacy of gray-zone aggression and revealed that warfare had indeed morphed. Throughout the book, Braw draws on various case studies to illustrate the various forms of gray-zone activities as aggression. She also explores how defenders have responded to these tactics, highlighting both successful and unsuccessful strategies. Her well-developed case studies demonstrate the challenges of dealing with gray-zone aggression and serve to support how tailored strategies must be developed in order to effectively counter these challenges. The case studies, which examine real-world examples, such as Russia’s actions in Ukraine, China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, and Iran’s support of proxy groups in the Middle East, serve as concrete examples of how gray-zone aggression can occur as either singular activities, e.g., cyber-attacks, or in combination with other actions such as economic coercion and disinformation. Her analysis additionally underscores the diverse range of tactics used and objectives undertaken by state actors or proxies operating in the gray zone and the urgency in action needed to address this type of conflict.

Braw explores the numerous challenges faced by nations when defending against gray-zone aggression. Gray-zone aggression, as outlined, is often ambiguous in its intent and attribution as these activities usually fall below the threshold of kinetic activities. Braw notes that gray-zone aggression has become increasingly more prevalent in use while often being more difficult to detect and attribute to a specific actor. The difficulty in identifying and deterring these acts of aggression is that they often fall outside the scope of traditional national security and defense concerns, thus, strategies to counter these actions may require a whole-of-society approach to thwart. This approach, as noted, would involve a nation’s citizenry and private industry, as well as government resources as an integrated countermeasure. 

Braw promotes this through numerous strategies in defending against gray-zone aggression. The first is to establish a clear understanding of what constitutes gray-zone aggression and, in parallel, develop a set of responses tailored to these types of activities. This includes developing strategies for detection and attribution, as well as developing capabilities to respond to attacks in a timely and effective manner. Another important strategy is to build resilience within societies and institutions to ensure they are more capable of responding to and recovering from attacks. The “Building a Wall of Denial” would require harnessing civil society to defend and provide resilience, something akin to the civil defense efforts of previous eras. Other efforts would leverage the capabilities of the private sector to enhance cybersecurity, build more robust information ecosystems, and diversify supply chains to reduce vulnerability to economic coercion.

Finally, Braw argues that it is paramount to work with allies and partners to develop a coordinated response to gray-zone aggression. This includes sharing information and intelligence, coordinating responses, and developing joint capabilities. Braw suggests that this requires a shift in mindset from viewing defense as a national responsibility to viewing it as a collective responsibility involving Western governments and institutions. She concludes that while defending against gray-zone aggression is a complex and evolving challenge, by taking a proactive and collaborative approach, nations can develop effective strategies to deter and respond to these types of attacks in a more collective manner.

A key strength of the book was the author’s thorough and insightful examination of the changing character of conflict in the twenty-first century. The comprehensive analysis of gray-zone aggression and resulting implications for national security are clearly illustrated by real-world examples such as Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, cyber-attacks in private industry such as those against Maersk and Merck, and China’s territorial bullying in the South China Sea. Furthermore, her book also maintains that early detection and response will promote resilience through collaborations that improve collective national security concerns.

One potential weakness of the book is that it primarily focuses on the challenges and strategies of dealing with gray-zone aggression from the perspective of state actors. While the book acknowledges the role of non-state actors engaging in gray-zone aggression, it does not delve deeply into the unique challenges and strategies involved in countering these actors. Additionally, while the book provides practical recommendations for addressing gray-zone aggression, some readers may find the recommendations to be overly broad and lacking in specific details as to how they might be operationalized. Despite these limitations, the book remains an invaluable and informative resource.

Overall, The Defender’s Dilemma is an excellent book that provides a comprehensive overview of gray-zone aggression and its implications for national and global security. Braw’s expertise on this topic is evident throughout, and her insights are both timely and thought-provoking. The book is a requisite resource for policymakers, security professionals, and academics interested in understanding the complexities of gray-zone aggression and formulating effective strategies to counter it. It offers insightful analysis of this emerging security challenge and provides practical guidance for nations seeking to protect their interests and maintain stability in the face of evolving threats. This book is a requisite reading for anyone who is interested in international security and the evolving nature of modern warfare and conflict.

Dr. Cameron Carlson is the Dean of the College of Business and Security Management at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) and the founding director of the Center for Arctic Security and Resilience at UAF.