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Research Questions

  1. Where are there points of disagreement and consensus among experts on great-power competition and those responsible for protecting U.S. interests?
  2. What role does information play in competitors' activities in the gray zone below the threshold of conflict, and how can the information environment support strategic responses to these activities?
  3. How can the United States better organize for competition and more effectively harness all elements of national power—diplomatic, information, military, and economic?

Strategic competition is a long game between those with a vested interest in preserving the international order of rules and norms dating back to the post–World War II era and revisionist powers seeking to disrupt or reshape this order. The gray zone occupies a position with blurred boundaries on the spectrum from cooperation to competition and then conflict. Gray zone activities provide a strategic advantage for one competitor while complicating the response calculus of another. This is because competition in the gray zone is characterized by incrementalism, deception, and ambiguity, all of which make it difficult to decipher what is occurring, who is responsible, and how an action supports broader or longer-term interests. Competitors gain an advantage when they can harness all elements of national power—diplomatic, information, military, and economic—but success hinges on the effective use of the information environment, in particular.

There is emerging consensus that the United States needs to reject the traditional notion that peace and war are dichotomous states. Competition today occurs in the space between. To mount an effective response to adversary activities in the gray zone, it is important to understand how adversaries leverage information, the ends that gray zone activities serve, and the capabilities and authorities needed to respond to them. This report offers a detailed enumeration of gray zone activities that support competition, a synthesis of expert consensus on challenges to gray zone competition, and a dynamic menu of solutions to enhance the U.S. competitive position in the gray zone and beyond.

Key Findings

There is no broadly shared understanding of competition among scholars and defense practitioners

  • The lexicon for discussing competition is vast and varied.
  • Operations in the information environment are central to gaining competitive advantages, but they are not always a priority when U.S. leaders consider how to compete militarily.
  • Competition requires a whole-of-government approach and solutions, but there are coordination gaps across the U.S. government and between the U.S. government and U.S. military.

There is consensus on some essential concepts and challenges related to competition

  • Strategic competition is fundamentally a long game between revisionist powers and those that want to preserve the status quo of the current international order. Rather than engaging in isolated contests, competitors undertake activities to gain an advantage in pursuit of one of these long-term goals.
  • Great-power competition blurs the line between peace and war and occurs on a spectrum that runs from cooperation through competition and to conflict of varying intensities. The blurring of these thresholds can complicate decisions about how to respond appropriately to a competitor's actions.
  • Ambiguity and uncertainty are enablers of gray zone competition. It is difficult to mount a response when it is unclear what action has occurred and who is responsible.
  • Great-power competition uses all elements of national power: diplomatic, information, military, and economic. When competing in the gray zone, states often respond to an activity related to one element of national power by harnessing an entirely different element of national power, as when military incursions are met with economic sanctions.


  • Ensure that the appropriate authorities and permissions are in place for the United States to maintain advantages in great-power competition and to compete effectively with adversaries in the gray zone. A whole-of-government approach to competition will improve coordination and progress toward U.S. goals.
  • Adopt a campaigning mindset by viewing adversary activities and U.S. response options as part of a competitive long game rather than discrete events. To better support this long-term vision and protect mutual interests, strengthen relationships with partners and allies and enlist their capabilities.
  • Fight ambiguity with transparency. Adversaries thrive in the gray zone when it is difficult to decipher their activities or assign attribution. "Naming and shaming" is one way to disrupt this kind of incremental aggression.
  • Be proactive rather than reactive, maintain a robust forward presence, and increase the risk tolerance of U.S. political and military leaders. Great-power competition has historically benefited revisionist states by putting the United States in a reactive position.
  • Take a multipronged approach to managing competitors by harnessing all elements of national power in mounting a response (diplomatic, information, military, and economic), increase adversaries' costs to compete by overextending their capabilities and limiting their response options, and empower civil society institutions in partner countries to reject adversaries' information campaigns before they can have their intended effect.

This research was sponsored by U.S. European Command and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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