Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 8, Issue 4  /  

Cold Wars, Grey Zones, and Strategic Competition: Applying Theories of War to Strategy in the 21st Century.

Cold Wars, Grey Zones, and Strategic Competition: Applying Theories of War to Strategy in the 21st Century. Cold Wars, Grey Zones, and Strategic Competition: Applying Theories of War to Strategy in the 21st Century.
By United States Air Force - Rosenfeld, Susan and Gross, Charles J (2007), Air National Guard at 60: A History. Public Domain, Wikipedia Commons
To cite this article: Hickman, Peter L., “Cold Wars, Grey Zones, and Strategic Competition: Applying Theories of War to Strategy in the 21st Century,” Military Strategy Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 4, spring 2023, pages 17-22.
Disclaimer: The perspectives presented are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Defense, United States Air Force, Air National Guard, or any other office or organization.

In 1947 Bernard Baruch warned the United States “not to be deceived” by the post-WWII “peace.” He described the emerging rivalry between the U.S. and the USSR as a “Cold War” that was not quite war but was also not quite peace.[i] Echoes of this concept of a Cold War are evident today in the somewhat ambiguous phrase “Strategic Competition” that the Biden Administration uses to describe relations between the United States and China.[ii] Though strategic competition is not a state of war, the rivalry between the U.S. and China is a precarious kind of peace in which both sides are also preparing for the possibility of future significant military escalation, major war, or even nuclear exchange.

U.S. foreign policy in the grey zone between war and peace has become the norm rather than the exception since Baruch’s warning in 1947. Though the U.S. Congress declared war eleven times between 1812 and 1942,[iii] Congress has not declared war in the last eighty years despite nearly 100,000 U.S. battle deaths in that same period.[iv] The conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan are all frequently referred to as “wars,” yet none drew a declaration of war from Congress. All are individually understood as instances of broader “wars”; the Cold War and the War on Terrorism. “Wars” on social ills further subsume the conceptually elegant definition of war as an “act of force to compel our enemy to do our will”[v] into an ill-defined aspiration to change a social or political status quo. Today’s interest in “grey zone” conflict illustrates that even in foreign policy, the concepts of war and peace have lost saliency for describing political reality and are more likely to be seriously encountered in academic environments than in the practice of grand strategy.[vi] The normalcy of “military operations other than war” since the 1950s has even led some military leaders to try to remind American service members that war at the scale of World War II remains a possibility in the future and is not simply a thing of the past.[vii]

However, the apparent inapplicability of theoretical concepts of war and peace to current political reality is a feature rather than a defect of theory. In the words of Clausewitz, the point of theory is “to clarify concepts and ideas that have become, as it were confused and entangled.”[viii] Likewise, Harold Winton writes that “theory’s first task is to define the field of study under investigation.”[ix] These acts of clarification and definition involve an irreconcilable conflict between synthesizing reality into useful models, which are finite, and the endless complexity of events as experienced in reality. Even in the early nineteenth century, when Clausewitz wrote On War, he acknowledged that war in practice “branches out in almost all directions and has no definite limits.”[x] However, this paper will explore how theorists make trade-offs between thinking clearly about war and peace with accurate descriptions of endless complexity. When it comes to issues of war and peace, this choice often involves abstracting war as a distinct phenomenon with enduring, essential characteristics that can be identified and modeled across time. While sacrificing some descriptive accuracy, such abstraction and clarification of concepts provide powerful tools for understanding the entanglement of war and peace. These theoretical tools are as helpful today for understanding “strategic competition” as they were two centuries ago for understanding grand strategy in the Napoleonic wars.

Theory Provides Conceptual Clarity at the Expense of Descriptive Accuracy

Clausewitz grounds his theoretical approach with the concept of “absolute war,” an abstracted form of war that provides an extreme point of theoretical reference for students of war theory.[xi] He does not suggest that this concept corresponds to wars as they are experienced in reality. Instead, “he who wants to learn from theory becomes accustomed to keeping that point in view constantly, to measuring all his hopes and fears by it, and to approximating it when he can or when he must.”[xii] In the early nineteenth century, when Clausewitz wrote, war in practice was, at most, an “approximation” of the theoretical concept of absolute war.[xiii] Nevertheless, this theoretical form has value because it provides “a guide to anyone who wants to learn about war from books; it will light his way, ease his progress, train his judgment, and help him avoid the pitfalls of battle.”[xiv]

Several other important theorists, familiar with war in practice, nonetheless develop abstract, theoretically elegant concepts of war. Jomini’s “art of war” consists of enduring principles and rules that become a “means of almost certain success” among the “poetry and metaphysics of war.”[xv] Nonetheless, he concedes that he cannot fully consider all the factors that influence the conduct of war without “deviating from my intention” and “enlarging too much the limits of this work.”[xvi] Alfred Mahan draws principles from the “constant” and “permanent” lessons of history by limiting his theoretical scope to the “immense determining influence” of sea power upon world history, albeit in both peace and war.[xvii] Likewise, Julian Corbett seeks “clear conceptions and the exposition of the inherent relations of things” to enable effective collective action. However, his “clear conceptions” function at a level of abstraction that cannot accompany one on the battlefield.[xviii] In the aftermath of World War I, Giulio Douhet defined war as an industrial pitting of “populations directly against populations, nations directly against nations… which come to blows and seize each other’s throats.”[xix] Douhet’s vision of industrial warfare was theoretically distinct from any other level of political interaction because, in his treatment, nations at war discard all concerns except the single-minded struggle for survival or death.

The development of elegant, precise, and unentangled theories of war provides explanatory power for theorists interested in war in the abstract. In most cases, theorists acknowledge that theoretical pruning always leaves some descriptive power on the cutting room floor. For example, Corbett writes that his focus on sea power renders exploration of “primordial” political questions and conditions “unprofitable.”[xx] Likewise, Jomini writes that military operations are often subject to important “political objective points” that appear “very irrational” in the context of a theoretical perspective focused on military considerations.[xxi] Finally, J.F.C. Fuller seeks to develop “a workable piece of mental machinery that will enable the war student to sort out military values” but acknowledges that “the fewer the parts of any machine, the simpler becomes its working.”[xxii] He, therefore, develops a simple, if limited, theoretical tool that can be employed by policymakers deciding whether or not to launch the first strike while leaving aside the additional machinery that might shed light on how war and peace are less conceptually independent in reality.[xxiii]

Exploring the Entanglement of War and Peace in Strategy

The theorists cited above acknowledge that they must make trade-offs between explanatory power over time and descriptive accuracy in any instance. The theories of war discussed above sacrifice descriptive accuracy by developing elegant, abstract, and theoretically useful concepts that enable thinking clearly about war. Elegant theoretical concepts of war also enable theorists to explore the “entanglement” of war and peace in practice and better understand concepts like strategic competition, which take place between rigid theoretical boundaries of war and peace.

Clausewitz employed his theoretical ideal of “absolute war” to demonstrate the practical entanglement of the concepts of war and peace in reality.[xxiv] Clausewitz points out that “final victory” in war is meaningful only within the theoretically isolated concept of “absolute war.”[xxv] Looking narrowly, Napoleon’s conquering of Moscow and half of Russia in 1812 was a great victory. His failure to subsequently destroy the Russian army and secure his desired peace rendered the broader campaign a disaster. This expansion of scope illustrates how individual engagements, and any war in its totality, “are only of value in their relation to the whole.”[xxvi] If particular engagements are only of value in relation to the whole war, then wars are only of value in relation to ongoing “political intercourse,” which is “crowned” not by victory in a war but through securing a desired peace.[xxvii] However, for Clausewitz, a crowning peace is always aspirational because “even the outcome of a war is not always to be regarded as final. The defeated state often considers the outcome merely as a transitory evil, for which a remedy may still be found in political conditions at some later date.”[xxviii]

Though Fuller developed a “simple machine” to understand war, he simultaneously emphasizes the fundamental entanglement of war and peace by crafting a theory of war that effectively has no peace portion of the dyad. Quoting William James, he writes, “every up to date dictionary should say that ‘peace’ and ‘war’ mean the same thing, now in posse, now in actu… preparation for war by the nation is the real war, permanent, unceasing; and that battles are only a sort of public verification of mastery gained during the ‘peace’ intervals.”[xxix] Writing in the aftermath of WWI, Fuller’s focus on economy of force was not limited to any particular war but was always partially oriented to the next war.[xxx] Fuller argues that war should be conducted based on forward-looking calculations of post-war power rather than the victory at hand. Therefore, the means of seeking today’s victory should always consider tomorrow’s preparations, and states should minimize destruction because “to kill, wound, and plunder is to destroy or debilitate a future buyer.”[xxxi]

More recently, Colin S. Gray has explored the entanglement of theoretical war and peace by writing that “war and peace overlap in a fuzzy zone that is a world of both/and, rather than of sharp differences.”[xxxii] For Gray, any “theory of war must also be a theory of peace, all the while it needs to develop analytical tools suitable to cope with conditions that are neither plainly of war nor peace, but rather are both.”[xxxiii] In this sense, “warfare is not self-referential” but is always about the larger war and peace political context over time.[xxxiv] War and peace are other-referential and endlessly entangled, like the states who struggle through them in an endless pursuit of advantage.

The Art of Strategy in posse

As argued above, theories emphasizing the entanglement of war and peace offer insight into strategic competition. However, to better understand the nature of strategic competition, it is essential to understand strategy formation across repeated periods of war and peace, particularly the overriding fear of future entrapment.

Everett Dolman argues that when considered from an expansive theoretical scope, the international strategic environment is similar to an iterated prisoner’s dilemma.[xxxv] In an open-ended, strategic game, Dolman describes strategy as “a plan for attaining continuing advantage” because “the strategist can never finish the business of strategy, and understands that there is no permanence in victory – or defeat.”[xxxvi] Though final victory does lose conceptual salience across time, defeat in the form of imposition of another’s political will, regime change, or even nuclear annihilation retains its salience as an alarming danger. Moreover, this apprehension of future insecurity and strategic pursuit of future advantage is the fundamental driver of arms races, the Cold War, and 21st-century strategic competition.

Concern about such dangers is evident as far back as the Ancient Greeks. According to Thucydides, the Peloponnesian war began because Sparta feared the rise of Athenian power and decided that war would be preferable to the continued rise of that power.[xxxvii] Athens, for their part, refused to concede Sparta’s relatively modest near-term demands because, according to Pericles, they would lead over time to “slavery.”[xxxviii] Athens also launched the expedition to Sicily not because of an immediate threat but due to the potential future growth of Syracuse and the danger that they could one day join with the Spartans against Athens.[xxxix]

These three examples from Thucydides demonstrate great concern with an adversary reaching some future point of control beyond which no viable options exist for contesting the imposition of their will. This concern is similar to Sun Tzu’s concept of being surrounded, and Clausewitz’s description of a situation in which every possible change is “a change for the worse.”[xl] Perhaps most succinctly, B. H. Liddell Hart describes it as a “psychological dislocation” that arises from a sense of being “trapped.”[xli] Fundamentally, once an individual, army, or state has become trapped, they no longer have any means by which they can escape the imposition of an adversary’s will. Therefore, Pericles’s use of “slavery” seems not exaggerated but apt.

The implications for strategy are relatively straightforward if the overriding concern of states over time is to avoid becoming strategically trapped and, therefore, helpless in the face of an adversary’s will. A military strategy must maximize options available to statesmen to achieve political ends.[xlii] “Their purpose is not to project violence, but to be prepared to do so, or in perfect terms, to be able to do so.”[xliii] For Clausewitz, this means creating conditions in which the “opponent either will not appeal to that supreme tribunal – force – or that he will lose the verdict if he does.”[xliv] For Dolman, “every action of the master strategist should be intended to increase options, not eliminate them. For there is always another alternative waiting to be found.”[xlv] In short, the role of (grand) strategy is to avoid any future entrapment and win the peace, “even if only from your point of view.”[xlvi]

Strategic competition between the U.S. and China is precisely this kind of peacetime maneuvering to avoid future insecurity and risk of entrapment. The U.S. and China must consider the full range of future iterations of current strategic relationships. Some possible iterations may result in a trap for at least one state or even a “Thucydides Trap” for both.[xlvii] The threat of great power war and even the use of nuclear weapons looms over possible future iterations. The most impactful strategic decisions are available now. Both states seek to avoid the “supreme tribunal of force,” maximize options, and seek advantage should the day come for a decision through force. Though the U.S. and China are not at war, the current “peace” is also war in posse, and both states strive to keep it that way while preparing for the worst.

As argued above, theories of war and peace that emphasize the entanglement of the concepts provide powerful tools for exploring the grand strategic context of strategic competition. However, it is worth noting that this increased explanatory power is purchased at the expense of the clarity of thought that Clausewitz found so valuable for the education of strategists. From the lofty heights of grand strategy, gazing across future iterations of war and peace, the strategist focuses on the economy of force and continuing advantage over time rather than the adversary fleet or winning air command.[xlviii] Such a grand theoretical sweep comes at the expense of clarity needed if war in posse becomes a war in actu, and Clausewitz’s reassurance that defeat is never final gives way to Douhet’s waves of bombers with their payloads of poison gas. After all, a focus on the economy of force and continuing advantage was likely on the minds of 18th-century princes of Europe just before Napoleon “ruthlessly cut through all his enemies’ strategic plans in search of battle.”[xlix] In hindsight, those princes might have wished for the simple clarity of theorists like Jomini, Mahan, or Douhet rather than the entangled complexity of Dolman or Gray.


Though the term Strategic Competition may suggest that the war/peace dyad is now insufficient for understanding the full range of strategic interaction, it is important to remember that clarity and abstraction are features rather than defects of theories of war. All theories must make tradeoffs in exchange for specific explanatory power. While some employ elegant concepts of dyadic war and peace, others explore the entanglement of such concepts. Though the latter enables a better understanding of phenomena like strategic competition in peacetime, it is important to remember that such theoretical choices may be drawbacks if competition becomes conflict.


[i] Andrew Glass, “Bernard Baruch Coins Term ‘Cold War,’ April 16, 1947,” POLITICO, accessed August 13, 2021,
[ii] Joseph Biden, “National Security Strategy” (The White House, October 2022), 11. The term “strategic competition” is introduced though not clearly defined in the 2022 National Security Strategy. For more on the lack of clarity of the phrase, see Overfield, Cornell. “Biden’s ‘Strategic Competition’ Is a Step Back.” Foreign Policy (blog), October 13, 2021.
[v] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Indexed Edition, trans. Michael Eliot Howard and Peter Paret, Reprint edition (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1989), 75.
[vi] John Raine, “War or Peace? Understanding the Grey Zone,” International Institute for Strategic Studies (blog), April 3, 2019,; Steven Aftergood, “Pentagon Moves to Support War in the ‘Grey Zone,’” Federation Of American Scientists (blog), accessed October 26, 2019,
[vii] Notable is Air Force General Mike Minihan’s January 2023 memo as well as Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles Q. Brown’s statements on related to potential casualties in a future war;
[viii] Clausewitz, On War, Indexed Edition, 132.
[ix] Harold R. Winton, “An Imperfect Jewel: Military Theory and the Military Profession,” Journal of Strategic Studies 34, no. 6 (December 1, 2011): 854,
[x] Clausewitz, On War, Indexed Edition, 134.
[xi] Clausewitz, 581.
[xii] Clausewitz, 581.
[xiii] Clausewitz, 580.
[xiv] Clausewitz, 141.
[xv] Baron Antoine-Henri De Jomini, The Art of War (Radford, VA: Wilder Publications, 2008), 245–47.
[xvi] Jomini, 27.
[xvii] Rear Adm Alfred Thayer Mahan, Mahan on Naval Strategy: Selections from the Writings of Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, ed. John B. Hattendorf, Reprint edition (Naval Institute Press, 2015), 8, 22, 102.
[xviii] Julian S. Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, Classics of Sea Power (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute, 1988), 6, 4.
[xix] Giulio Douhet, The Command of the Air, trans. Dino Ferrari, Air University Press edition (Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama: Air University Press, 2019), 174.
[xx] Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, 27, 30.
[xxi] Jomini, The Art of War, 68.
[xxii] J. F. C. Fuller, The Foundations of the Science of War (Military Bookshop, 2012), 326.
[xxiii] Fuller, 335.
[xxiv] Clausewitz, On War, Indexed Edition, 579–81.
[xxv] Clausewitz, 582.
[xxvi] Clausewitz, 582.
[xxvii] Clausewitz, 582.
[xxviii] Clausewitz, 80.
[xxix] Fuller, The Foundations of the Science of War, 66.
[xxx] Fuller, 204.
[xxxi] Fuller, 69.
[xxxii] Colin S. Gray, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice, Reprint edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 107.
[xxxiii] Gray, 115.
[xxxiv] Gray, 31.
[xxxv] Everett Dolman, Pure Strategy: Power and Principle in the Space and Information Age, 1st edition (London; New York: Routledge, 2005), 56.
[xxxvi] Dolman, 6, 11.
[xxxvii] Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War: Revised Edition, Revised (Penguin Classics, 1972), 16.
[xxxviii] Thucydides, 81.
[xxxix] Thucydides, 365.
[xl] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans. Samuel B. Griffith (London Oxford New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), 109–10.; As quoted in B. H. Liddell Hart, Strategy: Second Revised Edition, 2nd Revised ed. edition (New York, N.Y., U.S.A: Plume, 1991), 341.
[xli] Liddell Hart, Strategy, 327.
[xlii] Dolman, Pure Strategy, 33.
[xliii] Dolman, 34.
[xliv] Clausewitz, On War, Indexed Edition, 99.
[xlv] Dolman, Pure Strategy, 9.
[xlvi] Liddell Hart, Strategy, 349–53.
[xlvii] Graham Allison, “The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?,” The Atlantic, September 24, 2015,
[xlviii] Douhet, The Command of the Air.
[xlix] Clausewitz, On War, Indexed Edition, 386.