Small Wars Journal

Cyber-Realpolitik: US Foreign Policy and a Fragmented International System

Tue, 08/06/2019 - 11:04am

Cyber-Realpolitik: US Foreign Policy and a Fragmented International System

Jonathan Lancelot

When international policymakers are in war rooms around the world, making decisions that could determine the difference between détente or a megadeath, it is not always clear where the directive ends up, who received it, or what will become if it. During World War I, a war which resulted from machines of war that were so destructive, mechanical, without respect for distance from ground zero, and a fail attempt of diplomacy across Europe, populations of people were destroyed by the incongruency between the governing body and the governed. Regardless, all that perished under the mismanagement of the international system did not even know why bombs were falling into their villages and towns. World War I is an example of the lack of leadership within government to adapt to the nuances of old, renewed, and current conflict in a region that championed the art of war, and aligning this tradition with military offensive technology that was capable of prolonging an already bloody and senseless melee.

World War II brought on new horrors in warfare that we are still trying to understand many decades after the conflict. The one that is most important to this discussion is the invention of the atom bomb, and the burden the technology has had on the international system ever since. From World War I till the end of World War II, a multipolar power system, where a balance of power was the determining factor between war and peace revolved into a bipolar power system with the US and USSR as the two major powers who emerged from worldwide destruction.

During the Cold War, nuclear weaponry, and the unsullied destructive power of the technology was a continuous dark cloud over the international community, governments, militaries, and populations of people around the world. However, unlike World War I, most people knew what the threat was, understood the risks, and governed themselves, society, and warfare accordingly. The Cuban Missile Crisis is a classic example of the awareness, where the US and USSR came close, yet backed away from mutual destruction.

Today, we are dealing with cyberweapons, which seems to be an abstraction in the annals of the history of weaponry in warfare, yet they are just as dangerous in respect to the crisis in escalation, espionage, privacy, election manipulation, critical infrastructure exposure, and hybrid warfare. In reality, cyberspace itself has encroached on every aspect of human communication and interaction, including policy making, decision making, and most importantly, war-making. Cyber policy is no longer a subset of governance; it is at the center of the practice of governing and realpolitik. In reality, computer science merged with political science without the consent of those who govern, and without the awareness of the governed. The very sovereignty and purpose of nation-states are strained by the distribution of power facilitated by computer networking structures, and this leads to a significant change to strategic policy analyses.

Cyber-realpolitik or cyber-realism is an anarchic international system that is fragmented beyond the multiplicity of a multipolar distribution of state power. Nation-states are increasingly finding governance difficult as technology is propagated into the internet of things (IoT), and innovations in artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain technology. The power to disrupt and appeal to public impulses are redistributed to tech companies and their executives, developers, coders, technicians, and computer engineers. Non-state cyber operations, cybercriminals, and cyber-terrorists also wield power in a system with billions of network nodes and user interfaces. There must be a shift in US foreign policy that can deal with the changing landscape of warfare and diplomacy, the two core features of a nation-state. Enforcement, attribution, and disclosure are challenging to attain, yet not impossible. Still, yet, there is a significant shift in how a nation-state reacts to the potential of conflict, avoiding the conflict, and ending the conflict. There is an effort by international state actors on creating behavioral norms in cyberspace, yet with cyberweaponry being employed by rogue nation-states and companies like Cambridge Analytica against other organizations, setting long lasting norms is going to be an international group effort, friends and foes alike. Most of all, due to historical efforts toward globalization, transnational company leadership have more control over international economic policy than nation-states, and political decision making is not the sole territory of the politician, with blockchain technology, cyberspace will continue to be regulated by code in cyberspace, potentially weakening nation-state legislatures and courts if governments do not set boundaries. The emergence of cyber-states is a possibility with a merger of smart contracts and AI, forming decentralized automated organizations that govern themselves beyond the limits of traditional laws and norms.

These technological developments can provide a benefit, or a detriment depending on how society governs the ethical limits of culture, social norms, and expectations. Just as warfare utilizes cyberspace, diplomacy can use technology as a tool towards political resolution within international security policies. Cyber-diplomacy is a means towards foreseeing externalities that arise in cyberspace that complicate other aspects of conventional warfare. In other words, cyber-diplomacy ensures cyber-defense and risk management on the network on through to the physical domain. Cyber-diplomacy is also a means to shield populations from being collateral damage within the cyberspace battlefield, which is virtual and respects no boundaries unless the nation-state imposes cyber-limits, and stifles unwanted attacks or intrusions. No firewall is impervious, yet the amorphic structure of the international computer network guarantees continuous difficulty for traditional nation-states to govern, leaving us perilously close to megadeath, yet within an arm shot of détente.


About the Author(s)

Jonathan Lancelot is a cybersecurity analyst at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and principal policy analyst for the OSET Institute focused on election cybersecurity in the context of national security. Jonathan graduated from Norwich University with a Master of Diplomacy with a focus on cyber-diplomacy. He published the widely shared papers “Russia Today, Cyberterrorists Tomorrow: US Failure to Prepare Democracy for Cyberspace,” which is published in the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Journal of Digital Forensics, Security and Law, and “Cyber-Diplomacy: Cyberwarfare and the Rules of Engagement,” which is published by the Journal of Cyber Security Technology. He is a contributing writer at Small Wars Journal and is currently researching cyberpolitics, cyberphilosophy, and cyberdefense. Jonathan has an extensive technical background in computer science and is a certified Apple systems administrator. His past work has taken him through Apple, Inc., the United States Senate, and the US Department of Defense.  Twitter: @lancelotpolitic