Cyber politics meets the game of statecraft
Scientists and military planners in most countries around the world have long envisioned cyberattacks as a kind of digital equivalent of nuclear war: devastating but rare. Remember the 1983 movie WarGames which showcased bringing the world to a nuclear Armageddon (at the time this was cyber fiction) by hacking into military computers. Such was the heightened impact (definitely for the cautionary best) of this film on the US government of the day that five presidents, starting with Reagan, created an endless series of blue-ribbon Washington commissions to address the specter of digital destruction of nation-states (eg Russia, China, North Korea). Apart from the United States, the existence of such commissions is also common in many other countries today to detect, deter and mitigate the impact of cyber threats from political competitors.
In the wake of several nation-sponsored cyber attacks on societal infrastructure around the world over the past two decades, books and research papers by academics and politicians have conjured images of hacked power plants and air traffic control networks, food shortages and mass panic. While all of this may reflect reality in certain parts of the world, cyberattacks have at best become a low-level and persistent part of geopolitical competition. In other words, rather than a periodic and/or rare event, cyberattacks occur almost every day as government agents play a never-ending game with their competitors of espionage, deception, attack, counterattack, destabilization, and retaliation. According to the academics mentioned above and policy makers, this is the modern form of statecraft (a theory developed by academic and political scientist Jim Bulpitt) – subtle yet causing world-changing impacts. The basic working concept of state art relies on the principles of signaling and shaping. To get this point across to the general audience, suppose that cyber politics is a high-stakes game of poker. Here, signaling is to reliably hint at the cards one has in order to influence how the other side will play their hand. Indeed, as Nobel laureate and game theorist Thomas Schelling advocates, much of statecraft is about manipulating the shared risk of war through signaling without firing a single “shot” and forcing a political opponent with carefully calibrated threats to gain a peaceful advantage. On the other hand, shaping is changing the game state, stacking the deck, or stealing an opponent’s cards for one’s use. While cyber operations-driven warfare funded by international governments is increasingly influential in shaping cyber-driven geopolitics to their competitive advantage, they are relatively ill-suited to signaling a state’s positions and intentions.
Hackers funded by international governments eavesdrop, spy, alter, sabotage, disrupt, attack, manipulate, disrupt, expose, steal and destabilize in a manner similar to a boxer who wins slowly on points rather than with a knockout punch. Therefore, state-funded cyber operations are poorly suited for signaling – simply because the communication mechanism behind these operations lacks calibration, credibility and clarity. Cyber capabilities that drive national cyber operations are not analogous to nuclear capabilities as many police officers and scholars may say, or as many top government officials and ministers may perceive. Most of the population, including the latter, understand what nukes and tanks can do – their reliability, fungibility or re-targetability. In contrast, the scope, pitfalls, and methods of nation-sponsored cyber-hacking missions are relatively opaque. Statistics (and history) say that the nation-states that benefit most from hacking-based cyber operations are those that aggressively shape the geopolitical environment to their liking using espionage (US cyber espionage on Iran’s nuclear activities analogous to Soviet maskirovka, the Cayla doll introduced by the US , the Huawei chip espionage by China), sabotage (e.g. Iran’s uranium plant cyber-attack) and destabilization (e.g. Ukraine’s power grid cyber-attack) activities, rather than those that attempt to diplomatically suggest, coerce or threaten their competitors ( eg the Cold War activities between the US and the USSR).
Over the past two decades, state-sponsored cyber operations (which used to be out of public view and more the privilege of a few nations) have scaled up to include many countries around the world – with such operations no longer private. This trend fits perfectly with the vision of the famous diplomat George Kennan who suggested as far back as 1948 that the inevitable conflict between the divergent interests of nation-states would lead to a constant competition for advantages in international relations. Today, this advantage lies in manipulating the civil, business and public resources of a country – most of which are cyber-physical, Internet-connected and dependent on (competing) nation-originated (and controlling) search and social media platforms contracted with their own governments and ISPs (ISP) to leak data on their platforms/networks obtained from/about competing nations. The activities that reflect such cyber politics do not manifest themselves in public debates at the United Nations or other summits of international leaders or even in local, national parliamentary gatherings. Instead, the essence of such activities flows “silently” through vast server farms, ad hoc/IoT networks of unwitting participants, third-party states, and homes and workplaces almost everywhere. The global communications links, encryption mechanisms, internet companies, and computers that individuals use every day are the new front lines that nation-sponsored hackers are using to shape (for better or for worse) the future of statecraft.
The views above are the author’s own.
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