I used to think deterrence was a concept of yesteryear, an outdated ideology from the history books. To millenials like me, the tension of the Cuban Missile Crisis came from a near-fictitious world full of “Mad Men” suits and excessive indoor smoking. Even the destabilizing circumstances surrounding Saddam Hussein’s aggression in the Middle East didn’t convince me that weapons of mass destruction would really be used to create an inferno of World War.
But now our dependency on cyber technologies has made global society vulnerable to such a threat, albeit a more silent one. Today, a well-crafted piece of malware can be as devastating as a traditional WMD attack, with more long-term impacts throughout an affected nation. An attack on a healthcare system can cripple, maim and kill patients connected to digitized treatment networks. Similarly, an attack on the financial sector can bankrupt companies and households alike, resulting in a long-term loss of economic confidence in a country. In addition, a digitized version of intelligence and military sabotage/invasion can disable national security structures, setting up an affected state for international domination/control.
These emerging realities have many nations—especially the oft-targeted United States—preparing their networks for the worst. Interestingly, lingering animosities from the Cold War have re-manifested themselves digitally in a manner eerily similar to the most tenuous periods of that era. Outside the United States, several other countries have been forced to grapple with cyber threats that may establish a deterrence-minded foreign policy philosophy in the near future:
With so much press in the West dedicated to cyber threats from China, Russian cyber aggression does not receive as much attention. This is significant given Russia’s position on a number of controversial international issues, including:
- Spheres of Influence—This term, much like “deterrence,” seems better applied to the Cold War. That said, the Russian Federation still maintains and actively pursues great influence over former Soviet states. The territorial largess of all these states (including Russia) immediately makes Russia a key stakeholder in international policy norms development. Given its propensity for aggression in cyber warfare and influence in Central Asia, Russian policies in cyberspace have significant impacts on international digital security. This claim is further strengthened by Moscow’s powerful seat on the UN Security Council and its involvement in foreign policy issues such as the Syria’s ongoing Civil War (where it is backing the Assad regime).
- Territorial Claims—Here, two areas stand out. First, global warming has made the Arctic Circle a strategically important trade passage. Maritime claims from major powers, including the US and Russia, will be debated and/or contested as polar ice cap melting produces a lucrative economic corridor for shipping. With the simultaneously growing influence of cyberspace in warfare, it is possible that online attacks from the Russians may accompany these important sovereignty claims as they develop. Secondly, and more near-term in scope, border regions like South Ossetia are still contested; perceptions of opposing sides post-Russian invasion are still fresh, especially given the proximity of soon-to-be Olympic host Sochi to the area of conflict.
The aggression of Chinese forces in cyber warfare is well documented. Whether due to a fragile leadership transition, economic uncertainty, worrying inequality, or encroaching international pressure in its East Asian sphere, the fact remains: hacking of Western governments, corporations, and commerce has been directly traced back to Chinese military units. Given the US’s clear demonstration of cyber attack capabilities via Stuxnet and Flame, this portrays a clear position of digital deterrence.
Attacked by Stuxnet and economic sanctions alike from the West, Iran’s case is a microcosm of the larger situation producing U.S.-Russia tensions. Here, Iran and Israel have sized up each other as major threats. Israel, along with the U.S., is widely believed to have developed and distributed Stuxnet to Iranian computers. This suggests that Iran’s response of targeting American banks is a form of retaliation and attempt at deterring brazen future intrusions.
North Korea (DPRK)
If the information coming from Pyongyang is mostly true (this is a big “if”), the DPRK is facing an onslaught of malicious network activity from the U.S. This could be interpreted as an American attempt to trigger serious instability in the regime. However, such claims are only partly plausible since Internet access in North Korea is limited and very tightly controlled in the few locations where it is accessible. Nonetheless, it demonstrates Pyongyang’s cybersecurity concerns, and if their cybersecurity policy is anything like their nuclear weapons policy, it is likely that cyber warfare development will eventually become another form of deterrence for the DPRK.
Through these issues, conflicts, and countries, we can see a unique interpretation of recent foreign policy history on a new platform: the World Wide Web. What remains to be seen is whether Cold War history repeats itself online (with the capitulation/weakening of US adversaries), or international cybersecurity policy takes a different direction.