Guide Power and Conflict in the Cyber Age (World Politics Review Special Reports)

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The empirical record, however, suggests that although cyber conflict is becoming more frequent, this increase correlates with low level disruption and espionage tactics rather than more destructive forms of cyber warfare Jensen, Maness, and Valeriano , Moreover, the data shows that cyber disputes are very unlikely to spill over into the physical domains of warfare suggesting that, rather than escalation, the prevailing trend is one of restraint Valeriano and Maness Rather than live up to the predictions of the realist-informed spiral model, states appear to avoid escalation into warfare and restraint appears to be the prevailing norm instead.

It may be too early to tell whether escalation may become a future trend, but thirty years of digital conflict demonstrate a remarkable degree of self-restraint in that states have avoided outright destruction and violence in cyberspace. Power is central to realism because it can ensure the independence and survival of the state in a self-help environment Mearsheimer , The distribution of such capabilities among states is considered to have significant implications for stability in the international system.

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For instance, a longstanding debate has been whether a multipolar, bipolar, or unipolar power configuration creates a more peaceful world Mearsheimer , Although there is no theory of cyber power within the realist literature, realism offers a framework to think about the distribution of power between actors and how this relates to conflict. A core assumption of realism is that states are the most powerful and therefore most important actors in international politics. The information revolution challenges the primacy of the state, however, due to the greater involvement of non-state actors threatening traditional power dynamics Eriksson and Giacomello , We should not overstate this issue though because states are still the most dominant actors when it comes to cyber conflict.

Non-state actors and terrorists do play a role, but their tactics have generally been ineffective or used as cover for nation-states seeking to hide their actions Valeriano and Maness , It appears that states remain ultimately best placed to leverage the tools of cyber warfare with resources to invest in the manpower, research and development, and education that are unlikely to be rivalled by non-state actors.


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It is hypothesised that due to the relative low cost of entry into the cyber warfare domain, traditionally weaker states challenge stronger states and reconfigure the power distribution in the system Lango , Traditional power dynamics are also undermined by the paradoxical idea that the most technologically advanced countries are also the most dependent on digital infrastructure and thus the most vulnerable to a crippling cyber-attack Kolet , There are serious doubts about the efficacy of cyber coercion, however, since the technology lacks the destructiveness of conventional military operations and is less likely to be taken seriously by the target state.

It is quite another to ensure that the damage inflicted translates into a lasting shift in the balance of national capabilities or resolve. This argument has found empirical support in a statistical study on the effectiveness of different cyber offensive methods.

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Jensen, Valeriano, and Maness analyse data on cyber incidents between rival states and find that coercive cyber actions aimed at changing the behaviour of the target are generally ineffective compared with smaller scale disruption or espionage. These findings suggest that traditional notions of power and war do not necessarily translate well to the cyber domain, and that cyber power is not transformative of international politics.

The idea that attacking is cheaper, easier, more effective, and therefore a more prevalent strategy than defending features prominently in the cyber security discourse Lieber This is based on the offense-defence balance theory which is used by defensive realists to explain why status quo powers are sometimes incentivised to go to war, postulating that when the prevailing military technology favours offensive over defensive operations, the prospects for interstate conflict increase Quester , Jervis , Lynn-Jones , Van Evera When the advantage lies with the attackers, status quo powers are given strong incentives to increase their offensive capabilities and seek expansion or else risk being attacked themselves Jervis , Technological factors are considered to shape the offense-defence balance in various ways.

For instance, mobility enhancing technologies are said to favour the attackers, whereas technologies that increase firepower make defending more effective Glaser and Kaufmann In reality, technology heavily favoured the defence as trench warfare demonstrated Van Evera The theory has been thoroughly criticised, however, for its flawed logic and lack of parsimony Davis, Finel, and Goddard More critically, Gortzak et al.

They find that neither the actual nor perceived offense-defence balance is a statistically significant predictor of war or militarised interstate disputes, thus challenging the entire enterprise. Despite the challenges, the theory has found a resurgent popularity in the cyber security debate. The cyber offense is widely assumed to be more effective than defence due to its relative ease and cheapness, the potential damage it could inflict on society, its instantaneous nature, and because attacks need only target a single vulnerability to succeed, whereas defence involves securing entire networks and patching vulnerabilities that the defender is unaware of before they have been exploited Lieber , There are two important reasons to argue that these claims are overstated.

Real-world cases can help demonstrate that, first, the utilisation of cyber weapons is not as easy or cheap as is often assumed, therefore casting doubt on one of the main determinants of the offense-defence balance, and second, that the utility of cyber weapons as a coercive tool of warfare is likely overstated, suggesting that offensive cyber operations are not necessarily advantageous.

However, the rate of enrichment actually increased during this episode, highlighting the limited impact of even the most advanced of offensive cyber actions Lindsay , Similar conclusions can be drawn from the December hack of the Ukrainian power grid which caused a blackout for over , residents in Western Ukraine.

The incident involved Russian hackers disabling power supplies and launching a telephone denial of service attack against customer service call centres to prevent responses to the outages. The attack was also clearly limited in its impact on the target in that power was quickly restored, due to a manual override system. These prominent incidents suggest that offensive cyber operations are neither cheap, easy, nor effective in achieving strategic victory.

The empirical record shows, to the contrary, that between and , only 20 out of rival pairs of states engaged in cyber conflict which has mostly occurred at low levels of severity Valeriano and Maness , 1. The usage of cyber weapons, therefore, does not appear to be determined by the supposed offensive nature of cyber technology. Given current realities, the offense-defence balance theory is unlikely to be useful in predicting cyber conflict. What is more dangerous is if policy makers shape their policies around assumptions of offense-dominance, build-up offensive capabilities, and risk destabilising the cyber domain.

For realists, the acquisition of military capabilities is key to deterring aggression from other states and maintaining national security Morgenthau , Deterrence theory rose to prominence during the Cold War because of the threat of mutually assured destruction from nuclear weapons, and realists figure prominently in the debate arguing that nuclear weapons have a stabilising effect on international relations Waltz ; Mearsheimer , Deterrence logic now appears to be influencing cyber policy. Although it may seem an attractive option because of the perceived difficulty of defence as discussed earlier, there are several issues that undermine cyber deterrence.

Second, unlike nuclear weapons, cyber weapons do not have the same destructive capacity and so, to have a sufficient deterrent effect, would have to be used repeatedly and to great effect. This is difficult, however, because each cyber weapon is designed for a specific vulnerability which could be subsequently patched. Third, attributing the source of cyber incidents can be difficult and perpetrators often deny involvement. In such cases, therefore, a state cannot be certain of whom to respond against Libicki , These arguments suggest that deterring aggression through cyber means is an unworkable policy in practice.

Considering the difficulties of deterrence when restricted to the cyber domain, moving towards a more inclusive idea of cross domain deterrence may offer a way forward Gartzke and Lindsay It is also a concerning point that, while appreciating the inherent difficulties in protecting networks, governments may not be prioritising defensive measures Rid , ; McGraw , ; Craig and Valeriano b.

Critical infrastructure often remains undefended, or reliant on older technology.

The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age (Hardcover) | The Book Table

Deterrence as a theory depends on the ability of the target state to survive a first strike, and this nuance is lost in discussions of cyber deterrence. Another concern is the lack of discussion of the sources of discontent between entities that would lead to conflict in the first place. Given that much cyber conflict takes place between historically rival states Valeriano and Maness , often over territorial issues, perhaps working towards the settlement of outstanding issues of contention between actors ought to be given greater priority over nebulous and indemonstrable threats of retaliation.

As a theory mostly concerned with issues of national security and power, realism would appear to be the instinctive international relations perspective for understanding cyber conflict. Our analysis suggests that realism does remain a relevant framework for identifying important security-related issues in the cyber domain and can sometimes provide useful insights about some enduring characteristics of international relations.

However, realist theories about conflict often fall substantially short in explaining the unique dynamics of cyber conflict.

In many ways, the cyber domain resembles a realist world with its anarchical nature and lack of institutional governance where states fear one another and develop their capabilities in response. Yet, it is unclear whether cyber arms races are likely to escalate into cyber conflict. Realism also raises interesting questions about cyber power, about who possesses it, and how it relates to international stability. In terms of whether cyber power will transform traditional power dynamics, the evidence suggests this is not the case.

The trend we have seen thus far has been restrained from full-blown cyber war in favour of less destructive forms of cyber interactions. The offense-defence balance is the clearest example of a realist theory being used to explain the cyber domain, but it appears empirically inaccurate in its assumptions about the cyber domain and its predictions about cyber conflict. Real-world cases of cyber conflict suggest the offense is not as easy as is often assumed and the fact that we have not seen much cyber conflict suggest the theory is misplaced.

Importing the notion of deterrence from the nuclear era is furthermore ill-judged and makes little sense in the context of the reality of cyber weapons. Prudence, a foundation of classical realism, may offer the most viable policy advice. Due to the uncertainty surrounding the use of cyber technology as an offensive weapon, states should proceed with caution in the cyber domain and focus on creating resilient defences. Indeed, by refraining from outright cyber war, many states have so far remained rather prudent in their behaviour in cyberspace and this is an outcome that realist theorists would find appealing and an area for further theoretical elaboration.

Given the issues raised here, we encourage the development of new theories based on empirical observation or the deductive logics of the cyber domain rather than automatically falling back on realist theories that were developed to explain kinetic forms of warfare. With further empirical research, we can gain more precise understandings of key issues such as the impact of cyber arms races on interstate relations, the distribution of cyber capabilities among state and non-state actors, and the reasons for restraint despite the intense security competition and perceptions of an offensive advantage.

More precise answers to these questions can help us formulate better policy guidance for governments. Aitel, Dave.

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The government was often paralyzed, unable to threaten the use of cyberweapons because America was so vulnerable to crippling attacks on its own networks of banks, utilities, and government agencies. He has been a member of three teams that won the Pulitzer Prize, including in for international reporting.

Great Decisions - Cyber Conflict and Geopolitics - Col. Mickey Evans

It ought to be required reading for anyone who doubts the extent and seriousness of the Russian effort… The great value of The Perfect Weapon is less in its specific policy prescriptions than in its being the most comprehensive, readable source of information and insight about the policy quandaries that modern information technology and its destructive potential have spawned.

He covers incidents from the covert U.