Cyberspace’s Role in International Relations: Understanding its Impact as a Structural Modifier

The evolution of cyberspace has significantly influenced international relations, raising critical questions about its exact role and impact in international relations. Does it represent a new domain of statecraft that actors leverage against other actors? Is it an independent system of rules and behaviours? Offensive cyber operations’ pervasiveness and economic damage render these questions increasingly salient. Cyber scholarship has been developing as a distinct field. Early debates about integrating cyberspace into broader international relations discussions are moving from the periphery to the core of the discipline. In a new article, Michiel Foulon and Gustav Meibauer explore how conceptualizing cyberspace as a structural modifier can provide a shared language with the broader field of International  Relations. This may aid scholars and policy-makers to better understand the causal role and effects of cyberspace and pave the way for thinking conceptually about other emerging technologies including artificial intelligence, outer space technology, or lethal autonomous weapons.

Cyberspace in International Relations: Domain vs. Structure

Conventional views of cyberspace in international relations focus on cyberspace as a domain where actors conduct cyber operations. One group of scholars argues that cyberspace is a domain that revolutionizes international relations: it alters military tactics and state interactions. Another group remains sceptical about cyberspace’s transformative potential, emphasizing its limitations and the barriers states face in developing cyber capabilities. However, this debate about cyberspace as a domain is challenged by scholars who view cyberspace as a systemic factor that shapes the behavior across multiple dimensions of international relations. This perspective suggests that focusing solely on cyber operations risks ignoring how cyberspace interacts with other international political dynamics. Cyberspace influences military intelligence, conflict performance, and strategic environments, and may affect wider-ranging processes from trade to diplomacy, from democratization and autocratic backlash to climate change and migration. This highlights the need for a more integrated conceptualization.

Conceptualizing Cyberspace as a Structural Modifier

To address some of the limitations of current cyber scholarship, we introduce cyberspace as a structural modifier. In international relations research, structure refers to the macro-social arrangements that govern international relations. It is conventionally understood as characterized by anarchy, and, therefore, the distribution of material power among states.

Structural modifiers are systemic properties that modify how states are likely to experience the effects of structure. In other words, structural modifiers do not change the structure itself but alter and specify how structure is likely to causally affect state behavior. For example, geographic features and nuclear weapons may be viewed as structural modifiers that enable or constrain state behavior across international relations. This in turn influences the types and intensities of interactions among actors that are likely and seen as desirable. It is in this way, that cyberspace, too, can be viewed as a structural modifier with system-wide implications for states.

The Impact of Cyberspace as a Structural Modifier

Viewing cyberspace as a structural modifier offers several advantages for international relations scholarship and policy-making:

  1. Integrating Disconnected Cyber Scholarship: Cyber theories often remain isolated, focusing on specific aspects such as deterrence or foreign policy without considering their collective implications. A structural modifier framework encourages a holistic view, examining how cyberspace’s effects on various areas of international relations interact and produce larger-scale impacts.
  2. Linking Cyber Scholarship with International Relations Theory: By conceptualizing cyberspace as a structural modifier, cyber scholarship can engage more meaningfully with broader International Relations theories. This integration can consider cyberspace’s broader implications and lead to the development of more comprehensive theories that reflect emerging empirical realities.
  3. Providing Policy Guidance: Policy-makers can benefit from understanding cyberspace as a structural modifier: it cautions them against viewing cyberspace in isolation of other foreign policy domains. And it cautions them against viewing cyberspace or as a driver of revolutionary change in international relations. Instead, it emphasizes the need to consider cyberspace’s interaction with existing statecraft domains and tools, promoting more balanced and informed decision-making.

Empirical Examples and Future Research

To illustrate the concept of cyberspace as a structural modifier, we consider cyberspace’s effects across a variety of international relations dynamics, including in the following empirical examples.

Deterrence: Cyberspace complicates conventional deterrence strategies. As states struggle to attribute offensive cyber operations makes to its perpetrators, they find it difficult to uphold the deterrent threat of potential retaliation. States may have to adapt by focusing on persistent engagement rather than one-off retaliatory actions, or by adjusting their cost-benefit analyses in response to adversarial actions in cyberspace.

Foreign Policy Tools: The introduction of cyber capabilities has transformed how decision-makers think about which foreign policy tools they should employ. Initially hesitant due to uncertainties surrounding cyber operations’ collateral impacts, states are now increasingly incorporating cyber tools into their strategic planning. This shift reflects a broader normalization and integration of cyber operations alongside conventional military, economic, and diplomatic tools.

Uncertainty: Cyberspace exacerbates but also mitigates uncertainty in international relations. It allows actors to gather and disseminate rapidly information. This can reduce uncertainty. However, it also presents challenges such as information overload and reliance on potentially flawed data, which complicates decision-making and strategic planning.

Interaction with Non-State Actors: Cyberspace blurs the lines between state and non-state actors. Private companies, hackers, and other non-state entities play pivotal roles in cyberspace, often cooperating or competing with states. This dynamic expands the range of influential actors and introduces new complexities in international interactions.

Future research may operationalize the concept of cyberspace as a structural modifier to uncover insights across key areas of international relations. This approach may extend to other emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence or outer space technology. It broadens the scope of IR scholarship and provides new avenues for theoretical and empirical exploration.

Conclusion

How can we understand cyberspace’s role in international relations? Conceptualizing cyberspace as a structural modifier offers a framework for integrating cyber scholarship with broader international relations theories and concepts. It helps address some of the limitations of current debates between domain-focused and systemic approaches, as well as between proponents and sceptics of cyberspace-induced revolutionary change. It shows a pathway for the study of cyberspace to move beyond its original community, thereby benefitting the discipline more widely. By emphasizing the systemic role of cyberspace, this conceptualization provides valuable insights for both academic research and policy-making. This aids promoting a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of cyberspace’s impact on global politics. As cyberspace continues to evolve, adopting this conceptual lens will be crucial for analysing its implications and guiding effective strategies in the digital age

Gunboats and Butter: The Two Percent Guideline and NATO Burden Shifting in the Maritime Domain

Ensuring fair burden sharing among members has been a persistent challenge for NATO. This issue has recently been thrust back into the spotlight by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and Donald Trump’s comments that he would encourage an attack against NATO allies that failed to meet their financial obligations. Furthermore, Russia’s attempts to disrupt Ukrainian grain exports and recent Houthi attacks in the Red Sea highlight another critical issue for NATO: securing freedom of navigation and protecting global maritime trade. Bridging these two strands of research, in this new article, Nizan Feldman and Mark Shipton argue that the United States’ steadfast commitment to safeguarding international maritime commerce and freedom of navigation has inadvertently allowed other NATO members to underinvest in their own naval capabilities.

 

The tendency to underinvest in naval capabilities was amplified as NATO members moved closer to fulfilling the Defence Investment Pledge established at the 2014 Wales Summit. This pledge commits them to spending at least 2% of GDP on defense and allocating 20% of that to equipment modernization. However, analyzing the impact of the Wales Pledge, the authors find a significant decline in non-US NATO naval capabilities since its adoption.

The findings mirror a broader trend of allies reallocating defense resources away from capabilities that are more likely to be provided by the alliance’s leading power, known as the ‘patron’. Previous studies have shown that a patron’s ability to credibly signal its intention to abandon alliance members significantly influences burden sharing within alliances. However, the risk of abandonment is not always a binary choice. A patron may indicate its willingness to protect allies against specific threats while signaling its reluctance to counter others.

The U.S. commitment to and interests in global freedom of navigation reduce its ability to credibly signal an intention to abandon NATO members that face substantial disruption to their wartime maritime trade or other major maritime-related threats. Therefore, when NATO members increased their defense spending to comply with the Wales Pledge, they deferred the highly costly investments needed to commission expensive naval platforms.

To test this hypothesis, the authors created several proxies to measure the naval capabilities of each ally, using data from the annual editions of Jane’s Fighting Ships, published by Janes Information Group. They then conducted various estimations, including a set of control variables that typically influence a country’s propensity to develop naval power or engage in burden shifting. The primary explanatory variable is a dummy that assigns a value of 0 for years before and 1 for years after the implementation of the Wales Pledge. In accordance with the main hypothesis, the coefficient of this variable is negative and highly significant in all of the models we ran.

One might argue that the reduction in naval power resulted from a more coordinated division of labor within NATO. Prompted by Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea and the subsequent Defence Investment Pledge, allies may have been motivated to revisit the Cold War dynamics where the United States and traditional European naval powers primarily secured Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs), while other European allies focused on coastal defense and developed specialized skills in areas such as anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and minesweeping. If true, the findings would represent not burden shifting but a more cooperative, efficient, and equitable sharing of responsibilities. However, there is scant evidence of a comprehensive, mutually agreed transformation in the division of labor that would allow each ally to capitalize on its military comparative advantage. Despite some advancements in process design aimed at harmonizing capabilities, the post-Wales Summit period has not been marked by the political conditions necessary to foster a deliberate and coordinated shift in the division of labor.

This is not to suggest that the burden shifting through a reduction in naval power observed in the post-Wales period is a definitive trend that will necessarily characterize NATO dynamics in the coming years. Nor is it a given that a future coordinated division of labor in the maritime domain is unattainable. Growing concerns among NATO members over China’s geopolitical rise, along with the significant impact of the September 2022 Nord Stream explosions—which highlighted the vulnerability of critical maritime infrastructure—and other geostrategic shifts, have emphasized the importance of maintaining robust maritime capabilities. Thus, despite NATO navies’ reliance on the U.S. commitment to ensure freedom of navigation and secure maritime trade, other factors may drive future development. It would be in the alliance’s interest if such a resurgence in maritime investments were to be coordinated.

That said, it is important to note that even if NATO allies increase future naval investments, scholars and policymakers would benefit from keeping in mind the core trend demonstrated in the article. While the analysis focuses on the maritime domain, the argument and empirical findings may capture a broader pattern of allies’ tendency to shift defense resources away from capabilities that are more likely to be provided by the patron. When allies must increase “guns” at the expense of “butter,” either due to alliance commitments or because of a more threatening security environment, they will reallocate their budgetary resources to make investments that best generate private economic, domestic, or strategic benefits. One way to do so is to reduce funds to platforms the patron is more likely to provide, redirecting those resources toward goals that potentially yield private domestic or strategic benefits.

Therefore, adopting the proposed disaggregation approach allows scholars to better assess the effectiveness of specific policies designed to foster fairer burden sharing among alliance members, such as the Wales Pledge. Recent efforts to move beyond using a simple military spending indicator for evaluating burden sharing should not only adopt a more detailed examination of capabilities but also distinguish between the threats the patron is more or less likely to address.

China’s nuclear expansion and the increasing risk of an arms race

Why is China expanding its nuclear arsenal? In his new article, Henrik Stålhane Hiim argues that concerns about the vulnerability of its nuclear forces is the main driver – and that there is little evidence of a change in China’s nuclear strategy.

In the summer and autumn of 2021, researchers revealed that China had started building more than 300 silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles in three different fields. The silo exposure made international headlines, and demonstrated that China had started a significant nuclear expansion. The US Department of Defense now assesses that China will possess over 1000 warheads by 2030, a fourfold increase in a decade. Even though the United States and Russia will continue to possess significantly larger arsenals, there is no doubt that China’s buildup represents a turn away from its traditional approach of maintaining a small nuclear force.

There is less agreement about why China is expanding its arsenal. In my article, I argue that there is still little evidence to suggest to that the expansion represents a change in China’s nuclear strategy. Chinese leaders have traditionally thought of nuclear weapons as having two functions: Deterring nuclear attacks from others, and countering nuclear blackmail or coercion. The buildup could enable later shifts in strategy, but there are still few signs of Chinese leaders fundamentally rethinking the purposes nuclear weapons serve in their defense policy.

I further find that the main driver of China’s expansion is concerns about US capabilities such as missile defense and highly precise nuclear and conventional weapons. Chinese sources indicate that worries about US nuclear policy have increased in recent years. Many in China fear the combination of weapons that can target its nuclear forces, and defenses that can intercept any surviving Chinese missiles. In tandem, they argue, such capabilities pose a major threat to China’s nuclear deterrent.

To be clear, other factors may also have influenced China’s buildup. Some analysts point to prestige and status concerns as a possible explanation. Others have indicated that the purpose of the expansion is to create a stronger “shield” to enable conventional aggression against Taiwan, which is possible, but not directly discussed in Chinese sources. Nevertheless, my findings indicate that concern about the vulnerability of its arsenal is likely to be the main driver. In particular, the Donald Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review was seen as alarming in China and contributed to increasing worries about the future strategic stability.

Towards an arms race?

My findings have implications for the debates about US nuclear policy. There is increasing discussion in the United States about whether to respond to China’s buildup through a similar expansion and by deploying new weapons systems. In October, the bipartisan Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States published its final report. The commission recommended to prepare to upload some or all of the warheads currently held in reserve. It further stated that the United States should deploy additional theater nuclear weapons with variable yield (or so-called tactical nuclear weapons) to the Indo-Pacific region. Similarly, a study group convened by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) recently argued that “The United States should plan and prepare to deploy additional warheads and bombs from the reserve.”

Unfortunately, my article indicates that such responses are very likely to lead to major arms race pressures. For example, influential US experts have argued that the United States should attempt to maintain a so-called damage limitation capability – that is, the ability to destroy or intercept as many Chinese nuclear weapons as possible in the event of an all-out war. The problem of this approach, however, is that Chinese leaders are no longer willing to live with a vulnerable arsenal. China is very likely to respond if its leaders and experts believe the United States is attempting to maintain a damage limitation capability.

Similarly, if the United States deploys new tactical nuclear weapons in Asia, the likelihood of China developing such weapons may increase. As experts from the Federation of American Scientists highlight, there is still no evidence that China plans to field a new low-yield warhead. However, my article highlights that Chinese experts are debating whether there is a need for such weapons as a response option vis-à-vis the United States.

Different nuclear schools of thought

As other scholars have also highlighted, the competing readings of China’s nuclear intentions, and of how the United States should respond, is in no small part informed by different assumptions and theories about nuclear strategy. Scholars who believe the balance of terror is delicate – and that states have incentives to pursue superiority – are likely to see China’s expansion as alarming. These scholars, whose views also appears to be at least partly shared by U.S. officials, fear China might be opting for a first-strike capability. Moreover, they argue that the United States should attempt to maintain its superior position.

My research demonstrates, however, that fears of China opting for nuclear superiority and a first-strike capability are overblown. Instead, China’s expansion aligns with the so-called nuclear revolution theory. A key tenet of this school of thought it that states should strive for a secure second-strike capability, but that pursuit of superiority is meaningless. So far, China appears to be acting like a good nuclear revolutionary. If it continues to do so, an arms race may still be at hand, albeit one less intense than the Cold War race.

Read the article “The last atomic Waltz: China’s nuclear expansion and the persisting relevance of the theory of the nuclear revolution” here

From reluctance to reassurance: Explaining the shift in Germans’ support for measures of common defense following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

In the wake of Russia’s full-scale attack on Ukraine in February 2022, Germany has shifted the focus of its defense policy back to collective defense. A new article by Timo Graf, Markus Steinbrecher & Heiko Biehl shows that public opinion on collective defense has also shifted: from a marked reluctance to support NATO’s eastern members to a much greater willingness to contribute military resources to reassure those members in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine. Against the background of the war, how do we explain that shift in the alliance solidarity of the German people? Which factors are driving this change and how lasting is it going to be? The answer is complex and involves the public image of Russia, the willingness to follow US leadership, and strategic culture.

For decades, both Western and Eastern NATO partners have criticized Germany for not spending enough on (collective) defense and its growing dependency on energy imports from Russia. Economic interests and a free-riding mentality aside, a driving force behind close relations with Russia was public opinion. Significant parts of German society were Russia-friendly and showed little support for strengthening NATO’s eastern flank.

Russia’s war against Ukraine in 2022 forced a historic shift in Germany’s defense policy and in its relations towards Russia – a Zeitenwende (epochal turning point) as it is now referred to in the German debate. Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared the contributions of the German armed forces (Bundeswehr) to NATO’s territorial defense of Europe as their top priority, because “[t]he crucial role for Germany at this moment is to step up as one of the main providers of security in Europe […] beefing up our military presence on NATO’s eastern flank.” The Zeitenwende in defense policy has been mirrored by a major shift of public opinion in Germany on collective defense: Reluctance towards the defense of NATO’s eastern flank has given way to majority support for military efforts to reassure NATO’s eastern members in the face of Russian aggression. German chancellor Olaf Scholz interprets this shift of public opinion as being indicative of “a new mindset in German society.”

Our article seeks to answer two pressing questions: Against the background of the war, which factors are driving this shift in peoples’ alliance solidarity? And are there any early indications on how lasting this change is going to be? These questions are addressed on the basis of multivariate analyses of representative population surveys from 2021 and 2022. The results show that the perception of Russia as a threat to national security is a key factor, yet it is only part of a more complex explanation involving strategic postures and the subjective level of information about collective defense as well. By contrast, the often cited free-riding mentality of the Germans proves largely irrelevant. The empirical findings shine light on Germany’s reaction to Russia’s war against Ukraine and add to our understanding of the societal foundations of alliance solidarity in Germany and other countries.

First, the increased perception of Russia as a strategic threat to Germany is a key driver for public support for measures of collective defense. The largely absent public threat perception kept support for alliance solidarity low until 2021. In 2022, however, the perception of Russia changed fundamentally. A majority of Germans has lost its naïve view on Russia, recognizing Russia as a threat to German security instead, which contributes to a greater willingness to support national contributions to NATO missions on the Eastern flank.

These insights are also of relevance beyond Germany, because just like the German people the citizens of other major western European countries such as Italy, Spain, and France had a very ambivalent view of Russia prior to the war. Since 2022, Russia is seen very unfavorably by majorities all across Europe. How long that pan-European consensus will last very much depends on the duration and the course of the war. As the war continues and as the initial shock of the invasion eventually wears off, it becomes increasingly important to establish the current recognition of Russia as the greatest threat to European security as the point of departure for all joint and national strategies.

Second, the growing public knowledge and media coverage of these missions has also contributed to the change of public opinion. Before 2022, Bundeswehr engagements – like the one in Lithuania – were rarely mentioned in the media and hardly present on the public agenda or in political debates. As we could show this has changed – at least to a certain degree. Still most Germans just know some basic facts or even nothing at all about the Bundeswehr’s deployments in Eastern and Central Europe. Moreover, reporting is bound to decline as the “newsworthiness” of war in Ukraine decreases with every day that it drags on and as it has to “compete for attention” with other global flashpoints.

Third, another force for the change in public opinion has been a renewed orientation towards the United States. In times of crisis, most Germans, like their government, look to the other side of the Atlantic for guidance. They trust in the United States as the protective power of the Western world and want Germany to participate in the common defense efforts. This revitalized transatlantic orientation is an important driver of Germans’ readiness to support NATO’s measures of reassurance.

If a (new) U.S. administration were to signal a reduction in military aid to Europe as the war in Ukraine continues, the willingness of the German and other European people to contribute to the collective defense of NATO’s eastern flank might be at risk. Hence, the Germans do not seem to be ready to act as the military leader of Europe – others being even more improbable candidates. Instead, they look to the U.S.’ military leadership in guaranteeing Europe’s security, which could put the premature debate about Europe’s strategic sovereignty on hold – at least as long as Russia wages war in Europe and the U.S. do not exit NATO.

Fourth, our analyses show that the strategic culture of the German society has not suddenly and fundamentally changed. The basic preferences of the population on security and defense policies are largely stable: Most Germans still favor multilateral approaches in international affairs, show transatlantic orientations, and prefer civilian over military means. Consequently, the substantial increase in support for alliance defense measures looks more like an ad hoc reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine than a fundamental reorientation in strategic postures.

Our results provide some implications for policy makers not least because they suggest that the underlying preferences of Germany’s public – its strategic culture – have not changed (yet). So, chancellor’s Scholz statement of “a new mindset in German society” might have been a bit premature. But how to stabilize Germany’s willingness to reassure its Eastern partners and how to avoid a return to reluctance in common defense efforts? Our analyses suggest that the perception of threat is largely determined by Russia’s course of action in Ukraine and beyond. The level of Atlanticism depends for the most part on the continued and visible military support of the U.S. to Europe (as well as the political agenda of its President). And the public’s level of information about the Bundeswehr’s efforts to help NATO secure the eastern flank can be influenced – to a modest extent – by the public communication and information efforts of the German ministry of defense and the government. Consequently, all actors involved in the conflict between NATO and Russia in the context of the war in Ukraine can shape the alliance solidarity of the German people – for better or worse.

Read the article “From reluctance to reassurance: Explaining the shift in the Germans’ NATO alliance solidarity following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine” here

Winner of the 2024 Bernard Brodie Prize

Bernard Brodie lecturing, by Walter Sanders for Life Magazine, September 1946

Contemporary Security Policy awards the Bernard Brodie Prize annually to the author(s) of an outstanding article published in the journal the previous year. The award is named after Dr. Bernard Brodie (1918-1978), author of The Absolute Weapon (1946), Strategy in the Missile Age (1958), and War and Strategy (1973). Brodie’s ideas remain at the center of security debates to this day. One of the first analysts to cross between official and academic environments, he pioneered the very model of civilian expertise that Contemporary Security Policy represents. Contemporary Security Policy is honored to acknowledge the permission of Brodie’s son, Dr. Bruce R. Brodie, to use his father’s name.

The winner of the 2024 Bernard Brodie Prize is:

This article was selected by a jury consisting of five members of the Editorial Board. The jury selected the winner from a shortlist put together by the Editors. This shortlist also included:

The previous winners of Bernard Brodie Prize are:

  • Kjølv Egeland, “A theory of nuclear disarmament: Cases, analogies, and the role of the non-proliferation regime”, January 2022.
  • Eleanor Gordon and Katrina Lee-Koo, “Addressing the security needs of adolescent girls in protracted crises: Inclusive, responsive, and effective?”, January 2021;
  • Elvira Rosert and Frank Sauer, “How (not) to stop the killer robots: A comparative analysis of humanitarian disarmament campaign strategies”, January 2021;
  • Jeffrey Berejikian and Zachary Zwald, “Why language matters: Shaping public risk tolerance during deterrence crises”, October 2020;
  • Tracey German, “Harnessing protest potential: Russian strategic culture and the colored revolutions”, October 2020;
  • Jo Jakobsen and Tor G. Jakobsen, “Tripwires and free-riders: Do forward-deployed U.S. troops reduce the willingness of host-country citizens to fight for their country?”, April 2019;
  • David H. Ucko and Thomas A. Marks, “Violence in context: Mapping the strategies and operational art of irregular warfare”, April 2018;
  • Betcy Jose, “Not completely the new normal: How Human Rights Watch tried to suppress the targeted killing norm”, August 2017;
  • Martin Senn and Jodok Troy, “The transformation of targeted killing and international order”, August 2017;
  • Trine Flockhart, “The coming multi-order world”, April 2016;
  • John Mitton, “Selling Schelling Short: Reputations and American Coercive Diplomacy after Syria”, December 2015;
  • Wyn Bowen and Matthew Moran, “Iran’s Nuclear Program: A Case Study in Hedging”, April 2014;
  • Nick Ritchie, “Valuing and Devaluing Nuclear Weapons”, April 2013;
  • Patrick M. Morgan, “The State of Deterrence in International Politics Today”, April 2012;
  • Sebastian Mayer, “Embedded Politics, Growing Informalization? How Nato and the EU Transform Provision of External Security”, August 2011;
  • Jeffrey Knopf, “The Fourth Wave in Deterrence Research”, April 2010;
  • Diane E. Davis, “Non-State Armed Actors, New Imagined Communities, and Shifting Patterns of Sovereignty and Insecurity in the Modern World”, August 2009.

Saving Face in the Cyberspace: Responses to Public Cyber Intrusions in the Gulf

How do states “save face” following a cyber intrusion directed at them? A new article identifies how Gulf states employ diverse rhetorical strategies—beyond attribution—to narrate cyber intrusions and keep cyber conflict contained.

In July 2017, nearly two months after Qatar had suffered a public cyber intrusion, the Qatari Ministry of Interior (MOI) revealed evidence concerning the intrusion. Rather than only providing technical details about the intrusion, the MOI broadcasted a dramatic video with intense music, thrilling graphics, and a spy-style vibe to reveal the intrusion step-by-step. In addition to delegitimizing cyber intrusions as acts of terrorism, the video emphasizes the Qatari remarkable success in containing the intrusion and detecting its source despite the intrusion’s sophistication.

This Qatari press conference was not unique. When cyber intrusions become public, states do not only engage in technical strategies to deal with the intrusion and identify the initiator, but also manage their public relations – they publish messages, hold press conferences, brief reporters, and rhetorically try to manage the crisis.

However, these performative and symbolic strategies are often left unnoticed in existing research on cyber discourse. Of course, many studies zoom in on the strategy of attribution, but as we see, much more is going on following a public cyber intrusion.

In this article, we explore the rhetorical strategies used by governments in the Gulf in response to a public cyber intrusion they suffered. We do so via an original discourse analysis of official statements and state-sponsored media reports in five cyber intrusions that differ in their targets and methods: Saudi Arabia’s response to cyber intrusion against its oil company Aramco (“Shamoon” 2012), Saudi Arabia’s response to a “hack-and-leak” intrusion (2015), Saudi Arabia’s response to intrusions using “Shamoon 2.0” malware (2017), Qatar’s response to a “hack-and-fake” intrusion (2017), and Bahrain’s response to multiple hacking operations (2019).

Responding to Public Cyber Intrusions

When a cyber intrusion becomes public knowledge, targeted states must find ways to address and explain the resulting social costs. The need to “save face” in these situations arises from the undesirable implications for the identity and image of the state in front of both domestic and international audiences. We suggest that states employ rhetorical strategies to “save face” – to protect their public image in front of domestic, regional, or international audiences.

To better understand these strategies, we propose a typology of “face-saving” strategies that can be categorized into three broad groups: diminishing strategies, self-complimenting strategies, and accusing strategies.

Diminishing strategies involve minimizing the effect of the intrusion, normalizing it, or debunking false information. Minimizing means that states try to reduce the magnitude of the intrusion. Normalizing means that states frame the intrusion as a common occurrence in global politics, highlighting that other countries also experience cyber intrusions. Debunking means that states try to dispute the authenticity of leaked information and provide evidence to counter false claims. These strategies serve to diminish the impact and prevent further dissemination of damaging information.

Self-complimenting strategies are used to enhance the positive perception of the targeted state. States employ bolstering rhetoric to emphasize their successes, international connections, and positive values. Reasserting control is a rhetorical move that showcases measures taken to ensure future protection, often involving investigations, new cyber institutions, and regulations. Correcting is a rhetoric that aims to replace leaked or fabricated information with a more positive narrative by providing an alternative and beneficial account.

Accusing strategies involve exposing the intrusion, condemning the perpetrators, and attributing the attack to specific actors. By adopting these strategies, states shift blame and position themselves as victims.

Findings

When thinking about the public response of states to public cyber intrusions, existing literature primarily discusses the risks of retaliation or escalation as well as attribution. However, as this article shows, states engage in multiple “face-saving” strategies to manage their image and legitimize their restraint. Attribution is only one rhetorical option out of many.

The results of our systematic discourse analysis suggest that different contextual factors shape the specific strategies used. In cyber intrusions that involve leaking or faking information involve, unique strategies of debunking or correcting were used.

Regarding attribution, the cases involving Saudi Arabia – a regional power – did not include public attribution. In contrast, Bahrain and Qatar – smaller powers – did attribute the intrusions but did so only after such attribution was made by American media. These suggestive contextual factors might be used in future research on the rhetoric of cyber responses in other areas.

Understanding these face-saving strategies is crucial for two reasons. First, it provides insights into the restraint and limited nature of cyber conflicts. Existing research focuses on operational aspects and restraint shown by targeted states, but the public narrative and strategic narration of these events are often overlooked. By adopting face-saving strategies, targeted states aim to reduce pressure to retaliate or escalate and justify why such actions are unnecessary. Second, this study contributes to constructivist scholarship by expanding the repertoire of strategies used by states to cope with embarrassment. By focusing on the Gulf countries, we highlight the agency of states in the Global South to interpret cyber intrusions in front of different audiences.

Yehonatan Abramson and Gil Baram are the authors of “Saving Face in the Cyberspace: Responses to Public Cyber Intrusions in the Gulf” in Contemporary Security Policy, which is available here.

The cyber-domain as a narrative battlefield

How do the main actors in cyberspace make sense of its fragmented governance, and how does that translate to their broader strategic narratives? André Barrinha and Rebecca Turner study strategic narratives in their new article in order to find out.

In an era of increasing digital connectivity, the governance of cyberspace has become a critical global concern. Multilateral efforts to navigate the complexities of cyber governance are well underway, with two cyber initiatives currently ongoing at the United Nations (UN).

At the forefront is the Open-ended Working Group (OEWG) on developments in the field of information and telecommunications in the context of international security overseen by the UN General Assembly’s (UNGA) First Committee. The OEWG is responsible for negotiating norms related to international cybersecurity and responsible state behaviour in cyberspace. The second more recent group is the Ad Hoc Committee (AHC) on cybercrime, overseen by UNGA’s Third Committee. The AHC was created with the intention to create a new treaty specifically addressing cybercrime. These two groups are operating in parallel because of the assumption that international cybersecurity and cybercrime should be addressed separately, as two distinct cyber regimes under the same complex.

International cybersecurity is understood to be divided along three main groups: the liberals, also known as the gatekeepers of cyberspace and custodians of the internet’s core principles, including the UK, US, EU and other likeminded states; the sovereigntists, led by Russia and China, who are inspired by a much more state-centric and territorialised approach to cyberspace regulation; and finally, the non-aligned or swing states, including Brazil, India and South Africa, who oscillate between the former two groups depending on the policy issue.

In our article, we explore the narrative battlefields of the OEWG and AHC using strategic narratives as our starting point. By examining the approaches of key actors from each of the groups – the EU as a representative of the liberals, Russia as an advocate for the sovereigntists and India as a swing state – we aim to uncover their storytelling techniques and the associated implications for the multilateral governance of cyberspace.

As we conclude, the existence of two different forums does not seem to impact the consistency of each actor’s strategic narratives. Rather, there is a strong continuum across the two forums, as described below.

The EU: a force for good

For the EU, both forums serve as opportunities to reinforce its position as a global force for good, committed to responsible leadership and democratic values. Central to the EU’s narrative is the defence of the rules-based order and the founding principles of the internet, which emphasise its global, open, free, stable, and secure nature. In championing these values, the EU establishes itself as an advocate for maintaining the status quo. The EU’s commitment to being a status quo actor is likely motivated by concerns about “Westlessness” – the perception that the world, and cyberspace, is gradually becoming less Western-centric and less aligned with liberal ideals. The EU’s force for good identity narrative and rules-based order system narrative directly facilitates its policy narratives around cooperation, development, and capacity-building.

Russia: the norm-entrepreneur

Russia’s strategic narratives in the OEWG and AHC revolved around four main themes: Russophobia, anti-Westernism, sovereignty and multilateralism. These narrative elements were consistently present in both forums, indicating that Russia’s establishment of the AHC was driven less by a belief in the institutional separation of crime and international cybersecurity as distinct cyber regimes, and more by a desire to counter existing legal and diplomatic structures that Moscow perceives as leaning towards liberal ideals. Through these strategic narratives, Russia aims to position itself at the forefront of cyber diplomacy as a norm-entrepreneur, shape future policy decisions to its advantage, and influence the global discourse on cyberspace governance.

India: the multi-aligner

India is still in the process of formulating a comprehensive strategic approach to cyberspace that aligns with its national interests and aspirations. This ongoing process helps to explain why India adopts a position of multi-alignment in the cyber domain, seeking to maintain connections with both ‘Liberals’ and ‘Sovereigntists’. Consequently, India’s strategic narratives in the cyber realm appear more ambiguous in comparison to the EU and Russia. India articulates narratives around sovereignty, technological autonomy, multilateralism, democracy, and its status as a developing nation. But, while these narratives are present in both the OEWG and AHC, they often lack coherence and occasionally conflict with one another. For instance, the struggle between upholding human rights and asserting stringent sovereign controls exemplifies India’s discursive frictions on fundamental cyber issues.

Narratives matter

Given the relatively nascent stage of the cyber domain and the conflicting views and priorities of the three groups under analysis, the way cyber issues are discursively approached offers intriguing insights into the state of cyber diplomacy. As the AHC moves towards a draft convention on cyber-crime and the OEWG into the second year of its second iteration, the world remains significantly divided on what should and should not be allowed to happen in cyberspace. Understanding the narratives underpinning those divergences is crucial if we are to move towards a safe and stable cyberspace.

As we conclude in the article, for all the specificities and technicalities associated with cybercrime or with the potential application of international humanitarian law to cyberspace, there are over-arching narratives told by the active actors in this domain that need to be taken into consideration. Ultimately, the successful implementation of any agreement or norm will rely on the incorporation of those positive steps within those actors’ strategic narratives of cyberspace.

André Barrinha and Rebecca Turner are the authors of  “Strategic narratives and the multilateral governance of cyberspace: The cases of European Union, Russia, and India” in Contemporary Security Policy, which is available here.

The Paradox and Perils of Authoritarian Support for Multilateral Cyber Governance

Support for international organizations remains a foreign policy mainstay for most democratic states. In a new article, Mark Raymond and Justin Sherman explain why the situation is more complicated with respect to cyber governance. They find that major authoritarian states are championing their own distinct variant of authoritarian multilateralism, while many democratic states have embraced a contemporary form of multilateralism that incorporates substantial elements of multistakeholder governance. The divergence on how to accomplish cyber governance is rooted in a difference over what multilateralism means and the appropriate way to practice it, with deep implications for the broader trajectory of rule-based global order. The widespread adoption of authoritarian multilateralism would amount to CRISPR gene editing the liberal DNA out of the post-1945 order, leaving the form but not the vital substance of liberal multilateralism.

Varieties of Multilateralism 

International Relations scholarship recognizes multilateralism as one of the pillars of the contemporary rule-based global order. Language invoking multilateralism as an idea, and as a practice instrumental to maintaining global security, also features prominently in leaders’ public foreign policy statements. President Biden’s preferred formulation, “rules-based order,” is a close cognate of multilateralism, at least to the ears of listeners in democratic states, who largely accept the notions that the rule of law entails the equal application of rules to actors regardless of power differentials, and that rules should be authored by those subject to them.

However, we think there are good reasons to suspect not only that authoritarian states have different views of how multilateralism should be practiced, but also that democratic states are experiencing ‘dri’ over time in their understandings of what multilateralism entails. We identify and describe two distinct variants of multilateralism: liberal and authoritarian.

The liberal variant is the familiar one, rooted in notions of equality before the law and representation in rule-making processes. In contrast, authoritarian multilateralism is rooted in notions of great power privilege, akin to hierarchical notions of great power management more commonly associated with nineteenth-century world politics. It also differs from liberal multilateralism in the underlying purpose it accords to global governance arrangements. Liberal multilateralism emphasizes transparency and participation, and the realization of human rights as a key goal of global governance arrangements more generally; authoritarian multilateralism is more opaque and statist, and privileges state sovereignty over the welfare of individuals.

Authoritarian Multilateralism in Cyber Governance 

There is broad agreement that China and Russia are the main players in a substantial international coalition seeking to nudge cyber governance arrangements toward multilateralism and away from private and multistakeholder governance modalities. Our analysis goes further by drawing atention to the specific means that they are using in service of this goal: (1) exploiting established procedures to subvert established liberal multilateral governance arrangements; and (2) parallel order-building efforts that employ or create new governance arrangements that lack the distinctive hallmarks of liberal multilateralism.

Russia first sought a multilateral arms control treaty for cyberspace at the United Nations in 1998, leading to the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) process that continued until 2021. Russia and China supplemented this flagship UN process with increasing involvement in private and multistakeholder Internet and cyber governance arrangements, especially for establishing technical standards.

Landmark GGE reports in 2013 and 2015 and deteriorating relations with the United States and other Western states led China and Russia to shi their UN strategy. They criticized the GGE as fundamentally undemocratic because it included only a select group of states, calling for the establishment of an Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG). Crucially, the OEWG expanded participation to tilt the composition in favor of authoritarian states, and it shied the terms of reference to include negotiation of international agreements rather than the study oriented GGE mandate. Although the first OEWG became more inclusive of non-state actors over time due to democracies’ efforts, the initial design was more akin to authoritarian rather than liberal multilateralism.

Outside the UN, China and Russia also seek to advance authoritarian multilateralism by way of increased engagement with technical standard-seng processes for digital technologies and in bilateral infrastructure diplomacy. However, the parallel order-building strategy is most evident in long-standing efforts by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which stands out as an explicitly illiberal international organization substantially less transparent than IGOs created with strong involvement from the world’s major democracies. Most recently, China has announced that it intends to transition its World Internet Conference into a new multilateral organization specifically for cyber governance. Such a step would substantially elevate parallel order-building efforts in the cyber regime complex.

Implications for Rule-Based Global Order 

Cyber governance is not only vitally important, it is also an especially stark contrast between two different visions of what multilateralism means and how it should be practiced. The authoritarian variant illustrated here is opaque, insulated from participation by non-state actors, and aims at creating an international order that excises core aspects of the post-1945 order rooted in democracy and human rights as core values. The liberal variant, in contrast, has evolved over time to be more inclusive of nonstate actors than its initial form, such that multilateralism as practiced by democratic states now incorporates elements of multistakeholder governance.

Which of these variants predominates in global governance is thus a consequential question for policymakers, and for the trajectory of the rule-based global order. It also poses foreign policy challenges for democratic states. If China moves ahead with a multilateral international organization for cyber governance, democracies will face a choice: should they join such an organization, hoping to influence its decisions? If so, they will need to operate in a fundamentally different procedural context than most major international organizations. If they stay out, it will provide greater freedom of action for Russia, China and other authoritarian states to shape the future of cyber governance in ways that may have significant global effects over time.

Mark Raymond and Justin Sherman are the authors of “Authoritarian Multilateralism in the Global Cyber Regime Complex,” Contemporary Security Policy, which is available here

 

Call for the 2025 Special Issue

CSP CoverContemporary Security Policy is seeking proposals for a special issue to be published in January 2025 (volume 46(1)). The special issue should address a topic within the aims and scope of the journal. CSP has an impact factor of 5.900, which ranks the journal #3 out of 96 in the category International Relations.

One of the oldest peer reviewed journals in international conflict and security, CSP promotes theoretically-based research on policy problems of armed conflict, intervention and conflict resolution. Since it first appeared in 1980, CSP has established its unique place as a meeting ground for research at the nexus of theory and policy. Topics of interest include:

  • War and armed conflict
  • Peacekeeping
  • Conflict resolution
  • Arms control and disarmament
  • Defense policy
  • Strategic culture
  • International institutions

CSP is committed to a broad range of intellectual perspectives. Articles promote new analytical approaches, iconoclastic interpretations and previously overlooked perspectives. Its pages encourage novel contributions and outlooks, not particular methodologies or policy goals. Its geographical scope is worldwide and includes security challenges in Europe, Africa, the Middle-East and Asia. Authors are encouraged to examine established priorities in innovative ways and to apply traditional methods to new problems.

Special Issue Information

Special issue proposals should contain (in one PDF document):

  • A short discussion of the rationale and contribution of the special issue (3 pages max). Please also state why the topic falls within the aims and scope of the journal and why the proposal would be of interest to a large audience.
  • Contact details, institutional affiliation, one paragraph biography of the special issue co-editors, and three recent publications of each of the co-editors. Feel free to include a link to the personal website of the co-editors. Do not submit full CVs.
  • A list of confirmed articles and authors. Please include for each article (a) the title; (b) 150 word abstract; (c) a very short statement how the article contributes to the special issue and why it needs to be included; (d) a one paragraph author biography; and (e) three recent publications of the author(s).
  • The current state of the special issue. Please describe the background (e.g. previous workshops and conferences) and the timeframe towards the submission deadline.

The special issue will consist of a substantive introduction and 6-7 articles. The introduction should stand on itself. It should serve as a state-of-the-art article and be a reference point for all the other articles in the special issue. It is recommended that special issue proposals include 9-10 articles. All articles will be sent by the journal for peer-review on an individual basis. It is unlikely that all articles will eventually make the cut.

Most articles in CSP are around 9,000-10,000 words (including notes and references). However, manuscripts up to 12,000 words are accepted, for example when they include multiple case studies or use mixed methods. Total word limits will be discussed in case of acceptance.

Please submit your application (one PDF file) to csp@nullmaastrichtuniversity.nlThe deadline for the special issue proposal is 18 November 2023. The decision will be announced soon afterwards. The decision by the editors is final. All articles will have to be submitted by 16 February 2024. The full special issue should go into production in October 2024.

U.S. Alliance Credibility after the 2021 Afghanistan Withdrawal

In late 2021, numerous commentators feared that America’s dramatic troop withdrawal from Afghanistan would hurt its credibility as a great-power security patron among onlookers in key allied and adversarial countries. A new article by D.G. Kim, Joshua Byun, and Jiyoung Ko shows why such fears are likely overblown. 

The Joe Biden administration’s highly publicized military pullout from Afghanistan in August 2021 evoked widespread fears that the credibility of U.S. security commitments around the world would be ineluctably damaged. “[E]very enemy will draw the lesson that the United States is a feckless power,” one commentator wrote in the New York Times, “[a]nd every ally—Taiwan, Ukraine, the Baltic States, Israel, Japan—will draw the lesson that it is on its own in the face of its enemies.” 

Such arguments were hugely popular and intuitive, but we found them puzzling for several reasons. To begin with, Afghanistan was not a formal ally of the United States by the time of the 2021 troop withdrawal, since the legal framework for security cooperation between the two countries had been terminated with the signing of the Doha Agreement by the Donald J. Trump administration and the Taliban in February 2020. Would onlookers in countries that are formal treaty allies of the United States—as well as those among the adversaries that confront such allies—really jump to the conclusion that U.S. behavior toward such “informal” security partners is likely to be replicated in their own neighborhood? 

Moreover, while many Americans apparently feared that their country’s reputation as a great-power ally in vital regions will be fatally undermined if it fails to defend any individual security partner, recent works drawing on qualitative case studies suggested that foreign audiences do not necessarily evaluate U.S. credibility in such terms. Indeed, such works seemed to hint at the possibility that allied and adversarial audiences might draw the opposite inference under certain conditions. If these onlookers understand U.S. military capabilities and attention as finite resources that must be competitively allocated across different regions, the American decision to abandon a security partner in one region might not necessarily hurt the perceived trustworthiness of its security commitments in another; in fact, such decisions might help improve widespread perceptions of U.S. credibility. 

To test these competing intuitions, we deployed parallel survey experiments in the United States, South Korea, and China—the latter two respectively representing a key ally and adversary for the United States in the strategically vital region of East Asia—approximately five months following the dramatic Afghanistan withdrawal. The idea was to randomly treat ordinary members of the public in each country with a vivid reminder about the U.S. decision to abandon its decades-long military commitment to Afghanistan, including the fact that “the Taliban took control of Afghanistan amidst the ensuing chaos.” 

 After assigning the treatment, we would ask our U.S. respondents to give us their best guess about the level of confidence people in South Korea and China would have in America’s support for its South Korean ally should a militarized conflict arise between the two East Asian powers. We would then compare the American guesses with actual perceptions reported by the publics of these two states when asked about how credible they would deem U.S. military support for South Korea in the same hypothetical clash. 

Our findings were unequivocal. While Americans who were reminded of the Afghanistan pullout tended to become more pessimistic that key audiences in East Asia will view the U.S. security commitment to South Korea as credible, their pessimism was not corroborated by foreign views. Neither the South Korean nor Chinese respondents significantly revised their confidence in America’s regional alliance commitment when presented with the Afghanistan withdrawal reminder. 

More importantly, the results suggested that appropriate diplomatic messaging can help strengthen the credibility of U.S. security commitments among foreign publics in the wake of events like the Afghanistan pullout. When given a short additional message that the United States might henceforth be able to further prioritize East Asia when allocating military resources abroad, the South Korean and Chinese respondents who had been reminded of the Afghanistan withdrawal became significantly more confident that the United States would follow through on its commitment to defend South Korea in the event of a local military conflict. The upshot was that the impact of the Afghanistan withdrawal reminder is channeled through the information observers have about their local strategic context, such that its implications for perceptions of American credibility could be diametrically opposed to those feared by U.S. analysts. 

These findings offer clear takeaways for how to think about U.S. alliance credibility in the wake of decisions like the Afghanistan withdrawal. Policymakers, for one, should be more willing to consider extricating the United States from costly military commitments in strategically peripheral areas without fearing the loss of a “reputation for resolve” and the widespread erosion of credibility in more important regions. Indeed, by foregrounding the potential for a favorable reallocation of strategic resources, they might be able to turn such events into an asset in the campaign to enhance the credibility of their country’s alliance commitments in key regions, rather than a liability. 

More broadly, concerned Americans should be mindful of research findings such as ours when observing doomsaying about their country’s broader credibility that typically follows decisions to retrench from—or not become more forcefully involved in—distant regions where the United States harbors only limited strategic interests and informal defense obligations. By and large, audiences among critical strategic interlocutors like South Korea and China do not distrust America’s willingness and ability to defend its alliance commitments in their own region just because it has failed to stand up for an informal protégé half a world away. They understand that the two are different places. 

D.G. Kim, Joshua Byun, and Jiyoung Ko are the authors of “Remember Kabul? Reputation, Strategic Contexts, and American Credibility after the Afghanistan Withdrawal”, Contemporary Security Policy, which is available here.