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.


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

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