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.
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.