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


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