Cybersecurity has geopolitical consequences

Source:Global Times Published: 2019/9/3 18:33:40

Photo: IC

Georges Clemenceau, the French prime minister during WWI, once said that "War is too important to be left to the generals." I'd argue that cyberspace is too important to be left to the technicians. The problems of cyberspace are not technical. The real problems of cyberspace, whether we talk about cybersecurity or internet governance, are political and geopolitical. When we talk about cybersecurity, the vulnerability is mainly human, and the motivation to develop cyber weapons is also human. If you do not deal with the human aspect, you may make mistakes.

There is geopolitics in cyberspace, and there is a diplomatic approach to managing cyberspace. Cyberspace consists of four layers. There is a physical layer, which is a global network of cables, switching station and data storage center. There are also logical, data and social layers. All the four layers are "political and geopolitical."

The geopolitics of cyberspace encompasses two senses. One is classical geopolitics, and the other is critical geopolitics. Classical geopolitics looks at how geography shapes politics. I would argue that there is a geography of cyberspace. The physical structure of the internet, for example, decides that 80 percent of the world's internet traffic passes through North America. As we know from Edward Snowden, this is where the US enjoys enormous advantage to monitor global internet traffic. It also shapes the behavior of other countries' governments, because they will start to think about how to change the situation. So, the digital element of the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative in Europe enables Europeans to avoid such US surveillance.

But virtual network is more important. It has an enormous effect on how the internet functions. The internet is much more vulnerable than we think. Within the internet, there may be small number of events with large impacts, which means that the internet is unpredictable and highly unstable. Critical geopolitics studies a country's geopolitical condition, which refers to how a country experiences the internet and new technology. It also studies geopolitical culture: How does the country view the world?

Here, I want to take the US as an example. The US experience about the internet is that the country contributes to its creation and shares it with the world. Because of that, Americans tend to regard any criticism of the internet as criticism of the US, and as a criticism of their creation. There is an inherent sensitivity in the US for the internet. 

As for the US geopolitical culture, I think the key is exceptionalism. The US thinks it can do bad things because it has good intentions. The US carried out an internet operation against Iran, which has created permanent damage. With US geopolitical exceptionalism, it feels free to work as part of the Five Eyes and tries to control the internet. I think the key US concern about Huawei is not security. Its key concern is that in the second phase of 5G technology, this is the first time that a non-American or non-American ally company is setting industrial standards. 

Both internet governance and cybersecurity need an international law in cyberspace. In the West, we assert that international law lies in cyberspace. At the same time, we say that sovereignty lies in cyberspace. For me, this is a paradox, given that international law is based on sovereignty. All international law is fundamentally European, and is fundamentally based on the Westphalian system. 

Then, I want to talk about cyber diplomacy. In a classic security dilemma, country A is afraid that country B has security superiority. So country A starts buying arms. Country B interprets this as an aggressive act, so country B starts to buy arms as well. Then there will be an arms race, and country A will lose in the end, because country B still has the superiority and does not trust country A. 

In the cybersecurity version, country A worries about country B, penetrates country B's system to identify country B's motivations and capacity. The problem is that country B has no way to know whether this is a hostile penetration or not. This will cause unintended consequences. What we need is capacity to accurately identify the intentions of different countries. We cannot do this technologically. This brings us to cyberspace diplomacy. 

Diplomats tend to see the world in shades of gray rather than black and white. Diplomats tend to have more in common with other diplomats, and they tend to see a problem through the eyes of the other country. When I was working in the British embassy in Beijing, one of my jobs was to try to understand problems from the Chinese point of view.

In cyberspace, as I said, one of the key things is to identify intention. Then, we'll need someone who has frequent face-to-face contact with senior policymakers. They are called diplomats in cyberspace. We also need an approach to constructing international norms. This is not a question of agreeing with other countries or sharing ideology, but in given circumstances, you share preferred outcomes.

I believe that China's position in cyberspace is changing. China is going to be concerned more about its own vulnerabilities, such as people stealing Chinese intellectual property. This means that the EU, which has the same concerns, could share preferred outcomes with China - to pursue a stable internet, to protect intellectual property and to fight against fake news and destruction. Sharing preferred outcomes could be a basis of creating norms of cyberspace in the future. We need to bring cybersecurity and internet governance right into the heart of foreign policymaking.

The article was compiled by Global Times reporter Li Qingqing based on a speech by Shaun Riordan, director of the Department for Diplomacy and Cyberspace at the European Institute of International Studies, during the seminar "The Geopolitics of Cyberspace: A Diplomatic Perspective" organized by the Charhar Institute on August 26.

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