International relations and power politics

The international realm has always been a low-trust environment, but in the past decade amplified international rivalry following the “unipolar moment” has dovetailed with the expansion of cyberwarfare capabilities by most global and regional power contenders. As networked devices increasingly penetrate everyday life and become the nervous system of contemporary society, the ability to strike at networks and to defend from such strikes becomes a strategic imperative of the utmost importance. The need to keep pace with the latest infrastructural and technological developments, coupled with the crossover potential of IT to guarantee domestic stability and the survival of political regimes, has given rise to new, unconventional alliances and spheres of influence. Meanwhile, State action in the cyber realm often takes the form of support for privateers, volunteers, sympathizers, mercenaries— hacker groups whose allegiances and motives are opaque by design.

“Leaf” by Mariah Jochai is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Consequently, the broader questions of trustworthiness with which the research project concerns itself also apply to the sphere of international relations and power politics. For one thing, it may be asked whether the cyber domain is severable from other arenas of conflict: do alliances in the broader world also hold in cyberspace? What actions are considered hostile, and as such permissible only against strategic antagonists? And indeed, what is the master analogy for these activities: intelligence operations, or warfare? Can traditional national allegiances and the support of civilian populations be relied upon? What is the role of civil society, domestic and international, in adjudicating policy legitimacy? These questions are all the thornier, as the problem of attribution is central, given the role of non-State actors. This is not solely a reputational concern: very real principal-agent dilemmas swiftly arise in attempting to run covert policies through semi-independent third parties. Finally, and perhaps most intractably, issues of trust are present at a micro level, in that most all infrastructure for cyberconflict is dual-use, hence the operational tactics of this domain hinge on subversion of the opponent’s own hardware, often through social engineering attacks.

The data sources to be used in exploring these topics include comparative and longitudinal series of defence budget spending for the cyber realm, representative case studies of major cyberattacks, and attribution patterns for State and non-State entities. This information will be complemented by expert opinion, both of academic/think-tank security experts and of practitioners in the military and the intelligence community.

Basic references:

  • Lindsay, J.R., Cheung, T.M., Reveron, D.S. (Eds.), 2015. China and cybersecurity: espionage, strategy, and politics in the digital domain. Oxford University Press, New York.
  • Levine, Y., 2018. Surveillance valley: the secret military history of the Internet. PublicAffairs, New York.
  • Buchanan, B., 2020. The hacker and the state: cyber attacks and the new normal of geopolitics. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  • Perkovich, G., Levite, A. (Eds.), 2017. Understanding cyber conflict: 14 analogies. Georgetown University Press, Washington, DC.

Research on politics