Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
A decade ago, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta issued a stark warning about the dangers of a “cyber–Pearl Harbor”—a digital attack that would cause real-world death and destruction. The subsequent years have, in one sense, made that fear seem overblown; after all, the most dire scenarios that Panetta and others dreaded have not come to pass. But in another sense, the warning seems, if anything, too restrained: today, governments, businesses, and citizens alike face pervasive and unrelenting cyberthreats that would have been hard to imagine in 2012, adding layers of risk and complexity to already fraught problems of security, politics, and governance.
As the costs have mounted, policymakers have struggled to respond. Part of the problem, argue Sue Gordon and Eric Rosenbach, is that “the domain of cyberspace is shaped not by a binary between war and peace but by a spectrum between those two poles—and most cyberattacks fall somewhere in that murky space.” But strategies to counter them have failed to reflect this reality, leaving the advantage to attackers even after years of effort.
To Jacquelyn Schneider, the foremost danger is the way that cyberthreats target the trust that undergirds well-functioning economies, effective governments, and stable international relations. “If trust is what’s at stake,” she writes, “. . . then the steps states must take to survive and operate in this new world are different” from anything governments have done to this point.
Joseph Nye and Dmitri Alperovitch, in their respective essays, contend that policymakers have erred in treating cyberthreats as fundamentally different from other security threats. Accordingly, Nye stresses that it would be a mistake to give up on building a system of norms to tame “cyber-anarchy.” “Although cybertechnology presents unique challenges,” he observes, “international norms to govern its use appear to be developing in the usual way: slowly but steadily, over the course of decades.” Alperovitch argues that “cyberspace is not an isolated realm of its own . . . but an extension of the broader geopolitical battlefield”—which demands, in turn, geopolitical solutions, not narrow technical ones.
Although these authors’ precise recommendations vary, there is a common thread to their analyses: a worry that, even as the symptoms worsen, we still struggle to grasp the underlying condition. Without a clear diagnosis, a cure remains elusive.
—Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, Editor