28 Mar

Why Diplomats Need to Engage with Cyberspace

Posted By polity_admin_user

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By Shaun Riordan

Clemenceau once said that war is too serious to be left to generals. By the same token, cyberspace is too serious to be left to technicians. Yet that is what we do. The point is made by the current furore about Huawei and 5G. The international standards meetings that discussed the new industrial standards for 5G telephony were attended by technical experts from western governments and companies. They did not appreciate the significance of the sudden increase in the size of the Chinese delegations at these meetings. Nor did they understand the security and geopolitical implications of Huawei securing a dominant position in setting the industrial standards in the second phase of 5G, the phase related to the internet of things. By the time the US government realised what had happened, it had become a question of recovering lost territory. It may prove too little too late.

This is the underlying theme of my book Cyberdiplomacy: Managing Security and Governance Online. Diplomats, and politicians, have left cyberspace to the technicians. Techies created cyberspace, techies can solve its problems. Meanwhile diplomats have obsessed about using social media platforms to promote national image (not very successfully). But increasingly, the problems being thrown up by cyberspace are not technical, and do not have technical solutions. They are political and geopolitical problems, ranging from internet governance to cybersecurity and even cyber conflict. These are not issues that technicians can solve. They arise at all levels of cyberspace, from the physical networks of cables and switching stations to the social level of humans interacting through the Internet and the World Wide Web. Debates rage about how the internet should be regulated and data protected. Submarines indulge in their own ballet around underwater cables, whether to tap or cut them or to protect them. Malicious actors use social media platforms to spread disinformation. None of these are technical problems.

The book argues that for too long diplomacy and diplomats have ignored cyberspace. But they can ignore it no longer. The risks of destabilisation, fragmentation and even the escalation of conflict into physical space are too great. So far the effects of activities in cyberspace on the physical world have been limited. There is only one clear example of a cyberattack causing real physical damage, what is called kinetic damage: the cyber operation to destroy the centrifuges at the Iranian nuclear processing plant at Natanz. But we cannot rely on our luck holding. As one US military officer put it, in cyberspace we are in the same position as aviation before World War I. And look where that ended up. Diplomats and diplomacy have an important role to play in the debates about bringing some kind of order to the Hobbesian anarchy of cyberspace, and mitigating the growing conflicts that are played out there. It is time they stepped up and played that role.

Shaun Riordan is Director of the Department of Diplomacy and Cyber Diplomacy at EIIS, senior visiting fellow at the Clingendael Institute, and a former British diplomat. His new book Cyberdiplomacy: Managing Security and Governance Online is now available from Polity.