Cyber War, let’s get real(ist)


The first decade of the twenty-first century can be rightly termed the era of the 9/11 wars and it has been covered by an avalanche of writing about war and strategy in the context of terrorism and insurgency.  Consequently, one of the most popular issues of the 1990s has been left by the wayside: cyber war and cyber warfare. Cyber warfare has now made its comeback and might define the current decade as much as terrorism defined the last.

Everybody now talks cyber, and in the world of strategy, everybody talks cyber warfare, yet serious political appraisal of the topic is severely lacking. Notwithstanding Thomas Rid’s argument that cyber war is most probably a category error, Paul Cornish (et al.) is equally, if not more correct in insisting that regardless of whether or not we will see a cyber “war”, we must bring better political dialogue and understanding into the discussion. Hence, I hope to contribute to this void in a very simple way, by introducing the most touted yet frequently unapplied triptych from Thucydides: fear, honor, and interest.

Scanning the literature on cyber war, one is more likely to find bland comparisons to strategic practice, past and present. The desperate search for Cold War lessons that can be superimposed on cyber security issues is as obvious as it is shallow.  For example, seeking “nuclear lessons” for cyber or establishing “cyber deterrence” represents the discussion of ways completely dislocated from the ends they are intended to serve. A meaningful discussion of cyber power’s strategic application in a future is not possible without recognising and understanding the political significance of cyber power.

By applying Thucydides’ timeless framework, commonly held as the foundational realist appraisal of the world, cyber warfare and its political significance can begin to be appreciated. Strategy is an instrumental activity that cannot operate in ignorance of the purpose toward which means are applied. Agencies such as the National Security Agency and the Government Communications Headquarters are potent facilitators in the cyber world. They know how to operate in cyberspace, but nobody yet understands why they do so, nor how to link convert their activities into politics.

By taking the discussion away from the tactics of cyber warfare (how we hack, how we compromise networks, how we enforce legislation) and returning to a simple but effective model of political interpretation, we can begin appraising in a realist fashion what we fear in a world of cyber, where issues of honor affect us, and what political interests are at stake. For the sake of this post I will apply this model to the United States.

Fear: What does/should the U.S. fear in a cyber war? Quite simply, uncertainty. For a global hegemon that has enjoyed supremacy in almost every capacity for generations—particularly in economic and military terms—any potential shift of advantage to a new means that America does not command a clear dominance in is quite understandably something to be feared. Talk of a “digital Pearl Harbor” or a “digital 9/11” only belies a fear that if a cyber war comes, it could outflank the traditional advantages enjoyed by the U.S. and result in severe and unexpected damage that would be difficult to respond to. Fear that one of America’s opponents may have that advantage in any cyber war will reign until cold, hard experience demonstrates otherwise.

Honor:  Although a slightly amorphous idea in the Thucydidean trinity, it should be considered that honor will present a potent issue in any cyber war—indeed we have already seen why this is so. The exposure of intimate state secrets, whether the numerous bulk dumps of American secrets by Wikileaks onto the Internet, or the recent whistle-blowing episode by Edward Snowden, can affect issues of honor in unanticipated ways. By enabling the theft of documents in volumes that the KGB could only have dreamed of, and providing instant ways of going viral, the honor of state actors can be brought into repute extremely quickly. Furthermore, the speed through which cyberspace allows the dissemination of news has simply accelerated the pace at which dialogue between actors occurs with strategic consequences. Policymakers may rush to issue a response without enjoying the time to fully consider the most appropriate course of action, and even when they do – like Obama over Afghanistan – they can then be criticised for being sluggish.  Honor among friends should also be considered, given the recent Brazilian accusations of American espionage/ Alliances can be brought into disrepute far more quickly, and publically, than before.

Interest: The clearest reason why cyber warfare matters lies in the interests that may be affected by its occurrence and here is where we can see the ubiquity of cyberspace. Quite simply, American cyber interests lie everywhere—from the communications that its military relies on, to the infrastructure that now underlies the global economy, right down to the shifting patterns in consumer purchasing through online shopping—cyberspace is more and more linked with life at every level. Cyber war, like any war, threatens normal life by being so entwined with these interests, from the targeting of financial transactions, to the interference with essential infrastructure supporting military operations. It has to be accepted as a cold fact of the strategic landscape that from now on, every U.S. vital interest will (and indeed already does) contain cyber elements, elements that will present very attractive targets for adversaries looking for any advantage to level the playing field.

Applying this classic model of realist interpretation allows for a more fundamental appraisal of cyber war. Drawing attention away from the how of a cyber war and beginning to apply existing models of political thought to the why such a thing matters illustrates the political implications of the subject. Clausewitz said that “Politics is the womb in which war grows.” To neglect the political nature of war in our talks on cyber affairs is to jettison our own foundation of thinking about war and strategy. We cannot make the instrumental linkage between cyber power and political design that strategy is intended to support until the politics of cyber are better understood. For an arena as important as cyberspace, it is about time we start applying the realist view to the politics of any potential cyber war, lest we find ourselves up against an adversary who matches their cyber ends, ways and means in a better strategic fashion than we do.


Dr Daniel Steed has recently taken up position as Lecturer in Strategy and Defence at the University of Exeter’s newly established Strategy and Security Institute. His tasks at Exeter include helping in the design and delivery of the new MA in Applied Security Strategy, under the direction of General (Rtd.) Sir Paul Newton and Professor Paul Cornish.  He is also a contributor at War on the Rocks.


Photo Credit: DARPA