Cyber Warfare and Theories of IR: Cyber Anarchy


Written by: Alexander Lee

Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the author and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.

A new age of technology has begun; we are experiencing a cyber revolution. This virtual phenomenon has influenced our society unlike anything before, and has entered the arena of security and warfare, as we are now faced with a new threat: the virtual weapon. Who is ‘we’? According to Dr. Lucas Kello (2017a,) the international order is facing varying degrees of threats – ranging from international system disruption, to revision, to change (p. 85-95). The international order can be defined as “…a pattern of activity that sustains the elementary or primary goals of the society of states, or international society” (Bull, 1997, p. 8). Kello belongs to a group of theorists who argue against cyber war skeptics, such as Rid (2013), who calls for us leave the realm of (p. 174) “myth and fairytale – to a degree”, as politically motivated cyber attacks are simply forms of sabotage, espionage or subversion (2011). Skeptics like Rid, are motivated by the Clausewitzian school of war, who claim that cyber operations are not directly violent (Kello, 2017a, p. 31), as Rid states that (2011, p. 6) “Not one single past cyber offense, neither a minor nor a major one, constitutes an act of war on its own”. Is the idea of cyber anarchy a sci-fi fantasy, or is the international order truly being threatened by cyber warfare? Will there be cyber order or could anarchy lead to chaos?

International Anarchy

There was a time when thermonuclear extinction obsessed political scientists (Kaplan, 2001, p, 129). ‘Nuclearmituphobia’ was a rampant topic, igniting key debates within the scholarship of International Relations (IR) theory revolving around international anarchy. War, power, and self-interest are elements of international anarchy which date back to Thucydides’s writing of the Peloponnesian War, a key historiographic account of Ancient Greek interstate conflict between Athens and Sparta (Connor, 1984); to the works of Machiavelli’s Prince, emphasizing self interest over morality and virtue (1961); and epitomized by the Hobbesian state of nature, being war against all (Hobbes, 1651). These accounts showcase the classical realist tradition of state interaction being a “…game that is wholly distributive or zero-sum” (Bull, 1997, p.24-25). This was further developed by the Neorealists, who believed that the main goal of states in an international system of self-help, was survival (Waltz, 1979, p. 105). The school of Neoliberalism, believe cooperation would be achievable under anarchic conditions (Keohane and Martin, 1995; Fukuyama 1992, p. 255). Structural liberals, who describe themselves as ‘strong liberals’, expanded on this believing that international anarchy can be transcended, with anarchy being replaced with hierarchy, emphasizing an international order based on extensive interdependence and shared governance arrangements (Ikenberry, 2011, p. 36) providing us perhaps with a potential to reach Fukuyama’s (1992) end of history, and Kant’s (1985) perpetual peace.

Arguably, we have moved beyond realism. In terms of security, NATO has proved to be more than an ad hoc defense alliance, drawing states into joint force planning, international military command structures and established transgovernmental processes for political and military decision making, promoting security interdependence (Deudney and Ikenberry, 1999, p. 183; Ikenberry, 2011, p. 351). Current developments within the international arena, such as new initiatives of global governance (Hurrell, 2007, p. 2-3), perhaps explain why Westphalian sovereignty, which was how sovereignty was understood by realists (Waltz, 1979, p. 96; Deudney and Ikenberry, 1999, p. 187), has experienced disaggregation (Slaughter, 2004, p. 266) and transformation (Ikenberry, 2011, p. 239), towards more “world” and “global” politics emphasized by convergence and interdependence (Waltz, 2000, p.5-6).

Cyber Anarchy

However, the cyberspace is a domain, in which “we have yet to master” (Kello, 2017a, p. 1). Currently, we do not have any clear indications of what structural liberalists Deudney and Ikenberry (1999) describe as consensus building, cooperation and reciprocity, when seeking to address cyber security dilemmas. The divided consensus around cyber warfare regulation, is more prominent than ever, emphasized by a lack of agreement and cooperation between states, international law, and institutions on global cyber governance (Kello, 2017b, p.212-219). A lack of institutions (especially with regards to cyber conflict), with states maintaining the role of key actor in the cyberspace (Drezner, 2004) suggests that we can apply Waltz’s (2001, p.159) notion of a war bound international system of sovereign states, with no higher governing authority to dictate relations amongst nations to the current state of cyber governance, translating therefore into cyber anarchy.

Current developments in cyber warfare highlight the anarchic nature of this domain. States have looked to enhance their offensive cyber capabilities, showcased by the US’s Stuxnet attack, carried out on Iran’s nuclear facility, and Russian involvement in the Estonian attackand the US elections (however this has yet to be officially confirmed that it was the Russian state itself) (Kello, 2017b, p.211; 2017a, p. 36 & p. 221-228).

This emphasizes the increasing cyber arms race that is occurring (Kello, 2017a, p.212-214), because great powers are aware of the increased militarization of cyberspace (Craig & Valeriano, 2018, p. 88).

Increasing cyber arms could also be a response to the uncertainty element of cyber warfare. This is showcased by zero-day vulnerabilities, which is when computer vulnerability is unknown to anyone but the researcher (and most of the time – hacker) who identifies it, leaving no time to prepare for a suitable defense Gjelten, 2013, p. 39, Kello, 2017a, p. 48).

Such developments fall in line with Mearsheimer’s (2001, p. 30-32) five bedrock assumptions of offensive realism: (1) system is anarchic with no central authority above states; (2) great powers possess offensive military capabilities; (3) states can never be certain about other states intentions; (4) survival is the primary goal of states; (5) great powers are rational actors and think strategically about survival. Arquilla and Ronfeldt (1993) were among the first scholars to argue that cyber war is coming, and realists would agree with such a notion, as an example of unavoidable anarchy.

However, states are currently losing their place in being the key threat to national security, the primary provider of national security, and being able to maintain full control over the dynamics of conflict among them (Kello, 2017a, p. 162), due to the emergence of nontraditional actors: political hacktivists, private firms, militant groups and criminal syndicates (Kello, 2017b, p. 217-219), who have the means and capabilities to carry out cyber attacks at the same level as states, especially with exposing zero-day vulnerabilities. This emphasizes what Kello (2017a, p. 190) describes as the sovereignty gap of cyberspace, as “states are no longer the unquestioned masters of the international system”. This challenges the realists’ assumption that states are the primary actors of the international arena (Waltz, 2001, p. 177-178), emphasizing Kello’s (2017a, p. 92-95) highest degree of cyber revolution: systemic change of the international order. Perhaps the virtual weapon will prove to be even more anarchic – and potentially chaotic.

Beyond Cyber Anarchy?

Can liberal theories of IR provide us with a pathway to tackle cyber anarchy? Kello (2017b, p,219-226) argues that there are prospects for cyber security interdependence, through what he calls “prospective pathways through cyber gridlock”, in which states abandon a Westphalian governance approach in cyberspace, towards more convergence (p.228), through a global governance approach. One of these pathways includes the need to manage the “power diffusion” (p. 207) that these alien players in cyberspace are accumulating. This calls for the fostering of closer ties between the public and private sector, which can be done through states working along actors such as: proxy militia groups, technology firms, and specialized bodies (p. 225). Realism does not account for non-state actors perhaps the way liberal theories do, and therefore a realist approach towards cyberspace would not be an ideal approach, compared to one of cooperation, convergence and order. An approach where states take on the role of being a cooperative actor, among a vast majority of others that participate in a broader social and legal process (Hurrell, 2015, p.4), to generate effective collective problem solving.

The very nature of this virtual weapon, such as the inability to identify the attacker, its location, and even prepare for a cyber attack (Kello 2017a, p. 199 & p. 48) represents a domain in which anarchy doesn’t appear to possess much potential in being transcended. However, we must consider if the threat of the system in which states are operating in, will call upon collective effort to tackle this growing phenomenon, or will states look towards stemming their loss of power by enhancing their cyber capabilities, in Machiavellian fashion of self-interest over morality (Vasquez, 1995, p. 27-32), in the face of such uncertainty in cyberspace. Without any clear enforcement mechanisms in place at the moment, cyber chaos seems to be where we are at – for now. More needs to be done, with regards to creation of treaties, generating regimes of international law and newly formed norms (Sinopoli, 2012), if we are to tackle cyber anarchy. However, Neoliberals such as Axelrod and Keohane (1985, p. 226) recognized that anarchy has varying degrees, and since total cyber arms deterrence is currently unlikely (Kello, 2017a, p. 197-205), we may find a way to assure that, despite the anarchical nature of the virtual weapon, a cyber war does not occur, and threaten the international order.

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