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Nyet to Russian Proposal on Cyberwar

Of all the dumb foreign policy ideas out there, it’s hard to beat the Russian proposal for arms control in cyberspace. The subject came up again in this article about Russian anti-virus expert Eugene Kapersky, who discovered the Flame virus directed at the Iranian nuclear program and is widely suspected of links to Russia’s intelligence services. He wants an international treaty banning all computer warfare. Which sounds as if it would be about as useful as the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact outlawing war in general.

The problem with such noble intentions, of course, is that they lack enforcement authority. That is especially the case in the cyber domain where it is hard to trace hacker attacks to governments. Russia, for one, was widely suspected of being behind computer attacks on Estonia in 2007 and Georgia in 2008. But Moscow denied all responsibility, and no conclusive evidence was ever released to dispute its claim.

If cyberwarfare were actually banned by international treaty, it is likely that the U.S. and other Western democracies would observe the prohibition, but highly improbable, to put it mildly, to imagine that Russia, China, North Korea, Iran or other illiberal states would go along. Under those circumstances, agreeing to ban cyberwar would amount to unilateral disarmament.

Much the same idea afflicts the campaign for “nuclear zero.” If we should have learned anything from the 20th century it is that high-minded treaties don’t keep the peace; strong democracies do. Just as the U.S. became strong in conventional military terms, so now we must establish our strength in cyberspace so as to create deterrence against Russia, China, and other states that might seek to attack our computer networks.



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