Tag Archives: norms

Cyberwarfare and International Relations

Iranian President Ahmadinejad visits a uranium enrichment plant near Natanz where the Stuxnet virus infected computers and damaged centrifuges.

Are advances in “cyberwarfare” moving faster than states’ ability to manage them?  Two New York Times articles this week raise some interesting–and at times disturbing–questions about the implications of cyberwarfare for national security and international relations.  The United States and Israel have used cyberattacks over the past few years in an effort to cripple Iran’s nuclear program, but the long term consequences of relying on such tools are unclear.  In an article entitled “Mutually Assured Cyberdestruction?” New York Times columnist David Sanger raises the following questions:

“Does the United States want to legitimize the use of cyberweapons as a covert tool? Or is it something we want to hold in reserve for extreme cases? Will we reach the point — as we did with chemical weapons, and the rest of the world did with land mines — that we want treaties to ban their use? Or is that exactly the wrong analogy, in a world in which young hackers, maybe working on their own or maybe hired by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army or the Russian mob, can launch attacks themselves?”  As Sanger notes, treaties–a key source of international law–have been used to codify opposition to chemical weapons and land mines.  More broadly, international norms (generally unwritten expectations about appropriate behavior) have arisen that prohibit the use of weapons of mass destruction–chemical, biological, and nuclear.  Could treaties and norms also be used to manage the spread and utilization of cyberweapons?

Sanger compares the cyberwarfare “learning period” in which we find ourselves to the early years of the Cold War, when the world was grappling with the dangers and utility of nuclear weapons: “It took years after the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima for the nation to develop a common national understanding of when and how to use a weapon of such magnitude. Not until after the Cuban Missile Crisis, 50 years ago this October, did a consensus emerge that the weapon was too terrible ever to employ again, save as a deterrent and a weapon of last resort.”  This may seem like hyperbole, but Sanger quotes Defense Secretary Leon Panetta as warning that the “next Pearl Harbor we confront could very well be a cyberattack that cripples our power systems, our grid, our security systems, our financial systems.”  A second recent NY Times article, entitled “Expert Issues a Cyberwar Warning,” notes that military contractors, including Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon, are already developing devastating computer viruses for different U.S. intelligence agencies.  Are we approaching the point where we need to begin thinking of deterrence in the cyber domain, as we have in the nuclear arena?

What do you think?  Given their destructive potential, should cyberweapons be categorized alongside nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons as weapons of mass destruction?   Should their use be banned by international treaty?  Or are cyberweapons a way to accomplish important missions without the bloodshed and “collateral damage” of conventional weaponry?

The Challenges of Building Democracy: Lessons from the Front Lines

Iraq has had free elections, but has it stalled on the road to democracy?

An interesting article in the New York Times this week features interviews with Iraqis who offer advice for Libyans on how to build a stable and prosperous country post-Qaddafi.  Based on their own bitter experience with corruption, sectarian violence, and political gridlock, they highlight mistakes to avoid in the transition from a repressive dictatorship to an accountable, representative government.

Not surprisingly, these Iraqis reiterated the now widely accepted lesson that the U.S. decision to pursue aggressive de-Baathification (removing members of Hussein’s Baathist regime from government positions) was counterproductive, stoking tensions and preventing capable officials from assuming key roles.  They urged Libyans not to repeat this mistake in dealing with former regime officials.

While this lesson might be dismissed as unoriginal and obvious, their views on democracy were rare in their candor and insight:  “The men said they had learned the hard way what they never understood living under decades of repression: that democracy is not just the absence of oppression, but that it also involves challenging concepts of tolerance, compromise and civic responsibility yet to take root in Iraq, or in Libya.”

Political scientists have distinguished between democratic institutions, which include checks on executive authority and free elections, and democratic norms, the more intangible values of tolerance and compromise that undergird these institutions but take much longer to develop a foothold in society.  What these weary Iraqis clearly recognize is that the institutions of democracy are nominally present but the norms are sorely lacking, which erodes the stability and legitimacy of those institutions.

The conclusions drawn by these ordinary Iraqis are sobering for the future of Iraqi democracy.  “The parliamentary system in Iraq has failed,” said Thaar Abdul Kadhum, 34, a contractor. “They should have a president who can make all the decisions, and not have all these blocs like we have now.”  Many Iraqis are tired of “the chaos of Iraqi-style democracy. Increasingly, they want a strong hand — elected by the people — to wield power.”  This raises the specter of illiberal democracy, a system that combines free elections with a lack of basic civil liberties and checks on governmental authority.  Democratic transitions often get “stuck” in this hybrid stage, as Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela attest.  Can Iraq and Libya escape this fate?

The Power of Norms

Unexploded Cluster Munitions

Unexploded Cluster Munitions

The Convention on Cluster Munitions, which has now been adopted by 108 states, officially came into force on August 1. The Convention bans the stockpiling, use and transfer of most cluster bombs, and provides a mechanism for clearing unexploded cluster munitions.

Cluster munitions have long been the target of humanitarian organizations. Because cluster munitions release a large number of (often brightly-colored) bomblets scattered across a large area, many of which remain unexploded for long periods of time, cluster munitions often wind up affecting civilians. Indeed, according to Handicap International, 98 percent of people injured by cluster munitions are civilians, and nearly one-third are children.

Although the Convention will not enter into force, many of the world’s largest military powers, including eh United States, Russia, and China, have refused to sign the treaty. The United States maintains that cluster munitions are “legitimate weapons” with “a clear military utility in combat.” But despite U.S. resistance, Anna MacDonald, the head of Oxfam’s Control Arms Campaign, asserts that the convention will be important in limiting the use of cluster munitions in conflict. According to MacDonald, “it’s instructive to look at the 1997 Ottawa Treaty banning anti-personnel landmines. The United States didn’t sign up for that either but it hasn’t produced or used landmines since the treaty came into force.”

This is an interesting assertion. What MacDonald and other campaigners are hoping for is that the United States and other non-signatories comply with emerging international norms limiting the use of cluster munitions even if they refuse to sign the treaty enforcing their ban. There is some evidence to suggest states behave in this manner. The landmine treaty, as MacDonald suggests, provides one (admittedly limited) example. States also regularly behave this way with respect to international human rights law, as the extensive literature from the field of new institutionalism demonstrates. The real question is whether or not states will comply with informal (and non-binding) norms in the context of national security.