from Net Politics and Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program

Kissinger on Cyberspace

Former U.S. Secretary of State Dr. Henry Kissinger waves to the media as he leaves the Royal Albert Hall in London on April 24, 2002. (Kieran Doherty/Courtesy Reuters)

October 27, 2014

Former U.S. Secretary of State Dr. Henry Kissinger waves to the media as he leaves the Royal Albert Hall in London on April 24, 2002. (Kieran Doherty/Courtesy Reuters)
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In 1954, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles delivered a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) threatening massive nuclear retaliation as the basis of American foreign policy. Many experts feared that the policy would in fact increase the chances of a nuclear war, and soon after CFR convened a study group chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Dr. Henry Kissinger to identify the long-term implications of nuclear weapons. That group led to the publication in 1957 of his book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, a seminal work that explored the concepts of nuclear stability, deterrence, and arms control that continue to shape U.S. nuclear and arms control policy today.

Kissinger has now published his latest book, World Order, and while the bulk of his attention focuses on the questions of strategy and balance of power that have consumed him for the better part of his career, about twenty pages grapple with another technology that is remaking foreign policy. Kissinger notes this is the first time he has written about “Internet matters,” and while he admits that he is “essentially ignorant of their technical matters,” he also says he has “reflected a great deal about the impact of new technology on policymaking” (p. 376).

When it comes to the question of whether the impact of digital and communication technologies on international politics is completely new or whether we can draw on previous types of technological disruption and change, Kissinger is clear: “Cyberspace challenges all historical experience” (p. 344). Kissinger frames the “datafication” of human life, the ubiquity of communication technology, and the Internet of Things as a revolution that has empowered individuals and corporations and made cyberspace a field of strategic competition for governments. Kissinger warns of the solitary actor with enough computing power “able to access the cyber domain to disable and potentially destroy critical infrastructure from a position of near-complete anonymity” (p. 345). He has not been swayed by Thomas Rid, Jon Lindsay, or other skeptics who see the impact of cyberattacks as limited and more likely to be used successfully by powerful nation states like the United States.

The competition in cyberspace, in Kissinger’s view, is bound to threaten international order. It is difficult to assess national capabilities, vulnerabilities are multiplying, and there is no clear distinction between war and peace. These new technologies are outpacing regulation, strategy and doctrine, and there no shared interpretations or understandings of cyber capabilities. Moreover, it is highly implausible that countries with different histories and cultures will “arrive independently at the same conclusions about the nature and permissible uses of their new intrusive capacities” (p. 345).

In order to prevent this new realm from generating greater disorder, states must adopt a mix of deterrence and mutual restraint, coupled with confidence-building measures to prevent misinterpretation and miscommunication. Kissinger acknowledges all of this will be difficult: cyber deterrence will be different than nuclear deterrence. There will be real problems deciding what types of cyberattacks merit a kinetic response. Moreover, the development of rules requires common understanding of capabilities, but the major actors are reluctant to demonstrate what offensive capabilities they possess. Kissinger notes that the United States calls for restraint from China, but does not appear prepared to do the same.

Kissinger also takes up the question of the impact of the Internet on strategy and decision making, and here he is markedly pessimistic: information has triumphed over knowledge and wisdom. Previously, leaders had time to reflect and the ability to distinguish between what they could and could not control. Now, Kissinger fears all problems are something to be “looked up” on the web, not thought through and placed within a historical context and experience. Moreover, protests like the Arab Spring that have some democratic overtones and express their demands digitally create obligations for moral and material support from the West, and the United States in particular. As a result, “the new diplomacy risks indiscriminate intervention disconnected from strategy” (p. 357).

As many reviewers note, Kissinger is more interested in description than policy prescriptions. Much of what he suggests for cyberspace is already be discussed if imperfectly implemented.  Policy makers in charge of U.S. policy would say that they already have a policy of deterrence (see speech from former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta), mixed with restraint and confidence building measures (see U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s speech, the story on U.S. briefs to China about offensive capabilities, and work at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe). Kissinger may have overstated the newness of cyber, and cyberattacks are mainly an economic, not an existential threat. But Kissinger’s descriptions of cyberspace as both an arena of competition and a potential systemic threat to international order are well worth reading.

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