from Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program and Net Politics

The Road Toward Agonistic Pluralism for International Cyber Norms

Sphere within a Sphere by Arnaldo Pomodoro, United Nations (New York).
Sphere within a Sphere by Arnaldo Pomodoro, United Nations (New York). United Nations

International cooperation on cyber norms should acknowledge that geopolitical conflicts and national interests are here to stay. Only by providing these with a constructive and creative space for agonistic pluralism can states truly prevail over polarization and fragmentation.

July 6, 2020

Sphere within a Sphere by Arnaldo Pomodoro, United Nations (New York).
Sphere within a Sphere by Arnaldo Pomodoro, United Nations (New York). United Nations
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Fabio Cristiano is a postdoctoral researcher in the Institute of Security and Global Affairs (ISGA) at Leiden University and a fellow of The Hague Program for Cyber Norms.

After years of meaningful cooperation, the Group of Governmental Experts’ (GGE) inability to reach consensus in 2017 appeared to many as the end of the road for cyber norms at the United Nations. Since then, international cooperation has, however, featured a vibrant and somewhat heated pluralism. Several regional and multistakeholder initiatives made important contributions to the debate on cyber norms, while antagonisms at the United Nations led to the fragmentation of the negotiation process into two groups.

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In November 2018, the UN General Assembly approved both an American-backed resolution “renewing” the mandate of the GGE, as well as a Russian one establishing the Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG). As its name suggests, the OEWG formally operates on strong inclusive and pluralist grounds: consensus-based negotiations are open to all member states, a large constituency of stakeholders can participate with advisory power, and the group’s mandate specifically encourages regular institutional dialogue [PDF] across different initiatives, including the GGE. Can this bifurcation and renewed pluralism move beyond seemingly entrenched antagonisms at the United Nations? The concept of agonistic pluralism, which argues that some forms of political conflict can be beneficial, provides an important analytical perspective to answer this question.

With the OEWG moving towards the final negotiation phase, member states have submitted their commentaries on the chair’s initial pre-draft [PDF]. The document strongly encourages institutional dialogue with the GGE, while advocating for a prominent role for non-state participants and for broadening the normative debate on international security to include issues such as human rights and sustainable development. Many participants are unhappy with this direction and have submitted comments that echo Russia's [PDF] complaint that the draft promotes “many unacceptable approaches” on both substantive and organizational issues. Interestingly, these commentaries considerably leverage the OEWG’s pluralist elements to articulate their critique.

First, they refer to the OEWG’s larger membership to discourage regular institutional dialogue with the GGE. Because of the OEWG’s “broad, if not universal participation,Cuba [PDF] advocates for the rejection of all formulations which attempt to link the work of the OEWG to that of the GGE. Pointing at the initial pre-draft’s extensive references to the GGE, Russia similarly contends that “undermining the OEWG status this way is insulting the 119 UN Member States that supported its establishment.” These arguments are echoed by Iran [PDF] suggesting that the “GGE may be utilized in the future as a subsidiaryof the OEWG. These critiques are of a tactical nature: breaking ties with, or even dismantling the GGE would make the OEWG the primary forum for norm development and possibly allow it to revise norms agreed upon in past iterations of the GGE that continue to find little support among states that prefer a more closed, controlled internet.

Second, this growing coalition of the unwilling takes a particularly critical stance on the OEWG’s multistakeholderism. For example, China [PDF] argued that while multistakeholders are crucial to maintaining cybersecurity, discussions at the OEWG should primarily focus on the role played by states and governments. Russia’s commentary endorses this point, stating that “the importance of ‘multi-stakeholder approach’ with emphasis on the contribution of non-governmental sector, business and academia to ensuring responsible behavior in the information space is artificially exaggerated.”

Third, the critics oppose the initial pre-draft’s reliance on an expansive approach to cybersecurity by arguing that the document makes “redundant references” [PDF] to issues such as sustainable development, human rights, and gender equality, which they claim fall within the competence of other UN bodies.

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By arguing that consensus should be built around prioritizing “setting standards” over “providing guidance,” as explicitly stated by China, all of these critiques of the pre-draft are engrained into the Russian and Chinese narrative of cyber sovereignty, which envisions an international cyberspace fragmented into independent sovereign entities. This is emphasized by Zimbabwe [PDF]: “any rules, norms and principles aimed at ensuring responsible behaviour of States in the cyberspace environment should therefore not undermine sovereign rights of respective States.” Such arguments reflect an exclusive pluralism of “the many on their own,” with little international cooperation, as opposed to the pluralism of an inclusive negotiation process open to different stakeholders and perspectives.

A number of proposals submitted to the OEWG, such as those regarding sovereignty as a rule and cyberattacks targeting healthcare facilities [PDF], are indeed providing negotiations with a new impetus. At the same time, a close read of these commentaries shows that they echo the same antagonisms that halted the process in 2017. These antagonisms are not bad per se: the OEWG’s negotiations are inevitably engrained within the international geopolitical conflicts they aim to address, such as great power competition. However, cyber norms will not solve these conflicts, nor make them disappear. Only by acknowledging this can the cyber norms process create a space for them to be managed within the limits of a fair contest, rather than purporting to solve them.

The demand for consensus negatively shapes how pluralism plays out within the UN process on cyber norms. With the consensus sword of Damocles hanging over the process, member states tend to align and polarize along the two main narratives led by great powers. Providing alternative voices, including those of non-state participants, with wider opportunities for creative contestation, such as NGOs’ collective demand for a human-centric approach [PDF] to international cyber security, can prevent the dialogues from institutionalizing conflict between the OEWG and the GGE.

The failure of a negotiation process should never be measured against the ability of a group to reach consensus. Moving successfully forward will, however, depend on whether recurring antagonisms in the cyber norms process will turn into a constructive and agonistic form of pluralism. This requires envisioning alternative deliberation routes beyond consensus building, recalibrating negotiations toward more realistic objectives, and weighing them against the pluralism of the process and the possibility of constructive dissent. While perhaps a more unstable road, a more inclusive and deliberative negotiation process can lead to a more plural and secure cyberspace.

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