U.S. Must Take Stronger Leadership Role to Protect Interests at Risk in Cyberspace, Says Council Special Report

September 2, 2010
1:56 pm (EST)

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The United States can no longer cede the initiative on cyber issues to countries that do not share its interests, argues Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) International Affairs Fellow Robert K. Knake in a new Council Special Report. In particular, Knake warns that Russia and China are promoting an Internet that would be tightly controlled by states—a concept that is “increasingly attractive to many Western nations wrestling with interrelated threats of cyber crime, industrial espionage, and cyber warfare.” Knake argues that the United States must take a leadership role and offer alternative methods for seeking security in cyberspace, while working to “preserve the core attributes of the network that make it so valuable for economic exchange: innovation, openness, and limited governance.”

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In tackling these challenges, Knake urges the United States to “take a networked and distributed approach to a networked and distributed problem. No single forum can adequately address this set of issues.” He also recommends the United States move toward holding countries accountable for “their actions and those of their citizens and systems in cyberspace. Though the United States cannot expect countries to prevent all malicious behavior, it can expect them to secure their networks to a reasonable standard, pass laws outlawing international cyber crime, and have mechanisms in place to act on requests for assistance in shutting down attacks, and investigating and prosecuting them.”

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Knake stresses that “the United States should lead by example. It should take steps to clean up its national network, work to stop its systems from being used in international cyberattacks, prioritize criminal investigation of cyberattacks with foreign victims, and make clear that the primary goal of its military efforts in cyberspace is to defend the United States and preserve international connectivity.”

Using these principles, Knake outlines a three-part strategy in Internet Governance in an Age of Cyber Insecurity.

- Develop stronger framework to fight cyber crime. “The United States needs to put its weight behind multilateral initiatives that provide countries with assistance in developing legal frameworks and enforcement capabilities, a mechanism for judging the effectiveness of national efforts at combating cyber crime, and a process that provides both positive and negative incentives that promote adherence to international legal standards.”

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- Develop new norms of state behavior in cyberspace. “Because state actors present an altogether higher level of capability, nothing that is connected to the network can be considered beyond their reach.” To hold countries accountable, Knake recommends that the United States work to develop new norms of state behavior in cyberspace. “Instead of focusing on limiting the development of cyber weapons, treaty efforts should focus on limiting state actor penetration into civilian systems.”

- Establish mechanisms within the government to pursue this strategy. “Stronger White House leadership is necessary to keep the agencies with interests in how the Internet is developed focused on U.S. national interests.” Knake writes that the White House should appoint someone within the administration to coordinate and oversee implementation of Internet governance policy initiatives, and it should create a new bureau of cyber affairs at the State Department that would pursue the U.S. agenda in cyberspace. He also posits that the private sector be given a stronger voice on these issues.

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For the full text of the report, visit: www.cfr.org/cybersecurity_csr.


Robert K. Knake is a CFR international affairs fellow studying cyber war. Prior to his fellowship, he was a principal at Good Harbor Consulting, a security strategy consulting firm, where he served domestic and foreign clients on cybersecurity and homeland security projects. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Knake coordinated the Counter-Terrorism Task Force for the Obama campaign and served on the Homeland Security Task Force. Following the election of President Obama, he served on the presidential transition team at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and authored the agency review team’s final report. Knake joined Good Harbor after earning his MA from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He has written extensively on cybersecurity, counterterrorism and homeland security issues. In 2006, he directed, with CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Steven Simon, the Century Foundation Task Force report, The Forgotten Homeland. He is coauthor (with Richard Clarke) of Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What To Do About It.

Council Special Reports (CSRs) are concise policy briefs that provide timely responses to developing crises or contribute to debates on current policy dilemmas. CSRs are written by individual authors in consultation with an advisory committee. The content of the reports is the sole responsibility of the authors.

This project was sponsored by the International Institutions and Global Governance (IIGG) program (www.cfr.org/iigg) through a generous grant from the Robina Foundation.

The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher dedicated to being a resource for its members, government officials, business executives, journalists, educators and students, civic and religious leaders, and other interested citizens in order to help them better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries.


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