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Cybersecurity treaties may be nice, but it’s really every country for itself

Robert S. Litwak and Meg King


The United States and China are attempting to negotiate what would be the first cyber arms-control agreement to ban peacetime attacks on critical infrastructure. The talks reflect the commitment that Washington and Beijing made at the conclusion of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent U.S. visit to “identify and promote appropriate norms of state behavior in cyberspace.” The first ministerial-level meeting on cybersecurity is due to take place before the end of this year.

The two countries’ effort to limit the cyber arms race is being widely compared to Cold War nuclear arms-control treaties. But this Cold War analogy is flawed because of fundamental differences between the nuclear and cyber domains.

President Barack Obama acknowledges that an “international framework” to regulate great-power competition in cyberspace is unlikely to be “perfect” because it would not solve cybersecurity threats posed by “non-state actors and hackers.” Yet as the president told the Business Roundtable on Sept. 16, “there has to be a framework that is analogous to what we’ve done with nuclear power because nobody stands to gain.”

In the nuclear domain, the United States has long advanced state-based strategies to curb capabilities and manage the increasing risks of superpower competition. For, unlike cyber capabilities, nuclear weapons have been in the sole custody of states. State-based strategies have been successfully pursued to limit the size of arsenals, reassure nonnuclear states to forego the weapons option and compel nuclear weapons states to secure their arsenals so that terrorist groups cannot obtain them.

A similar strategy for cyber limitations would start by leveraging states’ mutual interests as stakeholders to ensure that the Internet operates smoothly by eliminating system-threatening viruses, or “botnets,” and combatting cybercrime. Another priority would be to complete the U.S.-China negotiations on a cyber arms-control agreement. The Obama administration views the potential bilateral agreement as a base on which to develop a global consensus.


The article’s full-text is available here

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