Foreign Policy Blogs

Naval Strategist Asks: Could Cyberattacks Prevent War?

Photo Credit: CH'7K via Flickr

Photo Credit: CH’7K via Flickr

A leading naval strategist asks: Could cyberattacks actually prevent war?

In this two-part series, leading thinkers from a prior era of globalization directly inform our understanding of critical issues today. Part 1 examined the lessons for current maritime security concerns from naval strategist Alfred T. Mahan and Nobel laureate Norman Angell. Part 2 considers their competing insights into a very modern challenge: cybersecurity.

Mahan’s ideas of the late 19th century set the track for U.S. naval policy for decades, including growing and strengthening the fleet and developing reliable resupply stations worldwide. Angell described in 1909 that war had become futile as a means to enhance state power and wealth, but not impossible because men sometimes act irrationally. Each saw enormous potential from the surges of trade and technology by the turn of the 20th century. Mahan saw mostly threats; Angell saw more possible benefits.

For Angell, the extent of trade and investment created an “interdependence” among European powers, so that “war, even when victorious, could no longer achieve those aims for which peoples strive.” His ideas are found in international relations theories that developed nearly a century later: complex interdependence, democratic peace, and even constructivism. In each of these, states choose paths other than conflict-for-power and power-for-conflict. The Internet would have made perfect sense to Angell: Social networking, online commerce, and “Twitter revolutions” across borders and cultures increase national wealth, standards of living and human aspirations.

For Mahan, the analysis is more complex, and the policy implications more surprising. Mahan’s cybersecurity policies depend upon his views on “freedom of the seas” and on populations used to material comfort. Freedom of the seas popularized by Grotius’s 1609 Mare Liberum, which asserted that the high seas are open to all, especially for commerce. This idea has been supported by the American Continental Congress, Elizabeth I, Woodrow Wilson and the U.N. During the Cold War, the U.S. and USSR generally left alone one another’s seaborne trade.

But for Mahan, commerce produces the national wealth necessary for military power:

Ships and cargoes in transit upon the sea …are national wealth engaged in reproducing and multiplying itself, to the intensification of the national power…[commerce is] therefore a most proper object of attack.

Additionally, Mahan argued that modern populations had an “excessive sensitiveness” to their new wealth. Attacking international private (commercial) sea trade was actually a benefit to mankind, “more humane, and more conducive to the objects of war, than the slaughter of men.”

The lessons for cybersecurity are evident. Mahan’s realism would endorse state-on-state cyberattacks, like digital spying, Stuxnet, or degrading the military systems of a country you are planning to attack. But Mahan essentially validates cyberattacks on civilian and commercial interests as well. Where private property is the ultimate source of national power, he argues, it is a legitimate target. When populations are “exasperated by the delicacy of financial situations,” not used to widespread discomfort or “privation,” cyberattacks might be used to achieve the intended goals of the attacker without the extensive violence and casualties traditional warfare.

In this way, cyberattacks among great states might serve as proxy wars did during the Cold War: great power contests with minimal casualties to the principals. The risks of this approach then and now, of course, are multiple. Cyber casualties can still occur from economic, financial, industrial or infrastructure damage. Cyberattacks can begin or escalate a conflict which leads to kinetic warfare. Mistaken attribution of cyberattacks can widen the conflict to unrelated or unintended parties.

If Mahan is right, a number of implications follow. Countries are already developing offensive and defensive cyberstrategies – these need to be fully integrated into national security and economic means and ends. (As Peter Singer and Allan Friedman note, whether these questions are fully understood by the key decision makers remains a question.) Governments must work closely with other public and commercial organizations – preventing a cyberattack on finance, industry, and infrastructure as they would from a terrorist or traditional warfare. Many countries are already well into these kinds of discussions, including with each other. Too often though, security measures have proven inadequate. The recent U.S. government’s loss of millions of employees’ personal and security data is just the latest example. Internet security firms like Mandiant and Symantec have detailed intense ongoing efforts, not merely hypothetical ones.

The Internet offers “interdependence” far beyond what Angell could have imagined. But the natures of conflict, spying, industrial espionage, organized crime, and “attack” are all very different from what Mahan understood. By Mahan’s logic, withholding energy exports as diplomatic leverage, theft of commercial intellectual property, manipulating industrial controllers or breaches of financial institutions may be “more humane” alternatives to conventional war.

But Mahan’s logic helped lead the great powers into war.

This post and the previous one are drawn in part from J.Quirk’s article in the Mediterranean Quarterly, June 2015.



Jim Quirk

Jim Quirk teaches American and comparatiive politics at American University in Washington, D.C. He has taught at Loyola University Maryland, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Economics in Varna, Bulgaria. His favorite projects have included work with in Mexico, Russia, the Balkans, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, OSCE, IEEE, and the Open World Leadership Center. He tweets from @webQuirks