Cyber-threats seem to be everywhere these days. In the past two weeks alone, we have learned that Russia has hacked into critical infrastructure sectors upon which citizens depend for daily survival, including nuclear, water, and aviation; that Iran has stolen massive amounts of data and intellectual property from professors around the world (such activities have previously been attributed primarily to China); and that the self-professed lone hacker who claimed to have provided stolen Democratic National Committee e-mails to Wikileaks, was actually working for the Russian military intelligence agency to meddle in electoral politics. Finally, after months of concern about Russian disinformation and propaganda campaigns, new revelations about how big tech companies like Facebook furthered these efforts, have amplified profound questions about the future of representative governance, national sovereignty, and self-determination.
Cybersecurity is a relatively new foreign policy problem. A decade ago, it received little attention, but since 2013 the Director of National Intelligence has named cybersecurity risks the biggest threat facing the nation. The non-profit Council on Foreign Relations “Cyber Operations Tracker” contains almost 200 state sponsored attacks by 16 countries. The list includes one attack in 2005 when the data base starts, but over 20 last year. The bad news is that the threat is increasing; but the good academic news is that the problem is now attracting a new generation of bright young scholars–as illustrated by Ben Buchanan’s book and its reviewers.
As Geoffrey Blainey, the prominent Australian scholar, wrote long ago, “For every thousand pages published on the causes of wars, there is less than one page directly on the causes of peace.” The field of international security studies seems to have such an alarmist tendency, as most publications focus on conflict and war rather than stability and peace. Regarding cybersecurity, scholars and pundits have sounded alarms for years. In such a context, Jon R. Lindsay’s article is refreshing and unusual. Challenging the conventional wisdom, Lindsay argues that the threat from China on cyberspace is overblown, and Chinese vulnerabilities and Western strengths are underappreciated. Furthermore, cyberspace is fundamentally more stable than we conventionally assume. While the proliferation of information technology might enable “numerous instances of friction below the threshold of violence,” (9) cyberwar between United States and China is highly unlikely. Lindsay does not suggest that we should ignore the existence of cyber threats. What he proposes is an analytical framework that makes sense of these threats. Whether or not readers share his cautiously optimistic view, Lindsay’s article will have an enduring relevance to the discussions of cybersecurity, U.S.-China relations, and international relations. My comments focus on the broad implications of his article for international relations and U.S.-China relations.