Realism Endures: Why States Seek Digital Arms and Will Continue to Do So – by John B. Sheldon

Why is there an emerging market in so-called ‘digital arms’? More particularly, where is the demand for digital arms coming from? Just as James Lewis, writing elsewhere in this forum, asks what it is that regulation of the digital arms trade would seek to prevent, we should also ask why there is a demand for such software in the first place.

Software that is deliberately designed (or unintentionally able) to defend, police, and control cyberspace, and even use cyberspace as a means of attack, is developed, sold, and used not only in an economic context where undoubtedly software developers can profit from their wares, but ultimately in a political context. For sure, private entities such as corporations might use such software for purposes of commercial espionage, or to actively undermine the commercial viability of competitors. Such use is a serious issue, but commercial-to-commercial espionage and dirty tricks is hardly anything new. Yet the biggest demand for such software – indeed the raison d’etre of the industry itself – is from governments around the world seeking to protect and further their interests in cyberspace.

The emergence and near-ubiquity of cyberspace around the world is certainly a technological marvel, and has become an icon of modernity which holds promises yet unseen that may make our everyday lives more convenient and comfortable. Yet it has become easy to forget, or convenient to ignore, that states exist in a constant state of insecurity. The emergence and rapid growth of cyberspace has only compounded this sense of insecurity among all states, regardless of their geographical location or political constitution. From developed, post-industrial liberal-democracies concerned about large-scale economic espionage and the protection of cyber-dependent critical infrastructure through to authoritarian regimes seeking to maintain their grip on absolute political power by blocking undesirable content at national firewalls and conducting intrusive and oppressive surveillance against individuals seeking to bring about democracy, the rule of law, and promote human rights, cyberspace has become a source of insecurity for governments around the world. Therefore, the nature of the problem – the source of the demand for such products – is political.

Understanding the political context in this regard is essential if we are to at least fully comprehend the phenomenon, even if there is little chance that we can effectively regulate or curb the development, sale, and use of such software. I echo Jim Lewis’ pessimism that such a market, and its remorseless demand, can ever be meaningfully controlled. Demand – and the market that feeds it – will only dissipate when the political context adequately changes and the calculus of insecurity with it. For this to happen requires, at root, political change that takes place within larger, dynamic social, cultural, and technological interactions that are impossible to predict or control.

It’s bad enough that this takes place at a local level. Our challenge is compounded by the fact that we must also understand the political context at a regional and even global level. Alexander Klimburg rightly points out the stark political cleavages that now exist between liberal-democratic states and other countries in light of the 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai. This is not to argue that illiberal states cannot, or will not, change. Many illiberal states probably will change, but that change will happen due to deeper forces at work over long periods of time rather than the purported transformational, and supposedly rapid, effect of cyberspace. Though Klimburg correctly identifies a worrying development in the governance of cyberspace he is perhaps hyperbolic, and certainly misreads the wider political context, when he employs Cold War metaphors such as the 1945 Yalta Conference and the Iron Curtain to describe what is happening.

The political cleavages in cyberspace are certainly an issue of great concern, but it is a clash of interests that does not necessarily impede other facets of international politics elsewhere, or at worst, is simply a reflection of a much wider and slow fracturing of the international order that malign activities in cyberspace are certainly exacerbating, but most definitely did not cause. What is occurring in cyberspace is taking place across the spectrum of global political interactions. From managing the global economy through to dealing with climate change, international consensus is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve (though, in reality, international consensus on any issue has always been a rarity). The political cleavages in cyberspace are merely a part of this wider trend that is itself a reflection of tremendous geopolitical change ongoing today as new powers rise at the relative expense of established powers.

Despite these changes, however, differences in cyberspace are overshadowed by more important problems, as well as by more powerful interests. For example, it is possible to disagree – and disagree vehemently – with a country about Internet freedom while at the same time maintaining otherwise healthy and constructive relations. It is plausible to argue that a country’s stance on Internet freedom is a reflection of their stance on human rights and other values we hold dear, and that this is enough to cast a shadow over all relations with such a country. Yet, politicians and policy makers in most countries have yet to be convinced that this is a prudent course of action because, in their calculations, more is obviously at stake. We sanction North Korea not because it has an abysmal Internet freedom and human rights record but because, against the wishes of the wider international community, it possesses nuclear weapons and is bellicose.

If only it were otherwise, but politics is just as flawed and pregnant with tragedy today as it was when Thucydides wrote The History of the Peloponnesian War nearly 2,500 years ago. The emergence of cyberspace has led many to believe that it is a harbinger of political change of a magnitude not seen since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. The truth of the matter is that the most powerful actors shaping how cyberspace is used and governed today are not super-empowered individuals campaigning for justice, but states advancing and protecting interests and seeking to mitigate their sense of insecurity. Digital arms – such as they are – will be a permanent feature in one form or another of domestic and international political landscapes so long as states have interests and insecurities in cyberspace, but this does not mean that repeated acts of individual defiance and courage won’t make a difference. It’s just a continuation of the same ancient struggle but by other, digital means.

About John B. Sheldon

John B. Sheldon is a Senior Fellow in Security Studies at the Munk School for Global Security Studies, University of Toronto.

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