Years ago in the happy, halcyon years of the Clinton administration when NATO was bombing Serbia and liberal internationalists were celebrating the end of history, my email inbox at the Council on Foreign Relations was overwhelmed by a rash of first hundreds and then thousands of angry messages, largely identical, from Serbs. The primitive email tools of that time could not cope; for several days until the tech folks found a fix, even those friendly Nigerian ladies asking for my bank details in order to wire me millions of dollars were lost in the volume of angry and threatening messages from Belgrade.I was not alone; think tank, government offices and other sites across the US were targeted in a Serbian cyber-campaign aimed at disrupting the operations of the US foreign policy system; so far as I know this was the first example of an attempt to use the internet as a weapon of war.These days, those primitive denial of service attacks have morphed into something much bigger and more dangerous. The increasing interpenetration of the virtual and real worlds now means that uninterrupted and uncompromised access to the internet is vital to the functioning of the economy and to the conduct of daily life. The power grid, subway and train systems, hospitals, air traffic control, the financial system: they all depend on real time access to the net, and could be brought down by malware. We are close to the point at which an effective cyberstrike against our information infrastructure could do more damage and even kill more people than a repeat of 9/11.The recent stories about the computer virus that infected US combat drones point to the immense military possibilities for cyberwarfare; as first US and then other military forces around the world integrate information technology more thoroughly into their war fighting capacity, the potential for countermeasures and attacks that exploit vulnerabilities in technologically enhanced warfare expand. The mysterious Stuxnet virus that effectively sabotaged the Iranian nuclear program shows that malware can do real damage in the physical world; future conflicts could see e-sabotage directed against a variety of civilian industrial, financial and economic targets.One useful word to describe the implications of these developments is “dire”. Another would be “destabilizing”. An immense new field of conflict and vulnerability is opening up, and while the United States has great strengths in this area, investments in cyberwar are cheap enough that many other powers, including freelance terror and criminal groups, can reasonably hope to use cyberwar as part of an asymmetrical strategy that neutralizes America’s conventional military supremacy.It is, for example, much cheaper to find a virus that knocks out rather than matches US military systems . It is much easier for terrorists or hostile governments to use malware to take down significant chunks of US infrastructure than to develop the military capacity to bomb the Hoover Dam. The US can, should and presumably already is engaged in developing countermeasures, but a cyberarms race is a great equalizer. At this point no country in the world can dream of rivaling our global force projection capabilities, for example, but quite a few countries could rationally hope to degrade our capabilities and inflict significant damage on us by aggressively developing their cyberstrength.This line of reasoning is so obvious, and the strategic alternatives so unappealing, that we must assume that cyberwar will attract increasing attention from all serious governments. That investments in this kind of capacity also improve both intelligence and counterintelligence capabilities makes this strategy all the more compelling.We therefore need to assume that we are in the early stages of an information arms race that will be one of the defining characteristics of 21st century geopolitics. The character of that race will change over time, but supremacy in the realm of strategic infotech will be increasingly vital to world power.Today’s tech wars are the latest example of a pattern of technological competition and change that has done much to shape modern world history and brought first the UK and then the US to global power. While new technologies often make their first appearance outside the English speaking world, the English speaking powers have characteristically embraced and developed these technologies into industrial and strategic applications. Much of the science behind the telegraph was German, but it was the British who laid a global cable network that created the 19th century infosphere. This ability to stay on the cutting edge of the accelerating capitalist revolution is one of the secrets of the stupefying rise to global power of the English speaking world since the 17th century.But there is another side to that story. The industrial revolution first took off in Britain, sustaining the unique military and commercial global dominance it achieved through the Napoleonic Wars for generations. Then as other countries mastered the basic systems and technologies of industrial life Britain’s supremacy was ultimately lost. Britain’s success as the lead industrializer didn’t create a permanent advantage; it took the race for power to a new level where Britain was less able to compete.The industrial revolution complicated Britain’s task in other ways. The railroad – as much as anything the single greatest revolutionary product of the industrial revolution and the defining reality of the Victorian age – ultimately undermined Britain’s most important strategic advantage: the command of the seas. Before the railroad, a power able to move troops and supplies by water enjoyed immense advantages over land based powers. Armies had to walk from one place to another, and their supplies could only be pulled in ox drawn wagons: slow, and those oxen needed to carry their own food as well as the supplies of the armies they followed.
The railroad changed war. As the American Civil War first demonstrated, large masses of troops could now be moved from front to front at great speed, and enormous armies could be sustained in the field. Britain’s approach to war — the rapid movement of small but high quality forces to key strategic zones – was marginalized in Europe by rail.The rapid march of technology both enabled and challenged Britain in other ways. The British Navy in 1900 was supreme on earth, but the development of a new class of battleship (the famous dreadnaughts) made all existing ships obsolete. This neutralized Britain’s advantage: in a new dreadnaught-focused naval race with Germany, Britain’s overwhelming lead (and sunk costs) in pre-dreadnaught forces became largely irrelevant.
Today’s information revolution is in some respects following the channel already carved out by the industrial revolution almost 200 years ago. Information technology today both enables and undermines US military and economic strength in ways reminiscent of what happened in Britain. The US position at the forefront of applying information technology for economic purposes provides large economic gains and creates a strong information sector that is a formidable base for military as well as civilian applications. (This is analogous to the way that British maritime trade made Britain rich enough to build a great navy, provided trained sailors to staff it, and put private money to work alongside government spending to improve shipbuilding and navigation.)So far, so good, but other countries have observed the consequences of US cyberpower for military strength and are moving to level the playing field. They are sure to make progress and the balance of forces will surely shift as time goes by. The US is like Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen, who told Alice that you must run as fast as you can to stay in the same place, and twice that fast to get anywhere. The race is on and we will just have to keep running faster.We are even more vulnerable than Britain was to technology’s ability to make existing equipment obsolete. A revolution that made aircraft carriers obsolete would hurt us worse than any other country simply because we have made very large investments in our carrier fleet and would have to start from scratch to build whatever comes next. It is far more sensible for countries to attack our naval supremacy by making our fleets worthless than by matching them ship for ship.The tech race changes the geopolitical playing field in some other alarming ways. Because tech change is so fast and so unpredictable, it means that strategic balances are likely to shift very quickly and in unpredictable ways. We have no way of knowing what an all out cyberwar would look like. Would a combination of EMP strikes and software bugs level a major economy and destroy its ability to wage war? Would sudden attacks disable high tech weapons and turn combat into something old fashioned and ugly?We are likely to face a strategic environment that is both uncertain and changing fast. This is dangerous; when none of the players understand the actual balance of forces very well, the chance of strategic error increases. Wars often come when one power miscalculates the balance of power. All things being equal, the development of IT accelerates the general level of technological change in arms, and creates new zones of competition and conflict. This is an environment that increases the risk of war and makes the outcome of conflicts more uncertain.
If the paradox of cyberwar teaches us anything, it should teach us that Whig history is flawed. British Enlightenment thought, still the foundation of American political ideology, is both optimistic and deterministic. It believes that the advance of technology, science and education will create a peaceful and democratic world. Democratic peace theory and virtually all forms of progressive and liberal international thought assume the inevitable triumph of free markets, free government and free science in a peaceful liberal world system.So mote it be; this Whiggish faith in the imminent dawn of what Tennyson called the “Parliament of Man” has been repeatedly disappointed since the Victorians interpreted the revolutions of 1848 in the light of the impending triumph of liberal order. But Whig hopes aside, the progress that empowers development and growth also creates conditions that favor new and dire conflicts.Perhaps we will avoid the dangers of the 21st century and perhaps we will not; reason suggests however that any hope for liberal order at home or abroad will depend on American success in a dangerous and expensive security competition with unpredictable outcomes.The rise of cyberwar tells us something else. Back in those carefree innocent 1990s when bombing Serbia was the road to world peace and spam was the ugliest thing on the net, the Anglo-American world was indulging one of its periodical bouts of end-of-history wishful thinking. As in 1918 and 1945, an American consensus of the great and the good was morally certain that a new era in international life had begun.Tech optimism was a big part of that. The cyberworld was almost unspotted at that time, like a field of snow the day after a blizzard. How many digital Whigs prophesied the inevitable triumph of a radically free and democratic world based on the cyber utopia taking shape?These days, the cyberworld looks more and more like the rest of the world – perhaps with more porn. It no longer has the purity of a new fallen blanket of snow; it is more like the gray and yellow mess of slush and ice that urban snowfalls sooner or later become. The cyberworld is no longer a force for angels only; it enables democracy and it supports tyranny. It enables commerce and it enables fraud. People use it to acquire greater understanding and people use it to spread hate. People wage war on it and will likely wage more as time goes by.It turns out that humanity did to the info-world what we did to the Garden of Eden: we lost paradise because of the choices we made. Those who thought that the rise of the digital world would transform human nature missed the boat. Human nature made the digital world in its image. The newest realm of human creativity has demonstrated the oldest truths about who we are: divinely gifted and fatally flawed.The information revolution is already turning out to be a much more powerful driver of change than the industrial revolution was, and the rise of the internet and the digital economy has sped things up even more. Very far reaching changes in the human condition seem possible in this new age but, so far, there doesn’t seem to be a software patch for Original Sin.