Cyber Will Change the World?

Yesterday the National Intelligence Council published the fifth installment of its global trends series which seeks to provide a framework for thinking about possible future strategic challenges and their implications. Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds outlines several “megatrends” already present today that are expected to accelerate over the next 15-20 years and other potential “game-changers” that represent critical changes to key features of the existing global system.  The intersection between the “megatrends” and the “game-changers” results in four potential “alternative worlds” that attempt to describe what the global environment might look like in the future.

It is not surprising that cyber related issues figure prominently in the report to help explain the way the world is currently trending and the most dangerous threats it could potentially face. The report lists cyber as a contributor to the potential for increased conflict and as one of four key technology areas “that will shape global economic, social, and military developments as well as the world community’s actions pertaining to the environment by 2030.”  The report even goes as far to list the increased threat of non-state actors conducting a cyber attack as having the potential “to cause the greatest disruptive impact” to the future global environment.

While cyber security and the threat of cyber attacks are certainly issues policymakers must grapple with, will cyber really become a driver of geopolitical change in the relatively near future? Some might argue that it already has, but not according to research conducted by Brandon Valeriano of the University of Glasgow and Ryan Maness from the University of Illinois at Chicago. In a recent article published by Foreign Affairs, Valeriano and Maness argue that the warnings about the increased threat posed by potential cyber attacks does match the actual pace and magnitude of such attacks, and that cyber attacks will not change foreign policy calculations anytime soon.

They point out that cyber attacks such as Stuxnet, Flame, or the Russian cyber attack on Estonia in 2007 resulted in nothing more than tactical level disruptions that did little to affect the strategic plans of the governments that were targeted.  The ease at which a cyber weapon can be copied and redeployed against the aggressor state coupled with the relative weakness of cyber defenses, makes the principle of deterrence likely to continue to hold up in the near future.

Concerning the potential future rise in non-state cyber attacks, Valeriano and Maness cite that the substantial resources, infrastructure, and money needed for successful execution will continue to limit rogue operations by individual groups to relatively benign levels such as those conducted by Anonymous. 

 In these times of budget austerity, pouring a little cold water on the potential “game-changing” effects posed by cyber might be worth considering.

Please note that the views expressed in this post do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, Department of Defense, or United States Government

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