Scott Malcomson is a senior fellow in the international security program at New America Foundation and the author of “Splinternet.”
When Secretary of Defense James Mattis announced the new National Defense Strategy Friday by stressing that “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security,” he solidified a theme prominent in other security policies laid out by President Trump’s administration.
The government is putting nuclear strategy and the threats to it — especially cyber threats — at the heart of an emerging “great power” doctrine. Although Washington is currently embracing the idea of a new Cold War with Russia, not least because of Russia’s cyber-enhanced information operations, the great-power turn suggests it might nonetheless be time to talk with Moscow about cyber and nuclear weapons.
True, relations between the United States and Russia are currently bad and getting worse, but arms negotiations often occur at the worst of times. In 1983, Ronald Reagan kicked off a new and productive era of arms talks by portraying Soviet citizens as unholy: “Pray for the salvation of all of those who live in that totalitarian darkness — pray they will discover the joy of knowing God.” It sounded as odd then as it does now.
Also true, global cyber negotiations in general are not going well. The United Nations Group of Governmental Experts on Information Security, which has been deliberating on cyber norms since 2010, collapsed in acrimony last summer. The U.S. representative heatedly concluded that a number of her official counterparts “believe their states are free to act in or through cyberspace to achieve their political ends with no limits or constraints on their actions. That is a dangerous and unsupportable view.”
Yes, Trump looked foolish when he proposed a U.S.-Russian “impenetrable Cyber Security unit” after meeting with President Vladimir Putin last July and then immediately dropped the idea after widespread ridicule. But it was not necessarily a notion to be dismissed. Global cyber talks have tended to look for common ground among states large and small, leaving the core question of strategic competition for some distant meeting after lesser harmonies have been achieved. It might be time to turn the telescope around.
Why? The major nuclear powers, who are also the major cyber powers, are currently growing their nuclear arsenals at both strategic and tactical levels and are each captivated by fear of what the others might be doing. These arsenals are increasingly cyber-dependent — protecting and controlling them requires ever more sophisticated electronic networks — and this dependence creates vulnerabilities, heightening the likelihood of infiltration and distrust. Yet confidence is key to nuclear stability: confidence in opponents’ control over their own weapons, and confidence in your own. That confidence is being undermined by cyber, and it is hard to see how it can be rebuilt without strategic cyber negotiations.
The common ground for such talks is not technical or even cyber-specific — it is strategic. The authors of the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), a policy document written at the Pentagon that was leaked in early January, write that while “the United States has continued to reduce the number and salience of nuclear weapons, others, including Russia and China, have moved in the opposite direction. They have added new types of nuclear capabilities to their arsenals, increased the salience of nuclear forces in their strategies and plans, and engaged in increasingly aggressive behavior, including in outer space and cyber space.”
The draft NPR mentions some other nuclear powers and nods to terrorism, but the emphasis is overwhelmingly on the U.S., Russia and China. The phrase “great powers” appears frequently and seems to refer only to these three. This is consistent with the administration’s National Security Strategy, published last December, which argued that, “after being dismissed as a phenomenon of an earlier century, great power competition returned. China and Russia began to reassert their influence.” A tripartite, great-power notion animates and structures the National Security Strategy, the NPR and the National Defense Strategy.
The idea sounds old but is mostly new. In their different ways, the administrations of the last four presidents each had an arc of history in view and saw the state system as evolving into something better, even if with the U.S. indefinitely as hegemon. Their Cold War predecessors certainly engaged in great-power realpolitik, but it was in the context of military and ideological bipolarity under the novel constraint of nuclear terror.
The world has not had a truly multipolar great-power system since World War II, before the bomb. Interestingly, the draft NPR emphasizes that strategic nuclear forces might be the only reason why open great-power conflict has not broken out since 1945: “Non-nuclear forces also play essential deterrence roles but do not provide comparable deterrence effects — as is reflected by past, periodic and catastrophic failures of conventional deterrence to prevent Great Power war before the advent of nuclear deterrence.” The NPR’s advocacy of “low-yield” (i.e., sub-catastrophic) nuclear weaponry is also framed as part of deterrence. The great-power argument at least has peace in mind.
The Trump administration’s intense focus on Russia and China as great-power rivals might or might not be true to reality. In the National Security Strategy, India (about a quarter of the world’s population) is skimmed over, Japan (the world’s third-largest economy) and Brazil are phantoms, and Europe appears as a vague collection of principalities in need of tutoring. But the great-power triumvirate can create its own reality, and it must be said that neither Russia nor China is likely to quibble with being assigned great-power status by the hegemon. One could argue that their nuclear acquisitions were aimed at just such a result.
Having arrived there, Russia and China are motivated to stabilize their own statuses and suppress the rise of further rivals. So each state in Trump’s triumvirate is motivated to ensure the stability of the others’ nuclear systems, as well as their own, for the sake of both mutual deterrence and controlling the costs and risks of nuclear modernization. The triumvirate also wants to prevent cyber incursions by lesser powers and to make lesser powers’ own nuclear efforts more difficult.
This would seem to lead toward a great-power, cyber non-aggression agreement with regard to strategic nuclear systems. It might even lead to a sharing of threat intelligence, since a cyber attack on one major nuclear system would risk misinterpretation unless information about it were somehow shared with the other two.
Cyber arms talks, from a technical point of view, are very difficult, as Erica Borghard and Shawn Lonergan, researchers at the Army Cyber Institute, helpfully pointed out last week. But this is a question of a few major powers mutually agreeing to protect the security of their own core nuclear deterrent capacities for the sake of preserving their own power. With that at stake, the technical challenges need not be insuperable.
Such a pact would also cement a highly questionable status quo: the parties would, by agreeing to help secure each other’s systems, heighten the relative vulnerability of states outside the agreement. But great powers do tend to do that. And given that the U.S. now seems set on joining Russia and China in a great-power arms race, the likely alternatives are worse.