The New York Times revealed that the US National Security Advisor ordered Cyber Command to pull out all the stops in order to bolster its effectiveness against foreign adversaries, which can be seen as a clear message to America’s Chinese rival.
The US’ New Cold War competition with China, which is one of the main dynamics of the larger global friction between the unipolar and multipolar world systems, is taking on yet another dimension as America decides to “fight fire with fire” in cyberspace. The New York Times revealed that newly appointed National Security Advisor John Bolton has pulled out all the stops in the US’ Cyber Command that had previously – as he and President Trump understood it – hampered the country’s effectiveness in responding to foreign threats. Truth be told, the US has always had one of the most robust cyber security capabilities in the world, but it had mostly kept its activities under wraps in order to avoid drawing too much critical media attention to its offensive campaigns against foreign rivals.
To put it in plain English, the US is guilty of the same things that it accuses North Korea, Russia, and especially China of doing in the cyberspace realm, including hacking sensitive national security grids and databases, but it downplayed all of this over the years because it preferred to politicize the actions of its adversaries. Now, however, that era of “plausible deniability” is rapidly drawing to an end after highly publicized cyberattacks have preconditioned the American public into accepting that their country must now reciprocally “respond” even if it has to “deign” to the same level as its enemies. Never mind that America has been doing this all along, and in some cases, presumably provoked others into defending themselves through activities that were later misportrayed and decontextualized by the Mainstream Media as “unprovoked attacks”, but the point to focus on is that the US is becoming more open about what it plans to do in cyberspace from here on out.
Bolton is credited by The New York Times for having centralized the US’ capabilities by removing different bureaucratic levels of checks and balances, which can be seen in both positive and negative ways. On the upside, it’s now easier for the US to take action after a decision has been made, but on the flipside, this makes it much more likely that the escalation threshold will be surpassed and a Hobbesian “free for all” conflict might break out in cyberspace. This might have dire implications in real life considering that crucial infrastructure grids could be targeted in shutting down electricity networks and other civilization-supporting systems, to say nothing of the potentially lethal secondary consequences of these moves. It’s precisely for that reason, however, why cyberwarriors are so effective and have now become an integral part of all countries’ foreign policy and intelligence toolkits.
The New York Times, openly embracing its institutional opposition to the Trump Administration, has a deep-seated interest in portraying this development in frightening ways, though the points that it makes are indeed legitimate and deserve to be contemplated. Bolton, who’s known for his no-holds-barred approach to International Relations, is essentially endowing US Cyber Command with the authority to engage in proactive cyber campaigns that thematically harken back to the “preemptive” and “preventative” strategic bases that were exploited for launching the 2003 War on Iraq. Coupled with the lowered escalation threshold and accelerated pace at which it would naturally be surpassed under these new conditions, there are credible fears that America might be drawn into another conflict – albeit this time fought in cyberspace, though with real-life implications – on similarly false or exaggerated pretenses.
It should be said, though, that the US has a reason to be somewhat paranoid of its adversaries and predisposed to overreacting against them – whether justified or not – because of the high-profile cyberattacks that were attributed to its opponents. While it’s now known that North Korea likely didn’t hack Sony Pictures and the accusations about Russia “hacking” the elections are just fake news, China, meanwhile, is probably “guilty as charged”, though as the saying goes, “all is fair in love and war”. What’s meant by this is that China, in an attempt to “level the playing field” against the much more superior military and economic capabilities of the US, has a self-interested motivation in hacking its geopolitical enemy in order to “catch up” to it as soon as possible, relying on stolen secrets to shorten the strategic gap between them.
This isn’t to say that China definitely did so each and every time that it was accused, but just that this is much more believable from an objective standpoint than the comparatively more “innocuous” claims being made against North Korea and Russia. As was written, China may have likely done so in order to fast track its strategic development and allow it to more sustainably challenge the US in all domains as it seeks to rival the global superpower and ultimately pioneer a Multipolar World Order to replace the existing American-led unipolar one. It’s natural, then, that the US would “take off the gloves” and become more open with its cyber capabilities in order to send a message to China and the world that it will start “fighting fire with fire”, notwithstanding the possibility that it was Washington itself which may have initiated this cyberwar.
The implications of the New Cold War’s primary antagonists openly bolstering their capabilities against one another will inevitably lead to an exacerbation of the already ongoing cyber-arms race, some details of which are known from Snowden’s Vault 7 leaks. The theoretically responsible course of action for all nations to pursue would be to agree to rules of engagement and enforcement mechanisms, but this will probably never happen in any practical sense given the lack of trust between the US and China.
Moreover, hackers can always be contracted as “plausibly deniable” workarounds for evading the aforementioned even in the unlikely event that any code of conduct was ever agreed upon at the UN or some other international forum. What all of this portends is that cyber hostilities in the New Cold War will probably increase in number and intensity, and that it’s only a matter of time before the consequences of this computer war become tangibly real for civilians, whether by “innocent” miscalculation or “preemptive” design.
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