Cyber Détente Part III: American Procedural Negotiation

Original at Freedom to Tinker.

The first post in this series rebutted the purported Russian motive for renewed cybersecurity negotiations and the second advanced more plausible self-interested rationales. This third and final post of the series examines the U.S. negotiating position through both substantive and procedural lenses.


American interest in a substantive cybersecurity deal appears limited, and the U.S. is rightly skeptical of Russian motives (perhaps for the reasons detailed in the prior two posts). Negotiators have publicly expressed support for institutional cooperation on the closely related issue of cybercrime, but firmly oppose an arms control or cyberterrorism treaty. This tenuous commitment is further implicated by the U.S. delegation’s composition. Representation of the NSA, State, DoD, and DHS suggests only a preliminary willingness to hear the Russians out and minimal consideration of a full-on bilateral negotiation.

While the cybersecurity talks may thus be substantively vacuous, they have great procedural merit when viewed in the context of shifting Russian relations and perceptions of cybersecurity.

The Bush administration’s Russia policy was marked by antagonism; proposed missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic and NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine particularly rankled the Kremlin. Upon taking office the Obama administration committed to “press[ing] the reset button” on U.S.-Russia relations by recommitting to cooperation in areas of shared interest.

Cybersecurity talks may best be evaluated as a facet of this systemic “reset.” Earnest discussions – including fruitless ones – may contribute towards a collegial relationship and further other more substantively promising negotiations between the two powers. The cybersecurity topic is particularly well suited for this role in that it brings often less-than-friendly defense, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies to the same table.

Inside-the-beltway perceptions of cybersecurity have also experienced a sea change. In the early Bush administration cybersecurity problems were predominantly construed as cybercrime problems, and consequently within the purview of law enforcement. For example, one of the first “major actions” advocated by the White House’s 2003 National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace was, “[e]nhance law enforcement’s capabilities for preventing and prosecuting cyberspace attacks.” But by the Obama administration cybersecurity was perceived as a national security issue; the 2009 Cyberspace Policy Review located primary responsibility for cybersecurity in the National Security Council.

This shift suggests additional procedural causes for renewed U.S.-Russia and UN cybersecurity talks. Not only do the discussions reflect the new perception of cybersecurity as a national security issue, but also they nudge other nations towards that view. And directly engaging defense and intelligence agencies accustoms them to viewing cybersecurity as an international issue within their domain.

The U.S. response of simultaneously substantively balking at and procedurally engaging with Russia on cybersecurity appears well-calibrated. Where meager opportunity exists for concluding a meaningful cybersecurity instrument given the Russian motives discussed earlier, the U.S. is nonetheless generating value.

While this favorable outcome is reassuring, it is by no means guaranteed for future cybersecurity talks. There is already a noxious atmosphere of often unwarranted alarmism about cyberwarfare and free-form parallels drawn between cyberattack and weapons of mass destruction. Admix the recurrently prophesied “Digital Pearl Harbor” and it is easy to imagine how an international compact on cybersecurity could look all-too-appealing. This pitfall can only be avoided by training an informed, critical eye on states’ motives to develop the appropriate – if any – cybersecurity negotiating position.