Chinese cyber attacks and US wishful thinking

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When kids play hide-and-seek, whoever is ‘it’ turns their back, covers their eyes and counts to twenty before calling out ‘ready or not, here I come’. That’s when the game begins.

I feel somehow like the US is trying to do this with China by offering China an explicit description of the Pentagon’s cyber defense policy. The problem is, China began their unique brand of economic cybertheft years before. They are not about to give a forewarning. There is little incentive for, or history of China participating in this kind of trust-building exercise. Consequently, as high-minded as the US may look, and as wise as the US plan may look in a traditional Cold War sense, it makes little sense with China.

There is something a bit overly wishful about the US wanting greater openness and information with a country whose strategy seems reliant on the opposite.

In the possibly misguided spirit of fair play, here are the key quotes on cyber defense from US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s speech at the People’s Liberation Army National Defense University earlier this month.

Openness and two-way communication is especially important in the area of strategic and emerging capabilities, and in managing regional security challenges. It is why we seek to resume a U.S.-China nuclear policy and strategy dialogue. It is also why, through our Cyber Working Group, the United States has been forthright in our concerns about Chinese use of networks to perpetrate commercial espionage and intellectual property theft. We’ve also made efforts to be more open about our cyber capabilities, including our approach of restraint.

Those efforts recently took a major step forward when the Department of Defense, for the first time ever, provided to representatives of the Chinese government a briefing on DoD’s doctrine governing the use of its cyber capabilities. We’ve urged China to do the same. It’s in both of our interests to continue to follow this path.

Photo courtesy: WikiHow

The problem with Edward Snowden

My problem with Edward Snowden is the stunning contrast of his judgment.

On the one hand he is an articulate, some would say, fearless critic of unapproved, secret mass surveillance. He worked within US intelligence circles and saw unchecked excesses and acted alone to try to remedy them. Clearly, Snowden is a bright, well-motivated guy.

But when you read his defense of his appearance on the Putin show, there is not even a mention of the East-West crisis over Ukraine. I can understand Snowden’s omission so as to not cross his Russian hosts, or his unwillingness to allow his cause to be muddled by the thorny consideration of the real world politics.

But to not even acknowledge the biggest crisis in Russia-US relations playing out seems a glaring omission. Is he kept in a bubble in Russia? Does he want us to trust him on all things NSA, but to pretend, along with him, that there isn’t a whole lotta US-Russia context that has to be viewed alongside his actions – even if there is no direct connection?

Setting aside the possibility that he is being controlled by Russians, something else may account for the jarring gap of his awareness.

It may be that Edward Snowden is just a typical American-style libertarian. In this view, it is simply the individual versus the state- no matter what the state is. Really, the only political unit that matters is the individual. There is no Ukraine issue because there is no Ukraine, in this view. There is simply the state and the individual (and guess who the bad guy is?).

I think many editors at the Guardian and non-American well-wishers of Snowden would find this element of the Snowden profile foreign. Because this is the strain in America that scoffs at gun laws and considers national access to healthcare not a right but an insidious threat. In this view of the world, not only is government, in the words of Ronald Reagan, the problem but society doesn’t really exist.

In this way, any struggles between the US and Russia are irrelevant.

This is a strain of American libertarianism has accelerated since the time of Nixon — not without huge financial benefits for big corporations. Big commercial interests thrive in places where there is no concept of society, or of common good. Bear in mind, Snowden’s US experience would have coincided with the highwater mark of US corporate power.

I believe it’s hard for people outside the US to understand how this libertarian mentality has contributed to the decay within the US in recent years.But supposing that what we see is what we get with Snowden, his behavior is very much a cousin to the deadbeat rancher Cliven Bundy who has made headlines in the US because he simply doesn’t believe he should have to pay grazing fees on federally owned (that is, owned by the citizens of the US) land.  After all, it’s only the government he’s trying to rip off.

And so, it’s very possible for Snowden that any issue between Russia and it’s neighbors or Russia and the US, simply does not, or cannot come into focus because Russia and the US are the same; they’re both governments. So they are always bad. And libertarianism, well, that’s a radical philosophy that has simple solutions for any issue. So simple in fact, that an American privacy advocate could delude himself into thinking that by aiding Russia, he is somehow helping the people at home.

Meanwhile, what hangs in the balance is the world order that was left in place at the end of the Cold War. And in the US, roads crumble, public school kids get stupider, corporations act and the legislators follow behind them, all because of the pat political philosophy that the individual is right, the government is guilty and no amount of explaining or justifying will change this. Snowden was taking down $100,000+ a year while his fellow Americans struggled to keep stay employed and keep their kids fed, but, well, hey, that’s their individual problem. Welcome, world, to American libertarianism in action.

Will Putin hand Obama his Sputnik moment?

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Barack Obama has been struggling to galvanize the American public with a call to action around national competitiveness in the area of technology, energy, education for at least four years. Yet, time and again his calls for a Sputnik moment both in 2010 and in his 2011 State of the Union address have been lost amid the clatter of partisan wrangling.

The reason for his call is simple enough – the gap between the US’s technological and economic edge and that of the rest of the world is narrowing. The more it slims, the more trouble the US may find itself in geo-strategically. Of the countries posing the biggest challenge – without a doubt, China is already No. 1 on the list.

So it’s with some interest watching the hand-wringing and calls to action in Washington following Vladimir Putin’s move in Crimea. According to a Quinnipiac Poll more than half of Americans polled believe the “Ukraine situation could lead to a renewal of the Cold War.”

Others see Putin creating the “bad guy” the Obama Administration has lacked and needed to galvanize the American people and to show them the “merits of a rule-based international.”

The irony in all this would be that there’s little of a threat from Russia for the US economy. The real economic challenge to the US emanates from China. That means that a “Sputnik” moment received and acted upon in the US could actually alter the status quo between the US and China.

A new Cold War: What does it look like?

Gone is the geographical certainty of the historical Cold War. The Iron Curtain has fallen. Need to go to Russia? Your flight awaits. Have business in China? Go right ahead.

And yet competing interests between the US, Russia and China today are becoming clearer by the hour. 

Two articles point to examples of what this a Cold War could look like. Both authors argue for an asymmetrical response to recent military actions by both Russia and China.

In the Diplomat piece, Zachary Keck argues that economic sanctions and symbolic votes at the UN are ineffective toward Russia, in response to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. Keck believes the US should strategically leak embarrassing information on Russian corruption to international reporters and/ or release embarrassing information online meant to erode Putin’s standing within Russia.

Whatever medium the West used to publish the information, this policy would appropriately target what Putin holds most dear—his grip on power—in a way that can effectively undermine it. It would also be fairly cheap. The larger principle should be kept in mind for future crises—namely, the U.S. and the West don’t have to respond to challenges on the terms set by the countries challenging them.”  

Australian analyst Peter Layton, discussing what he concludes is China’s success in driving its neighbors from their South China Sea territories, proposes a similar strategy for China. Rather than outside powers going head-to-head with China in maritime contests in which China enjoys an advantage, Layton proposes a strategy that plays “on China’s sensitivities and vulnerabilities…ideally seek[ing] to exploit weak points.”

What does that look like? Essentially, taking actions that stir up China’s anxieties about “perceived interference in its internal affairs.”

Payton writes:  

 “The Chinese Communist Party seems to believe it is particularly vulnerable to outside intrusions in its domestic politics,” writes Layton. “Some new strategy might be able to play off such fears and create a perceived linkage between future Chinese actions over the disputed islands and external prying into Chinese domestic politics and internal matters.”

Layton cautions against a broad-brush approach.

In fact, the Chinese strategy to its foreign policy challenges is often to cultivate ambiguity and uncertainty on the part of its rivals. For outside nations to reverse engineer this tactic, the outcome could be lots of ambiguity and uncertainty sloshing around international relations. Layton urges that outside powers make their message clear.

But interpretations could vary within China – with its many internal division – and lead to critical international misunderstandings.

And yet, just like the East and West settled into a geopolitical balance during the Cold War with rules and protocols and understandings to help govern rivals’ behavior, it’s not far-fetched to believe the same thing would eventually emerge.

This kind of linkage would be a real product of the globalized age. Any solace people, organizations and business took from geography during the historical Cold War – i.e. distance from contested borders, etc – would likely erode somewhat with this new game. The world would become less like a geopolitical chessboard and more like Jenga, perhaps, with one piece sitting atop another, in a fragile balance.