Russian Election Hacking: Is It Time to Declare War?

Why you should care

Because this could start Cold War 2.0.

While the CIA says Moscow interfered in the presidential election to help Trump win — a notion the billionaire calls “ridiculous” — the FBI remains unconvinced. Clinton won the popular vote by 2 percentage points, but Trump managed to grab the keys to the White House thanks to a mere 100,000 voters from three key states (about 0.08 percent of total turnout). So it’s easy to suggest that a handful of harmful leaks here or a spot of fake news there might have been decisive.

Officials allege that hackers linked to the Russian government successfully penetrated systems of both the Republicans and Democrats, but selectively leaked emails deemed damaging to the Clinton campaign. President Barack Obama has ordered intelligence agencies to conduct a deeper investigation and reach a consensus before President-elect Trump’s inauguration. But if a foreign power has significantly meddled in — and maybe even changed the outcome of — the U.S. democratic process, then at what point do allegations of election meddling and hacking become an act of war?

To understand the potential foreign policy outcomes — and whether it’s time to declare Cold War 2.0 — OZY spoke to Harvard Kennedy School professor Joseph Nye, a world-leading scholar of international relations and former chair of the National Intelligence Council.

The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

When does cyber interference, such as that alleged of Russia during the election, become an act of war?

Joseph Nye: There is not a clear red line; this is often referred to as a gray area. The U.S. treats cyberattacks as an act of war when it has equivalence to kinetic damage — it’s not the instrument itself, it’s the damage that’s done. That is usually used to think about things like interference with the electrical grid. Interference with the electoral process, as opposed to the electrical process, is very damaging to values that we hold dear, but it doesn’t lead to damage that has kinetic equivalence to the use of force like death or destruction. That’s why it falls into this gray area. So it’s a new area in that sense.

If you were to look back historically, you could say that propaganda and information warfare have been around since the Cold War or even earlier. Right after World War II, when it looked like communists were possibly going to take over in France and Italy, the United States meddled in the French and Italian elections, so it’s not totally unprecedented. Also in the 1970s, some claimed that there were South Korean efforts to meddle in American elections. And the Russians (and before them the Soviet Union) have been known for meddling in foreign elections for some time. So what’s new is not information warfare or interference in elections; what’s new is using cyber instruments to break into protected information and to then use it for disruptive purposes in political campaigns.

It’s hard to call the release of information a use of force, or an armed attack (which is the term of the U.N. charter on this issue). I don’t think you solve something by calling it an act of war, but you can call it a political attack, or an act of information warfare.

What is the precedent for a proportional response to a political attack or act of information warfare?

Nye: Well, that’s one of the problems: What do we mean by proportionality? Our doctrine is that our actions will be consistent with the laws of armed conflict, which means we will respect proportion and discrimination, discrimination meaning distinction between governmental actions and private citizens. But it’s not clear what discrimination or proportion means in a situation like this.

If we do nothing, and if President Trump follows that path, then I think you’re gonna see a good deal more of this type of behavior, not just in American elections but also in the elections of our NATO allies like France and Germany. If on the other hand we name the individuals involved and apply sanctions against them — that they cannot travel without being subject to arrest if they come to the United States, and that their bank accounts will be frozen — I think that will be seen as indication that this behavior is fraught with risk.

So sanctions are an effective way of deterring actions that fall in that gray area, without having to declare them an act of war?

Nye: Well, as an analogy, for years the United States used to complain about China using cyber means to break into and steal private companies’ proprietary information or intellectual property. The U.S. identified five Chinese officers by name and brought indictments against them. There wasn’t much chance that those officers were going to be arrested and brought to the United States, but the prospects of a set of sanctions that might continue over time eventually led to China changing its position.

So that was a gray area — well, it wasn’t an act of war — and the threat of sanctions led to an agreement on self-restraint between China and the U.S. using cyber for commercial espionage, which was taken to the G20 and generalized to a broader group of states. So there’s an example where, in a gray area, some progress was made. So I hope you could reach, after a set of sanctions, some agreement in another gray area: interference with political and domestic election processes. But that was China, not Russia, so it would depend on Putin, and he has different objectives, and it will also depend on President Trump, whether he’s willing to press forward or to sweep this under the rug.

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OZY2016

The route to the White House: news, stories and analysis from on and off the presidential campaign trail.