America's Place in Cyberspace: The Biden Administration’s Cyber Strategy Takes Shape

U.S. cybersecurity policy has long stressed the need for better cyber defense, deterrence, and norms. Even so, Chinese and Russian cyber threats have become more geopolitically consequential over time, indicating that U.S. cybersecurity policy failed to keep pace with the change in the international distribution of power. For the Biden administration, this failure underscores the scale of the cyber defense challenge, the risk of escalation in cyber deterrence actions, and the difficulty of developing cyber norms amidst geopolitical competition.

Prevail in the Technological Revolution
The speeches and the interim guidance highlight the need for the United States to prevail in intensifying competition over technology. The interim guidance argues that a “revolution in technology” is underway, with “the world’s leading powers … racing to develop and deploy emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing.” This revolution’s political, economic, and strategic implications mean, according to Secretary Blinken, that the United States will ensure “our leadership in technology” to reap the benefits of new technologies, secure supply chains, and ensure that technology governance reflects the interests of democracies.

U.S. leaders typically seek technological leadership in national security and foreign policy, but rarely have efforts to secure it confronted the challenges facing the Biden administration. U.S. leadership on the internet and digital technologies has collapsed in the failures to handle cyber threats to democracy, the rise of digital authoritarianism, and the cybersecurity problems associated with the change in the international distribution of power. China’s drive for technological independence and global influence creates additional geopolitical and ideological questions about what U.S. technology leadership in a divided world will mean.

Transform International Cyber Cooperation
President Biden’s desire to reinvigorate U.S. diplomacy, lead within international organizations, and strengthen alliances also features in his cyber strategy. The interim guidance states that the United States should “modernize the architecture of international cooperation for the challenges of this century,” including cyber threats and digital authoritarianism. What this modernization project portends for cyber issues is not clear, especially when geopolitical, ideological, and technological competition now characterize the world. The administration is at least signaling that “America is back” does not mean business-as-usual for cyber diplomacy.

In his interim guidance, President Biden observed that the world is in the midst of a fundamental debate about its future direction. The need to have such a debate about America’s and democracy’s place in the world and in cyberspace is sobering, but the president is charting a new course for U.S. cyber strategy. His administration now turns to implementing the strategy in a world no longer in awe of the United States.

David P. Fidler is Adjunct Senior Fellow for Cybersecurity and Global Health at CFR.This article is published courtesy of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).