ARGUMENT: CYBER ORDERThe Liberal Cyber Order

Published 22 April 2023

Grand strategy is a theory of security, a logical narrative about how states employ the instruments of national power to make themselves safe. States may choose from a variety of grand strategies. Joshua Rovner writes that two grand strategies are particularly important to the current U.S. debate: restraint and liberal internationalism. Last month the Biden administration released its National Cybersecurity Strategy, which offers a full display of the foundations of liberal internationalism. This is surprising, since Joe Biden’s approach to national security has always blended liberal ideals with realist restraint.

Last month the Biden administration released its National Cybersecurity Strategy, ending months of speculation about its contents. The document, unsurprisingly, focuses on public-private collaboration, which is understandable given that the private sector owns and operates most of the internet. Because it calls for stronger regulations, the issue of public-private relations has already received a lot of attention.  

Joshua Rovner writes in War on the Rocks that the document, however, also reveals something about the administration’s grand strategy.

President Joe Biden’s approach to national security has always blended liberal ideals with realist restraint. He has promoted democracy and pledged his support for international institutions, to be sure, but he also has a long record of resisting calls for military action. Biden’s instincts have been most fully on display in Ukraine. The president describes the war as a clash of democracy and authoritarianism upon which the West depends, yet he has refused to send U.S. troops to fight the Russian invaders, and he has tailored military assistance to avoid provoking Russian escalation. 

The administration’s approach to cyberspace is different. It is liberalism unbounded. The White House strategy treats cyberspace as the venue for ideological competition among great-power rivals. The United States and its democratic allies are fighting to sustain a free internet and a “cyber ecosystem” that encourages trade and protects human rights. Russia and China, by contrast, are fighting to dismantle that system, replacing liberal norms with a conception of cyber sovereignty that justifies political oppression at home and political manipulation abroad.

Biden welcomes the fight. He shows no inclination to restrain American cyber power in the service of liberal ideals. His strategy does not dwell on deterrence, a word that does not appear anywhere in the document. Nor does it express any concern for escalation — that term doesn’t appear either. The military restraint that tempers White House political idealism disappears in cyberspace. The president is a realist in the real world, but a liberal champion online.

Rovner writes that grand strategy is a theory of security, a logical story about how states use the instruments of national power to make themselves safe.