The Liberal Cyber Order

States can choose from a variety of grand strategies. Two are particularly important to the current U.S. debate: restraint and liberal internationalism. Restraint starts from the premise that the United States, by virtue of history and geography, is remarkably secure. It enjoys the natural protection of two oceans and sits atop vast natural resources. It has not faced a serious great-power competitor in the western hemisphere for two centuries. For these reasons, the United States does not have to spend lavishly on defense or undertake high-risk military campaigns. Provocative actions are unnecessary and dangerous.

Restraint treats international politics as a story about power, not ideas. Restraint does not dwell on regime type or ideological differences among different states. Indeed, it is skeptical about arguments that connect national security with ideological intangibles. Restraint also assumes that international markets are largely self-sustaining, and do not need the guidance and protection of America or any other state. Corporations will trade internationally because profit beckons, and they will pay the cost to do business abroad.  

A liberal grand strategy is based on different assumptions about world politics. The first is that the spread of liberal values — especially democracy and free trade — will be good for national security. Democracies do not fight other democracies, according to this logic, so the expansion of democracy reduces the risk of conflict. Similarly, trading states have less reason to go to war with each other because the economic consequences would be calamitous. A world of trading democracies would be a world of peace, so the United States should strive to make that world a reality. 

Liberal internationalism believes in trade, to be sure, but the theory doubts that commercial markets are self-sustaining. States need to backstop trade in order to see it flourish, providing military protection for international traders. Strong states can deal with pirates who would steal cargo, as well as rogue regimes who would demand exorbitant fees for transiting geographic choke points and visiting foreign ports. Wealthy states can backstop the international economy by acting as lender of last resort and by enacting laws that serve as de facto promises that firms will honor their commitments. International commerce will prove fragile in the absence of state intervention.   


For liberal internationalists, cooperation is essential because “security is indivisible.” Threats to one country tend to ripple outwards, putting everyone at risk. As states become increasingly interdependent, they also become more vulnerable to dangers abroad. The upshot is that states cannot secure themselves by closing their eyes to others’ misfortunes. Contemporary international politics do not allow states to make themselves safe by remaining inconspicuous and hoping that trouble doesn’t come their way.  

Rovner writes that the foundations of liberal internationalism are on full display in the National Cybersecurity Strategy.

Building on earlier efforts to rally like-minded countries in common cause, it presents a “democratic vision for an open, free, global, interoperable, reliable, and secure digital future.” From the administration’s perspective, robust cybersecurity is essential to bolstering global democracy because a secure internet is the foundation of free speech across borders. But while democracies benefit from the open exchange, the White House warns that illiberal regimes seek to stifle the free flow of ideas and to use the internet for repression and political manipulation. The strategy describes the competition in cyberspace in Manichean terms, a struggle pitting democracies against “autocratic states with revisionist intent” whose “reckless disregard” for liberal norms is a clear threat to national security. 

What explains the difference between Biden’s cyberspace activism and his real-world restraint?, Rovner asks, and answers:

Perhaps administration officials agree with academic research showing that individuals and states are more tolerant of cyberspace operations than violent attacks. Perhaps they are persuaded by arguments that fights over bytes do not escalate like fights over territory. Or maybe they just take comfort from the dogs that haven’t barked. Years of intense cyberspace competition have not led to disaster. If anything, there is some evidence that cyberspace operations have defused crises, not caused them.  

Bolstered by this sanguine view, the administration has plans for an aggressively liberal internationalist grand strategy in cyberspace. It will invest in digital trade and internet governance, and help other democracies secure themselves against illiberal attacks. Its goal is an internet that “remains open, free, global, interoperable, reliable, and secure — anchored in universal values that respect human rights and fundamental freedoms. Digital connectivity should be a tool that uplifts and empowers people everywhere, not one used for repression and coercion.”  

It is not clear how the administration will assess progress towards these lofty goals, but such assessment is essential. Rovner offers several measures and benchmarks to determine whether the administration’s strategy is succeeding or failing, concluding:

The ability to measure progress is important, and the administration deserves credit for making the case for self-assessment. Equally important is the willingness to look for signs of failure. The administration is taking a big bet on a liberal grand strategy in cyberspace. We need to know if the bet is paying off.