It's Debatable

Is the Cyberattack Big News—or Just a Footnote In a Year Like No Other?

Will 2021 be full of foreign-policy crises and domestic drama or dull compared to 2020?

A participant takes part on the first day of the 36C3 Chaos Communication Congress on Dec. 27, 2019 in Leipzig, Germany. The four-day event under the topic "Resource Exhaustion" brings together about 17,000 hackers, artists, researchers, and technology fans.
A participant takes part on the first day of the 36C3 Chaos Communication Congress on Dec. 27, 2019 in Leipzig, Germany. The four-day event under the topic "Resource Exhaustion" brings together about 17,000 hackers, artists, researchers, and technology fans. Jens Schlueter/Getty Images

Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma! I’m sorry I’m late. I was speaking on a panel to release my new major report on an allied strategy for China. But now I’m ready to go—is this our last column of the year?

Emma Ashford: It is, and thank goodness you’re here. I have a problem. Foreign Policy just published an article by President Donald Trump’s former National Security Advisor-turned-critic John Bolton—and I agree with him. This has never happened before.

MK: Never? Not even when he bashed Trump in his memoir? Why do you agree with him now?

EA: I didn’t want to pay to read the memoir. But seriously, Bolton wrote an article arguing that the Trump administration’s new deal with Morocco is a bad idea. The deal recognizes the disputed territory of Western Sahara as a part of Morocco in exchange for Morocco improving its relations with Israel. And Bolton argues that this is ridiculous: Morocco and Israel already had good tacit relations, and that it violates a commitment to take the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara seriously.

He’s right!

MK: Well, I often agree with Bolton and I think I do on this issue as well. Foreign policy is about making difficult trade-offs, and there are real benefits to convincing majority-Muslim countries to formally recognize Israel, so that is an upside to this deal.

But the cost—undermining the international process for resolving the territorial dispute in Western Sahara through a referendum, which Bolton helped craft as an aide to then-Secretary of State James Baker in the early 1990s—may have been too great.

EA: It reminds me of our earlier discussion about Trump and his strange willingness to ignore U.S. foreign-policy needs to hand Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu political wins, whether in Sudan, Kosovo, or elsewhere. We’ll have to see whether this decision outlives the end of the Trump presidency.

In more important news, the U.S. government has been hit by a potentially massive cyberattack, with at least three agencies confirming that their systems have been compromised through use of software made by a third-party company known as SolarWinds. What do you think?

MK: This is a real problem, and what is worrying is what we don’t know. In addition to the agencies hit, some fear that departments dealing directly with international security—like the Defense Department or the intelligence community—might have also been compromised. Cyberspace is becoming among the most contested domains of international security. Shame on the United States for not having better cyber-defenses in place.

EA: It’s funny. If you asked people about the biggest cyberattacks in history, they’d probably name Stuxnet in Iran or Russian attacks on Ukraine’s power grid, or other big, showy incidents. But in reality, one of the biggest and most consequential incidents was the (likely) Chinese hack of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management a few years back, where hackers stole a huge amount of personal and security clearance information.

This incident falls into that same category, and it’s an important reminder—as Joshua Rovner of American University has argued—that cyber-tools are typically used for espionage rather than anything more destructive.

MK: I was going to make the pedantic point that cyberespionage is not technically an “attack,” but the more substantive point is that we shouldn’t treat cyberspace as a special domain. If Russian commandos physically broke into the Commerce Department and stole files, then how would the U.S. government respond? That is how we should respond in this case.

EA: Really? Let’s say, just hypothetically, that the United States was building a new embassy in Moscow. And say the Russians had discovered a way to make the concrete it was constructed from vibrate so that they could hear conversations inside even without bugging it. Would that be an “attack”?

Because it actually happened during the Cold War, and Washington considered it a normal part of state-on-state espionage operations.

MK: If commandos broke into the Commerce Department, U.S. diplomats would raise it in public and private diplomacy with Russia—and hold those personally involved responsible. The U.S. government should do the same in this case.

EA: Fair enough. Expel some Russian diplomats once officials are reasonably sure they can attribute it to Moscow. But don’t act as if this is some violation of norms. As my colleague Erica Borghard reminded me this morning, after the OPM hack, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, actually went on the record saying “You have to kind of salute the Chinese for what they did. If we had the opportunity to do that, I don’t think we’d hesitate for a minute.”

The scope of the SolarWinds attack remains unknown. But I don’t think there is a lot that U.S. officials can or should do about it, other than reinforcing U.S. defenses—at least not if Americans want to keep these tools of espionage for their own use.

MK: So, it doesn’t sound like you would class this as one of the biggest foreign-policy events of the year?

EA: No. It might turn out to have low-level impact in the long run, but there’s so much else going on this year that I doubt this will make the top 10. Since it’s our last column of 2020, do you want to suggest some of your top trends and events from the year? 

MK: It was an eventful year! And there are many candidates for the most significant event, from the killing of Qassem Suleimani in January to the conclusion of the U.S. presidential election with the Electoral College vote earlier this week.

But, the most significant event of the year was certainly the COVID-19 pandemic. It killed more people than most wars and changed the way we all worked and lived, perhaps forever.

I do think the more important long-term trend, however, may be the deterioration in U.S.-China relations and the return of great-power rivalry. With any luck, vaccinations will be successful and COVID-19 will soon be behind us. But I fear that competition with China will be with us for a generation or more.

EA: Yeah, 2020 has been… something. More than 300,000 Americans dead of COVID-19, and perhaps another 50,000 will pass away before the end of the year. It’s almost enough to make you forget that the United States almost started a war with Iran in January, and maybe sponsored a coup attempt in Venezuela in May.

Interestingly, though, it really does look like the biggest long-term foreign-policy implications of COVID-19 will be the increased U.S.-China rivalry. As I recently wrote, U.S. structural power seems fairly unaffected, other than perhaps an increased deficit. U.S. military readiness is also mostly unaffected.

And the negative soft power effects of Trump’s terrible response to the virus are probably outweighed by the fact that U.S. companies like Moderna were among the first to respond, creating and distributing a vaccine in less than a year.

MK: Oh no. It sounds like we agree almost completely. I can, however, raise a possible point of disagreement: Looking back on 2020, the biggest thing many analysts got wrong was that Trump was a dictator in waiting, undermining the rule of law and destroying U.S. influence and the rules-based system. Lest we forget, the impeachment hearings also happened in 2020.

In the end, however, we have seen that the American democratic system and its international position are much more resilient than many appreciated. All it took was a Democrat to be elected president for the Twittersphere to regain its confidence in the country.

EA: Oh, God. It says something about this year that I literally forgot the impeachment.

But I think you’re overstating it. Just because the U.S. system was resilient to Trump in this case doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been damage to the system—and to norms overall. The president of the United States is still ranting on Twitter that the election was rigged after the Electoral College voted. His party continues to partly support him. If this election had been closer, we might be in serious trouble.

Can we shift back outside the United States, though? I want to get back to the China question. In addition to the coronavirus pandemic, 2020 was also the year we saw Chinese crackdowns in Hong Kong, and a growing body of evidence about their terrible treatment of the Uighurs.

It seems to me that Washington has really flubbed the response to these developments, with the Trump administration being simultaneously too confrontational toward Beijing while ignoring these human rights developments.

MK: I disagree. A more confrontational approach was needed. And Mike Pompeo’s State Department made China’s human rights practices a priority with a number of measures, including sanctions on the Chinese Communist Party officials involved.

And there is growing international concern: Europeans are not focused on the Chinese military threat, but they do care about human rights. The United States is building a counterbalancing coalition against Beijing thanks largely to the egregious actions of the CCP.

EA: Yeah, but when the president simultaneously tells Xi Jinping that it’s fine to build camps for the Uighurs, you can see why they’re getting mixed messages.

Here’s an interesting factoid: As the impacts of COVID-19 fade, trade is coming back, and so is support for free trade. That’s a place where Trump’s legacy is already disappearing.

MK: I suspect the uptick in trade with China is temporary and that there will be a continued decoupling of the two economies—the strategic rationale for doing so is simply too great.

EA: Well, the American people evidently don’t think so. Trapped at home during the pandemic, they have actually been ordering more stuff from China! Maybe it will be short-lived, but it’s notable that COVID-19 didn’t actually snip the supply chains the way some suggested they would. I continue to think Trump’s trade legacy is ephemeral.

Any thoughts on his foreign-policy legacy?

MK: Many are asking about the future of Republican foreign policy and whether Trumpism continues after Trump. I am of the view that it won’t. Trump has long been a worldwide celebrity with a unique personality. That is a large part of his appeal. There is no one—certainly not any career politician—who can easily adopt his persona and pick up that mantle.

His support was certainly not due to his foreign-policy positions. Political scientists have repeatedly shown that, unlike with domestic policy or culture war issues, the American public does not know much about, or have strong opinions on, foreign policy. Politicians, therefore, have a lot of running room in this area.

I suspect, therefore, that we will see a return to a more traditional Republican foreign policy in the near future.

EA: Probably a topic for a longer discussion, but I think you’re partly right. A traditional Republican foreign policy—most notably in support of traditional U.S. partnerships and hostility to dictators—is probably coming back. But it’s going to be shaped by Trump, and in particular by the notions of those who attempted to turn his foreign-policy foibles into policy.

After all, the Republican foreign-policy elite is no longer Bill Kristol and the neoconservatives. Today it’s people like James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, and Bolton, people who offer a more coherent version of Trumpism: hawkish, nationalistic, and unilateralist foreign policy.

We’ll probably learn more about the post-Trump direction of the Republican Party over the next few years.

MK: It is our last column of 2020. What do you predict we will be talking about this time next year? What is the biggest story of 2021? After all, I’m sure we would have correctly predicted a once-in-a-century pandemic if only given the opportunity.

EA: I would have preferred to predict it at the bookies, not in this column! As 2020 proved, predictions are notoriously hard. But I think we can predict some things with pretty good accuracy. The Biden administration will return to the Iran nuclear deal, struggle to put together a coherent set of invitees to its “summit of democracies,” and see internal conflict between President-elect Joe Biden and his own advisors over issues like Afghanistan, Syria, and Russia.

Your predictions?

MK: I would add that we will see a return to a post-pandemic new normal, the U.S.-China rivalry will intensify, North Korea will continue to expand its nuclear and missile program…

EA: Oh, come on. Predicting that North Korea will test missiles is like predicting that I am going to eat too much Christmas cake over the holiday period!

But that reminds me. You know what else is finally guaranteed to happen in 2021? Brexit! Come Jan. 1, one way or the other, Britain will no longer be a member of the European Union. Of course, that’s where the certainty ends. Trade may grind to a halt, there might be tensions on the Irish border, and Scotland might try for another independence referendum. Sounds like we’ll be coming back to Brexit in the New Year?

MK: There will certainly be plenty to debate. Until then, have a happy holiday and New Year.

EA: But I thought we had to say “merry Christmas” until Trump leaves office?

MK: Well then, I hope that those who are celebrating it have a merry Christmas and that everyone can enjoy a much-deserved break after a year most people would rather forget.

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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