It's Debatable

Intervention or Restraint? A Washington debate on pressing issues for policymakers.

Can the World Avoid War in Cyberspace—and in Space?

Billionaire rocket launches and ongoing cyberattacks reveal that, without norms governing conflict, there could be chaos.

By , a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and , deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
bezos rocket
The New Shepard Blue Origin rocket lifts-off from the launch pad carrying Jeff Bezos along with his brother Mark Bezos, 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, and 82-year-old Wally Funk on July 20, 2021 in Van Horn, Texas. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Emma Ashford: Good morning, Matt! Welcome to “It’s Debatable: Tech Edition.” From billionaires in space to hackers in cyberspace, it’s been a crazy couple of weeks.

Are you excited about the new wave of spaceflight for the superrich?

Matthew Kroenig: I’ll forgo the obvious jokes about the peculiar shape of Jeff Bezos’s rocket. There is certainly a lot of ego involved in this new billionaire space race.

Emma Ashford: Good morning, Matt! Welcome to “It’s Debatable: Tech Edition.” From billionaires in space to hackers in cyberspace, it’s been a crazy couple of weeks.

Are you excited about the new wave of spaceflight for the superrich?

Matthew Kroenig: I’ll forgo the obvious jokes about the peculiar shape of Jeff Bezos’s rocket. There is certainly a lot of ego involved in this new billionaire space race.

EA: I’m glad you said it, not me. I can’t stop laughing at that rocket. This is why we shouldn’t let men run the world.

MK: But, on balance, I think this is a good thing. We are moving beyond the age of exploration in space to the age of commercialization. I suspect that in several decades, many of us will be traveling, working, maybe even living in space. It will be an extension of life on Earth—more like the oceans today than some far-off domain.

But, to get there, we will need investment and innovation, and today’s advances will unlock future breakthroughs that we cannot yet see. So, count me as a fan.

What about you?

EA: I agree! Yes, it’s irritating that this is effectively a testosterone-fueled competition over which billionaire built the biggest rocket. But the underlying technology is extremely exciting. Rockets that can go into space and return to Earth—rather than being disposable—have the potential to unlock low-Earth orbit to more commercial applications.

It’s irritating that this is effectively a testosterone-fueled competition over which billionaire built the biggest rocket. But the underlying technology is extremely exciting.

And I’m particularly thrilled to see that this is coming from the private sector. I think the worst thing we could do is start to consider space as merely a forum for great-power competition between the United States and China. That would militarize space at the cost of all these potential commercial advances. How about you?

MK: I knew our agreement could only go so far. Commercializing space will require securing space, and China and Russia present some of the biggest threats in that domain—they are building capabilities, including direct ascent anti-satellite missiles, to destroy space-based assets. So, making this work will require the United States and its allies to extend their terrestrial military advantages to outer space. Washington needs to invest in military capabilities to deter and defend against hostile adversary attacks.

EA: True, but militarizing space could impoverish all of humanity. Consider some of the anti-satellite capabilities out there. If used, they could create enough debris to make it difficult for humanity to access low-Earth orbit in the future. An Indian attempt to test the country’s anti-satellite capabilities a few years ago threw debris that almost hit the International Space Station.

Ever since Sputnik, there have been military and intelligence assets in space. But that doesn’t mean that space is militarized; we don’t keep weapons systems up there. I think it would be a serious mistake to move in that direction, particularly as we’re seeing so much progress on the commercial side of space exploration and exploitation. It would be better to work to keep that realm mostly free of politics.

MK: Space is already politicized and militarized. There are weapons that travel through space (intercontinental ballistic missiles), there are weapons on Earth that attack targets in space (direct-ascent anti-satellite missiles), and there are weapons in space (such as Russian anti-satellite weapons) meant to destroy other targets in space. Space-based platforms facilitate military activity (including communications, reconnaissance, and surveillance) on Earth.

It would be nice if space were to become some kind of paradise where the normal laws of politics do not apply, but that is unrealistic. 

So the only thing missing at this point is weapons in space designed to hit targets on Earth, but I suspect these (something like “rods from god”) are not far away. It would be nice if space were to become some kind of paradise where the normal laws of politics do not apply, but that is unrealistic. The creation of the U.S. Space Force was a recognition of the reality of an extant and growing military competition in space.

EA: Look, I’m not that naive. Wherever humans go, politics follow. There will be conflicts in space. One of the most popular shows on Amazon right now is The Expanse, featuring an incipient cold war between the Earth and Mars!

But the question is how best to mitigate the risks. Space is like the Wild West at the moment. There are very few norms or rules of engagement. States are developing all kinds of new technologies, and companies are starting to venture into space exploitation. What we need is a concerted attempt to build a regime of norms around interactions in space. That could take the form of something as complex as an arms control treaty or something as simple as a space-based version of the notification and free-transit rules we have for international waters.

But simply rushing headlong into deploying new military capabilities is not the answer. If the space flights of the last few days are to be anything other than testosterone-fueled bravado, we will need more, not less, cooperation in space.

MK: I agree that international standards are needed for space. They are also badly needed in cyberspace.

Since our last column, it was reported that an Israeli firm, NSO, has been exporting its Pegasus surveillance software to dozens of countries that have, according to several leading newspapers, used the tool to spy on the smartphones of thousands of people—including presidents, prime ministers, and monarchs. While the existence of this technology has been known for some time, the scale of its employment, including by autocratic governments to spy on opposition figures and journalists, was big news.

What’s your take?

EA: It seems like every week there’s a big new story on cybersecurity issues. But I think it’s worth breaking down this week’s story, as some of its revelations are more problematic than others. NSO explicitly sold its technology to authoritarian leaders in the Gulf states and, most notably, to European Union member Hungary. NSO says that it was intended to be used for counterterrorism purposes, but these exploits were used to spy on everyone from human rights activists to world leaders.

NSO is widely assumed to have concrete links with the Israeli government, which has to approve all of its foreign sales of spyware. So it is entirely within Israel’s ability to crack down on these sales.

Espionage against leaders should be pretty uncontroversial, but the use of these technologies against activists and journalists is more worrying. To put that another way: States spy on each other all the time; it’s totally normal. But a democratic state selling spyware to authoritarians to let them listen in on journalists and kill dissidents? That’s horrifying. Joe Biden should be pushing the Israeli government to take action on this. NSO is widely assumed to have concrete links with the Israeli government, which has to approve all of its foreign sales of spyware. So it is entirely within Israeli leaders’ ability to crack down on these sales if they want to.

MK: I agree that something must be done, but a one-off action against one company in one country is insufficient. There are not clear international laws or norms against this activity, so what standard would be invoked to take action? As we’ve debated before, I think what is needed is something like a democratic technology alliance. Leading democratic countries should come together to develop agreed-upon norms for emerging technology, including cyberspace. High on that list should be standards to restrict democratic countries from exporting technology that strengthens dictators’ grip on power.

EA: Wouldn’t that restrict U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and elsewhere? Washington routinely exports technology that helps dictators to maintain their grip on power. Just look at the Arab Spring: From Bahrain to Egypt, it’s American-made tanks that were used to crush pro-democracy protests.

MK: I think that is stretching the definition of technology. Tanks have been around for a century, and there are already well-developed international standards for conventional arms sales.

But I would be open to revisiting how the United States engages with friendly autocrats. Like Biden, I do think the democracy versus autocracy divide is a defining issue of our time.

Speaking of which, and sticking with cybersecurity, the other major news this week was the United States and many of its democratic allies (NATO, the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, Japan) criticized China for its state-sponsored hacking activity.

I was pleased to see this coordinated response from the free world, although I would have liked for it to have been followed up with a unified response to impose a meaningful cost on Beijing.

EA: We need norms in cyberspace, absolutely. But at the risk of whataboutism, I think you are underestimating the extent to which the United States also engages in this kind of behavior. I haven’t seen a plausible theory of why China’s behavior in this space is unacceptable but the United States’ isn’t. Am I missing something here?

MK: I am not aware of any evidence that the United States is planning major cyberattacks on civilian critical infrastructure in China, but the reports this week show that China is doing just that—with plans to destroy U.S. oil and gas pipelines. Washington has proposed making civilian critical infrastructure off limits to cyberattacks, but Moscow and Beijing are not going for it.

Moreover, there is no moral equivalence between the United States and China. One is the leader of the free world, the other a genocidal dictatorship plotting attacks against civilian targets.

EA: OK, that’s a fair point. As many cyber-experts have pointed out, there’s a substantive difference between espionage—which is targeting other states for information—and the exploitation of infrastructure, which could be used in a conflict to attack the United States. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the FBI both assessed that “these intrusions were likely intended to gain strategic access to the ICS networks for future operations rather than for intellectual property theft.” So that is indeed a major concern.

My main concern with “imposing a meaningful cost on Beijing,” however, is that I am not sure what that would be. Sanctions aren’t a good option here, and the Justice Department’s indictment of the Chinese military officers involved has been ineffective. What do you suggest?

There is no silver bullet that will make cyberattacks stop altogether, but Biden does need to show Russia and China that they will pay a cost when they try.

MK: Doing nothing in response suggests that this is acceptable behavior and will be an invitation to Beijing and Moscow to continue this type of activity. There is no silver bullet that will make this stop altogether, but Biden does need to show Russia and China that they will pay a cost when they try. On the offensive side, I think the indictment was a good step. Sanctions—especially if they are taken in coordination with allies with large economies, like the European Union and Japan—can be helpful. And I hope the United States is also retaliating with cyberattacks against the Chinese Communist Party.

The United States also needs to improve its cybersecurity. The problem is that much of this infrastructure is critical for the functioning of the nation but is owned by private companies, and the reports this week show that these private firms have not spent enough on cyberdefenses. The solution is not obvious to me, but past efforts have clearly been inadequate.

EA: I’m no cyber-expert, but as difficult as defense is, the U.S. government clearly needs to do better on it. I note that the government this week mandated new standards for critical pipelines, which seems like a good start. After all, now everyone knows that the Colonial Pipeline ransomware hack was possible in part because the company hadn’t bothered to update its computers.

We’re running out of time here, but before we go, I want to touch on the tech aspect of one final news story. With protests growing in Cuba, there have been calls for the United States to help restore internet provision on the island. Turning off the internet has become a really common tool for dictators worldwide, as it makes it harder for people to organize protests. What are your thoughts?

MK: I think Washington should support the democratic aspirations of the Cuban people. Technology apparently exists to restore the internet, such as floating Wi-Fi on high-altitude balloons. So, Biden should give it a shot. If providing Cubans free access to information also threatens the communist regime in Havana, then that is an additional bonus.

EA: I’m often wary of interfering in protests in other countries, but in this case, I think there’s a good argument for helping out in this way. There are less obvious ways to do it, too, like this private company in Canada, which is working on similar solutions. Whether by government or private means, I’m pretty sure that it will become harder over the long run for dictators to simply shut off the internet as a means of repression.

MK: Emma Ashford backs a U.S.-led regime change in Cuba! You heard it here first. 

EA: I think you might be reading a little too much into that statement, Matt. I don’t support regime change, but I do support the right of Cuba’s people to oppose their government.

Besides, don’t forget that one of the key concessions the Obama administration negotiated during its opening to Cuba was greater internet access for Cubans. So to me it sounds more like Matthew Kroenig praising a key foreign-policy choice of the Obama administration! You heard it here first, folks.

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 Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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