Symposium | Les Gelb, in Memoriam

Grappling with Cyber Threats

By Gordon M. Goldstein Lee Wolosky

Tagged CybersecurityForeign PolicyLeslie Gelb

See the other tributes to Les Gelb here.

About 20 years ago, while pondering the fate of an increasingly fragile and fragmenting world order, Les Gelb was confronted with two unwelcome proposals. First, should he consent to an unprecedented official Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) study group managed by and composed of its most junior members, people mostly in their late 20s and early 30s, granted finite five-year terms of inclusion in one of the country’s most elite foreign policy institutions? Second, should he allow these youngsters (at the time the median age of a CFR member was 67) to explore the implications of the information revolution on U.S. national security and economic interests, a theme Gelb at the time doubted was a major American national interest? After 11 grueling drafts of the beloved “concept paper” that Les demanded in order to justify such an exercise, he skeptically but with good humor acquiesced to both heretical recommendations.

The phenomenal growth of the Internet and the digital world was not a key theme in Gelb’s Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy. The index does not include a single reference to “cyber.” (“Cyprus” pops up once.) Yet in fairness, Gelb’s meditation on Machiavelli’s classic The Prince was conceived during the acme of anxiety about terrorism, failed states, and weapons of mass destruction, when even the most recent intelligence community National Threat Assessment made no reference to cyber-threats at all. The Power Rules Gelb espouses are nonetheless illuminating, and arguably essential, in the cyber era. Three principles, in particular, merit further consideration.

First, despite a veritable forest of think tank papers, academic books, and government studies, America continues to lack a coherent cyber strategy. Experts seeking to address this deficit would be well advised to accept Gelb’s imperative for realism in American policy. It is fashionable to refer to the cyber realm as the “fifth domain” of military conflict, complementing land, sea, air, and space; it is also vogue in some circles to call for American primacy in this competition. That is an illusion. As Gelb observes: “Americans continue to err in two basic ways in thinking about their present-day power . . . some deny limits altogether and cling to the grand fantasy of American omnipotence . . . others embrace limits and assert American impotence . . . The United States is neither omnipotent nor impotent.” As Gelb might counsel, the United States should neither seek dominance of the cyber domain nor capitulate to aggressive rivals who seek strategic advantage within it.

Second, popular yet chimerical causes in the cyber community include the promotion of “norms” to govern cyberspace, reliance on multilateral institutions, and the crafting of a “Digital Geneva Accord.” But don’t count on these coming to fruition. Cyber weapons are cheap and effective, proliferate rampantly, and are subject to systematic deception and cheating. Gelb presciently warns: “This concept is most certainly not a recipe for a policy of weak-kneed multilateralism or the orgiastic massing of nations committed to inaction on their own through the United Nations.” Simply put, there is no international organization or global treaty that will tame the cyber beast.

Finally, American cyber strategy should incorporate Gelb’s emphasis on “mutual indispensability . . . the fundamental operating principle for power in the twenty-first century—meaning that the United States is the indispensable leader but needs equally indispensable partners to succeed.” Gelb the strategist adds: “The aim here is not foolish multilateralism but the creation of small and ad hoc power coalitions to solve particular problems.” In practical terms this means continuous American support and collaboration with its historic intelligence partners among the “Five Eyes”—Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom, and ourselves—as well as reversing pointless friction on digital issues with the 28 states of the European Union.

Gelb may not have devoted deep analysis to the premature challenges of the cyber era, but his principles for wielding American power in the twenty-first century still leave us with a legacy of wise guidance for the future.

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Read more about CybersecurityForeign PolicyLeslie Gelb

Gordon M. Goldstein is an adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, where his research focuses on technology, innovation, and U.S. foreign policy. He is the Author of Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam.

Lee Wolosky has served in positions on the National Security Council and in the State Department under presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama, most recently as President Obama’s Special Envoy for Guantanamo. He is currently a lawyer in New York and Washington, and has litigated major cyber cases involving alleged state-sponsored attacks.

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