U.S. Failure to Clarify Interests in Cyberspace Weakens Deterrence

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee last month, retired Gen. Keith Alexander, who recently stepped down as head of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency, expressed misgivings about America’s deterrent posture in cyberspace. In particular, he raised concerns about the lack of a threshold that, when crossed by cyberattackers, would prompt a U.S. response. According to Alexander, “The question is, when do we act? That’s a policy decision. . . . What we don’t want to do is let it get to the point where we find out, ‘OK, that was unacceptable,’ and we didn’t set the standard.”

Alexander is raising the problem of “red lines.” Deterrence requires several elements to be successful. At its heart, deterrence is about preventing an adversary from taking an action through the credible threat of unacceptable counteraction. For a threat to be credible, an adversary must believe that the party seeking to deter it has both the capabilities and the will to carry out the threat. The adversary also needs to know what behavior is unacceptable—namely, what standards it will be held to, what red lines it must not cross. …

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