Cyber Security and Dual Track Foreign Policy: The beginning of the End?


The Iranian nuclear negotiations occupy a persistent spot in the foreign policy news cycle. The Associated Press recently reported that Iran has agreed to a list of nuclear concessions. Although still improbable, the likelihood of even minimal collaboration between the United States and Iran appears greater now than in recent memory. Unless, of course, you happened to stumble upon the revelations of Operation Cleaver, which has been largely ignored by all but the tech media outlets. The report highlights an alleged widespread Iranian cyber campaign targeted at critical infrastructure in about a dozen countries, including the United States. Just as we’re seeing the first glimpses of potential US and Iran cooperation in the nuclear realm, the opposite is happening in cyberspace. This uncomfortable reality highlights the modern age of diplomacy, wherein diplomacy in the physical world and in the virtual world is completely orthogonal.

Congressman Mike Rogers, House Committee Intelligence Chair, is one of the few policymakers who has actually noted this potential relationship between policy in the physical and virtual worlds, stating that if the nuclear negotiations fail, Iran could resume cyber activity. Unfortunately, as Operation Cleaver highlights, Iranian cyber activity targeting physical infrastructure has likely been escalating, not de-escalating, over the last two years. Operation Cleaver is perhaps the timeliest example of the Janus-faced nature of foreign policy, which has occurred for well over a decade but is not unique to Iranian-US relations. Take the recent APEC meeting, for example, where the US and China brokered a deal to counter climate change. This occurred within weeks of an FBI warning of a widespread Chinese cyber campaign targeted both at the US private sector as well as government agencies, and within days of the announcement of a September breach at the US National Weather Service. This, too, has been linked to China. Similarly, the US and Russia continued the START nuclear non-proliferation negotiations earlier this year just as cyber-attacks escalated, some of which were targeted at US federal agencies. Of course, both states actually escalated their deployed nuclear forces since this past March, but nevertheless the two countries are still on track for additional negotiations in 2015. It’s not unusual for states to pursue divergent relationships across distinct areas of foreign policy. Cooperation vacillates between the various arenas, but rarely does it take on the dueling nature we see occurring between the physical and virtual worlds.

The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, and many, many other leaders have described the modern era as containing an unprecedented array of diverse and dynamic threats. This brings new challenges, of course, but perhaps one of the most striking challenges remains largely unspoken. Foreign policy in the modern era has thus far differentiated relationships in the physical and virtual worlds. Will this remain a distinct, modern foreign policy challenge? With the continued trend of the private sector surfacing foreign nation-state cyber campaigns, it seems 2014 may mark the beginning of the end of dueling foreign policies. The ongoing series of revelations of alleged foreign states and their affiliates targeting the US public and private sectors (e.g. China’s PLA Unit 61398 and Axiom group, Russian association with the JP Morgan breaches, North Korea with Sony, and now Operation Cleaver) is likely indicative of the future “outing” of cyber behavior by the private sector. In the future, the US is likely to leverage disclosures made by the private sector, which in turn provides the government the luxury of concealing or revealing its own information, and can even assist negotiations across the diplomatic spectrum.

This period of disparate US policies in the physical and virtual worlds will be increasingly difficult to juggle in light of publicized revelations of cyber campaigns conducted against US federal agencies and corporations. At some point, public opinion will reach a tipping point and demand a more coordinated response and defense against cyber campaigns by foreign states. It will be increasingly difficult to maintain a two-track foreign policy as new revelations occur. That tipping point may still be in the distant future, as the US public remains largely unaware of many of these campaigns because they are not broadly publicized. In fact, many of these foreign-sponsored cyber campaigns – especially if targeted against federal agencies – remain publicized only by tech-focused media outlets. We’ll spend some time examining this particular trend in more detail in a future post.