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Deterrence in Cyberspace

Understanding deterrence in cyberspace is often difficult, because our minds remain captured by an image of deterrence shaped by the Cold War: a threat of massive retaliation to a nuclear attack by nuclear means. A better analogy is crime: governments can only imperfectly prevent it.

PARIS – Earlier this year, American officials acknowledged that US offensive cyber operations had stopped Russian disruption of the 2018 congressional election. Such operations are rarely discussed, but this time there was commentary about a new offensive doctrine of “persistent engagement” with potential adversaries. Will it work?

Proponents of “persistent engagement” have sought to strengthen their case by arguing that deterrence does not work in cyberspace. But that sets up a false dichotomy. Properly used, a new offensive doctrine can reinforce deterrence, not replace it.

Deterrence means dissuading someone from doing something by making them believe that the costs to them will exceed their expected benefit. Understanding deterrence in cyberspace is often difficult, because our minds remain captured by an image of deterrence shaped by the Cold War: a threat of massive retaliation to a nuclear attack by nuclear means. But the analogy to nuclear deterrence is misleading, because, where nuclear weapons are concerned, the aim is total prevention. Deterrence in cyberspace is more like crime: governments can only imperfectly prevent it.

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