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How Obama can respond to Russian hacking

Shift to peace

As more details emerge about Russian hacking during the 2016 election, the US must be careful about resorting to retaliation. The world needs agreements that lessen the fear of cyberwarfare.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen in Japan Dec. 15, 2016. The Obama administration suggested Thursday that Mr. Putin personally authorized the hacking of Democratic officials’ email accounts in the run-up to the presidential election.
AP Photo | Caption
  • By the Monitor's Editorial Board

President Obama has promised a “proportional” response to the Russian cyberattack on the Democratic and Republican political committees during the 2016 election. In some ways, his dilemma over how to respond is similar to the one faced by President John F. Kennedy in 1962 at the height of the cold war. After the Soviet Union placed nuclear-capable missiles in Cuba, Kennedy had to ask: Exactly where will retaliation lead?

The dangerous standoff during the Cuban crisis taught Moscow and Washington a lesson about their reliance on the fear of mutual assured destruction with powerful weapons. Such a fear is not just mad, it can be counterproductive.

By 1964, the United States and Soviet Union started discussions that led to the first agreement to place restraints on nuclear and missile systems. More pacts followed as well as one for peaceful use of nuclear power.

Might Russia and the US be at a similar point in setting international norms to prevent cyberwarfare – and the promotion of cyberstability? The groundwork has been laid for such agreements.

About 68 countries have signed the 2001 Budapest Convention on Cybercrime. In 2015, China and the US made an informal agreement that countries should not support cybertheft for commercial gain. The Group of Twenty nations has affirmed that international law applies to the conduct of governments in cyberspace. Meanwhile, a United Nations panel, known as the Group of Governmental Experts, continues talks on setting rules of the road in all areas of the cyber communication.

In a new book, “Securing Cyberspace – International and Asian Perspective,” India security expert Arvind Gupta writes: “Unlike the other commons, namely the land, sea and space, wherein international law has grown immediately, cyberspace is still largely lawless. Sustained discussion by international experts is necessary to generate ideas on the way forward towards building a consensus on cyber-security issues.”

Just as fear had to be addressed during the cold war’s reliance on nuclear weapons, so must the Digital Age come up with new codes of conduct. If the world can safeguard the Internet with rules, says Michael Fallon, Britain’s defense secretary, “A hundred years from now our successors will look back on this moment, the dawn of a new cyber age, as the moment when a potentially devastating threat turned into a dazzling economic and social opportunity.”

Mr. Obama’s response to the Russian hacking could be a defining moment, not for retaliation but for negotiations for peace in cyberspace.