Thinking Global

Seeking to avert cyber war

Apr 15, 2013 20:30 UTC

Amid the buzz in Washington about new North Korean nuclear threats, President Barack Obama late last week summoned 15 of America’s top financial leaders to the White House to discuss what his administration considers to be threats that are more pervasive, more persistent and less manageable ‑ cyber risks.

“The president scared the hell out of all of us, and we’re not easy to frighten,” said one member of the group, which included Goldman Sachs’s Lloyd C. Blankfein, JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon and Bank of America’s Brian T. Moynihan. “This isn’t like the nuclear threat, where it was really governments facing down governments. The American financial sector is a new battleground, and we’re going to have to invest millions of shareholders’ dollars to protect ourselves from what are essentially national actors.”

In this new world, cyber conflicts have already begun. But no one has written the rules of how they should be managed between government and private-sector responsibility.

Unlike typical national security crises, the private sector controls most of the levers that can decisively resolve cyber conflicts. Government maintains overall responsibility for national cyber defense, yet it hasn’t haven’t developed doctrines of response. Officials remain too constrained by internal processes, competing interests and lack of experience in settling national security problems in collaboration with the private sector.

By coincidence, a few blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House meeting, a group of leading cyber strategists was engaged in a harrowing simulation that showed why Obama is so worried. It illustrated how quickly a cyber conflict could escalate in coming weeks were tensions with Iran over its nuclear weapons’ ambitions to heighten. The session, convened by the Atlantic Council (of which I am president) and the private company SAIC, demonstrated how government officials and the private sector often fail to communicate effectively or act collaboratively to address a national security threat they can only master together.

Obama’s Afghan test

Feb 1, 2013 20:35 UTC

Munich – For America’s friends and allies, who will welcome Vice President Joe Biden to the annual Munich Security Conference this weekend, President Obama’s second inaugural address was notable for its single-minded focus on U.S. domestic issues even as global challenges proliferate. It was the clearest sign yet that Obama intends to build his historic legacy at home.

No one quibbles with Obama’s conviction that America’s global role can best be sustained through a period of “nation-building at home.” The problem is the world is unlikely to hit the pause button as America gets itself off the fiscal cliff, reforms its immigration system, modernizes its infrastructure, fixes its education system and focuses on other long-neglected home chores.

Rude reality inevitably intrudes.

Even if Washington weren’t facing a world of escalating trouble spots – Syria, Iran, North Korea, Yemen, North Africa, and the disputed waters around China (for starters) – U.S. allies would be looking to Afghanistan as the leading indicator of how Obama 2.0 will balance domestic priorities against his global commitments.

What the Cuban missile crisis teaches us about Iran

Oct 26, 2012 20:17 UTC

Bob Schieffer of CBS News struck the right note when he opened this week’s presidential debate on foreign policy by reminding viewers it was “the 50th anniversary of the night that President Kennedy told the world that the Soviet Union had installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, perhaps the closest we’ve ever come to nuclear war.” He called it “a sobering reminder that every president faces at some point an unexpected threat to our national security from abroad.”

After setting the stage, however, Schieffer missed an opportunity to ask an important follow-up: As commander-in-chief, what lessons would President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney draw from the Cuban missile crisis? Did they agree with Graham Allison — whose Essence of Decision is one of the most popular books on the crisis — that today’s effort to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran is “a Cuban missile crisis in slow motion”? Allison said recently in an NPR interview that we are heading “inexorably toward a confrontation at which an American president is going to have to choose between attacking Iran to prevent it becoming a nuclear weapons state or acquiescing and then confronting a nuclear weapons state.”

The wrong conclusions drawn from the Cuban missile crisis, perhaps the most studied foreign policy event in American history, have misguided U.S. leaders ever since the Kennedy administration.