Undersea Cables and the Internet
Autocrats don’t need an informed population. On the contrary, most believe, rightly, that an informed population would be a threat to their rule. Unfortunately, an informed population is also a major economic and military asset. When Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union in 1985 he set about loosening restrictions on Soviet citizens sharing information. He did this out of desperation because, after years of struggling to keep pace with Western innovation, productivity, and technology, the Soviet Union was falling farther and farther behind. Russians are a brilliant people but their political system hobbled their genius and Gorbachev aimed to set it free. He called his policy revolution Glasnost, or “openness,” and more than any other change, it led to the collapse of the Soviet Union—a lesson not lost on China’s leadership since then.
By contrast, democracies thrive on open access to information of all sorts. Anything that can interrupt or pollute that information is therefore a threat—indeed, a lethal threat. Because most Americans—and many of their democratic peers worldwide—get their information through the internet, and because information and news are distributed (e.g. CNN and NPR store their files on servers distributed across many countries), cutting the undersea cables that carry our information would make us temporarily blind. This is what I mean by “asymmetry of vulnerability” since the autocrats who attack us are not vulnerable to internet disruptions the way democracies are, which also means that democracies cannot respond in kind. The same thing is true of election interference. Putin and Xi don’t depend on elections to stay in power, so interfering in Russian or Chinese elections has no impact whereas their interference in British, French, German, Japanese, Filipino, Ukrainian, and U.S. elections can have a devastating impact. So one chink in our armor is anything that can interrupt the means of communication while another is polluting the information carried by the world’s undersea cables.
In sum, asymmetry of capability has given way to asymmetry of vulnerability and while democracies worldwide remain threatened, they also contain the means to restore themselves. This includes preserving the rights of minorities (including the Far Right) to disagree while preventing these same minorities from establishing an illegitimate rule that historically has invariably led to national and at times international disaster. Restoring the tradition of debate and compromise in politics will depend on limiting the deployment of social media algorithms that trade rage and outrage for profit, and it will require decades of skilled leadership. Preventing Russia’s disruption of global communications and access to information demands building a resilient backup communications infrastructure, possibly analogous to Space-X’s StarLink system (an independent network of satellites that can carry internet traffic independent of undersea internet cables), but more secure. The stakes could not be higher because if the United States and its democratic allies veer into autocracy, a third world war is certain to follow.
Ivan Arreguin-Toft, Ph.D. (@imarreguintoft) is the author of How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict. He is a founding member of the Global Cyber Security Capacity Centre at Oxford University’s Martin School; where he served as Associate Director of Dimension 1 (cybersecurity policy and strategy) from 2012–2015. He is currently an Associate in the International Security Program, at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.