Managing the Cybersecurity Dilemma

Much has been written about the digitalisation of diplomacy, and how it will render traditional diplomacy irrelevant. A favoured argument, taken up with relish by Finance Ministries, is that the new information communication technologies undermine the need for maintaining expensive physical networks of diplomats abroad. In as far as embassies remain, they focus on commercial and national promotion. Political networking and analysis are left to wither on the vine. And yet, as I argue in my new book, cyberspace is creating problems which may make traditional forms of diplomacy more important than ever. The cybersecurity dilemma offers an example.

The traditional security dilemma derives, like much of international relations theory, from Thucydides´ History of the Peloponnesian War. According to the dilemma, State A is concerned about the security threat from State B. It starts building up its military as a defensive move. State B interprets State A´s actions as an offensive move which could threaten its security. It responds by building up its own military. At the end of the cycle the military gap between states A and B is the same, but A is worse off because relations between states A and B have deteriorated, with state B seeing state A as a potential aggressor. The classic example of the cybersecurity dilemma is the Anglo-German naval arms race prior to World War I. Not only did Britain win the arms race, but suspicion of German intentions bound Britain even tighter to its French and Russian allies.

Ben Buchanan describes the security dilemma in cyberspace, what he calls the “Cybersecurity Dilemma”. State A is concerned about the cyber capacities of State B. It penetrates State B´s internet systems to try to assess those capabilities and what State B intends to do with them. State B interprets State A´s actions as a hostile cyber operation, preparing for future cyber conflict. It accordingly strengthens its capabilities and increases its penetration of State A´s systems. At the end of the cycle, State A is worse off than at the start. The “capabilities gap” remains. State B has increased both its capabilities and its penetration of State A´s systems, which it now regards as a potential aggressor.

The key to managing the security dilemma in both physical and cyberspace lies in the ability of one state to accurately and reliably interpret the intentions of other states. In physical space there are mitigating factors that can help. Weapons systems can be defensive or offensive. Traditionally, for example, fighter aircraft were defensive and bombers were offensive (a distinction that has rather dissolved of late). The positioning of weapons systems can also indicate whether they are intended offensively or defensively. But these mitigating factors do not exist in cyberspace. Weapon systems cannot be ”positioned” in such a way as to indicate offensive or defensive intentions. In a sense, cyber weapons do not exist until they are used.  Nor is it easy to distinguish between cyber operations to gather intelligence about capabilities and operations preparatory to future conflict. In cyberspace the ability of one state to identify the intentions of another state is even more important than in physical space.

Marcus Holmes has done some interesting work on the social neuroscience of identifying the intentions of others, combined with examining historical case studies ranging from Munich to the Reagan/Gorbachev summits. A preliminary conclusion is that under certain circumstances, humans are better at identifying the intentions of other humans than some philosophers would have us believe. Neuroscience experiments would suggest that a mirror system in the brain allows us to simulate the thinking processes of others, predicting their intentions. As Holmes acknowledges, there is much more work to do on this. But an interesting consequence of this work, which he explores in his diplomatic case studies, is that the ability to accurately identify intentions is significantly reinforced by regular face-to-face contact (another conclusion is that narcissists are poor at intention identification – not exactly promising for Trump´s meeting with Kim Jung-un).

The logic is simple, as I explained to a conference of diplomats last year. The ability to identify intentions is key to managing the cybersecurity dilemma. Regular face-to-face contact significantly enhances the ability to identify intentions. Who enjoy regular face-to-face contact with senior officials and politicians in foreign countries? Diplomats. Interpreting the intentions of foreign governments has always been a key role of diplomats. It is related to empathy: the ability to see issues through the eyes of the other, whether ally or rival. Politicians and journalists frequently mistake it for sympathy. Hence the accusations that diplomats “have gone native” or started representing the interests of foreign governments rather than their own. But no chess player will succeed without the ability to see the board through the eyes of his opponent. Diplomats not only have to divine the intentions of the other, but also how the other interprets our intentions.

In recent years we seem to have lost the diplomatic capacity for seeing problems through the eyes of the other. This at least is the conclusion I would draw from the Brexit experience, or the chaos of the EU´s relations with Russia and China. Buchanan´s discussion of the cybersecurity dilemma suggests we need to recover it if we want to manage the risk of escalation in cyber conflict. Holmes´ discussion of the social neuroscience suggests the importance of regular face-to-face contact at senior level. Ironically, digital technologies, and the challenges they throw up, may have increased rather than undermined the importance of diplomacy, and of a rather traditional kind.

Language matters, even in cyberspace

Linguistic precision in cyberspace

Linguistic rigour matters. And not just because I studied philosophy and my tutors insisted on it to the point of obsession. Linguistic imprecision reflects muddled thinking. This is as true of cyberspace as physical space, as I discovered when writing my book on cyberdiplomacy. Unfortunately, linguistic precision in cyberspace is rare. The media in particular use terms like cyberwar and cyber attack so indiscriminately as to cause public confusion about cyberspace, and its dangers. But these terms have policy implications which should urge more caution in their use.

To begin: we are not in a cyberwar. Wars involve physical damage, to both humans and things. In other words, people get killed and things get blown up. Careless, and inaccurate, talk of cyberwar trivialises warfare and its enormous human cost. In cybersecurity this physical damage is referred to as kinetic effects. Kinetic effects as an intended consequence of cyber operations have so far been extremely rare. There is only one clear cut case: the attack, supposedly by the US and Israel on the Iranian nuclear processing plant at Natanz (the US may have also used cyber operations to cause kinetic damage to the N Korean medium range ballistic missiles, but it remains speculation). This is not to say that cyber operations will not escalate to kinetic attacks on critical civilian infrastructure, for example power generation or air traffic control systems. The Russians have carried out disruption operations against the power grid in Ukraine, although only temporary and possibly to signal capabilities to the US. When and if they do happen, the human casualties could be terrible. But we should await the occurrence of real kinetic attacks before talking about cyberwar.

The indiscriminate use of the word “cyberattack” by politicians, journalists and even academics (who should know better) conceals a multitude of sins. The word “attack” is a theory laden and emotionally charged word. It implies an unacceptable aggression, to which there should be some kind of response or counterattack. It is curious that we regularly use the word attack in cyberspace where we would not use it in physical space. For example, the use of cyberattack to refer to espionage operations. We would never talk about espionage attacks in the physical world, but rather espionage operations. The distinction is important. The use of the word “operations” for espionage in the physical world recognises that such operations, while not welcome, are part of international relations and constant, with their own rules of the game. These rules of the game include that espionage itself is no casus belli, and that intelligence officers, as opposed to the agents they recruit, are generally immune. Is it because we talk about cyberespionage attacks that the US government is indicting Russian and Chinese intelligence officers for their activities in cyberspace in a way that it has never done for their activities in physical space.

It would better if we referred to cyber operations. This would allow us to distinguish between the different kinds of operations and the motivations behind them. This would better enable us to devise strategies to deal with each kind of operation. Such a classification of operations would include degradation operations, designed to cause permanent damage either in cyberspace or physical space (kinetic damage); disruption operations, designed to temporarily disrupt systems; espionage operations, designed to steal data; criminal operations, designed to steal money; or information operations, designed to destabilise societies by spreading a mix of information and disinformation through online platforms. Distinguishing motivations also matters. Cyberespionage operations may be aimed at identifying the true intentions of a foreign government, stealing intellectual property to close a technology gap or stealing personal data as preparation for further espionage or criminal operations. Some of these activities may be acceptable (seeking to identify government intentions) or unacceptable (stealing intellectual property). These distinctions matter. In the Cold War espionage may have helped avoid nuclear war in both 1962 and 1983.

Cybersecurity is trendy. It helps sell newspapers (albeit online) and (I hope) books. Stories like the dangers of Huawei´s involvement in setting 5G industrial standards bring home the need to get diplomats more involved in internet governance. But so far kinetic damage from cyber operations is limited. There is no evidence of people being killed by cyber operations. It may come to pass. Indiscriminate use of terms like “cyberwar” and “cyberattack” will only make that more likely, while hiding the more interesting story of what is really going on. 5

Treating Facebook as a Geopolitical Actor

A parliamentary committee in Britain has called for formal regulation of social media platforms like Facebook, including a mandatory code of ethics and an independent regulator. In the process it accused Facebook of behaving like “digital gangsters”. The parliamentary report is the culmination of an investigation begun following the Cambridge Analytica scandal. As I have argued elsewhere, and as the parliamentary committee seems to have realised, Cambridge Analytica was only the tip of the Facebook iceberg. More significant is its role in facilitating Russian disinformation operations.

In my new book “Cyberdiplomacy: Managing Governance and Security Online” I argue that social media companies like Facebook, as well as search engines like Google, should be treated not as ordinary companies, even less as neutral platforms, but as geopolitical actors in their own right. The algorithms that underlie their operations, and guarantee their advertising revenues, are consciously used by Russian and other disinformation campaigns to place their fake news in the echo chambers most likely to believe it. Far from neutral platforms for building social networks or searching information, or even the mechanisms for monetising their users´ data which the parliamentary commission identified, they are active collaborators in Russian attempts to destabilise Western societies and fragment Western institutions. In fact it is worse than that. The same social media algorithms that facilitate disinformation operations undermine western public diplomacy, in as far as it depends on social media, by limiting its reach to those who already agree with it.

Although Facebook may be reluctantly accepting its reality as a mechanism for monetising its users´ data, it still cannot, or will not, accept its role as a geopolitical actor. It still insists that its platform is internationally neutral and is taken advantage of by the bad guys. In other words, that it is an innocent victim of forces beyond its control. This will not run and shows only Facebook´s, or Mark Zuckerberg´s, ignorance of international law and relations. Neutrality in international law carries responsibilities as well as privileges. One of the responsibilities is not to allow foreign forces to cross your territory to attack a third country. It can be illustrated by the dilemma of Belgium in August 1914. Germany requested passage for its armies to cross Belgian territory to attack France. If Belgium agreed, it would lose its neutrality and become a de facto ally of Germany against France. If it refused, and resisted the German incursion, it would become a de facto ally of France against Germany. It chose the latter and paid a terrible price.

Facebook´s position is analogous. Russia is using it (and other social media platforms), and in particular its underlying algorithms, in operations to destabilise western societies. If Facebook acquiesces in this it becomes a de facto ally of Russia against the west. If it wants to avoid this, its only alternative is to become an ally of the west against Russian disinformation operations. Simply taking down pages when they are found to be false, or employing fact checkers to identify fake news, will not cut it. Not least because skilful disinformation operations combine true, ambiguous and fake news in ways not always easy to disentangle. If Facebook and other social media platforms and search engines are serious about not being Russian allies, they must share the algorithms underlying their platforms with western governments so that these can better understand how to counter Russian operations. And this means that social media and search engine companies must recognise and accept their own role as geopolitical actors.

The British parliamentarians err by treating Facebook as just a company that needs regulating. Western governments need to engage with these companies as geopolitical actors, bringing home the realities of their position in cyberspace, and the responsibilities they have taken on. If these companies want to collaborate with the west they can share details of their algorithms with western governments (confidentially of course). If not they should be seen as de facto allies of Russia and other hostile powers carrying out disinformation operations on their platforms, and treated accordingly. Denmark has taken a bold step in appointing an Ambassador to the Tech Sector, the Tech Ambassador. This implicitly recognises the tech companies as international actors, although his remit so far does not include the geopolitical agenda. The ultimate sanction, of course, for Facebook and other social media companies is if the west decides to launch its own disinformation operations against Russia and other rivals on the same platforms, taking advantage of the same algorithms. How would Mark Zuckerberg´s advertisers respond to Facebook being reduced to a wasteland of information warfare?

Who You Going to Call? Echo Busters!


A previous blog described how the algorithms that drive social media and search engines facilitate Information Warfare and frustrate Public Diplomacy. They also reinforce the echo chambers which are fragmenting political and social debate, and destabilising political systems, in western societies. This raises the question of what diplomats (and others) can do to break out of these echo chambers and escape the tyranny of the algorithms. In doing so they would hope to frustrate or counter hostile Information Warfare campaigns.

As a first stage, diplomats can get cleverer about how social media function. They can make more effective use of hashtags and other tagging techniques on social media. Their governments can give them more autonomy to respond to social media rapidly and effectively in real time (at the risk of sometimes getting it wrong). They can learn search engine optimisation (SEO) techniques to ensure their webpages and other favourable materials get priority in online searches. But there is only so far this will take them against the inexorable logic of the algorithms: to ensure (for marketing purposes) that the users of social media platforms and search engines get materials and data that reinforces their existing prejudices.

One option is to recognise that the west is already engaged in an Information War with Russia (and possibly China and N Korea) and to respond with a counter Information War campaign. This would mean replicating their tactics, taking advantage of the social media algorithms to promote the fragmentation of rival societies. This is a dangerous tactic. Provoking the fragmentation and destabilisation of other countries does not increase the coherence and stability of our own. At worst it leads to a general destabilisation and loss of confidence in all narratives, which is hardly in our interest. At best it might lead to the collapse of rival societies, but that too could be dangerous for us. Is Russia in a state of collapse better for the west than Putin? Counter information warfare risks reducing social media platforms to wastelands in information warfare. The one merit of this approach could be to use the threat of such an outcome to convince internet companies to be more cooperative about revealing how their algorithms work.

Another option is to re-think what we mean by Public Diplomacy. Public Diplomacy aims to generate a positive social and political environment in which more specific policy proposals will subsequently prosper. Governments do Public Diplomacy because they believe that foreign publics influence the decisions of their governments. If they can win over foreign publics it helps win over their governments (which raises the interesting question of why governments do Public Diplomacy in countries with authoritarian governments, unless, as the authoritarian governments suspect, in pursuit of regime change). This does not necessarily mean reaching out directly to the entire public. Digital tools such as social media claim to allow such outreach to foreign publics as a whole. But as we have seen, this is a lie. But why try to reach out to foreign publics as a whole. Prior to the availability of digital tools, Public Diplomacy was more modest in its aspirations. Its aim was to identify the key public opinion formers, whether they be journalists, politicians, academics or whoever, and then engage with them. Diplomats sought to debate and discuss with the key opinion formers, in the hope that they would serve as friendly surrogates with the public as a whole.

Greater modesty and precision in public diplomacy may offer a solution, at least partial, to the echo chamber problem. If diplomats abandon the ambition of reaching out to entire publics, they can also abandon social media and the limitations imposed by the algorithms that drive them. The key task of a public diplomat now becomes to identify the key opinion formers in a foreign society and devise means of engaging with them. In doing so, diplomats should look to identify influential figures in the key echo chambers that might be susceptible to engagement (there is no point in wasting resources on the outlier nutters – leave them to the local government). Diplomats should be imaginative in devising means of engaging with the opinion formers: sponsoring conferences, work shops, artistic events, whatever is needed to engage with the key opinion formers. Digital tools can still be useful. Online platforms can be used for scenario building, town halls or simulation exercises, bringing together online people who might otherwise be difficult to bring together in physical space (because of personal dislike, or security and geographical problems). Not perfect, but better than relying on Twitter and Facebook.

Part of the problem Public Diplomacy has encountered has resulted from an excess of ambition, seeking to reach out directly to entire publics, combined with a certain laziness (and non-understanding of how social media and search engines operate) which leads to over-dependence on social media. The two go together. The former is not possible without the illusion of the latter. But if we want to escape the tyranny of the algorithm, and avoid counter information warfare, it will not do. Nor will the various strategic communication strategies, touted by the EU and NATO. Social media algorithms ensure that fake news is received always by those who want to believe it. Simple re-stating that it is fake news will not convince them, and be regarded only as propaganda. We can counter Information Warfare with our own Information Warfare, Hybrid Warfare with our own Hybrid Warfare (which curiously is what the Russians think they are doing). But this will lead to an information sphere version of MAD, in which no-one believes anything, and all social and political discourse fragments. Or we can develop more targeted approaches to Public Diplomacy which combine older Public Diplomacy techniques with more imaginative use of digital platforms.

The Accidental Diplomatist IV: Face to Face

A silence settled on us like a pall. The gloom was almost tangible. Despite the excellence of the food, I wasn’t really hungry anymore. I began wondering about excuses to leave.

He must have noticed. He made a deliberate effort to lighten the mood. He raised both hands, palms towards me.

“Come on, old man, don’t be so gloomy. It´s not so bad. It´s like the man said …”

I stared at him in momentary incomprehension.

“Sorry,” he said. “Renaissance and Swiss cuckoo clocks and all that. The film, The Third Man. Orson Welles …” He smiled apologetically.

“No, I´m sorry.” I recovered from my confusion at the sudden change of tone. “I don´t really do films. Well not old ones. I imagine it is old.”

“Oh yes. 1940s I think. Black and white. It´s just that you look a bit down.”

“I feel it. It´s like every time I talk to you I wonder why I´ve become a diplomat. It´s not just that you make it sound so cynical. We are supposed to be the cynical generation that believes in nothing. But you also make it seem like a catalogue of continued failure. You never achieve anything or solve any problems. What´s the point?”

I realised I was almost on the point of tears. He stopped smiling and looked at me seriously.

“I didn´t want to make you feel like that, I don’t want to discourage you from being a diplomat. The head of the academy thinks highly of you. That´s why he encouraged me to share my experiences with you. Between you and me, I think you´re going places. And diplomats aren´t cynics who believe in nothing. It may seem like we achieve nothing, or never solve problems. But that may be because the problems we deal with are so complex they cannot be solved. We can still make a difference just by being there. The last guardians against barbarism.”

I looked at him for a second. “But is that even true?” I asked. “With the new digital technologies, are we even necessary? Online communications, social media campaigns, algorithms analysing big data – perhaps we will be replaced by artificial intelligence and robots.”

“What, you´re worried about being replaced by a diplobot?” he emphasised the last word as if proud of his knowledge of technical terminology. “I don’t think so. But let me tell you another story.”

“I´m not sure I´m up to it” I said.

“Oh don´t worry, it won´t be depressing” he replied. “Even though it also relates to my time dealing with the War in Bosnia, it is not about death and destruction. You might even find it amusing.” He signalled to the waiter to bring two more Qingdao beers before I could object, ignoring the half full glass in front of me. When the beers had arrived, he filled both glasses, took a deep draught from his own, and began.

“There is a tradition, or there used to be, that Prime Ministers would write a personal letter recording their conversations with foreign leaders. This was not the details of formal negotiations. That was left to the private secretaries. This was more the personal stuff, the impressions they got, what the foreign leader was like to deal with. Sometimes it might be the impressions they had got about the foreign leader´s intentions. Sometimes it might be an off the cuff comment that gave some insight into his thinking. Do you know if they still do these records, prime ministers I mean? I suppose they´ll be emails now.”

“I´m sorry” I confessed, sipping from my beer “I don´t move in such august circles.”

“You will, one day” he re-assured me. “Anyway, the point of this is that one day we got one of these prime minister letters. Practically everything got copied to those of us dealing with Yugoslavia, because practically every meeting between heads of government of ministers would make some mention of the war in Bosnia, even if only fleeting. Anyway, in this case we got a letter describing a meeting with the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Meetings with the Germans were always interesting for us. In some senses it had been the Germans´ determination to recognise the independence of both Croatia and Bosnia at the same time that had got us into the mess in the first place. Many of us were uncomfortable with their open support for their Croatian allies. We thought that, given their record in Yugoslavia in the second world war, they might have hung back a bit, if only for decency´s sake.”

He took another long draft of his beer. I suddenly realised he had been a smoker. It was something about the way he held the glass that reminded me of my grandfather. I´m certain that if we had been talking in a restaurant twenty years earlier, he would have been dragging on a cigarette rather than his beer. Or perhaps both. He went on.

“But the interesting thing about the letter wasn’t about Yugoslavia, or the war in Bosnia, or at least not directly. Kohl spoke about how he maintained good relations with the Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Everyone else had problems with Yeltsin who was, to put it mildly, mercurial and difficult to tie down. But Kohl seemed to be able to manage better than the rest. Kohl explained to our Prime Minister that his secret was to share a sauna with him. They would sit in the sauna, Kohl drinking schnapps and Yeltsin drinking vodka, discussing the world situation and bilateral relations. I remember visualising it. Two great mountains of fat – do you remember what they looked like?”

I nodded.

“Well then, two great mountains of fat, naked in the sauna. For the sake of our digestion, I prefer to think of them with their private parts protected by a towel. The two of them sitting in the sauna, drinking, sweating and settling the affairs of the west. Apparently that is how Kohl best got Yeltsin to focus. Ah, but there´s one aspect I didn´t tell you.”

For a second he grinned at me across the table.

“Kohl famously spoke only German. Yeltsin certainly didn´t speak any German. As far as I am aware, apart from a very inadequate smattering of English, he spoke only Russian. So we have to alter the image we have just painted for ourselves. We now have two mountains of fat, with, we hope, their towels across their laps, sitting in a sauna drinking, sweating and talking. But we must add an interpreter, or, if protocol is being followed, two interpreters. I assume the interpreters would not be naked, but suited in very damp suits, sweating even more profusely than their principles. Without wanting to be accused of sexual prejudice, I´m hoping the interpreters were male.”

Despite myself, I found myself grinning at the image he had drawn. He took another draft of his beer. Finding the glass empty, he waved at the waiter. He looked enquiringly at me, but I quickly shook my head. My glass was still nearly full.

“But” he continued, “the picture is not yet complete. If interpreters were present, we must imagine also note-takers there, ensuring an accurate account of what must have been progressively more slurred conversations. So now we have our tableau. Two naked man mountains, we hope partially covered by towels, steadily drinking towards mutual oblivion, and four very damp, uncomfortable and besuited diplomats, holding very soggy notebooks in support. Gives you another view of high level diplomacy, doesn’t it.”

He looked at me over the table. I laughed.

“It does! And thank you for excluding me and my sisterhood from the tableau.”

“My pleasure” he replied. “That does, however, make the point that it is a diplomatic technique with limited application. Despite his enthusiasm for being seen bare chested, I can´t imagine Frau Merkel using the same approach to discuss the Ukraine with President Putin, can you?”

“No” I coughed, still laughing. “My generation will have to find new approaches to high level summitry.”

“Well you certainly wouldn’t be able to deploy a diplobot. The damp would probably short its circuits. But there is a serious point too.” He stopped smiling and I tried to stop laughing.

“Diplomacy” he went on “is about intentions. It´s also about trust, but you trust someone because you think you understand their intentions. Evaluating someone´s intentions only comes with knowing, meeting them face to face. There´s nothing mystical about it. It´s not like George Bush looking into Putin´s eyes and seeing his soul. If he did he had remarkable eyesight.”

For a second he chortled, but was then more serious again. “No, its about repeatedly meeting people face to face, getting to know them, and making personal judgements about what they are telling you. Yes, intentions matter in diplomacy, and they are best judged by humans getting to know humans. I don’t see diplobots doing that. Diplobots will not replace you any time soon. And if they do, may God have mercy on our souls.”

He crossed himself, semi-mockingly I thought, although now later I´m not so sure.

“Do you want anything else?” he asked me. I shook my head. He waved at the waiter again, but this time for the bill.

The Really Dark Side of Facebook

The world has been outraged by Cambridge Analitica scraping personal data from Facebook to facilitate targeted campaigning in the US Presidential election and, possibly, the Brexit referendum. But this is small beer.

The real story is how Facebook, and other social media platforms and search machines (like Google), support Russian Information Warfare, while frustrating Public Diplomacy strategies.

Either Facebook starts sharing more information about how its algorithms work, or social media platforms will be reduced to battlefields for 21st century warfare. The advertisers won´t like it.

Cambridge Analitica devised an app which enabled them to scrape personal data from Facebook users so as to develop targeted campaigning for the 2016 US Presidential election (and possibly the Brexit vote). Outrage was universal. Congress summoned Zuckerberg to explain himself (which demonstrated only that the House of Representatives has a marginally better understanding of the internet than the Senate). The British House of Commons had to make do with a whistle blower from Cambridge Analitica. But there is nothing new here. Scraping data from the internet for nefarious (or beneficent) purposes has been around for years. It can be dealt with either by regulation (the EU´s General Data Protection Regulation – GDPR – for example protects the data of EU citizens wherever it is stored in the world) or by education (teaching people to be careful about what they put online).

The really dirty secret about Facebook, and other social media platforms and search machines, is the way in which they facilitate Russian Information Warfare, while frustrating public diplomacy campaigns aimed at countering information war. Social media platforms like Facebook are driven by algorithms that ensure that users get content that fits with their known likes. They are designed to allow advertisers to target users with products they are likely to buy. But they also ensure that users only receive news and opinions (and friends proposals) that fit with their known prejudices. This matters. As a growing number of people receive some or all of their news from social media, social media tend to reinforce, rather than challenge, their existing prejudices. This in turn reinforces the echo chamber effect, where we listen only to news and opinions we already agree with. Political and social debate is increasingly fragmented.


Search machines use algorithms to order the webpages generated by any search. Although the public may think that such algorithms objectively reflect the relevance to the individual search, there are in fact a series of factors that come into play. Algorithms are in fact not objective, despite their complicated mathematics, but reflect the epistemological biases of their designers. Experts who have studied how the algorithms of search machines like Google function have developed search engine optimisation (SEO) techniques to ensure that any given webpage gains priority in the ordering of a search result. In 2015 far right political groups used SEO techniques to game Google. Searches for how many people died in the holocaust first produced webpages by holocaust deniers.

Russian information warfare aims at generating uncertainty in western societies. It does not aim to convince people of one interpretation of events, but undermine confidence in all interpretations of events. Fake news does not want to convince people that it is true, but rather that all news is equally fake. Information warfare uses disinformation to fragment social and political debate and so undermine citizens´ confidence in the narratives of their governments. Russia uses surrogates, whether Moscow troll farms or innocent dupes, both to ensure plausible deniability, but also to avoid the need for consistency in the messages or disinformation it is promoting. This allows it to reach out to echo chambers with radically different views. Social media platforms like Facebook fit the needs of Information Warfare like a glove. Information warriors tailor their messages to the different echo chambers they want to enflame. Facebook´s algorithms ensure they arrive. The hard thing about combating fake news is not that it is fake, but that each individual is receiving the fake news he or she wants to believe (including political elites and liberals, who are equally vulnerable). Social media algorithms deliver the disinformation to the targets already disposed to believe it, and conceal the role of the information warriors.

Public Diplomacy aims to engage with foreign publics as a whole to create political and social environments favourable to subsequent specific policy proposals. Governments do public diplomacy because they believe that foreign publics can influence the decisions taken by their governments. Although modern public diplomacy centres on two (or more) way conversations with foreign publics, it must be coherent to be effective. Although it uses surrogates, it does so not to conceal its origins, but because the surrogates are more credible or effective advocates than diplomats. Public diplomacy seeks to change opinions, not reinforce prejudices. The fragmentation of social and political debate produced by the echo chamber effect, reinforced by social media algorithms, makes it difficult to engage with foreign publics as a whole. To the extent that public diplomacy campaigns depend on social media like Facebook and Twitter, the same algorithms condemn them to reach only those who already agree with their premises. Social media algorithms not only make it hard for public diplomacy to change the opinions of foreign publics, it makes it virtually impossible for public diplomats to reach those who disagree with them. If you can´t get to them you can´t change their minds.

To devise public diplomacy campaigns to counter Russian (and other) Information Warfare, western diplomats need to understand better the algorithms on which social media platforms and search engines operate. But neither Facebook nor Google are going to share this information lightly. These algorithms are the competitive advantage on which their business models depend. Zuckerberg would mush prefer stringent regulation to risking the details of Facebook´s algorithms becoming known to his competitors. However, if social media platforms and search engines do not collaborate with western governments, they may find western governments countering Russian information warfare with their own version. Facebook and other social media platforms would be reduced to the battlefields of 21st century information warfare. The advertisers who fund these platforms and search engines now would rapidly be scared off. In as far as social media platforms and search machines are not simply commercial operations, but shape the environment of international relations, the companies that own them may find themselves facing coercive diplomacy.

Pompeo Meets Kim Jung-un – Does Trump Have A Strategy for Korea?

The Washington Post has announced that Secretary of State designate Pompeo held secret meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jung-un in Pyongyang during Easter.

Does this mean that President Trump has developed a strategy for North Korea, and East Asia, as a whole?

Does this make Pompeo Kissinger to Trump´s Nixon? Or does Trump just see this as a new chapter of the Art of the Deal?

What happens when Trump finds there is no deal to make?

Analysts were surprised by the Washington Post´s revelation that CIA Director and Secretary of State designate Mike Pompeo visited Pyongyang over Easter for meetings with North Korean leader Kin Jung-un. The visit grants greater seriousness to the forthcoming meeting between Trump and Kim, apparently scheduled for June. The closest parallel in recent US diplomatic history was Henry Kissinger´s secret visit to Beijing to prepare for Richard Nixon´s subsequent visit to China and famous meeting with Mao Zedong. Given the role of that visit in China´s “opening to the west”, its ultimate consequence can be seen as Xi Jinping. The embroilment of Nixon in the Watergate scandal, and his subsequent resignation to avoid impeachment, seem to draw another parallel with a President Trump embattled by the investigations into his administration´s links with Russia. Do Republican presidents threatened by special prosecutors seek to escape domestic woes by visits to East Asian tyrants?

There are, of course, important differences between Presidents Nixon and Trump. Nixon´s visit to China pre-dated the Watergate scandal. Nixon was a professional politician, whereas Trump is a businessman who has turned to politics late in life. Most important, Nixon saw his visit to China as part of a broader strategy for dealing with the Cold War. Although many would give Kissinger credit for the strategic thinking, partly because of Watergate and partly because Kissinger is still alive, Nixon had floated the idea of dialogue with China in a 1967 Foreign Affairs article. The aim was to take advantage of the Sino-Soviet split to play Beijing off against Moscow – the so-called triangulation strategy. Improving relations with China would allow Nixon to advance détente with a Soviet leadership fearing isolation (the other objective of Nixon´s visit, to get the Chinese to pressure the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table, fared less well).

It seems unlikely that Trump is thinking in such strategic terms. His approach to international relations is transactional. He believes he can do deals with other leaders that will promote US interests. Central to this transactional approach is Trumps confidence in his deal-making abilities and the personal touch. Personal relations between strong man leaders “trumps” patient diplomacy. Trump believes he can cut a deal with Kim Jung-un that will solve the problem of North Korea´s nuclear weapons programme. There are significant dangers in this approach. For Kim securing a one-on-one meeting with a US President, something neither his father or grandfather achieved, is in itself a major success. But when he talks about de-nuclearisation of the Korean peninsular, he means the withdrawal of US forces. Given the preponderance of North Korean conventional forces, it is difficult to see how the US could ever sign up to this. But it is equally difficult to see Kim giving up his nuclear insurance policy as long as US forces remain in South Korea. How will Trump react to discovering there is no deal to be made? Previous experience suggests with petulance and a storm of angry and provocative tweets. Unless the personal chemistry between two narcissistic juveniles works wonders, a face to face meeting between Trump and Kim could make the situation even more dangerous.

There is no evidence that Trump has taken account of, or even thought about, the wider geopolitical implications of his meeting with Kim. The Chinese will be keen to ensure that Kim protects China´s core interests in the Korean peninsular, primarily that Korea remains divided and the Americans a long way away from the river Yalu. It would be interesting to know the precise timing of the meeting between Kim and Pompeo, and whether it was before or after Kim´s visit to Beijing. The Japanese will be kin to ensure continued US support, against both North Korea and China. The Russians too have been sniffing around in Pyongyang (Kim´s grandfather was, after all, a protégé of Stalin and not Mao Zedong). Their intentions are not at all clear: offering themselves to Kim as an alternative backer to China; re-asserting an Asian role; tweaking the Americans; or even tweaking the Chinese. But they will be a factor in Kim´s assessment of where his interests lie. As for the poor South Koreans, who are well aware of their likely casualties in the event of conflict with the North, conventional or nuclear, and who seem to be the real architects of the Trump-Kim meeting, they want only to reduce the tensions.

Nor is there any evidence that Trump has considered what message a summit with Kim sends outside the Far East. But the Iranians will be listening and learning the lesson. If you want a one-on-one meeting with the US President, get nuclear weapons, and fast. If, as seems likely with Bolton now to egg him on, Trump refuses to certify the nuclear deal with Iran, we should expect the Iranians to resume their nuclear weapons programme, with further destabilisation of the Middle East.

Pompeo´s visit to Pyongyang does increase the likelihood that the meeting between Trump and Kim Jung-un will take place. But Pompeo is no Kissinger, and Trump is no Nixon (nor is Kim a Mao Zedong). There is no broader strategy for East Asia, nor any understanding of how this impacts elsewhere in the world. Trump will approach the talks like the hustler he is seeking to cut a deal. If, as likely, he fails, the situation could be even more dangerous than before the meeting.

How International Law Really Works – And Why It Matters


When I first joined the Foreign Office, a venerable legal adviser gave me sound advice on international law. He told me never to ask what I could do under international law, because the answer would be nothing. Rather I should tell him what I wanted to do, and he would compose me a legal justification. However, if I wanted to commit genocide, I needed to give him an extra week’s notice as that would be more complicated. This was not just diplomatic black humour. It was legal advisers in the British foreign office who subsequently constructed the legal justification for the NATO bombing of Serbia and Kosovo. There is, however, a more important point about how international law functions, and what that means for diplomacy.


Neither the realists, who think that international law does not exist, nor the liberals, who think it an amplified version of domestic law, really understand how international law functions. Hedley Bull’s concept of the international community, to which countries want to belong, captured it much better, as those who have done diplomacy understand. I have yet to encounter a government that asks its officials what international law says that it should do. Rather the government establishes the actions that national interest dictate, and then seeks advice from its officials and diplomats how those actions can be made to appear to accord with international law. Governments are not concerned with obeying international as much as with appearing to do so. Although this may appear unduly cynical, and betraying an amorality almost equivalent to that of the realists, in fact this way in which international law functions does provide a significant limitation on what governments can do.


The Russian invasion of the Crimea and the destabilisation of eastern Ukraine provide an example. Although much western media tends to portray Putin as an authoritarian dictator who ruthlessly pursues Russian interests without thought for international law or human rights, this is not altogether true. Putin has his own image of himself as a moral actor, however much we may disagree, and of Russia as a major international player. Although he may not be shy of the ruthless pursuit of what he perceives as Russia’s interests, he wants to do so with at least the appearance of obeying international law. The Crimea was secured by Russian forces without insignia at the “request of local people”. The Crimea was annexed only after a referendum voted in favour of it becoming part of Russia. Putin repeatedly denied the presence of Russian regular forces in eastern Crimea. We may know this is all a charade, but it was important for Putin to appear to be behaving with at least some kind of international legality, in this case calling on the principle of self-determination (which we ourselves had used not long before to justify the independence of Kosovo). This need for the appearance of legality constrained what Putin was able or willing to do in the Ukraine. Although most military experts believe that the Russian army would have easily and quickly over run the whole of the Ukraine, Putin was unwilling to do so. To have done so would have put Russia outside the international community, and destroyed any pretence of international legality in Russian foreign policy.


There are some important points here for how we do diplomacy in the 21st-century. Firstly, we must think very hard before expelling any state from the community of nations. Once a government feels itself outside that the community, it no longer needs to maintain the pretence of obeying international law. At that point the self constraint which international law encourages disappears, and the country becomes a more dangerous and unpredictable international actor. Conversely, there is much to be said for bringing countries within the international community wherever possible. I have argued in a previous blog that we should do this with North Korea. Once North Korea feels itself a full member of the international community, and its diplomats are socialised into the international community of diplomats, the incentives will increase for appearing to behave legally. While this might not get rid of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program (which is in any case in part a response to the incoherence of western policy) it could discourage their use. Secondly we should accept that the functioning of international law is messy, far from consistent and subtle. We should not obsess about its rigid application lest we exclude more countries from its embrace.


This may have particular application in cyberspace. This is the subject for another blog. However, at present we confront the risk of cyberspace developing as a Hobbesian world of all at information warfare with all (not to mention other forms of cyber warfare and cyber espionage). One of the objections to negotiating protocols or norms of behaviour in cyberspace is that you cannot know if a country is obeying them, and that there are many international actors you cannot trust. However, if we see international norms and protocols as social constructs, rather than rigid legal systems, which countries want to be seen to be following, we might make better progress. If Russia’s or China’s (or the US’) behaviour in cyberspace is seen as just as an important element in their pretence to international legality as their behaviour in the real world, it could serve to constrain that behaviour. As ever in diplomacy, the outcome is not perfect, but it might just be good enough.


The EU is Wasting Money on Strategic Communication



The EU has announced that it will provide an extra €1 million funding per annum to the East Stratcom Unit. The Unit was established in 2015 to counter fake news and hybrid information warfare emerging from Russia. The additional funding is a waste of EU money, and shows only the extent to which the EU does not understand the fake news issue or how to counter it. The East Stracom Unit has achieved little, and will achieve little more with the extra money. What the EU needs to do is to develop effective public diplomacy strategies. But that looks a long way off, even if the EU can bring itself to understand the concept of public diplomacy.


First let us dispose of this nonsense about strategic communications. It is another one of these buzz terms, like nation branding, which enable its a proponent to make good money as consultants, but is no more than snake oil. There seems to be a general view at the moment that by putting the term strategic in front of a noun you somehow create something deep and profound. But strategy implies agreed objective or preferred outcomes which the strategy is designed to implement. This is not true of any aspect of EU external policy, and especially not true of EU policy toward Russia and the east. For example, the EU has no agreed outcome for it sanctions against Russia, other than the unrealistic withdrawal of Russia from the Crimea. Given that this is not going to happen, it is hard to see what the sanctions are designed to do, other than punish Russia and possibly lead to political or economic collapse. It is hard to see how this outcome would benefit the EU. It is also difficult to discern any deeper EU objective in Russia, other than the surreal hope that it will one-day convert itself into a European post modern and democratic state. Given that the EU has no agreed objectives or preferred outcomes for its policy towards Russia, there can be no strategy to achieve them, and talk of strategic communication is therefore nonsense.

Fake news word tag cloud. 3D rendering, blue variant.

Of course, in reality, strategic communication is no more than propaganda, or in this case counterpropaganda against fake news, by another name. Calling counterpropaganda strategic communication makes it sound better, but no more credible to its intended audience. The EU appears not to have heard of the phenomenon of echo chambers, whereby people listen only to the news and views with which they agree. It is the echo chambers, reinforced by social media and the algorithms that drive them, which make fake news so powerful. There is an illusion in Europe that we are credible because we are European, and presumedly because we are nice guys. This European discourse that we are reasonable and correct, and that this will be recognised by others, no longer cuts the mustard in the 21st-century. European values and ideas are being contested by alternative cultures and histories across the globe. They are no longer considered universal by much of the world’s population. The challenge is to the universality of European values combined with echo chamber effect poses major, possibly insurmountable, problems for the EU’s East Stratcom unit. Promoting European values and ideas in a multipolar world of echo chambers requires long-term engagement, dialogue and debate, not the unidirectional monologue of strategic communication.


In short, the EU is no longer trusted because it is the EU. The counterpropaganda of the East Stratcom unit will be credible only to those already inclined to doubt the fake news it is trying to contest. Those inclined to believe Russia’s fake news will see the outpourings of the Stratcom unit as merely the Europeans’ own version of fake news. As I have argued in a previous blog, this becomes one of the major problems of 21st-century diplomacy, and in particular public diplomacy: how to break down the echo chambers which are increasingly being reinforced by the algorithms driving social media. The challenge for diplomats is how do you get to those who disagree with you. If you cannot reach them, you have no chance of convincing them to change their mind. On the other hand, there is little point in expending large sums of money simply to reach those who are already inclined to agree with you. The EU’s decision to reinforce the Stratcom unit rather than invest in effective public diplomacy suggests that it has little idea about the problem, let alone the solution. Strategic Communication needs effective prior Public Diplomacy to be credible. But the propagandist nature of Strategic Communication undermines Public Diplomacy.

We Need to Talk About Algorithms


Algorithms are becoming increasingly important to diplomacy in the 21st-century. Yet few diplomats understand them, and even fewer understand their implications for the theory and practice of diplomacy. In this blog I will look at them in two particular contexts: geopolitical analysis and public diplomacy.


The value of big data in the analysis and of likely future developments is evermore touted by artificial intelligent experts. The private sector is already making extensive use of big data in market and product analysis. Different approaches to predictive and prescriptive analysis are being developed. It is inevitable that governments too will increasingly rely on big data analysis to understand geopolitical trends and the reactions to their policy initiatives. The latter could be a particularly tempting solution to the challenges of evaluating the impact of public diplomacy. However, there are two problems: more information does not always make for better analysis; and big data analysis depends on algorithms which the users of the analytical product may not understand.


When I worked in Beijing I recall being invited to the Political Section of the US Embassy to exchange views on where China was going after Tianmen Square. It was a depressing place. Concerned that the Chinese would be spying on them, there were no windows and no natural light. However, what it lacked in natural light it made up in the enormous quantities of data about economic and agricultural development from across different Chinese provinces. The quantity of data was exponentially greater than what we collected in the British Embassy. However, I was not, and am not, convinced that it led to better analysis. Drowning in detail, many of the American political officers could not see the big picture or broader trends, which is what both of our political masters needed. Over the years I have been in many discussions about what makes a good political analyst. I have concluded that it is the knowledge of the subject that comes from years of experience, that gives the analyst an instinctive grasp of what she is looking at, combined with a capacity for self criticism which enables her constantly to question her own conclusions. Excessive data is not good for either.


It is clear that the vast quantities of data available on the Internet are vastly too great for any human analyst, or group of analyst, to manage. This is where algorithms come in. Algorithms allow the data to be scanned for key trends or indicators relating to current and future development. Ironically, the first effort at this kind of big data analysis work carried out by the KGB in the early 1980s. Concerned that President Reagan was preparing a first strike attack against the Soviet union, KGB Rezidenturas around the world were instructed to collect information with certain key factors being identified as predicting an attack. The failure of this exercise, which nearly led to nuclear war, should serve as a warning for big data advocates today. KGB had in effect created their own algorithm, although without the technology that accompanies it tod. The problem was that the algorithm was biased towards the prejudices and presuppositions of those who designed it. It remains a key problem.


Someone has to design the algorithm. The way in which the algorithm is designed and structured will affect analytical output from scanning the data. Algorithm design and construction is highly technical. How many diplomats understand how algorithms function or how they are designed? If you do not know the basis on which the algorithm is designed, and what epistemological biases are operating in that design, you do not know how reliable the output is. Most policy officers, and government ministers, relying on the big data analysis for their policy decisions will see the algorithm only as a magical black box. Because it is not human, they will regard it as more objective, over-looking the subjective element in its design. They will have excessive confidence in its conclusions.


It is not only a question of accuracy. One of the major problems in policy-making is the phenomenon of groupthink. Once a particular analytical or policy framework has been established within a group, no one is inclined to question it and it will continue even when evidence from the world contradicts it (I have written previously about this in the context of the former Yugoslavia). The danger is that big data analysis, dependent on its algorithms, will reinforce the epistemological framework created when the algorithm was designed. In other words the use of algorithms in big data analysis could reinforce the phenomenon of groupthink.


Challenging existing analytical frameworks is a major problem in foreign policy making. Foreign ministries, in my experience, are really not very good at sitting down and questioning their analytical assumptions about the world. They are no better at questioning the policy that is constructed on the base of that analytical framework. This is why the US in particular has developed the technique of red teaming to question assumptions and prejudices. The term comes from war gaming during the Cold War when the red team was the Soviet Union (and the blue team was NATO). The task of a red team is to challenge all the assumptions behind the analysis and decisions in a particular policy area. It tests the analysis or policy recommendation to the point of destruction. It gives policymakers a better idea of how good the analysis is or how resilient is the policy. The issue becomes how can we red team algorithms. Do we need analysts capable of understanding the inside of the algorithms, or do we need to develop algorithms that themselves can red team other algorithms? If we cannot find effective ways by which analysts and policy makers can challenge the algorithms behind big data analysis, we are handing our destiny to those who designed the algorithms.


Incidentally, this has happened before. One of the causes of the global financial crisis (or at least a major contributory factor) was the dependence of investment funds and banks on complex financial models. The models were designed by PhDs in maths and physics (“quants”) who knew little about the real economy. The executives who took the key investment decisions understood little, if anything, about how the mathematical models were designed or the epistemological biases they contained (this is captured when Kevin Spacey’s market trader in Margin Call complains he can’t understand the data on a screen). We could be in danger of creating a similar disjunct in Diplomacy.


There is one further point worth bearing in mind about the use of algorithms and big data analysis. Algorithms by their very nature must be online. They must be integrated with the Internet where the data is to be found that they are analysing. However, this makes them inherently vulnerable to cyber attack. Redesigning algorithms online, changing the assumptions on which they are operating or the kind of trends they are looking for in the data, could be an effective way of undermining a rival’s analytical and policy-making capacities. This suggests that algorithmic big data analysis will not replace human analysts, who will still be needed to ensure that the algorithmic output makes sense when compared to the real world.


Algorithms also pose problems for public and digital diplomacy. Foreign ministries have, with more or less enthusiasm, adopted social media as a valuable way of getting messages across to foreign publics. There are various problems with this. The obsessive focus on social media can result in success being measured in terms of likes and retweets rather than an analysis of impact on foreign publics. More important may be the role of algorithms in social media. All major social media companies have developed highly sophisticated algorithms to ensure that we receive the posts or tweets (and adverts!) that will most interest us. They will recommend to us friends or followers that are most likely to fit in with our existing social network. Facebook, for example, is unlikely to ever suggested a Donald Trump supporter as a friend for me. As has been frequently noted, this increases the echo chamber effect whereby we only exchange views with or receive information from people with whom we already agree. Over time, the effective operation of social media algorithms mean that the echo chambers get ever smaller and ever better defined. The impact is worsened by the growing number of adults who get their news from social media (Pew reports that 67% of US adults get news from social media, 20% often). The problem for public diplomacy is that if you are using social media to get your message across you are only going to reach those who already agree with you. It also means that agile non-state social media users can associate themselves with more popular causes to undermine a country’s public diplomacy. We may have seen that to some extent with the Catalan crisis, where Catalan separatists have been able to identify themselves with antiestablishment, anticapitalist and pro human rights operators on the Internet. On the one hand this has meant their successful entry into self reinforcing echo Chambers among these groups. On the other hand it makes it very difficult for the Spanish government to challenge the image been put across of an authoritarian Spain. The social media make it hard for the Spanish government to break into these echo chambers.


The fragmenting of foreign public opinion into ever more restricted echo chambers questions the entire purpose of public diplomacy. Whereas in the past diplomats could engage with media in a foreign country knowing that they could reach the majority of the population, now no such assumptions can be made. As public opinion fragments so does public diplomacy. More sophisticated digital diplomats try to get round this by using hashtags and other ways of reaching out across the echo chambers. But this is not guaranteed to work either. As Ilan Manor recently pointed out ( social media algorithms are increasingly personalising what we receive, so that the context in which each individual receives her posts is now very different. This shapes the context in which information put out by government is received by individuals, and how those individuals interpret it. It makes a great deal of difference if I see a government or embassy post on Facebook immediately after a heartwarming clip of dog or a heart rending clip of the wreckage of Raqaa. This suggests that future diplomats will have to be far more aware of how social media algorithms function, and ways of gaming them. This applies equally to search machines, where far right groups in the past have shown their ability to game how they work to ensure that material comes up first on Google searches.


The upshot of these examples from geopolitical analysis and public diplomacy suggests that tomorrow’s diplomats must be much more aware of how algorithms work and better trained in making use of them. This is all the more important given the apparent Russian success with Bot factories in placing their interpretations or events in western social media.