FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. (Dec. 14, 2017) Sailors stand watch in the Fleet Operations Center at the headquarters of U.S. Fleet Cyber Command/U.S. 10th Fleet. U.S. Fleet Cyber Command serves as the Navy component command to U.S. Strategic Command and U.S. Cyber Command. U.S. 10th Fleet is the operational arm of Fleet Cyber Command and executes its mission through a task force structure. (U.S. Navy Photo by MC1 Samuel Souvannason/Released) Date 10 January 2018, 19:00:00

The Geopolitical Reading List: The Hacker and the State – Cyber Attacks and the New Normal of Geopolitics

As a follow-on from our 2020 Geopolitical Reading List, in this piece we review Ben Buchanan’s latest work, The Hacker and the State: Cyber Attacks and the New Normal of Geopolitics.

From the famous “Stuxnet” virus that struck the Iranian nuclear enrichment programme through to Russia’s suspected interference in the U.S. elections in 2016, cyber-warfare is increasingly finding itself referenced in the hard politics of the physical world. In The Hacker and the State, Buchanan explores a concept that many geopolitical analysts will have become increasingly familiar with as a result of these stories; that of the role of cyber-operations in the world of hard power relations, and whether the keyboard should now be considered as integral a part of warfare as the rifle trigger.

Ben Buchanan draws on his position at the confluence of the cybersecurity world and the more traditional geopolitical world in his position as Assistant Teaching Professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Having authored numerous peer-reviewed papers on a range of topics exploring the intersection of the cyber and statecraft worlds, Buchanan is well-placed to detail the history and evolution of this new and oft-misunderstood form of warfare.

In The Hacker and the State, Buchanan controversially argues that cyber-warfare sparring between rival powers should be considered as the “new normal”, and that despite much media hype around the topic it will unlikely prove to be as devastating as conventional warfare. Buchanan explores the concept that while other forms of state power – military exercises, weapons tests and others – are often used as a signalling and coercion mechanism against rival states with limited direct impact for the intended audience, cyber operations often have a direct impact yet their intended message is often not received. This book argues that states must learn to read the signalling implied by a cyber-attack, in the same way that they would a military exercise along their border.

I would recommend this piece to a more intermediate level of geopolitical reader, regardless of their area of geographical focus. As Buchanan argues in The Hacker and the State, cyber-warfare is ubiquitous and accessible, and this will only increase in the modernising world. 

Encyclopedia Geopolitica was kindly provided with a review copy of “The Hacker and the State: Cyber Attacks and the New Normal of Geopolitics.” by Harvard University Press for this article. 

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Lewis Sage-Passant is a Doctoral Researcher and former Military Intelligence Officer with extensive experience working and living in the Middle East and North Africa and Asia Pacific regions in a variety of geopolitical analysis, security & conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis specialises in geopolitical intelligence support to the oil & gas industry, the financial sector and leading technology firms.

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Cover Image: Sailors stand watch in the Fleet Operations Center at the headquarters of U.S. Fleet Cyber Command/U.S. 10th Fleet. (U.S. Navy Photo by MC1 Samuel Souvannason)