As Russia and China express intent to wall off Internet access, Matthew Flynn points to a long history of isolationism as an early sign of decline for great powers. He argues that, in a world where geopolitical battles increasingly enter the online arena, the winners of the 'war' in cyberspace will be those who continue to value and promote an open Internet.
Fears of a fragmented cyberspace gained credence recently with reports of Russian efforts to “unplug” from the Internet. Presumably, that nation will build its own internal network or intranet. China has long since boasted of a similar goal. This desire – really need – to wall themselves off from the world wide web (WWW) means both states just blinked in the standoff over the open Internet. This tell signals that these authoritarian regimes are losing the ‘war’ in cyberspace simply because a need to build a wall is a sure sign of decline.
Great powers that seek to enforce borders are not great anymore. China erected the most famous barrier in history. Its Great Wall extended across its northern frontier but failed in its primary purpose of keeping out unwanted hordes threatening to debase Chinese society. Eventually, those outsiders ruled China during the Yuan and the Qing dynasties. That China then assimilated these “barbarians” points to the virtue of interaction among differing peoples as a means to reaching accord and security.
Rome offers another case in point of a great power seeking to strengthen borders to save itself from degradation. The Roman frontiers eventually gave way to nomadic hordes toppling the Mediterranean Empire. This failure set back European civilization for hundreds of years. When that area recovered, the so-called barbarians – Saxons, Franks, Lombards, and Britons – led the long way back to prosperity. Borders had thwarted a process of assimilation that may well have allowed Rome to bolster Europe’s standing as a power center rather than threatening it with eclipse.
The Ottoman Empire joined the pantheon of great powers seeking to keep out undesirables to preserve itself from internal calamity. This effort was more symbolic than tangible; its wide-spread territory meant border enforcement was more a gesture than reality. Still, the intellectual cost was telling. With the empire slowly turning inward from its high point of influence in 1566, scientific thought languished and advantages in commerce and military arms waned. A false contentment persisted, allowing the outside world to surpass this once magnificent empire and leaving the Ottomans vulnerable to European exploitation in the early 19th century. Seldom has retrenchment been costlier.
The United States initially suffered from the opposite problem. A two-ocean barrier provided a natural impediment to any horde descending on US soil. The formidable nature of that obstacle required a deliberate effort to recruit outsiders to come to America, and so welcoming the tired, the poor, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” became a means to construct a nation on the premise of integrating many peoples from around the world.
That physical mandate also bred an intellectual imperative best seen during the Cold War. As the United States confronted Soviet aggression in the post-1945 era, superior values were to carry Americans to victory. The idea that liberty and common decency extended to all of humanity threatened barriers erected by Communist powers, best symbolized by the “Iron Curtain” walling off eastern from western Europe. That construct fell before the deliberate ideological onslaught that centered the U.S. policy of Containment. Physical walls fared no better. Most recognizably, the Berlin Wall largely stemmed – but did not stop – the exodus of East Germans into West Germany. The overwhelming joy that greeted the collapse of that edifice in 1989, on both sides of the border, spoke to the folly of turning to walls to protect oneself from cohabitation.
The actions of Russia and China to build a wall in cyberspace puts those powers in the undesirable company of those seeking to prevent an interchange that historically breeds more advancement than decline. Cyberspace affirms the intellectual imperative of shedding this reactionary dependence on building walls in the face of change. Via the Internet, the world enjoys a means of unprecedented global interaction. Borders have given way to frontiers that connect people far more than sow discord among them. By recognizing the need for interaction and welcoming human aspiration to multiply online, the United States can marshal greatness in itself and on behalf of the world.
Russia and China are moving in the other direction and they may well attempt to wall themselves off from the online world in the near future. The dubious feasibility of this objective suggests such an action will be incomplete. Financial imperatives will demand connectivity well beyond sovereign borders. Curtailing communication via social media, while still engaging the international community commercially, expresses a forlorn hope of returning to the earliest days of the Internet platform. Clearly, human discourse beyond a monetary incentive surpasses government action to make this truism otherwise.
It is telling that those rejecting openness feel the need to act. Online interaction among a free-ranging populace can spur on many discordant elements. Such turmoil can test any society, even one embracing democracy, but authoritarian regimes fear the prospect of an open Internet the most, as social interchange reverberates in favor of democratic action far more often than not. U.S. adversaries understood this dynamic and sought to reverse course, whether via a Vladimir Putin information operations campaign impacting western elections or via a Chinese firewall designed to keep out harmful ideas.
The Russian offense and Chinese defense have proven inadequate, best seen in the need of both states to plan to reject the cyber frontier altogether and seek online isolation. The United States must be able to get past its own jitters about online vulnerability and recognize the strategic high ground an Internet connection has provided the nation.
Defending an open Internet provides that advantage, a means to win the cyber war. Discarding a wall mentality and endorsing the very premise of the Internet better serves U.S. interests by bridging differences among disparate peoples. When a nation invites that exchange even at the invitation of sharing power, that act speaks to a strength of purpose that cannot be contained by a wall. A border wall is more a mental than physical obstacle, given the realities of constant exchange as humans find a way to satisfy the need to interact. To try to deny this impulse online only weakens a state. To advance that desire spurs an inevitable global intercourse fueling intellectual and material prosperity. To maintain this link naturally means strength.
Fortunately, U.S. cyber policy supports openness. The task now is to recognize virtue in the status quo. Openness forces U.S. adversaries to build walls to fend off cyber vulnerabilities. Thus far, their inability to do so speaks to U.S. strategic ascendancy in any cyber war, provided the United States does not do the same and adopt this beleaguered thinking. The main task becomes taking a measure of cyber rebellions, that ability of an exchange of information to upend political norms. Certainly, the United States and other democracies face this challenge, often because of outside interference. Yet, they continue to navigate the always turbulent political ebb and flow and appeal to voters to sanctify their standing even in the face of foreign intervention.
Authoritarian states cannot face this challenge with as much certitude. Recoiling from world engagement is a predictable response, but that reaction ensures American-sponsored vitality online and a world answering to norms and values that rebuke authoritarianism. Erecting a cyber ‘Iron’ or ‘Bamboo’ curtain, both labels representative of failed thinking from the Cold War, admits this ideological checkmate, ceding further advantage to open states. The Internet did not promise harmony as much as global access to an ongoing process of managing tensions short of war. In a world devoid of zero-sum victories, success means ensuring that the terms of cyberspace rest more with open states than not.
Matthew J. Flynn is Professor of Military History at Marine Corps University, where his interests include cyber warfare, great power status, preemptive war, and piracy. He is the author of numerous publications, including a co-authored study entitled Washington & Napoleon: Leadership in the Age of Revolution and the book Preemptive War in Modern History. Professor Flynn also operates the website Newconflict.org, which is dedicated to examining the new conditions shaping global conflict. The views in this article are his own and not those of the Marine Corps or the United States Department of Defense.