Almost everyone recognizes that cyberspace is a fact of daily life. Given its ubiquity, scale, and scope, cyberspace – including the Internet and its management, the billions of computers it connects, and the experiences it enables – has become a central feature of the world we live in. It has created a fundamentally new reality for almost everyone in the developed world and rapidly growing numbers of people in the developing world.
Until recently, cyberspace was considered largely a matter of low politics—a term used to denote background conditions and routine decisions and processes. While nationalism, political participation, political contention, conflict, violence, and war are traditionally viewed as matters of high politics, it is now evident that cyberspace and its uses have vaulted into the highest realm of high politics.
Our research initiatives summarized below focus on a set of projects that, individually and collectively, shape our understanding of cyberpolitics to date. What follows is a brief note on each project and, as relevant, related initiatives.
Many features of cyberspace are reshaping contemporary international relations theory, policy, and practice. Those related to time, space, permeation, fluidity, participation, attribution, accountability, and ubiquity are the most serious. The pervasive, often nontransparent, interconnections afforded by cyberspace challenge traditional understandings of leverage and influence, international relations and power politics, national security, borders, and boundaries—as well as a host of other concepts and their corresponding realities.
At the same time, information and communication – foundations of all human societies and social interactions – have been afforded rather limited attention in the social sciences more generally, and in the domain of International Relations and Political Science, most notably. Despite the centrality of all forms of virtual information exchange – in all contexts and cultures, conditions, or situations – content, communication, conduits and forms of connectivity remain more marginal than is appropriate in our world today. The problem is that we have, as of yet, no persuasive theory or method to address the new reality shaped by cyberspace – with the Internet at its core – and its increasing pervasiveness in nearly all domains of activity.
Framing the Challenge
The problem is shown in the Figure below, where the question mark signals a powerful knowledge-challenge and research imperative. This figure shaped the research collaboration between a political scientist and a computer scientist. It also presented a set of model-based empirical analyses for capturing the complexities and interactions of the "virtual" and the "real" domains in different contexts and at different levels of analysis.
|Cyberspace and international relations.
Source: Choucri and Clark (2019, 5).
Cyberpolitics in International Relations (2012) provides a baseline for subsequent research and a foundation for situating the cyber domain in the analysis of international relations. By developing lateral pressure theory further to encompass cyber venues and help explore behavior in cyberspace, we highlight the enabling power of cyber access for states and non-state actors alike, as well as the ways in which this new cyber power shapes interactions between nations.
Over a long period of time the research results led to the "full" framework presented in International Relations in the Cyber Age (2019), with David Clark. It is anchored in the intersection of the layers of the Internet and the levels of analysis in international relations, thus defining a joint system.
|Select highlights of emergent cyber-IR theory.
Note: All entries are illustrative. See figure above for reference.
Source: Choucri and Clark (2019, 352).
The sub-title of the book referenced above is The Co-Evolution Dilemma. This dilemma is shaped by the differential rates of change of two systems, cyberspace and international relations, as well as differentials in rates of change for their constitutive elements—which creates realities and uncertainties that are particularly difficult to anticipate and especially difficult to regulate.
In the social sciences, we know that "time" is a very important, even defining, factor. But we have not yet developed the analytics or the evidence-base for understanding when, how, why and in what ways the factor of "time" matters. Nor have we fully appreciated the potential manipulability of the time factor in policy analysis.
The dilemma is also multifaceted, with diverse time constraints, authority systems, operational mechanisms, formal and informal rules, and actors and entities – with all of the contentions thereof – creating sustained challenges for all actors, formal and informal, established or emerging.
"Real" vs. Cyber
Then, too, we must note that early on in the emergence of cyberpolitics we had a tendency to consider the "real" domain and the cyber domain as distinct and separate entities. Over time, and with considerable investigation, we now appreciate that the "real" and cyber domains are not distinct, but rather interconnected and interdependent—shaped by very different rates of change and characterized by highly generative properties.
|Comparison of lateral pressure index in real domain, 2016 and cyber domain, 2015.
Source: Choucri and Agarwal (2017).
These are the highlights so far. The value of the results lies largely in signaling the properties of one system to theorists of the other system, and helping to clarify ways in which we can explore the interconnections between the "real" and the "virtual" in international interactions at all levels of analysis—from the local to the global.
All of this will be useful in helping us anticipate future trajectories for the Internet, emergent configurations of cyberspace, and the dynamics of cyberpolitics in international relations. Complete results are presented in the book co-authored with David D. Clark titled International Relations in the Cyber Age: The Co-Evolution Dilemma (2019).
Choucri, Nazli, and David D. Clark. 2019. International Relations in the Cyber Age: The Co-Evolution Dilemma. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Choucri, Nazli, and Gaurav Agarwal. 2017. "The Theory of Lateral Pressure: Highlights of Quantification and Empirical Analysis" In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Empirical International Relations Theory, edited by William R. Thompson. New York: Oxford University Press.
In Cyberpolitics in International Relations we explore the properties of different types of cyber conflicts and their various manifestations. We recognize that realities on the ground and those in cyber venues can change very rapidly, and that the characteristics of conflict may take on new properties. Our purpose here is only to map cyber conflicts and contentions early in the twenty-first century and to provide a baseline for future analysis.
We also expect that, over time, the nature of cyberpolitics will be charted more fully and the key elements and parameters will be better understood. As a baseline, we explore three broad types of cyber contentions and conflicts: (1) contentions over the architecture of the Internet and the configuration of cyberspace, (2) conflicts in the pursuit of political advantage and economic gain (legal and illegal), and (3) cyber threats to national security. This is an ongoing initiative, one too early to be conclusive.
|I||Contentions over architecture and management of cyberspace||
|II||Cyber conflict for political advantage and profit||
State power for political control
|III||Cyber threats to national security||
Militarization of cyberspace
|Source: Choucri (2012, 127).|
Choucri, Nazli. 2012. Cyberpolitics in International Relations. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
CyberWorld is a dynamic, interactive, ontology-based knowledge system focused on the evolving, diverse, and complex interconnections of cyberspace and international relations. The knowledge networking system is characterized by (i) user-supporting functionalities, (ii) dedicated to cyber-international relations, governance, conflict and war, and cybersecurity and sustainability, and (iii) based on an evidence-based ontology. The computational logic of the knowledge networking model and method has roots in the Global System for Sustainable Development (GSSD), described in section IV below.
CyberWorld is structured around four global issue-areas or domains, shown at a high-level aggregation below. These issues constitute the high-level "subject-matter," or focus, of our initiative and shape the framework for the system as a whole. Each domain consists of a highly complex system that is near impossible to isolate from another and each includes actors, actions, interactions, and outcomes.
Jointly, they create CyberWorld. Nonetheless, as we move on to the knowledge system and later to ontology matters, their distinctive features become more clear, as do their interconnections.
|Domains of actors & actions in CyberIRWorld
Source: Choucri, Fairman and Agarwal (2021).
Visit cyberworld.mit.edu to explore the ontology, search the current database and contribute to it here.
Choucri, Nazli, Lauren Fairman, and Gaurav Agawal. 2021. "CyberWorld: Knowledge for Science, Policy, and Practice." CyberPolitics@MIT Working Paper No 2021:1. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The research that shaped CyberWorld was undertaken during the foundational phase, namely, the joint MIT-Harvard Research Project Explorations in Cyber International Relations (ECIR Final Report, 2015). The research design for ECIR is shown in the figure below.
The Joint MIT-Harvard Project provided the scientific foundations for framing how international relations theory can be more responsive to the cyber realities of the 21st century. Sponsored by the U.S. DoD Minerva Initiative between 2009-2014, the vision was to create a new knowledge domain that is multidisciplinary, theory-driven, and technically and empirically anchored such that it:
- clarifies threats and opportunities in cyberspace for national security, welfare, and influence,
- provides analytical tools for understanding and managing transformation and change; and
- attracts and educates a new generation of researchers, scholars, and analysts.
A related objective was to provide the U.S. government and the international community with useful tools and insights into the emergent complexity of the new realities. ECIR adopted an interdisciplinary research strategy, integrating social sciences, computer science, and legal studies. Details, products, and results are available on the project website, here.
Initially framed as an experiment to pull together the capabilities of scholars with very diverse research interests, the emergent vision of the project was based on the assumption that our understanding of 21st century international relations – shaped by interconnections of the "virtual" and "real" – must address a theory of change informed by existing and emergent structures and processes, as well as by underlying regularities of norms and expectations for the management of complexity.
|ECIR research design.
Source: Based on Choucri (2015).
Choucri, Nazli. 2015. "The Final Report." Explorations in International Relations. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.