Cyberspace in Peace and War

  • Published

Cyberspace in Peace and War by Martin Libicki. Naval Institute Press, 2016, 496 pp.

Cyber strategy has not lacked for authors willing to write on the subject, but the abundance of verbiage has not led to an equivalent level of clarity. This milieu of messy generalizations interspersed with occasional insight cries out for a seminal, organizing work of scholarship. Cyberspace in Peace and War by Martin Libicki is that work. It is important to remember that Cyberspace in Peace and War is a book of strategy and scholarship. As such, Libicki simultaneously recognizes and highlights the limitations on what we know about cyber strategy. In fact, the number of sections, paragraphs, and even chapters which are questions—not answers—is notable. Libicki’s great strength is in recognizing the boundaries of what we know and the limitations of what we can do, placing them within the much better established realm of strategy generally.

One of the remarkable things that Cyberspace in Peace and War is able to accomplish is to straddle the boundary between cyber literature and strategic literature. In any such attempt, the chasm between the two is so large that one is constantly at risk of hoving too closely to either one or being lost in the great divide between the two. Libicki navigates this by writing an immense tome divided into brief, digestible, constituent parts. Experts on strategy will feel at home as Libicki presents familiar strategic concepts—and computer scientists will similarly find themselves at ease as Libicki pulls back the curtain on subjects which are well understood within computer science. Nonetheless, he does not content himself with a recitation of what we know and do not know but presses firmly ahead into the void of cyber strategy and begins to fill it with thoughtful light. The structure of the book invites comparison to Carl von Clausewitz’s classic On War. However, unlike Clausewitz—who was writing after several thousand years of the history of warfare had already unfolded—Libicki is writing about a form of warfare which has been, to this point, almost completely hypothetical. Clausewitz had the luxury of relying upon extensive past examples in addition to the works of multiple forebears. In contrast, Libicki is forced to rely primarily upon the theoretical innovations of strategists who were not specifically considering cyberspace (including his own prior work).

It is the reliance upon hypotheticals where most books on cyber strategy fall short. The temptation for many strategists—especially those from a practical background in the military—is to speculate as to potential outcomes. Libicki draws upon his deep understanding of strategy to situate our limited knowledge about the cyber realm into the larger strategic literature.

Even as it addresses a weighty topic, Cyberspace in Peace and War manages to be a very enjoyable read. Libicki breaks subjects into digestible bites and combines them with prose of the highest order, interspersed from time to time with humorous asides for those paying close attention. Cyberspace in Peace and War starts out at a simple enough level that it could be included even in basic courses, such as introduction to strategy. In fact, the summary of basic strategic concepts is so good that one could use this as a standalone text on strategy. However, to ignore the significant contribution of the strategic taxonomies for digital ideas and events would be a disservice to any student or syllabus. In fact, while cyber strategy is currently treated as a novelty within strategic planning, both this book and the trends of international relations make clear that in the future one will not be able to treat cyber strategy as an island unto itself—much as one cannot treat airpower or sea power as independent of other aspects of strategy. Consequently, it would be well worth considering including Cyberspace in Peace and War in future courses on strategy, even if cyber security is not an aspect of that course.

Computer scientists would certainly benefit from this book. Much as a strategist attempting to learn purely about computers may wish to consult a leading computer scientist, so too should a computer scientist seeking to learn strategy consult one of the foremost living strategists. Undoubtedly, due in part to the different focuses within computer science and strategic studies, some of Libicki’s generalizations of computational phenomena and security threats may seem overly hasty, yet they will remain appropriate and helpful when incorporating cyber strategy into education for computer scientists and information officers. Indeed, it is the ease with which Libicki introduces complex strategic concepts to the cyber realm which gives this book tremendous value.

Going forward, one hopes Libicki will keep abreast of changes in the cyber realm with new editions, to keep the empirical information available in this book up to date. Even if that onrushing tide of change proves too great, the concepts here are generally enough applicable that Cyberspace in Peace and War will serve as a foundation for strategic planners for many years to come. Perhaps more importantly, the questions posed here—and in the strategic literature these questions are integrated into—will likely serve as a foundation from which much of our future understanding about cyber strategy will spring.

David Benson

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."