The Obama Administration’s International Cyber Strategy, launched last week, was met by the Russian and Chinese press with a mix of generally negative reactions. The most negative were rooted in skepticism and mistrust about U.S. motives as well as perceived hypocrisy underlying the proposed cyber standards.  Nevertheless, these views were balanced by surprisingly informed assessments of the U.S. declaratory policy and showed strong support for engagement with the U.S. to pursue international agreements.  This blog will examine these four themes in an effort to effectively gauge these public perceptions of our foreign counterparts. 

Foremost, foreign press showed deep skepticism and mistrust about U.S. calls for a more open and interoperable Internet. One Chinese outlet, the Global Times, quoted an analyst (and offered no countering opinion) saying 

The US intends to keep its dominant role in the area by setting standards and rules … the US masters a number of core technologies for cyberspace usage, and it aims to continuously consolidate its advantages.

A column by Yu Xiaoqiu in the People’s Daily delved much deeper into mistrust about the motives of the United States: 

On the so-called question of online freedom, the United States is likely to link it with human rights and subsidize the research and development of online cracking technology in a bid to open the gate of online information dissemination [to] developing nations. The "online warfare" of attacking and paralyzing the opponent’s network and important information systems will also become its final military means to exert pressure on target nations. Under the pressure of the United States, the safeguarding of national interests and sovereignty in the field of information networks of all nations will be increasingly important, the competition and rivalry for information resources and markets will be more acute, and the controversies over Internet access control and anti-control will be more prominent.

These Chinese responses indicate clear suspicion of U.S. intentions, suggesting the call for common standards and international cooperation is a U.S. attempt to “maintain its lead role,” as Adam Segal of the Council of Foreign Relations points out.  Russian sentiments are equally negative, as an article in Voice of Russia summed up: 

At this moment the Obama administration’s proposal looks like nothing more than another attempt to meet the interests of the White House while distracting the global community with abstract calls for freedom and information transparency. 

Skepticism was not solely rooted in mistrust of U.S. motives, however, it was engendered by perceived hypocrisy of U.S. calls to common cyber standards. Russian press added hypocrisy to the list of charges claiming that the strategy, which lays out fundamental concepts, such as an open Internet with guarantees for freedom of expression, was at odds with U.S. actions. Specifically, Voice of Russia said: 

The example of Wikileaks demonstrated that the US government was not eager to pay the price for global transparency. 

The other questionable point is the belief that the USA is responsible for the cyber attacks that sabotaged Iran’s nuclear facilities. While concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme couldn’t be described as groundless, calls for global internet security from a state that subscribes cyber attacks as a common tactic sounds hypocritical to say the least. 

Even the AnonOps, the subgroup of Anonymous and self-declared “fighters for internet freedom” (though they are only “foreign” in that they are (or aspire to be) borderless) raised this issue of hypocrisy:  

Military force will only be used as a last resort, the document reassures – but that will, no doubt, provide little comfort to British hacker Gary McKinnon. McKinnon is currently fighting extradition to the United States on charges – alleged by some to be trumped-up – of hacking into the country’s military computer systems.

But in neither case is there any clear warrant for U.S. hypocrisy. Even if the United States were behind the Stuxnet worm that damaged Iranian nuclear facilities, this has little to do with the notion that the U.S. uses cyber attacks “as a common tactic.” Similarly, whether McKinnon, who has autism, should or should not be extradited to the U.S., has nothing to do with the use of force but is rather a criminal matter to be dealt with law enforcement authorities. 

Despite the above criticism, Russia and China wrote with surprisingly balanced analysis about the U.S. declaratory statement that discussed the right of self-defense and the option of military force as a response to cyber attacks. While the international technical press fussed with overstatement over “Obama Reserves Right to Nuke Hackers” or “Hack us and we’ll bomb you” – another article from the China Daily reported on this statement free of such hyperbole: 

[T]he White House made it clear that the US will use its military might to strike back if the country comes under a cyber attack that threatens national security.

This article captures a central point that the technical media missed, that there is a threshold for military options. Likewise, an article in Voice of Russia tied the response to breaching a threshold: 

Firstly, when we study the document we see that unimpeded access to information does not mean boundless access. Secondly, measures outlined in the U.S. national security doctrine will be applied to those who breach these limits. In short, Washington, as always, enjoys the right to eliminate the threat with commensurate force, including launching surgical strikes on any country. 

Interestingly, this paragraph uses quite balanced wording to make their point: “commensurate force” and “surgical strikes”. Such phrasing makes it clear that the authors were not simply unleashing verbal attacks against the U.S. strategy. 

Further, press from both Russia and China opened the door for subsequent international agreement. Of course, the media in neither country can directly reflect the views of the government, especially given the very narrow sample of articles available and short time since the strategy was unveiled. Critically though, media from both China and Russia were open to continued international dialogue, probably the most important element of the International Cyber Strategy.  

The following two quotes, from the Voice of Russia and China Daily respectively, illustrate the potential for agreements that find common ground. 

The international community has learned to reach agreements. It’s far better to sign agreements than deliver missile strikes at hackers. 

Cyber security experts have argued that the Internet cannot be a safe place until nations implement international agreements that better define and regulate cyber crime, provide oversight of the Internet, and set out new standards and rules for the industry.

The People’s Daily column by Yu Xiaoqiu described in more detail both why international agreement is important as well as how it agreement should be achieved through the United Nations: 

Although the Internet was invented by the Americans and most of the root servers are within their control, the rapid development of the Internet in recent years has been the achievement of the concerted efforts of the international community, which is the common wealth of mankind and the new space for promoting world peace and development. 

The drafting of the international policy on the Internet should be a matter for the whole world and should strictly follow the "UN Charter" and other internationally acknowledged basic norms. The peaceful use of international information and cyberspace should be based on the safeguarding of sovereignty, interests, and security in the field of information of a nation as well as relevant resolutions and international treaties of the United Nations and the International Telecommunications Union.

Even with Russia and China agreeing that international agreements are worthwhile, common ground may not be easy to reach. Even cooperation on cybersecurity (which in the U.S. is considered a neutral, technical issue) is viewed as a potential threat. The Voice of Russia quoted an analyst who suggested that 

Russia is afraid that the U.S. might use [cybersecurity] cooperation to damage its national security. 

So, while Russian and Chinese press felt the strategy “reveals the traditional American approach: we compose the tune and the rest of the world can dance to it” (in the words of Ananyan Artyom at Voice of Russia) there was a surprisingly rich response. Best of all, the reviewed articles were generally calm about the declaratory policy, a potentially very contentious issue, and showed openness to continued international dialogue.  

Jason Healey is the director of the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative. You can follow his comments on cyber issues on Twitter, @Jason_Healey.