Electronic hacking and subversion as tools of foreign policy: a neoclassical realist analysis of cyber power

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Caromba, Laurence
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University of the Free State
This study develops a new theory of cyber power as a tool of foreign policy, focusing on sovereign states as the unit of analysis and drawing from the theoretical assumptions that are inherent in the realist paradigm of International Relations. This theory describes and classifies the nature of cyber power in international politics, and seeks to explain why different states make differing choices about which cyber strategy to adopt. The study introduces a conceptualisation of cyber power that incorporates both computer hacking and social media disinformation campaigns within a single framework, in which both types of cyber operations are understood as methods for degrading and destroying trust. It then analyses the utility, limitations, and costs associated with technical and persuasive of cyber power, and argues that both forms require the attacking state to accept significant trade-offs. This suggests that states are unlikely to use these tools unless they have pressing reasons to do so. Building upon on this insight, the study then develops a new typology of four cyber strategies: “restrained”, “technical-aggressive”, “persuasive-aggressive”, and “combined-aggressive”. It hypothesises that cyber strategy selection by states is primarily determined by two independent variables: their external security requirements and their institutional preferences. States with high external security requirements are more likely to make aggressive use of technical cyber power, while states with negative institutional preferences are more likely to make aggressive use of persuasive cyber power. This theory provides a parsimonious and compelling explanation for cyber strategy selection. To test and apply the theory, three empirical case studies are conducted on Brazil, the United States of America, and the Russian Federation. The findings reveal that Brazil has adopted a restrained strategy, while the United States has chosen a technical-aggressive strategy, and Russia has selected a combined-aggressive strategy. These empirical findings are congruent with the expectations of the theory. Lastly, the theory is applied to predict how the cyber strategies of these states might evolve if their associated independent variables were to change. The resulting analysis suggests that the emergence of multipolarity in the international system is likely to be associated with the increased use of both technical and persuasive cyber power by state actors.
Thesis (Ph.D. (Political Science)))--University of the Free State, 2023