Trade Tensions With Allies Not Affecting Cyber, Top Diplomat Says

The State Department’s focus now is punishing nations that violate cyber norms, not pushing new norms, the State Department’s Robert Strayer says.

Tensions between the U.S. and its allies over trade and other issues have not affected the U.S.’s ability to cooperate with allies on enforcing rules of the road in cyberspace and punishing nations that violate them, the Trump administration’s top cyber diplomat told Nextgov recently.

President Donald Trump has feuded with allies such as Canada and Germany over trade restrictions, most notably following the G7 meeting in Quebec City this month when Trump refused to join other leaders of seven of the world’s largest national economies in signing a joint communique.

That tension has not spilled over into the cyber realm, however, said Robert Strayer, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for cyber and international communications and information policy.

“We have really strong and enduring relationships with our key partners and those members of the G7 are really close partners of ours,” Strayer told Nextgov in an interview last week. “Cyber is an area where we have a really good working relationship,” he added.

As the State Department’s cyber lead, Strayer is responsible for rallying other nations around rules of the road for good behavior in cyberspace and around imposing penalties on nations that violate those norms.

Historically, the first part of that equation has been more successful than the latter.

During the Obama administration, officials won broad international endorsements for a slate of norms, including that nations would not cyberattack each other’s critical infrastructure or cyber emergency responders and would cooperate with other nations’ cyber law enforcement investigations.

Those agreements didn’t prevent Russia’s digital efforts to undermine the 2016 election, however, or Iranian cyber strikes aimed at U.S. financial institutions.

President Barack Obama also signed a pledge with Chinese leader Xi Jinping that neither nation would hack the other for financial gain, but China continues to violate that pledge according to the U.S. Trade Representative.

Going forward, Strayer said, his office will focus less on developing and promulgating cyber norms and more on evolving how the U.S. pressures nations that violate those norms to change their behavior.

Historically, the government has relied on three main tactics to punish bad national behavior in cyberspace – indicting the hackers themselves, sanctioning officials at intelligence agencies and companies that support hacking and naming and shaming bad actors, such as Russia, Iran and North Korea, on the world stage.

Strayer declined to specify how those tactics might evolve, saying the specifics are still under discussion. The broad goal, he said, would be to tailor the U.S. response for individual nations in a way that’s best calculated to make them abide by cyber norms.

“We need to think of a broader range of penalties and cost impositions that will help change the calculus of decisionmakers in adversary countries when they act in ways counter to this normative state behavior,” he said.  

That echoes a plan laid out in a State Department “recommendation to the president” on deterring cyber adversaries, published late last month. That plan called for the department to “clearly articulate ends, ways, and means” for deterring particular adversaries along with “a more proactive approach [and] broader response options.

The department also published another set of recommendations focused on international cyber engagement.

Going forward, the department will also focus less on developing formal agreements for how nations should behave in cyberspace and more on “informal understandings” with other nations in response to particular events, Strayer said.  

As a model, he cited the NotPetya malware attack, which paralyzed companies and government agencies, first in Ukraine and then around the world in mid-2017.  

The U.S. and the United Kingdom officially attributed that attack to Russia in February, 2018, and attributions soon followed from Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The U.S. Treasury Department then sanctioned Russian targets for cyberattacks including NotPetya in both March and June.

“This is a voluntary framework we’re contemplating where we can go and have informal understandings with governments, just as we did after NotPetya, about doing the attribution and the cost imposition that could follow,” he said.