Cyberspace in Peace and War. Martin Libicki. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016.
When writing a review of a book on cyber strategy, it is wise to do so with some degree of trepidation. While many have taken it upon themselves to address the subject, often the best intentions are not met with equal success. Indeed, while there have been many valuable contributions to our understanding of the digital realm from the social sciences, it has been a struggle on all fronts to transform those theoretical and empirical observations into cohesive, strategic and policy recommendations. Thankfully, Cyberspace in Peace and War is a huge stride in the right direction.
To be perfectly clear, Cyberspace in Peace and War is a very good book. While the disordered state of cyber-strategy makes it impossible to write the "final" work on the subject, Libicki imposes order upon an incredibly wide ranging topic, which is very easy to get lost in.
A major problem readers and writers of the intersection of cyber and strategy encounter is that strategy and computer science have very little overlap, both in professional development and topics of study. Libicki throws himself admirably into bridging the sizable gap between computer science and strategic writing, and consequently creates a veritable tome which is up to the task. Given the disparate amount of information that needs to be covered, even in a cursory fashion, the book is very long.
The first indication that Libicki has accomplished his task of writing a comprehensive, yet easily understood book on this complex subject is the sense of familiarity some of the subjects he covers evokes. For those who read Cyberspace in Peace and War from a strategic background, many of Libicki's discussions of strategy will seem so familiar as to almost be basic. Similarly, those who have primarily a computer science background will also recognize the concepts common in that field. Nevertheless, it is this elegant rehashing of topics normally covered in introductory texts which crucially allows Libicki to bridge the gap between the two subjects.
Importantly, Libicki gives equal weight to technological and strategic implications. This is not to say he gives equal time to each subject—the book is a strategic book, not a technical one—but he does take seriously the constraints technology and strategy impose upon cyber and vice versa. In other words, he avoids the mistake that occurs so often in cyber-strategic popular literature, whereby the possible becomes the probable, and the probable become certain, trending either towards a disastrous worst-case scenario, or blithe disregard to actual threats.
...the possible becomes the probable,
and the probable become certain...
It is Libicki's sanguine observations that make this book so valuable. Because he treats limitation seriously, including the limitations of our knowledge, the book is almost as much a series of questions as it is answers. Any good strategy book would be. If it were possible to write a book of strategy where every possible objective, situation and constraint could be accounted for, there would be only one book of strategy, we would know what everyone was going to do, and outcomes would be nigh predetermined. As with his forbears, Libicki follows a pattern of posing questions, and implications based upon the outcomes of those questions.
People more accustomed to books on strategy in more well-established domains may, unfairly, believe there are too many ambiguous outcomes. Unfortunately for strategic practitioners—but fortunately for strategy writers—the things we don't know about the intersection of cyber and strategy far outstrip the things we do. Consequently, Cyberspace in Peace and War will be as useful as a foundation for many forthcoming graduate theses as it will a foundation for thinking about cyber warfare and strategy. Indeed, even a lazy student could not help but stumble across a good research topic while reading this book, and that is about as high recommendation as I can give.
It is unfair to directly compare this book to other masterworks of strategy now, in part because it is so new. Many books take on a life of their own in the community, representing as much what we say about them as what they actually say themselves. It would not surprise me at all if Cyberspace in Peace and War follows a similar trajectory, in large part because the subjects which it broaches are so mutable. Indeed, the expiration date on a fair amount of the information is already closing rapidly, causing us all to hope that a second edition will be soon forthcoming. Perhaps in ten years time I will have the opportunity to look back on this text again, and will be better equipped to determine its place within the emerging corpus of cyber and strategy.
It would be thoroughly uncharitable to the contribution Martin Libicki has made to discuss anything missing from this already expansive work. Suffice it to say that anyone interested in cyber security should have a copy of Cyberspace in Peace and War in their library, and going forward it should be regularly cited and referred to. When you sit down to read it, make sure you set aside plenty of time, because you will undoubtedly need it to digest these complicated topics. Take some time while reading to appreciate the numerous humorous asides, turns of phrases, and downright wordsmitherey that this master of the craft has incorporated. Finally, when you reach the end you will have many questions, but you will only have those questions because of the clarity imposed upon a disordered subject by one of the great thinkers of our time.
David Benson is a Professor of Strategy and Security Studies at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS), part of Air University in Montgomery, AL. His area of focus includes online politics and international relations.
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Header Image: Stylized image of a hacker working in cyberspace. (Al Jazeera/Creative Commons)