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What is International Relations in the Digital Age?

Modern advancements in information communications technology (ICT) have added new dimensions to the way nations interact. Entering the digital age has allowed governments to connect with one another like never before to solve international issues, yet at the same time, ICT has also opened the door to an ongoing risk of cyber warfare and espionage. Understanding the impact these technologies can have on the current state of international relations is important for both organizations and professionals within the field as they continue to adapt and conduct business across today’s international relations landscape.

Cyber Diplomacy

Modern ICT has led to the proliferation of individuals who are able to influence decision-making in international relations. To wit: rather than sending diplomats abroad to discuss issues in person, government employees can use digital systems to hold remote meetings, which allows the international community to communicate with one another on a grander scale. In the past, the need for costly and time-consuming travel necessitated that most diplomatic communication is carried out by lower-ranking government employees; today, it is far more common for government leaders to participate in these discussions with their counterparts thanks to the relative ease with which digital systems can be used in communication. This has made it possible for government entities to coordinate international programs faster, more efficiently and at a reduced cost.

Cyber Espionage

In the digital age, many international businesses, public institutions, and governments store and transmit their most sensitive data using computer networks. This opens the door to cyber espionage, which happens when unauthorized parties attempt to gain illicit access to digitally stored information. This risk is amplified internationally, because some nations fund public agencies that engage in cyber espionage against foreign organizations. For instance, in February 2018, The Guardian reported that North Korea had built a cyber army of approximately 6,000 specialists that use malicious programs and phishing tactics to exploit their opposition’s digital vulnerabilities, sometimes gaining access to data that could be leveraged to advance North Korea’s strategic, economic, political, or military interests. Housing this type of threat can complicate a nation’s position in the international community, meaning international relations professionals must collaborate to develop policies that defend against cyber espionage, without aggravating the perpetrators.

Cyber espionage is not only a risk for government institutions; private companies are also targets of digital spies. Those who work in international relations must work to mitigate attacks or negotiate agreements with offenders. Notably, Chinese cyber espionage groups have been infiltrating U.S. companies for decades, placing strain on international relations between the two nations. In 2015, President Obama and a team of international relations experts met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping to resolve this issue with the adoption of the Obama-Xi Cyber Agreement, an interstate accord that prohibits either country from sanctioning cyber theft for the purpose of gaining a commercial, competitive advantage. However, the economic incentive for stealing data is currently so large that many governments have trouble enforcing such international cybersecurity policies. As the landscape of cyber espionage continues to evolve, international relations professionals must continue strategizing and implement policies and countermeasures that successfully combat cyber espionage.

Cyber Warfare

Cyber warfare is another digital international relations issue that involves many of the same tactics and strategies as cyber espionage; however, the key difference is that a group using cyber espionage aims to stay hidden and collect as much data as possible, while cyber warfare hinges on executing purely offensive cyber attacks that aim to cause harm. These attacks impact international relationships, as their goal is typically to disrupt or destroy the assets of an organization. If an organization is the victim of such an attack, their government is likely to take diplomatic action to deter the aggressors.

One instance of the work international relations and ICT professionals do to counter cyber warfare is evident in the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Russia’s military has been in opposition to Ukraine since 2014, and their attacks span both the physical and digital realms. According to National Public Radio (NPR), many cybersecurity experts believe Russia tests cyber warfare strategies on Ukraine. In one case, Russian hackers carried out a cyber attack that targeted Ukrainian electrical infrastructure, causing power outages across the country for almost two days. Their attack involved compromising corporate networks using malware, disabling IT infrastructures used by energy companies to deliver electricity, deleting data, and using denial-of-service attacks to keep consumers from contacting customer service representatives. Despite the fact that the Russian hackers who attacked Ukraine never set foot in Ukraine, the attack still constituted an act of international warfare. In such instances as these experienced international relations specialists work to negotiate the end to attacks and prevent them from reoccurring.

For those working in the international relations field, it is important to recognize that the Internet and modern information communications technology have simplified communication between nations, but have also given rise to new methods of cyber-based malfeasance that must be considered when opening diplomatic channels with other countries. As communication technologies continue to evolve, organizations and professionals working in the field must keep pace with these changes in order to form a proactive response to the threats posed by those who seek to exploit innovation; as such, a solid education and a commitment to supplementing it with ongoing professional development opportunities become key in creating a safer, more equitable precedent for international relations in the digital age.

Learn More

As the nation’s oldest private military college, Norwich University has been a leader in innovative education since 1819. Through its online programs, Norwich delivers relevant and applicable curricula that allow its students to make a positive impact on their places of work and their communities.

Our online Master of Arts in International Relations program offers a curriculum that evolves with current events to help you face the future of international affairs. Norwich University’s master’s degree in international relations covers many subjects to give you a look at the internal workings of international players, examine the role of state and non-state actors on the global stage, and explore different schools of thought. You can further strengthen your knowledge by choosing one of five concentrations in International Security, National Security, International Development, Cyber Diplomacy, or Regions of the World.

Recommended Readings:
6 Books for Students Obtaining a Master of Arts in International Relations
5 Essential Conflict Resolution Skills that U.S. Diplomats Need for International Relations


Cyber Warfare, Oxford Bibliographies

How an entire nation became Russia's test lab for cyberwar, Wired

Study reveals North Korean cyber-espionage has reached new heights, The Guardian

Experts Suspect Russia Is Using Ukraine As A Cyberwar Testing Ground, National Public Radio


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