By Angelo Sanakli, Contributing Writer

The United States and twenty-six other nations came together during last year’s United Nations General Assembly to issue a call-to-action on making cyberspace safer. This came after the United Nations rolled out two independent norm-building processes on advancing responsible behavior in cyberspace. Yet conflicting interests suggest that nations will not be able to reach consensus on new rules in either process anytime soon. The United States should instead engage like-minded partners to work towards making cyberspace safer for all nations.

Resolutions passed in 2018 established the Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) and the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE). The OEWG, supported by nations including China, Russia, and Iran, is a new norm-building process with membership open to all nations. The GGE, backed by the United States and like-minded partners including Australia, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, and the United Kingdom is part of a long-standing existing process with membership limited to twenty-five nations. Neither group has yet to reach consensus on new norms.

The last set of norms came in 2015 during a previous GGE. It set out that nations should not carry out cyber acts that seek to intentionally damage other nations’ critical infrastructure, such as power grids, water supplies, and financial services. The GGE process came to an abrupt end in 2017 owing to considerable push back from China, Russia, and Cuba. They opposed majority positions on the right to self-defense and the application of international humanitarian law, which regulates the humanitarian aspects of armed conflict. Conflicting interests on rules on, or related to, “free internet” and “cyber sovereignty” will continue to play out in both GGE and OEWG talks. Future push-back will only continue to stifle progress on norm-building. So what does this mean for the United States?

The United States needs to engage like-minded partners. They not only share like interests but play a vital role in projecting American interest abroad. Take for example how the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) broadened its collective defense commitment to include provisions for “cyber attacks” in 2014, or how the United States and Japan similarly broadened their mutual defense commitment in 2019. Here’s what the United States and like-minded partners should do next:

Reinforce existing norms: Like-minded partners should introduce enforcement procedures for nations that don’t abide by existing norms. They should affirm that there are consequences for bad behavior in cyberspace. Some possible examples of enforcement include facilitating robust information-sharing to thwart other nations’ wrongful cyber acts and developing defensive and offensive joint cyber operations. Nations that don’t follow the rules must know that they will be held accountable.

Develop new norms: Like-minded partners should also develop new norms, especially where OEWG or GGE consensus is unlikely. Some possible examples of norm-building include the right to respond to wrongful cyber acts in self-defense and the application of international humanitarian law in armed conflicts involving cyberspace. The progress on norms must be wrapped into both OEWG and GGE talks to push consensus in the right direction.

Norm-building on cyberspace remains controversial. Some will say that working with like-minded partners undermines United Nations processes. Yet existing norms are a clear indication that these processes protect the United States’ interests and make cyberspace safer for all nations. The OEWG or GGE talks will not reach consensus anytime soon, therefore the United States should press ahead with like-minded partners all the sooner. 

The United States needs to step up and lead. It needs to engage like-minded partners. It needs to reinforce existing norms and develop new ones to affirm that there are consequences for bad behavior in cyberspace. The United States can’t risk the possibility of adversaries at the forefront of norm-building. This is an opportunity for American leadership to make cyberspace safer for all nations.

Angelo Sanakli is a Master’s Candidate in Security Policy Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University. His focus is on cybersecurity and international law.