2:52 PM ET, Thursday January 9, 2020
It’s part of a “costly signaling” gambit. Will it deter America’s enemies?
In foreign policy, it is essential to indicate to friends and foes alike where a country’s national interests lie. Some of this is done in documents such as the National Security Strategy. But potential challengers in the international system often choose to probe whether such documents truly reflect a nation’s interests and its willingness to defend them. So states signal their resolve in various ways intended to forestall more aggressive challenges and costly defensive operations.
To prove they are not bluffing, states sometimes send “costly signals” — ones that impose some cost on the sender. This is what the Trump administration is doing when it publicizes various cyber activities against, say, Iran or Russia. Cyber tools and networks are a limited commodity; publicizing them makes them harder to use a second time. The hope is that burning this scarce commodity will persuade potential challengers of American resolve.
Most of the information we have about recent U.S. cyber activities has come from unnamed, but likely authorized, government sources. These choreographed disclosures allow the Trump administration to signal to adversaries that it views certain actions as infringing upon U.S. national interests — yet they also create plausible deniability that keeps the administration’s options open and its domestic political risks down.
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