By Fergus Hanson
In the space of half a day US President Donald Trump was served up another humiliating lesson in global policy making on the fly.
Overnight, Mr Trump launched another signature international policy initiative, equal parts bravado and preposterous.
With a special counsel investigating allegations of Russian meddling in last year’s US election, and the President himself for possible obstruction of justice, Mr Trump tried to outflank his critics by announcing a cyber partnership to protect elections, with none other than Russia.
Characteristically tweeting the news, he wrote: “Putin & I discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded and safe.”
Mr Trump also reassured the world he had done his due diligence with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man renowned for his candour and forthrightness.
“I strongly pressed President Putin twice about Russian meddling in our election. He vehemently denied it.”
As Garry Kasparov helpfully noted:
“And if you can’t take the word of a brutal KGB dictator, whose word can you take?”
There was no shortage of American critics. Republican senator Lindsey Graham said: “It’s not the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard, but it’s pretty close.”
Fellow GOP senator Marco Rubio also panned it, tweeting: “Partnering with Putin on a ‘Cyber Security Unit’ is akin to partnering with Assad on a ‘Chemical Weapons Unit’.”
Republican senator John McCain was quick to note how handy it would now be to have Russia lending a helping hand.
“I’m sure that Vladimir Putin could be of enormous assistance in that effort since he is doing the hacking,” Senator McCain quipped.
Russia tops the threat list
US intelligence agencies were also presumably taking a load off after Mr Trump’s breakthrough. As recently as May, in the latest Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, director of national intelligence Daniel Coats listed cyber threats at the top in his report to Congress, and Russia was first on the list of threat actors.
“Russia is a full-scope cyber actor that will remain a major threat to US Government, military, diplomatic, commercial, and critical infrastructure,” he reported.
“Moscow has a highly advanced offensive cyber program,” the report went on. “And in recent years, the Kremlin has assumed a more aggressive cyber posture. This aggressiveness was evident in Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 US election, and we assess that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorised the 2016 US election-focused data thefts and disclosures, based on the scope and sensitivity of the targets.
“Russia has also leveraged cyberspace to seek to influence public opinion across Europe and Eurasia. We assess that Russian cyber operations will continue to target the United States and its allies to gather intelligence, support Russian decision making, conduct influence operations to support Russian military and political objectives, and prepare the cyber environment for future contingencies.”
Not built to last
Notwithstanding the absurdity of the proposal, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin defended it saying, “This is like any other strategic alliance whether we are doing military exercises with our allies or anything else” and describing the initiative as, “a very significant accomplishment for President Trump”.
But 12-and-a-bit hours later, Mr Trump threw his Treasury Secretary under a bus and bailed on his new initiative in a tweet.
“The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security unit doesn’t mean I think it can happen. It can’t — but a ceasefire can, & did!”
The failure of this idea doesn’t mean Russian actions should be ignored or dialogue with Russia is a bad thing. As Russia assumes a more aggressive cyber posture there is more need than ever to push back and engage.
Beyond pushing back in bilateral discussions, the US could work with other countries targeted by Russian cyber intrusions. Regrettably, the UN process that had been making slow progress on cyber norms collapsed in June, so there is need for fresh thinking on a new way forward.
The impenetrable cyber security unit though is probably not it.
Fergus Hanson is head of the International Cyber Policy Centre based at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. He is author of Internet Wars: The Struggle for Power in the 21st Century.