Cyber Diplomacy

Analysis & Opinions - The Cipher Brief

The Making of a Cyber Diplomat

| Aug. 23, 2017

By now, you’ve probably heard the news that the U.S. State Department is losing its top diplomat on issues relating to cybersecurity, Chris Painter. In addition, the rumors are that those associated with Painter’s Office of the Cyber Coordinator will be reassigned to the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs. We hoped to get an idea about what’s next for cyber issues at the State Department from Painter himself, as he was supposed to testify on July 26 before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. However, that hearing was postponed.  Here, we offer our own thoughts about the future of cyber diplomacy and how the Trump Administration can move forward.

Cyber diplomacy thus far has been a careful balance of promoting both the U.S.’s interests and values in cyberspace. Obvious as it may sound, we think that the next step for the Trump Administration should be to consider and then explain the interests and values it wants to pursue. Although anything is possible, they may well come out similar to past Republican and Democrat administrations. But now is the time to turn ambiguity into clarity and to ensure we continue to channel our considerable diplomatic heft towards the pursuit of core interests and values.

Balancing Our Interests and Values

One of the great characteristics about American foreign policy is that historically, it represents not just our national interests, but our values as a nation too. U.S. decisions about how to engage with the world almost never are about furthering one or the other. The State Department plays a critical role in not only contributing to the design of American foreign policy that balances interests and values, but also how to explain that balance to the world. Chris Painter and his Office of the Cyber Coordinator was charged with this mission for technology and cyber issues for much of the last eight years.

Striking the balance between values and interests is not easy. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson talked about both in remarks to State Department employees on May 3rd. In his speech, he cautioned against placing too much emphasis on values. Senator John McCain (R-AZ)  rebuffed Tillerson a few days later in a New York Times op-ed, declaring that foreign policy becomes “simply transactional” when values become heavily subordinated to interests.  Even at this level of abstraction, getting the language right is tough – and we haven’t even started looking at real policy.

It’s easy to say that foreign policy, when it comes to cybersecurity, should reflect U.S. interests and values. Of course, there will always be tradeoffs. But the international climate today on a wide-range of topics related to data, technology, and cybersecurity needs the U.S. to hold the line for values. Values, like freedom of expression and association, are under assault online, and much of the world is looking to U.S. leadership for guidance. When countries try to block the use of virtual private networks (VPNs), proxies, and Tor to access outside internet content, as the Russian Duma just did, they are trying to stifle what their citizens can learn and how they can express themselves.

We decided to take a look back at the last two presidential administrations to see what interests and values they articulated when it came to cyberspace and cybersecurity.


For more information on this publication: Please contact Cyber Security Project
For Academic Citation: Sulmeyer, Michael and Gabriella Roncone.“The Making of a Cyber Diplomat.” The Cipher Brief, August 23, 2017.