Cyberspace is a new arena of interaction with many features still fluid and subject to transformation and change. International relations, is a well-established domain for state and non-state actors, operating in physical environments beyond their own territorial boundaries, and whose behaviors are shaped by long traditions of norms, principles and institutional directives.

So far, cyberspace and international relations have been viewed largely as separate domains of interaction. But realities impinge, and we now appreciate their interconnections and interdependence. The details have yet to be developed. In response to new 21st century realities shaped by the salience of cyberspace, the goal is to construct a cyber-inclusive view of international relations (CyberIR@MIT) – with theory, data, analyses, simulations – to anticipate and respond to cyber threats, impacts on power politics, and challenges to national security and international stability.

Need for New Knowledge

While many features of international relations can be explained and understood without reference to the overall cyber domain, many more, if not most, require a cyber-centered perspective that intersects with and bears directly upon international relations. We have excellent maps and visual materials for international relations and its various facets. We also have maps of cyber access, different representations of traffic, and different features of cyberspace.

There is limited understanding of how cyberspace influences international relations and how power and politics in international relations influence the structure, process, and management of cyberspace. Dominant assumptions of the 20th century politics and policy are severely undermined by the 21st century and the cyber age with its dynamic and changing configurations. The knowledge gap is profound: There are excellent maps and visual materials for international relations and for different features of cyberspace.

Missing, however, is a combined view so essential for understanding today’s realities and anticipating future directions. Without a “map” to navigate its joint international relations and cyber features and their interdependence, a viable theory thereof, and mechanisms for tracking potential threat, it is unlikely that we can fully understand what it is, let alone identify threat points and their underlying trajectories.

The ECIR Project responds to a critical need for rethinking the core assumptions of structure and process in international relations as well as a reassessment of methods and tools required for navigating through the joint complexities of cyberspace as these bear on the security of the nation, and the stability and wellbeing all individuals, societies and states, as well as the entire international community.

Vision for Theory

The major objective of the ECIR research program is to develop approaches to international relations – with theory, data, and methods – responsive to the cyber realities of the 21st century. Its vision is to understand the mutual and reciprocal interconnections of cyberspace and the international relations and create a body of knowledge that is theory-driven, empirically sound, and technically anchored such that it:

  • Clarifies threats and opportunities of cyberspace for national security, welfare, and influence; 

  • Provides analytical tools for understanding and managing cyber based transformation and change; and 

  • Attracts and educates a new generation of researchers, scholars, and analysts. 

A related objective is to provide the U.S. government with useful tools and insights into the emergent complexity of the new realities. These realities are increasingly shaped by the interdependence between the physical world and the cyber domain. 

Core Challenge

The contrast between the characteristic features of cyberspace, on the one hand, and those of international relations, on the other, creates significant challenges for theory and policy, nationally and internationally. While both domains are created, and driven, by human activity the characteristic features of cyberspace are at variance with conventional understanding of, and interactions, in the international arena. Figure below shows a simplified view of the core challenge for the ECIR initiative.

The overarching question. Source: Choucri & Clark (2019).
The overarching question.
Source: Choucri and Clark (2019).

Addressing the question mark in the above Figure is particularly daunting since the properties of the international system are fundamentally different from those of cyberspace. This challenge is at the core of the ECIR research agenda.

At this time, a cyber-inclusive view of international relations has become a necessity rather than simply a convenience. Such a view is missing from the current corpus of scientific knowledge and tools for policy analysis. It must be developed if we are to manage the complex challenges of the 21st century defined in large part by the complexity and the co-evolution of cyberspace and international relations.

The Table below identifies key cyber features that are particularly problematic for all facets of International relations and world politics related to theory, policy, and practice.

Cyberspace Challenges to International Relations
Temporality: Replaces conventional time with near-instantaneity
Physicality: Transcends constraints of geography and physical location
Permeation: Penetrates boundaries and jurisdictions
Fluidity: Sustains persistent shifts and reconfigurations
Participation: Reduces barriers to activism and political expression
Attribution: Obscures identities of actors and links to action
Accountability: Bypasses established mechanism of responsibility
Source:  Based on Choucri (2012).

It is not difficult to appreciate that these features, individually and collectively, challenge the core principles of sovereignty, authority, and jurisdiction as well as a whole range of fundamentals that provide order and stability in the modern world order. Simplistic as that might seem, the essence of ECIR research is signaled by the question mark in Figure above.

The following section summarizes the overall research approach – from the basic assumptions to operational methods – and is followed by a concise statement of results.