Putting the “war” in cyberwar: Metaphor, analogy, and cybersecurity discourse in the United States

Sean Lawson


Public policy discourse about cyber security in the United States is dominated by a metaphor of war and analogies to the Cold War. This essay critically evaluates the contradictory tendency within U.S. cyber war discourse to see cyber conflict as simultaneously revolutionary and unprecedented, but also amenable to the tenets of Cold War nuclear deterrence. This contradiction points to an ongoing crisis of effectively identifying and understanding what is old and new, the same and different about cyber conflict. The first tendency overemphasizes the new/different aspects of cyber conflict while the second simultaneously overemphasizes the old/same aspects. This essay argues that current contradictory tendencies are unproductive and even potentially dangerous. It argues that the war metaphor and nuclear deterrence analogy are neither natural nor inevitable and that abandoning them would open up new possibilities for thinking more productively about the full spectrum of cyber security challenges, including the as-yet unrealized possibility of cyber war.


cybersecurity; cyberwar; metaphor; analogy

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v17i7.3848

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