A Tale of Two Viruses

The dangerous business of comparing cyber and bio attacks to each other.

David E. Hoffman's article ("The New Virology," March/April 2011) laid out some interesting likenesses between Stuxnet and swine flu, but the differences may be more telling. In some ways, cyber and bio attacks are almost polar opposites, with an inverse relation in frequency and effect. Bioattacks threaten grave devastation, but the big one rarely -- if ever -- occurs.

The actual pandemics we deal with, like the swine or avian varieties, produce minimal casualties. Biological warfare is an improbable threat, akin to an asteroid strike: Because neither terrorists nor militaries prefer weapons that are cumbersome, difficult to deploy, and erratic in effect, biological weapons have rarely ever been used.

In contrast, malware used against computer networks is a daily occurrence, with millions of incidents every month. Stuxnet was precisely the sort of high-caliber, targeted attack that we have never encountered in the world of biological warfare. It combined sophisticated single-use techniques and was crafted to limit collateral damage. There are four or five advanced cyberpowers that have Stuxnet-like capabilities, and perhaps another 20 countries are developing them. The world should prepare for more such attacks in the future.

Unfortunately, policy can go off course if we too easily equate bio and cyber warfare. The U.S. government squandered billions of dollars on Project BioShield, without improvement to security, while cyber went neglected even as agencies and companies were pillaged by foreign opponents. Hoffman's piece may inadvertently serve to perpetuate that kind of mistake.

James Lewis
Senior Fellow
Center for Strategic and International Studies
Washington, D.C.

David E. Hoffman replies:

I quite agree that cyber and bio threats should be evaluated for differences as well as parallels. Cyberattacks are certainly more frequent, but they have not caused mass casualties, at least not yet. By contrast, biological agents pose a danger to living organisms. The anthrax letters were more lethal to humans than Stuxnet. The swine flu pandemic led to thousands of deaths and was considered a relatively mild pandemic. Thankfully, we have not experienced a larger attack with biological agents, but it is prudent to prepare for risks that are not necessarily frequent. A nuclear bomb has not been used in military conflict for more than six decades, yet we make extraordinary efforts, and investments, to prevent and deter nuclear attacks. We need to better understand both bio and cyber threats for the same reason; to explore the dangers doesn't mean to equate them in policymaking.

From ForeignPolicy.com:

HURRICANEWARNING: All I know is, conventional wisdom is nearly always wrong. If people are saying that this is the generation of virology, it will probably end up being something very different, and usually less complex. Example: IEDs. Probably one of the top 10 most effective tools of warfare ever devised … and, we never saw it coming.


Chinese Juggernaut?

China's rapid growth is a legitimate worry for leaders in Washington -- and Beijing.

Much of what Gideon Rachman argues in his essay is right, especially for the near term ("Think Again: American Decline," January/February 2011). China's scale does make it a more serious challenge to U.S. dominance than was Japan in the 1980s and 1990s. Rachman is correct that the "rise of the rest" collectively constrains U.S. power to shape the world. We are undoubtedly heading into a more conflict-ridden world, with U.S.-China tensions at its core.

But Rachman's essay overstates the inevitability of China's rise and its negative implications, understates U.S. resilience, and thus wrongly assumes the permanence of "zero-sum" U.S.-China relations. While China is unlikely to "implode," it is even less likely to keep up its rate of economic growth, especially given the very negative demographic trends that begin to kick in later this decade as a result of the one-child policy. The Asian Development Bank thinks that China's growth rates in the next 20 years will be only a little more than half of what they were in the last 30. Chinese policymakers, deeply worried about the future, would surely be amused by Rachman's assertion that size and economic momentum will inevitably keep the "Chinese juggernaut … rolling forward."

At the same time, other Asian countries like India, Indonesia, and Vietnam look to their relations with the United States as a balance and a hedge against Chinese domination in the Pacific. They are, moreover, more likely than China to sustain high growth rates. This hardly suggests a "zero-sum" outcome for U.S. influence.

President Barack Obama's administration is correct in being less than optimistic about China's becoming a constructive stakeholder in the near future. But it is equally wise in assuming that this trend may not be permanent.

David Gordon
Head of Research
Eurasia Group
Washington, D.C.

Gideon Rachman replies:

As David Gordon points out, we actually agree on quite a lot. The areas of disagreement, I think, involve three crucial points: First, how fragile is the rise of China? Second, how resilient is the United States? Finally, how are other important countries, particularly in Asia, likely to react to a shifting balance of power?

Of course, China has real problems. Clearly it will not grow at 10 percent a year ad infinitum. But nor, after three decades of rapid growth, is the Chinese economy suddenly going to seize up and go into reverse. The most sensible assumption is that there is still considerable room for further growth in China, particularly as the rural poor join the modern economy. The Economist's latest projections suggest that China will displace the United States as the world's largest economy by 2019. Economic power does not translate into political power through some direct mathematical formula, but the two phenomena are surely related.

In that sense, the question of American resilience, or otherwise, is not crucial. This is indeed primarily a story about "the rise of the rest" -- and therefore the relative decline of the United States. That said, it is certainly true that the surge in the U.S. budget deficit will make it harder for America to project power.

Gordon is right that many Asian powers are uneasy about the rise of China and might seek to ally with the United States as a way of balancing Chinese power. However, China is already the largest trading partner for Japan, India, and Australia, and its economic and military weight in the Asia-Pacific region will only grow. That suggests that, in the long run, China's neighbors will seek to accommodate rising Chinese power, rather than confront it.