Media roundtable focuses on security, defense, democracy

dsc 2978a Amy Zegart, right and Herb Lin talk about drone strikes and cybersecurity at the Hoover Institution media roundtable on Oct. 16. Rod Searcey

Deep policy discussions between journalists and top Stanford scholars highlighted a recent media roundtable at the Hoover Institution.

The event drew about 30 members of the national media from a variety of print and broadcast outlets, including CNN, CBS, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, MSNBC, The Washington Post, and Politico.  The two-day media roundtable on Oct. 15-16 was titled, “Outside the Beltway.”

Over the course of the two-day conference, participants engaged in robust discussions with Hoover Institution fellows and Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies scholars, including former U.S. Secretary of State and Hoover and FSI senior fellow Condoleeza Rice, who kicked off the event with a foreign policy conversation.

Drones and cybersecurity, for example, were topics of conversation for Amy Zegart and Herb Lin from the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC).

Drones and new warfare

Zegart said, “New technology is being used in ways never imagined ... The question is, could drones be next?”

Drones are possible “coercion tools,” more effective than people would believe, Zegart said. “We need to figure out how the logic works with coercion, in regard to states.”

How do you get others to back down without a fight? You need to issue a costly threat, she said. For example, “trip-wire” forces of more than 20,000 in South Korea represent such a credible threat to North Korea. “Low-cost is low credibility,” or “cheap talk,” on the other hand.

Drones lower the cost of coercion, Zegart said. One point is that such strikes have huge public support, as the risk of U.S. casualties are very low, according to polls – 62 percent favor such drone strikes.

Zegart said drones could shift the “relative costs” of war and are better able to sustain military action over a lengthy time frame. They also affect the “psychology of punishment.” Hovering over a target for long periods of time, decapitation strikes against regime leaders, and the constant state of “near-ambush” changes the character of war and for a military campaign to stay the course.

“Certainty of punishment is a very powerful way to change the behavior of the adversary,” moreso than “severity of punishment, said Zegart, who has affirmed these conclusions through surveys with foreign military officers. That research also showed that domestic political support for military reaction is the most popular reason for making threats credible. But a deeper dive into such issues is urged, she added.

“We’re really behind the curve in figuring out how to make military threats credible in the world,” said Zegart. “Lots of questions remain.”

Hacking, information attacks

Lin spoke about the recent Equifax data hacking, among other topics.

He said, “The harm we all feel is both tangible and intangible” in regard to such hacks. In other words, there is both material threat and a peace of mind threat, he explained.

The “Internet-of-Things” is another looming problem, Lin said. In the future, liability issues will factor into how all these devices are connected and who is responsible in case of misdeeds, he said.

In the case of health care, confidentiality is a critical societal goal, but hacking creates numerous scenarios: “Would you prefer your blood type posted online or changed in your medical records,” Lin said, explaining the different ways information misuse may affect people.

On the global security front, “cyber war” takes advantage of the flaws of information technology (IT), and “information warfare” takes advantage of the virtues of IT, he noted. Such efforts begin to level the playing field between international actors and agencies.

“You give large megaphones to small players,” Lin said.

In Russia, information warfare is actually studied as a theory of warfare. And the results show that it works – it’s easier to destroy democratic  values online than create or reinforce them, Lin said. For example, Russia’s meddling in the 2016 elect stoked political polarization in America.

One media member asked Lin how the U.S. could prevent Russia from using cyber and information warfare in upcoming U.S. elections.

Lin said, “It’s not clear to me that the U.S. government is really going to be willing to do anything,” but some public pressure may move entities like media companies to respond more effectively.

And Zegart noted, “The Russians are still here.” They are present right now in any number of settings, from social media to traditional media and in public spheres, for example, she said.

“Attacking brains” was how Zegart described Russia’s goal. For American social media companies, she suggested, “Think about battleground states” and focus on “triaging” these areas.

WWII, Russia

The media also heard presentations from Hoover's Kori Schake on defense policy; Hoover's Victor Davis Hanson on “The Second World Wars,” his new book; Hoover's Michael Auslin on the Asian century; Hoover and FSI's Michael McFaul discussed the U.S-Russia relationship; and Hoover and FSI's Larry Diamond on democracy in the world order.

McFaul spoke about the hot spots in the relationship between the U.S. and Russian governments, his time as the U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration, and his suggested approaches to today’s engagement with Russia. He noted how Russia's President Vladimir Putin has prevailed on many recent occasions against the best interests of the U.S. One instance is Syria and how complicated that issue was for foreign policy makers during his tenure.

"The objective we sought to achieve -- the end of the civil war -- our policies did not achieve," said McFaul, who urges stronger U.S. action against Russian cyber attacks on the U.S. electoral process, now and into the future.

Hanson said that people today often fail to appreciate the deadly scope of the WWII conflict. For example, he pointed out that more people died in that conflict than any in human history, with 27,000 people dying every day in WWII. It was also the first time that more civilians were killed than soldiers. Of all the six major powers involved in the conflict, Japan killed about 10 people for every person they lost.

Lessons from WWII? “Things change very quickly in a war,” Hanson said. In 1942, it looked like the Axis powers had the upper hand; the next year, the Allies were surging. Also, a country should rely on a formidable deterrence strategy to discourage would-be attackers.

Once you lose it, “deterrence is very, very hard to recapture,” Hanson said.


Clifton B. Parker, Center for International Security and Cooperation: (650) 725-6488,