Self-Defensive Force Against Cyber Attacks: Legal, Strategic and Political Dimensions

Matthew C. Waxman, Columbia Law School


When does a cyber-attack (or threat of cyber-attack) give rise to a right of self-defense – including armed self-defense – and when should it? This essay examines these questions through three lenses: (1) a legal perspective, to examine the range of reasonable interpretations of self-defense rights as applied to cyber-attacks, and the relative merits of interpretations within that range; (2) a strategic perspective, to link a purported right of armed self-defense to long-term policy interests including security and stability; and (3) a political perspective, to consider the situational context in which government decision-makers will face these issues and predictive judgments about the reactions to cyber-crises of influential actors in the international system. It aims to show specifically how development of politics, strategy, and law will likely play out interdependently with respect to this particular threat – cyber-attacks – and to draw some conclusions about legal development in this area based on that analysis.