Peace Science Digest

Building Peace in Cyberspace

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Burton, J., & Christou, G. (2021). Bridging the gap between cyberwar and cyberpeace. International Affairs, 97(6), 1727-1747.

Talking Points  

  • Cyberwar is widely understood as activities aimed at “destroy[ing], disrupt[ing], and/or exploit[ing] the computer networks of an adversary,” but it is perhaps more usefully understood as a particular discourse that frames contentious interactions in cyberspace as security threats requiring militarized responses. 
  • Cyberwar discourse has justified the “securitization and militarization of the internet” and contributed to “heightened tensions” among the world’s most powerful countries.  
  • By examining cybersecurity through the lens of peace and conflict studies, we can shift the discourse on cyberwar to a focus on cyberpeace. 

Key Insight for Informing Practice  

  • This research offers two critically important approaches to countering the militarization of climate change and migration in the United States: first, to always question security narratives wherever they appear and, second, to pull from existing conflict resolution and peacebuilding practices to demilitarize security.


Cyberwar is now considered “a new domain of military operations” with many countries adopting offensive cyber capabilities aimed at “destroy[ing], disrupt[ing], and/or exploit[ing] the computer networks of an adversary.” Most of the corresponding academic literature has applied Cold War-era concepts to explain security dynamics in cyberspace. However, Joe Burton and George Christou argue that cyberwar is not merely an activity of countries but also “an idea, metaphor, and narrative that needs to be challenged and deconstructed.” By examining cybersecurity through the lens of peace and conflict studies, we can shift the discourse on cyberwar to a focus on cyberpeace. After reviewing various ideas and strategies for desecuritization, they argue that reframing may be best accomplished by rearticulating cyber security “through tools available in conflict prevention and resolution…in order [to] reframe the existing cyber narrative and pre-empt the future securitization of new technologies.”

Securitization: “the process through which security issues emerge…Using ‘speech acts’—i.e. securitizing discourse—securitizing actors seek to justify the need for ‘special measures’ to be introduced to counter ‘existential threats’ to the state.”

The authors begin with detailing how cyberwar emerged as a security concern. Most existing explanations fail to appreciate the larger “historical, cultural, and ideational” context from which cyberwar emerged. Uncertainty in the 1990s following the end of the Cold War created a vacuum for new security narratives, like cyberwar, to emerge and “[give] meaning and order to a seemingly anarchic international environment.”  Thus, cyberwar should be understood as a strategic security narrative “deliberately constructed and connected to discourses, ideas and behaviors…that served the interests [of] different security communities.” 

Cyberwar discourse has justified the “securitization and militarization of the internet,” without concern for the implications of increasing state control and surveillance on the internet. In global politics, cyberwar has contributed to “destabilizing practices” and “heightened tensions” among the world’s most powerful countries, evidenced by offensive doctrines that “suggest that it is acceptable to ‘defend forward’ in cyberspace” and use military force as a response to cyber-attacks. Cyberwar framed as a means of protecting countries has “led to overly militarized approaches to cyber security,” involving military or intelligence agencies where civilian institutions would otherwise be capable of addressing threats. 

The authors suggest how desecuritization (or, the reversal of securitization) could be achieved by first examining possibilities to shift the narrative from cyberwar to cyberpeace. First, because securitization involves speech, they call for “a greater degree of precision…around the term ‘cyberwar’,” including when the use of force would be an appropriate response to certain activities in cyberspace. For instance, the term “cyber-attack” is used broadly but may be more accurately described as an “intrusion, trespass, exploitation or operations” rather than as an attack. Second, the authors question whether security is even attainable in this space, given the fractured security environment in the 21st century, and push against the application of the term “security” in this context. However, the authors note that the term “security” is deeply embedded in this discourse and would be very difficult to remove.

To further support desecuritization, the authors explore how an alternative and positive “cyberpeace” discourse could be described. Drawing on emerging desecuritization research, the authors then consider four distinct processes for desecuritizing an issue:  

  • Stabilization aims for less violence and more positive engagement (without transforming the status quo). 
  • Replacement swaps a securitized issue with the securitization of other political issues.  
  • Re-articulation works by “moving the issues [away] from the securitized space” by, in part, “offering a political solution to the threats, dangers and grievances.”  
  • Silencing happens where the issue no longer appears in security discourse.  

After discussing these alternatives, the authors suggest that a re-articulation strategy accomplished by employing conflict resolution and peacebuilding tools would be the most effective means to shift the cyberwar security narrative to cyberpeace.  

So, what then defines cyberpeace? The authors argue that a negative cyberpeace—one that merely focuses on “deterrence and the absence of conflict” in cyberspace—would fail to address the range of offensive activities that take place. However, a positive cyberpeace—one where “the absence of disorder, disturbance and structural violence underpins a collective form of security for cyberspace”—would be transformative and focus on the opportunities for “sustainable development, human rights, human security and polycentric governance.” The authors argue that a vision of positive cyberpeace aids in re-articulation by proposing initiatives that “build confidence, reduce risk, [and build normative] consensus” among countries. Taken further, a positive cyberpeace, with its emphasis on generating collective security, can help to shift the focus from the security of state governments to the security of “individuals and/or societal groups.” Peacebuilding and conflict resolution literature offers specific practices and methods that can be applied to re-articulating cyberpeace, like preventive diplomacy or early warning systems.

Informing Practice 

One of the characteristics of militarism is that it aids in the securitization of political and social issues and normalizes a violent, forceful response as the common-sense solution to problems that might not otherwise be understood as requiring one. Militarism becomes an entrenched and intractable system that permeates all political decision-making, not only questions related to national security or military affairs. This research offers two critically important approaches to countering militarization: first, to always question security narratives wherever they appear and, second, to pull from existing conflict resolution and peacebuilding practices to demilitarize security.   

We can broadly apply this approach to any political issue subject to militarization. For instance, policy responses to climate change and migration are readily subjected to militarized logics. A previous study featured in the Peace Science Digest—Demilitarizing the Response to Climate Change—found that national governments in the Global North “emphasize the militarization of national borders to prevent climate refugees over policies—like reducing carbon emissions—that would actually address the security threat posed by climate change itself.” In the United States, we can identify a security narrative in the militarization of the southern border, framed as a necessary and appropriate response to an influx of migrants from Central and South America. The reasons why there are migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers at the southern border, and especially the structural conditions that contributed to this so-called crisis, rarely surface in popular debate. Instead, the debate is centered on an influx of drugs and crime (which is linked, without evidence, to migrants writ large) and the risks posed to American citizens to justify extraordinary measures like arbitrary arrests, armed patrols, and the inhumane treatment of migrants.    

To apply the lessons from this research, the first step is to acknowledge that border militarization is a deliberately constructed narrative that benefits security communities. Evidence shows that the Department of Defense (DoD) has identified the influx of migrants at the U.S. southern border as a national security threat associated with climate change.1 This thinking set the stage for both securitizing U.S. immigration and generating support for border militarization. By linking the threat of climate change to immigration, it opened political space for expanded, extraordinary powers to “confront” the threat of “climate refugees” while also muddling efforts to eliminate carbon emissions, as these militarized responses are also carbon intensive.  

Second, how might approaches from the peacebuilding and conflict prevention literature be helpful in transforming the discourse around climate change and migration? Returning to the previously published Digest analysis on demilitarizing the response to climate change, the authors of that research suggest that “social movements adopting more inclusive conceptions of security and deliberate practices of solidarity can point the way forward to a climate policy that responds meaningfully to various sources of insecurity.” These movements reframe the issue of immigration through the language of human rights, emphasizing the similarities and common humanity between migrants from the U.S. southern border and American citizens. Re-articulating the migrant crisis could be achieved through this language of human rights while also centering an examination of the root causes of migration, including how global behaviors and activities of the U.S. reinforce those root causes.

Continued Reading  

Peace Science Digest. (2020). Demilitarizing the response to climate change. Retrieved March 1, 2023, from  

Crawford, N.C. (2019, November 13). Pentagon fuel use, climate change, and the costs of war. Costs of War, Brown University. Retrieved March 1, 2023, from   

Watson, J. (2022, July 28). Climate change is already fueling global migration. The world isn’t ready to meet people’s changing needs, experts say. PBS. Retrieved March 1, 2023, from  

Peace Science Digest. (2021). Artificial intelligence in U.S. counterterrorism and the inescapable fog of (endless) war. Retrieved March 1, 2023, from   


Cyber Peace Alliance:   

CyberPeace Institute:   


Keywords: demilitarizing security, technology, cyberwar, cyber security, peace, peacebuilding, conflict resolution 

Photo credit: Christiaan Colen via flickr