The Intersection of New Technology and International Security: An Interview with Professor Ben Buchanan

By: Meghan McGee, Reporter

Photo Credit: Belfer Center

Professor Ben Buchanan is the newest core faculty member of Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, teaching his first Georgetown class this fall. Dr. Buchanan currently teaches SEST 500: Theory & Practice of Security (a class I myself am currently attending). His work focuses on how states use cyber methods and emerging technologies as a part of their statecraft. He previously worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Dr. Buchanan has testified before Congress about Russia’s interference in democratic nations and Russian cyber operations. He also published his first book, The Cybersecurity Dilemma: Hacking, Trust, and Fear Between Nations. He is also an alum of Georgetown’s Security Studies Program and I recently spoke with him about his impressive path back to Georgetown as well as the intersection between policy and technology.

What is it like to be back at Georgetown as a professor?

It is great to be back in a place that has done so much for me and a place that has the tone and tenor that Georgetown does. While there are a lot of faces that have changed, there are still a lot of Georgetown legends that are still here being legendary.

Could you elaborate on “tone and tenor”?

Georgetown very much is a place that cares for the whole person in the student body and is a place where we do academic work, but also we are also trying to do that work with an eye on what it means to the world. Whether its government policy or something else, I like how connected Georgetown is to Washington DC and the events that actually happen.

Did you ever imagine you’d be teaching?

No, I had no intention on being an academic. But now that I am an academic, there’s no place I’d rather be than Georgetown.

For many, pursuing a PhD after SSP is rare—what was the biggest factor in choosing that path?

The biggest factor in choosing to do that was the Marshall Scholarship I won while I was an SSP student. That funded grad school in the United Kingdom. Since I already had a masters, I looked at doing a PhD and it worked out really well. Had I not received the scholarship there would’ve been zero percent chance I would’ve gone on to do a PhD or be an academic.

Do you see any differences since you were a student five years ago?

I am not so old that everything has been turned upside down. We are still teaching a lot of the core foundational ideas of the discipline– the things that shouldn’t change too frequently. I think we’ve done a lot to expand what we do on newer things like cyber security and that has certainly been a priority of mine since coming back here. It is also one we can expect to see more progress in the future.

When did you realize you wanted to focus on cyber?

 When I was in SSP, I was a White House intern in the Office of Science & Technology Policy and I was really excited by the opportunity to work on these kinds of questions about the intersection between policy and technology every single day. That was definitely a formative experience. I went on to do work with the New York City Police Department in counterterrorism. We applied new technologies to counterterrorism and counter crime missions and I really enjoyed that intersection as well. I think through those experiences I did my best thinking across two different disciplines. I was genuinely excited working with stuff that had been invented just a few years before.

Could you tell me about your current work with cyber security and artificial intelligence (AI)?

My outlook and research interests are predicated on this idea of the intersection of new technology and international security– one that is rich with policy questions as well as research questions. When I was a PhD student and then at Harvard I wrote a piece on how the security dilemma impacts cyber operations– how nations hack each other. And that was the book that I published before I came to Georgetown. I spent a lot of time in the past couple of years thinking about AI and what that means for international security. My view is that there is a lot more to come on that and we’re only just beginning to reach some basic conclusions on how that’s going to effect geopolitics.

Could you speak about some of the implications of this technology and how we assess security threats whether it be cyber or AI?

One implication for Georgetown students is the importance of understanding not just the policy and the strategy but also the technology. When I teach, I try to focus on how the technology is actually used operationally and how that changes the strategic ideas as a result. Certainly, the technology of cyber operations is fundamentally different in how it works than the technology of nuclear weapons. My view is that for students and for policymakers, we have to understand those differences as we go towards research and making decisions.

You’ll be teaching a cybersecurity class next semester, what can students expect from it?

The class is a lot of what I mentioned previously– it’s about cyber operations and the functioning of the technology and what that means for strategy. I will also be teaching an AI class next semester which is more of a strategic view and surveying how different aspects of new AI technologies will impact different geopolitical questions.

Would you say you’re a part of the next generation of IR scholars that can tackle these complex technologies and how we use it in warfare?

I think there are people that have already charted the way—folks like Thomas Rid is an excellent example of this senior academic who is well established but who is taking the time to understand the technology. He was my PhD advisor and I am proud to follow in his footsteps and try to contribute to the discipline by looking at how IR intersects with technology

What was the process like making a syllabus for something as new as cyber? Did you find it challenging?

It’s important to think about the foundational ideas and know international relations. But for me, I spent a lot of time also focusing on what actually happens in the world of cyber operations. This is a world that is not well publicized, and I spent a lot of time figuring out what isn’t reported in international relations journals. Sometimes it’s a report in the media and quite frequently it is only reported in the private sector. I try to draw upon as many sources as possible, not only international relations journals—though those are important.

What was it like testifying before a Senate and House committee? Was that something you expected to do in your career?

I had no expectations of it, the first time I did it was for the Senate Judiciary Committee on a high-profile hearing regarding Russian cyber operations. I would say it’s great to see your academic work recognized in a policy arena. But it wasn’t something I expected to happen when I was a postdoc.

What is one piece of advice you’d give your younger, SSP self?

When I was in SSP, I was thinking a lot about continuing to study the Middle East—I studied Arabic for three years before coming to SSP—versus thinking about cybersecurity and international affairs. And I think one piece of good advice I mostly followed but would’ve loved for someone to whisper it in my ear at the time was to study the stuff you find genuinely interesting, that gets you excited. Also, to study the questions that don’t have answers that you feel you might be able to answer. Eventually in SSP I concluded I was much better suited to thinking about the intersection of technology and international affairs than anything else and I’m really glad I made that choice.


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