View Full Version : Digital Diplomacy

07-19-2010, 02:58 AM
It was a Wednesday night in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood, and Jared Cohen, the youngest member of the State Department’s policy planning staff, and Alec Ross, the first senior adviser for innovation to the secretary of state, were taking their tweeting very seriously. Cohen had spent the day in transit from D.C.; Ross hadn’t eaten anything besides a morning muffin. Yet they were in the mood to share, and dinner could wait. It wasn’t every day they got to tweet about visiting the headquarters of Twitter.

Twitter Musings in Syria Elicit Groans in Washington (June 30, 2010)
“Exactly 140 characters,” Cohen said.

“What a ninja you are,” Ross said.

They looked at each other, thumbs poised above their BlackBerries.

“Whenever we do this, we get called out on it,” Cohen said. They did it anyway, in unison. “Three . . . two . . . one. . . .” Tweet. Upward of 500,000 people instantly learned that the Twitterers had been to Twitter.

On Twitter, Cohen, who is 28, and Ross, who is 38, are among the most followed of anyone working for the U.S. government, coming in third and fourth after Barack Obama and John McCain. This didn’t happen by chance. Their Twitter posts have become an integral part of a new State Department effort to bring diplomacy into the digital age, by using widely available technologies to reach out to citizens, companies and other nonstate actors. Ross and Cohen’s style of engagement — perhaps best described as a cross between social-networking culture and foreign-policy arcana — reflects the hybrid nature of this approach. Two of Cohen’s recent posts were, in order: “Guinea holds first free election since 1958” and “Yes, the season premier [sic] of Entourage is tonight, soooo excited!” This offhand mix of pop and politics has on occasion raised eyebrows and a few hackles (writing about a frappucino during a rare diplomatic mission to Syria; a trip with Ashton Kutcher to Russia in February), yet, together, Ross and Cohen have formed an unlikely and unprecedented team in the State Department. They are the public face of a cause with an important-sounding name: 21st-century statecraft.

To hear Ross and Cohen tell it, even last year, in this age of rampant peer-to-peer connectivity, the State Department was still boxed into the world of communiqués, diplomatic cables and slow government-to-government negotiations, what Ross likes to call “white guys with white shirts and red ties talking to other white guys with white shirts and red ties, with flags in the background, determining the relationships.” And then Hillary Clinton arrived. “The secretary is the one who unleashed us,” Ross says. “She’s the godmother of 21st-century statecraft.”

Traditional forms of diplomacy still dominate, but 21st-century statecraft is not mere corporate rebranding — swapping tweets for broadcasts. It represents a shift in form and in strategy — a way to amplify traditional diplomatic efforts, develop tech-based policy solutions and encourage cyberactivism. Diplomacy may now include such open-ended efforts as the short-message-service (S.M.S.) social-networking program the State Department set up in Pakistan last fall. “A lot of the 21st-century dynamics are less about, Do you comport politically along traditional liberal-conservative ideological lines?” Ross says. “Today it is — at least in the spaces we engage in — Is it open or is it closed?”

Early this year, Ross and Cohen helped prop open the State Department’s doors by bringing 10 leading figures of the tech and social-media worlds to Washington for a private dinner with Clinton and her senior staff. Among the guests were Eric Schmidt, the chief executive of Google; Jack Dorsey, co-founder and chairman of Twitter; James Eberhard of Mobile Accord; Shervin Pishevar of the mobile-phone-game-development company SGN; Jason Liebman of Howcast; Tiffany Shlain, founder of the Webby Awards; and Andrew Rasiej of Personal Democracy Forum, an annual conference on the intersection of politics and technology. Toward the end of the evening, Clinton delighted those assembled by inviting them to use her “as an app.”

A few days later, they did. On Jan. 12, the Haiti earthquake struck, and within two hours, Eberhard, working with the State Department, set up the Text Haiti 90999 program, which raised more than $40 million for the Red Cross in $10 donations. Jan. 12 was significant for supporters of 21st-century statecraft for another reason. It was also the day Google announced that Chinese hackers tried to break into the Gmail accounts of dissidents. In response, Google said that it would no longer comply with China’s censorship laws and for a few months redirected Chinese users to its Hong Kong search engine. The dispute rose to a high-level diplomatic conflict, but it also gave added resonance to the 45-minute “Internet freedom” speech Secretary Clinton delivered a little more than a week later, in which she placed “the freedom to connect” squarely within the U.S. human rights and foreign policy agenda.

Within weeks, Ross and Cohen found themselves dining in San Francisco on the eve of a State-sponsored diplomatic mission to Silicon Valley.

“Dude, tomorrow is going to be awesome,” Ross said.

AT THE GOOGLEPLEX, in Mountain View, the next day, Ross and Cohen took the director chairs next to Schmidt, the C.E.O., for one of Google’s “fireside chats.” Dozens of Google employees were seated in the room, most with laptops open, while Schmidt quizzed the two in a slightly impish tone about their new methods (“Is it like calling up all the ambassadors and saying, Please use Facebook, Twitter and Google?”) and appreciatively referenced the Internet-freedom speech (“The Chinese are not so happy with me right now,” Ross said, “but they’re madder at you”).

Twitter Musings in Syria Elicit Groans in Washington (June 30, 2010)
At Google, and later at YouTube’s headquarters, Ross and Cohen stressed the political power of viral videos and the potential for mobile phones to become widespread public tools for education, banking and election monitoring (an idea borrowed from Sierra Leone and Montenegro, where volunteers used S.M.S. to report on voting irregularities). It is fair to say that Ross and Cohen are obsessed with mobile phones; they speak at length about telemedicine, tele-education and something called telejustice (the details of which they haven’t quite worked out yet). At an early-morning meeting in Palo Alto with mobile-banking experts, they looked for ways to expand a successful pilot program used to pay policemen via mobile phones in Afghanistan to another conflict zone in Congo. In both cases, as truckloads or planeloads of cash meant to pay policemen dwindled on their way from the capital cities to the provinces, so did the chances for lawful governance. Mobile banking is well established in places like Kenya, and cellphones are ubiquitous worldwide, even in poorly developed regions. Here was a way to use technology to address diplomacy, development and security concerns at once: direct payments to officers’ phones, which would be transferable to the phones of their distant families, could become a powerful tool for stability, even in Congo. Or at least that was the hope.

After the fireside chat, Schmidt sat in on a meeting with (the company’s nonprofit arm) in which Ross and Cohen described the difficulty U.S. embassies have in keeping track of services and resources in countries where the U.S. hopes to spur development — tracking, for example, nongovernmental organizations in Kenya.

“It would be fascinating to transform one of our embassies,” Cohen said, “and see if we can create a virtual aspect to make it a one-stop shop for everything that’s out there.”

“NGOs keep asking for a way to be able to understand, in a country like Kenya, who’s doing clean water, who’s doing education,” one Google employee said.

Several engineers chirped back and forth about the virtues of user-generated feedback and the challenges of multilayer mapping technology, until Schmidt cut them off. “We have a big operation in Kenya,” Schmidt said. “We have the smartest guy in the country working for us. Why can’t we just do this?”

This new marriage of Silicon Valley and the State Department can, at times, seem almost giddy in its tech evangelism. While it’s hard to argue with the merits of helping nongovernmental organizations communicate with one another, there’s a danger that close collaboration between the government and the tech world will be read as favoritism or quid pro quo. Anne-Marie Slaughter, director of the policy planning staff, acknowledged as much: “So Google sits here, and Microsoft and Twitter and Facebook, but for all those household names, there are others — and what are the guidelines to make sure that you’re being evenhanded, as government has to be? We’re just at the outset. Those are issues that are important but can be dealt with — we’re going to have to deal with them.”

AS MUCH AS Ross and Cohen extol the benefits of mobile banking and Silicon Valley partnerships, they admit that not every problem is best addressed with an app. Clinton, Ross assured me, “doesn’t believe you can sprinkle the Internet on something and everybody grows up to be healthy, wealthy and wise.” As the recent Wikileaks scandal suggests, new technologies may usher in as many diplomatic catastrophes as breakthroughs. (In June, a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst claimed to have given 260,000 diplomatic cables to Wikileaks, a Web site dedicated to publishing confidential material.) When I asked Cohen whether sites like Wikileaks made the kind of diplomacy he advocates harder, he allowed that they posed a challenge: “All of these tools can be utilized by individuals for everything from Wikileaks to other negative purposes” — at least as the State Department sees it — “but that technology isn’t going anywhere. So we can fear we can’t control it and ignore the space, or we can recognize we can’t control it, but we can influence it.”

A series of events last year helped Ross and Cohen’s work gain traction by showing that connection technologies have become inextricably entwined with the challenges of foreign policy. In April 2009, there was the so-called Twitter revolution in Moldova. In July 2009, there was China’s regional-information blockade, including a total shutdown of the Internet, following the Uighur uprisings (“full” Internet usage was restored to Xinjiang 10 months later). And then, of course, Iran, beginning in June 2009, when the organizing power of cellphones and social media — and their ability to capture and disseminate images like the death of a young Iranian woman, Neda Agha-Soltan — arrested the world’s attention. (On the visit to YouTube in February, Cohen described the Neda video as “the most significant viral video of our lifetimes” and told the site’s senior management that YouTube is in some ways “better than any intelligence we could get, because it’s generated by users in Iran.”)

Twitter Musings in Syria Elicit Groans in Washington (June 30, 2010)
Most of the news that reached the West from Iran came via YouTube and Twitter. In June of last year, three days into the postelection protests, a Twitter post by the opposition candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi alerted Cohen that Twitter was scheduled to go down for maintenance. Cohen sent an e-mail message to Dorsey, the site’s 33-year-old chairman, without running it up the chain of command. Dorsey went to work — “I was definitely raising my voice” trying to find a way for the service to stay up, Dorsey told me. The New York Times broke the story of Cohen’s e-mail message. A flurry of public speculation ensued as to whether keeping Twitter up contradicted the president’s stated policy of nonintervention in the Iranian election. The same debate was under way among the secretary’s senior staff.

“There’s no precedent for what it meant to keep a social-media network up in a postelection environment,” Ross told me later. “There’s no casework. There’s no legal statecraft precedent for such things.” Secretary Clinton’s decision not to condemn Cohen’s actions was an example of her willingness to “ride the wave,” Slaughter told me. “Things were happening very fast; the stakes were very high. We didn’t put out propaganda to try to influence what was going on there. We simply made it possible for people to continue communicating.

“We weren’t set up to think about what we would do in that situation,” Slaughter went on. “Now we would be.”

The State Department recently cut financing for some activist groups based outside Iran that promote democracy and began to focus on providing information technologies that would facilitate communication among dissidents in Iran. Restrictions imposed by U.S. sanctions were lifted to allow for the export of instant-messaging and antifiltering software. But it’s not clear how easy it will be for companies to enable Iranians to download applications while keeping government censors at bay; even if they can, not everyone agrees that Twitter’s revolutionary power has lived up to the hype.

Evgeny Morozov, an academic at Georgetown and perhaps the fiercest critic of this brand of diplomacy, published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in February, charging that the State Department has been all too willing to sweep the dangers of Twitter diplomacy under the rug. “Facebook and Twitter empower all groups — not just the pro-Western groups that we like,” he wrote, pointing out that the Iranian government was also active online: “Not only did it thwart Internet communications, the government (or its plentiful loyalists) also flooded Iranian Web sites with videos of dubious authenticity . . . that aimed to provoke and splinter the opposition.” (The Iranian government later used Facebook to track Iranian dissidents around the world.)

When I brought up the op-ed, Cohen dismissed Morozov’s complaint. “The problem with his thinking,” he said, “is it neglects the inevitability that this technology is going to spread — so he advocates a very dangerously cautious approach that says it’s dangerous and we shouldn’t play in that space. What the Evgeny Morozovs of the world don’t understand is that whether anybody likes it or not, the private sector is pumping out innovation like crazy.”

In other words, the U.S. gains nothing from shunning the social media everyone else uses. “The 21st century is a really terrible time to be a control freak,” Cohen said. “Which is a quote Alec and I often use when explaining this.”

Yet control — over the message, who delivers it, who originates it — is still a cherished tenet of foreign policy. Morozov no doubt voiced the concerns of many when he wrote: “Diplomacy is, perhaps, one element of the U.S. government that should not be subject to the demands of ‘open government’; whenever it works, it is usually because it is done behind closed doors. But this may be increasingly hard to achieve in the age of Twittering bureaucrats.” (The fracas over Ross’s and Cohen’s seemingly frivolous Twitter posts during a recent trip to Syria, a country some lawmakers feel the U.S. should not be speaking with at all, would seem to bear him out. )

07-28-2010, 07:11 AM
Our findings do not recommend replacing physical world activities with virtual ones, but rather supplementing the critical experiential element that is found so richly in exchange programs and sponsored professional visits. We can draw on the art, creativity, and interaction of individuals in the virtual world and take what they've learned into the physical world. Government has a key role to play in this, but only if it understands that communication paradigms have changed. We recommend expansion and empowerment of digital diplomacy efforts, and augmentation of exchange programs by adding a virtual component.