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The Problem With 'Digital Diplomacy'


"Foreign Policy" blogger Evgeny Morozov took on Austin Heap and Haystack last week, this week he's onto "21st statecraft," the concept of utilizing information technologies for U.S. development and diplomatic aims.

Here's Morozov:

Hence a question that has been bugging me for months now: What exactly is so 21st century about "21st century statecraft"?

Am I being unfair to the State Department in drawing such parallels and asking such questions? Well, here are the facts. Silicon Valley CEOs do join American diplomats to exotic locals like Siberia, Syria, and Iraq -- such practices have now been codified as "tech delegations" -- and no one is hiding the fact that Washington experts to profit from Silicon Valley's Internet brands and services. Likewise, the very same CEOs and other technology industry insiders are invited to private dinners with the Secretary of State.

He's making the point that if the cosy ties between State and Silicon Valley were in any other industry, they would attract much more attention:

A pertinent question to ask is this: Isn't the U.S. government showing too much admiration for these two high-profile tech companies with questionable ethics without subjecting them to the level of criticism they truly deserve? Never mind the privacy battles: Unlike Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, both Facebook and Twitter have refused to join the Global Network Initiative -- just how uncool is that?

Morozov's argument is that actually technology is political and I think he makes a convincing case. The main reasons, I think, that those relationships don't receive so much scrutiny is that:

1) Digital diplomacy is still relatively new and diplomats and companies are still feeling their way, finding out what works and what doesn't. Those relationships are still evolving and are likely to receive more scrutiny in the future.

2) In the media, the notions of Internet freedom and digital diplomacy are still seen as essentially benign. In the popular imagination, when people think of Halliburton they might think of shady backroom deals in war-torn African countries; when they think of Twitter they think of people in California wearing cargo pants and buzzing around the office on scooters. No evil here, peeps.

Where Morozov loses me a bit though is here:

I've got a different argument to make: the problems that plagued the U.S. foreign policy in previous decades would not only be perpetuated, they would actually be aggravated in cyberspace.

Similarly, one reason to be suspicious of "Internet freedom" as a priority for U.S. foreign policy is that the end result of pursuing it may have an extremely corrosive effect on the rest of foreign policy making; Twitter won't make any of those pesky non-digital issues simply go away.

He keeps flicking this idea that cyberspace and digital diplomacy could all end in tears but doesn't really elaborate (I guess there will be more in his upcoming book.)

But more generally I don't think that anyone -- especially not Jared Cohen (he's now gone to Google) and Alec Ross, the two men profiled recently by "The New York Times" and most identified with "21st century statecraft" -- would argue that Twitter is going to make the world's problems go away. (Although maybe Kathleen Parker would.) Rather, social networking is just another weapon in the armory of diplomacy.

With 21st century statecraft, Cohen and Ross have put meat on the bones of an idea, argued in the January/February edition of "Foreign Affairs" by Anne-Marie Slaughter, that in the 21st century power derives from connectivity and strong networks, whether that's in business innovation, U.S. aid giving, or cultural outreach.

While the jury is still out on how much new technologies can help in the spread of democracy, Cohen and Ross are right on the money about many things: for instance the central role of mobile phones for civic engagement, aid giving, crime prevention etc.

And even though there's undoubtedly a lot of oversell in the very term "21st century statecraft," Hillary Clinton got it right when she was quoted in the "Times" piece as saying, "it would be odd if the entire world was moving in that direction and the State Department were not." There are plenty of powerful uses of technology that the United States can harness to advance its foreign policy: freeing up tech companies to trade in Iran, providing satellite technology to give closed societies open Internet access, just to name two.

The main problem I have with "21st century statecraft" is precisely in the oversell (the Janus face of good PR). It just sounds a bit grandiose and overloaded with promise. By elevating the technology to something almost messianic, the technology becomes the solution in itself rather than being just a tool. That's mostly, for me at least, a problem in presentation rather than substance.

Sam duPont, writing on Global Mobile, says that "getting hung up on a few bad labels doesn't get us anywhere."

That is, his main issue seems to be that "Internet Freedom" and "21st Century Statecraft" are just bad labels. Which they are, I'd say. The phrase "internet freedom" has been widely hijacked to mean everything from Twitter-fuelled regime change to net neutrality; a more apt definition for the State Department's stated ambitions would be "freedom of expression on the internet." Bad name? Yeah, probably. Utopian agenda that will overwhelm all other forms of diplomacy? Nuh uh.

Writing in "Foreign Affairs" on July 28, Emmanuel Yujuico and Betsy Gelb cast a skeptical eye over the concept of digital diplomacy, although their conclusion is nuanced and essentially supportive:

Washington also needs to adopt a more incremental strategy for its digital diplomacy. The organizational theorist Karl Weick highlights the virtue of seeking "small wins," since broad social challenges are better understood as a series of narrower, more tractable ones. Small, well-considered gestures, Weick suggests, trump the grandiose ones, which tend to over-promise but under-deliver -- a reasonable characterization of the ambitious strategy outlined by Clinton.

I think that makes sense. Big new concepts are great for making a splash, but they always run the risk of overpromising and then underdelivering.

UPDATE: Morozov contacted me on Twitter to say that when he was talking about the problems plaguing U.S. foreign policy, he wasn’t referring to external problems, but rather internal problems like the privatization of diplomacy. Which makes more sense.