Hillary's whiz kids
Techs use web, social media, to make U.S. diplomacy nimble
By Jonathan Gurwitz
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made quite a splash on the Internet in recent weeks, with the fictional and comical “Texts from Hillary” going viral followed by the secretary playing off the meme in real life. A Washington Post blogger declared Clinton “the Internet’s new queen of cool.”
If so, then she’s earned the crown by surrounding herself with a group of whiz kids who would be as at home in Silicon Valley as they are at Foggy Bottom. And beyond burnishing Clinton’s digital image, they are revolutionizing the conduct of U.S. diplomacy.
The group has no office or bureau. Its leader is Alec Ross, a technology guru for the Obama ’08 campaign who carries the title of senior advisor for innovation, a position Clinton created that reports directly to her. A member of his team is Ben Scott (right), a soft-spoken native of Canyon, Texas, who holds a doctorate in communications and led the nation’s largest non-profit advocacy group for media reform before going to State.
The innovation team is using technology in support of an agenda Clinton calls “21st Century Statecraft.” When Clinton arrived at the State Department in 2009, Scott recently told members of the Association of Opinion Journalists, she asked her staff two questions: “How is the Internet changing … international relations and the conduct of foreign policy? And … more importantly, what are we doing about it?”
Scott says that the emergence of the Internet is indeed producing a global transformation. In a piece he and Ross wrote for the March 2011 edition of NATO Review, they described “a triple paradigm shift converging on a single network.”
First, mass media have evolved from print to broadcast and now to worldwide digital platforms. Second, personal communication has progressed from mail to telephones and now to digital packets that cross borders instantly. Third, the conduct of commerce is moving from seaways, highways and skyways to digital domains.
This revolutionary convergence on the Internet is shifting power away from central governments and large institutions toward smaller institutions, individuals and networks of individuals. Scott and Ross tell U.S. and foreign diplomats that governments have lost control of the information system, and won’t be getting it back.
The U.S. goal is not to try to put the genie back in the bottle.
“Our job is to try to maximize the opportunities that come with an open communications system and minimize the vulnerabilities,” Scott says. “Our job is to increase the speed at which we adapt to the changes around us.”
That means diplomacy can no longer be conducted only at the government-to-government level. It must also be conducted at the government-to-people, people-to-government and people-to-people levels.
Much of the Clinton innovation team’s efforts involve working with friendly foreign governments to develop best practices for Internet freedom and training individuals to use open information systems for their political and economic benefit. Some of it involves providing dissidents and opposition movements with the tools to evade the censorship and eavesdropping of hostile governments. And some of it simply involves listening to what people in other nations are saying.
Clinton may or may not be the Internet queen of cool. But irrespective of what you think of her or the policies of the president she represents, she is transforming the way a 60,000-person bureaucracy conducts diplomacy. (At one point, Scott compared steering State to turning a huge aircraft carrier.)
“Foreign policy does not exist separately from technology any longer,” Scott says. “It used to be we had a number of people at the State Department who were trained in technology, but they were the guys who set up the computer systems and phone networks in our embassies. They weren’t there to shape our foreign policy, but they are now.”
Jonathan Gurwitz is a columnist associated with the editorial board of the San Antonio Express-News, a long-time AOJ member, and the organizer for the annual NCEW-AOJ State Department briefings.
This article is adapted from his April 29 column, which is online at:
Other material on this page (c) 2012 Association of Opinion Journalists
posted 4/30/2012 1:30 p.m. CDT; updated links 10:47 p.m. CDT
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