Friday, July 16, 2010

Digital Diplomacy

On July 16, the New York Times published an article called “Digital Diplomacy.” As the title suggests, the article was about how the Obama administration was conducting its diplomacy in the age of the Internet. According to the Times, the Obama administration had created something called “21st-century statecraft.” Under this policy, the government was using “widely available technologies” to communicate with citizens, companies, and others.

Jared Cohen and Alec Ross, two members of the State Department, were the “public faces” of this policy. Their tweets were an “integral part” of the “effort to bring diplomacy into the digital age,” according to the Times.

According to Ross and Cohen, in 2009 the State Department was still fixated on communiqués, diplomatic cables, and intergovernmental negotiations.

“And then Hillary Clinton arrived,” said the New York Times.

“The secretary is the one who unleashed us,” said Ross. “She’s the godmother of 21st-century statecraft.”

Reading this article now, all I can say is that this was the most epic fail in the history of the universe.

According to the Times, 21st-century statecraft is not simply “swapping tweets for broadcasts.” It’s a “shift in form and in strategy.” It amplifies “traditional diplomatic efforts.” It’s a way to “encourage cyberactivism.” The Times never really explains what any of that means in the article. The newspaper does mention that the Internet played a role in the protests against FARC and the uprisings in Moldova, Xinjiang, and Iran. And the Times also hints that some governments believe the U.S. is using the Internet for its own purposes.

“The risk is if and when in a particular country — whether that’s China or Iran or Cuba or North Korea — there’s a perception that Twitter or Facebook is a tool of the U.S. government,” said Carlos Pascual, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico. “That becomes dangerous for the company, and it becomes dangerous for people who are using that tool. It doesn’t matter what the reality is. In those circumstances, I think it’s still better to allow the tool to exist. But there is some sort of a line there, and we have to respect that line.”

Presumably, those governments believe America was using the Internet to facilitate and encourage their citizens to overthrow them. In addition, based on my own experience, the government was using private citizens like me to release sensitive information online that other governments wanted to keep hidden. The distribution of this information could also lead to the dissolution of other governments. We were doing these things in an effort to force those governments to bend to our will. Presumably, that was what our government meant when they claimed that 21st century statecraft “amplified traditional diplomatic efforts” and “encouraged cyberactivism.”

Some people, such as Evgeny Morozov, did not like the Internet nor 21st-century statecraft. He argued that the old way of doing things was better. But according to Cohen, at the end of the day, the world had already changed. The technology was already out there.

“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,” said Cohen.

“The loss of control you fear is already in the past,” and Clay Shirky, a professor at New York University. “You do not actually control the message, and if you believe you control the message, it merely means you no longer understand what’s going on.”

“The 21st century is a really terrible time to be a control freak,” said Cohen.

Talk about irony. My government has been busy trying to control what I write. But Cohen is right about how wrong it is to be a control freak. By trying to control what I write my government has broken the law and made criminals out of an amazingly large number of people. They will not get away with it.

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