Argument

Digital Diplomacy

Digital Diplomacy

This summer, techies across Africa are racing to develop mobile-phone "apps" that make their users’ everyday lives just a little bit better. The best among them will be chosen as the winners of the "Apps <4> Africa" contest, sponsored by the U.S. State Department and three local technology communities: the Nairobi-based iHub, Kampala-based Appfrica Labs, and the Social Development Network, which works throughout East Africa. Judged on such criteria as their "usefulness to the citizens, civil society organization or government of East Africa," the winner will receive "a small bit of fame and fortune" and the tools to keep honing his or her craft. What the United States hopes to get out of the project is a little bit of grassroots, bottom-up development driven by nothing more than African ingenuity and the continent’s mobile-phone network.

This is "21st Century Statecraft," a new diplomatic initiative that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has fully embraced over the past year. Forget the grandiose name; the idea behind it is actually a modest, practical one: In today’s interconnected world, individuals and organizations — not just countries — can play a defining role in international affairs, and the State Department needs to capitalize on this new landscape. Ultimately, Foggy Bottom plans to infuse its mission with an understanding of how the global communications network ties the world together; for now, the initiative consists of a series of smaller projects designed to use the Internet, mobile phones, and social media to promote U.S. foreign-policy goals.

Just months into the new strategy, there are already many skeptics of tech-based statecraft. Last week, Emmanuel Yujuico and Betsy Gelb argued in Foreign Affairs that this new strategy — which they equate with previous U.S. efforts at "social engineering" — will fail to change societies and governments. The authors compare Washington’s efforts to a screwball attempt by automotive entrepreneur Henry Ford to construct an idyllic Midwestern-like town in the heart of the Amazon rainforest to supply him with rubber. The idea that "U.S.-directed methods can spur development in other nations" is, they argue, flawed from the outset — with or without new technology.

Thankfully, however, the State Department’s recent work bears little resemblance to the sort of social engineering that Yujuico and Gelb describe. In fact, it is if anything more pragmatic and humble than much of the statecraft that the United States has practiced over the years.

The new strategy is essentially a recognition of the networked world we live in. The global network of information and communication technology now connects more than half of all people on Earth, mostly through mobile phones. More than 4.5 billion people currently own a mobile phone, and within the next decade, that number will reach 90 percent of the global population. So when Clinton speaks of "a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas," she is not describing some messianic attempt to impose American technological solutions on the rest of the world. She is talking about the world as it soon will be — and in many ways already is.

Although its methods are different, the initiative’s goals and ambitions are the same as those sought by the United States for decades. Connective technologies are simply the latest tools available to address diplomatic problems. Take the example of Haiti, where the State Department helped build a system for earthquake victims to seek aid via text message. The SMS messages were then translated from Creole to English and forwarded to relief workers in a matter of minutes. The State Department sponsored the creation of a mobile-based social network in Pakistan that boasts some 450,000 users and runs entirely over SMS, since most Pakistanis don’t have smartphones. In Mexico, Washington is working with the Mexican government, a Mexican telecom firm, and Mexican NGOs to create an SMS system through which citizens can report crimes anonymously and thereby avoid retaliation by the country’s increasingly fearsome drug gangs.

The hope in all of this is that the U.S. State Department can be a cut above other governments in becoming a technologically adept diplomatic machine. Think of it as the polar opposite of what the United Arab Emirates have done this week in vowing to shut down web browsing, email and instant messaging on Blackberry devices. Technology, Foggy Bottom realizes, can cause major headaches for authoritarian regimes. But it also opens possibilities for people everywhere. And those opportunities are precisely the point.