Daniel W. Drezner

The complexities of 21st century statecraft

Jesse Lichtenstein’s New York Times Magazine profile of the State Department’s Jared Cohen and Alec Ross does a fine job of discussing the pros and cons of government efforts to use Twitter, Facebook et al in order to promote U.S. interests.  FP’s Evgeny Morozov is quoted liberally as the voice of skepticism.  What I found ...

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Jesse Lichtenstein’s New York Times Magazine profile of the State Department’s Jared Cohen and Alec Ross does a fine job of discussing the pros and cons of government efforts to use Twitter, Facebook et al in order to promote U.S. interests.  FP’s Evgeny Morozov is quoted liberally as the voice of skepticism. 

What I found particularly interesting was the way that this kind of advocacy has turned Cohen and Ross into Internet celebrities: 

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….

One apparent paradox of 21st-century statecraft is that while new technologies have theoretically given a voice to the anonymous and formerly powerless (all you need is a camera phone to start a movement), they have also fashioned erstwhile faceless bureaucrats into public figures. Ross and Cohen have a kind of celebrity in their world — and celebrity in the Twitter age requires a surfeit of disclosure. Several senior members of the State Department with whom I spoke could not understand why anyone would want to read microdispatches from a trip to Twitter or, worse, from a State Department staff member’s child’s basketball game. But Secretary Clinton seemed neither troubled nor bewildered. “I think it’s to some extent pervasive now,” she told me in March. “It would be odd if the entire world were moving in that direction and the State Department were not.” Half of humanity is under 30, she reminded me. “Much of that world doesn’t really know as much as you might think about American values. One of the ways of breaking through is by having people who are doing the work of our government be human beings, be personalized, be relatable.”

I’m really not sure if network diplomacy will work, but these grafs highlight a looming problem even if it does work.  Web 2.0 users succeed when they generate idiosyncratic, personalized content.  Governments, on the other hand, are team operations, designed to harness different organizations into a common message.  Ross  and Cohen are clearly smart, talented people, but at some point they or someone like them in the government will commit an Octavia Nasr — and what then?   

Question to readers:  is it possible for foreign policymakers to be good at Web 2.0 and good at traditional bureaucratese? 

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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