State Department Innovator Goes to Google

Jared Cohen, a high-profile advocate of the State Department's forays into "21st-century statecraft," is leaving Foggy Bottom for New York. In an exclusive interview with FP, he talks about his time at State and his new project: building a "think/do tank" called Google Ideas.

Photo courtesy of Jared Cohen
Photo courtesy of Jared Cohen

On Thursday Sept. 2, Jared Cohen walked out of the Truman Building with his luggage for a final time, after four years on the State Department’s Policy Planning staff, serving under both the Bush and Obama administrations. During his time in government, Cohen, who will be 29 in November, attracted much attention — both praise and controversy — for his unconventional thinking about statecraft: for calling on his friend Jack Dorsey to keep Twitter from going through with a scheduled maintenance shutdown during the heady days of the Iranian election last summer; for leading delegations of technology executives, including Google’s Eric Schmidt, to troubleshoot problems in Iraq; and for tweeting his observations, with a touch some critics found too lighthearted, to his 300,000-plus digital followers.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, director of Policy Planning for the last year and a half, says his exuberance will be missed: "Jared’s time with the Policy Planning staff was a period in which we moved from not only writing memos proposing new ideas, but also finding ways to put those ideas into practice as an initial proof of concept. We are known as the Secretary of State’s think tank, but we have become a think/do tank."

In mid-October, Cohen will begin his new job as director of Google Ideas, a new division of the search giant that he is helping to launch. He will also be, as of Tuesday Sept. 7, an adjunct fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, focusing on counter-radicalization, innovation, technology, and statecraft. Cohen is the author of two books, Children of Jihad and One Hundred Days of Silence, and despite his interest in all things new media, is also the owner of an extensive collection of rare books, presidential autographs, and 19th-century campaign memorabilia.

Cohen chatted with FP about his new gig at Google, what he’s learned at State, where his interest in the intersection of technology and foreign policy began, and what he thinks his critics get wrong. Excerpts:

Foreign Policy: While you were a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, you made your first trip to Iran for a research project. I understand that project didn’t work out as planned, but the time you spent in Iran, which you later wrote about in the book Children of Jihad, spurred your inquiry into unexpected uses of technology. Tell us about that.

Jared Cohen: What I had wanted to focus on was interviewing opposition leaders, government officials, and reformers. I did interview the Iranian vice president and some opposition leaders. But the Revolutionary Guards came into my room in the middle of the night and found a list of people I wanted to interview. That made my original plan impossible, but ended up being one of the most important things to happen because in the absence of my original research being viable, I ended up just wandering the country looking for friends to hang out with.

It became very clear to me that I had gone to Iran wanting to study the wrong opposition. I became obsessed with this idea that the real opposition in Iran is the 67 percent that’s under the age of 30, and all I wanted to do was meet as many of them as possible. Even the ones that are part of that counternarrative like the basijis and the pro-regime ones.

Where it became about technology was I had this experience: I was in Shiraz, in the south, at one of these very busy intersections and all these kids — there was five or six different alleyways all meeting, it was a very, very busy part — and it was filled with kids perched against the sides of shops all looking at their cell phones. And I asked one: "What are you doing?"

And he said "Oh, this is where we use Bluetooth." He was trying to explain, "This is how I’m figuring out what I’m doing tonight." Another person was trying to recruit a bassist for their band; only one or two doing something that could be loosely interpreted as doing something politically relevant. It was mostly social and recreational. I asked one [youth]: "Aren’t you worried? You’re doing this right in the open; aren’t you worried you’re going to get caught?" He looked at me and said, "Oh, nobody over 30 knows what Bluetooth is."

The conclusion I came to there is there’s two gaps: There’s a generation gap between young people who are socialized and brought up with these technologies and an older generation that’s coming a bit late to them (and that questions them before they embrace them); there are downsides to both. And there’s an innovation gap between companies that innovate for luxury environments — i.e., free and open societies — and repressed populations which use things innovatively.

FP: Let’s talk about your time at the State Department. Could you pick one of the technology delegations you led and just narrate it? We hear a lot about "technology delegations," but don’t really know what that phrase means.

JC: I might as well start with the first one. The first technology delegation [the State Department] did was in April of 2009 to Iraq: It was me and nine techies from the private sector, including representatives from Google and YouTube.

We met with senior government officials in and around Baghdad. Then we met with American troops, NGOs, private-sector companies, like cell-phone carriers. We met with professors and academics and academic administrators. We met with tons of students. I led the delegation, and it was staffed by people at the embassy; I was the only person from Washington.

I had a very good relationship with the public affairs counselor there, Adam Ereli, who is a really, really smart "push the envelope" kind of guy, who had pitched an idea to me to get some professors out [to Iraq]. Now, we [at the State Department] often lead delegations of academics and NGOs to countries around the world, but we hadn’t led delegations of people with expertise on tools. So, I thought: Why don’t we take a delegation of technology executives to Iraq?

The hypothesis was very simple: If you connect people that have expertise on tools with people that have expertise on Iraq, something innovative may happen. I just had an intuition this could lead to something interesting. It just sounded right, and the embassy thought it sounded right. The idea was: "Let’s see if this can result in concrete deliverables that can provide new solutions to old challenges."

FP: Can you talk about some concrete outcomes? Do you think the trip succeeded?

JC: A lot of deliverables that came out of that trip: We created a program called the U.S.-Iraq internship program, for example. We figured that instead of just bringing Iraqi students on exchanges to the United States to study at high schools and universities, let’s create internships for them at technology and other start-ups to immerse them in the entrepreneurial "garage culture." So now we’re bringing young Iraqi engineers to the U.S. to work for Twitter, Howcast, AT&T, etc. After they go back to Iraq, based on the connections they built in the U.S. and based on what they’ve learned in the U.S., they’re now building their own networks — what they believe will be t
heir version of Silicon Valley for Iraq. They’re the pioneers of entrepreneurship in a post-Saddam Iraq.

Also, the Museum Project was really cool. Iraq has this amazing national museum, and it’s an incredible source of pride. Sixty to 70 percent of the museum artifacts that were stolen in recent years have been returned, but the museum exists in a part of Iraq that is sufficiently turbulent that it is not open to the public. We figured that if people can’t go there, let’s create a virtual presence for it. So we partnered with about 10 different companies. Google, for instance, sent engineers out and digitized the entire museum with street-view technology, literally rolling trolleys around the museum, taking images of things, and built this whole virtual platform. We had a company called Blue State Digital, which did the Obama campaign’s tech stuff, build it out, and Howcast, an online video company, created accompanying "how-to" videos — like how to tell if your Iraqi antiquity is stolen and what to do about it.

These things aren’t going to change the face of Iraq, but what I was trying to do was show how these technology delegations can lead to deliverables that are funded and driven in part by the private sector. While small in this early piloted stage, maybe this can actually be a methodology that can be scaled up at a later date.

FP: Talk about the evolution of thinking behind State Department initiatives now identified as "21st-century statecraft."

JC: The core of it, to me, is bringing together nontraditional partners to do multistakeholder initiatives. The State Department’s Policy Planning staff, which is where I’ve worked for four years, is typically thought of as the secretary of state’s personal think tank. Our job is to generate ideas, think out of the box, think long term, and we have the most valuable resource of all, which is the resource of time. We are the only entity, really, in the State Department, maybe the U.S. government, that has the mandate to sit around and think big thoughts and think ahead and put pieces together.

In the four years that I’ve been in policy planning, I’ve worked for three excellent directors: Steve Krasner, David Gordon, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, who have all transformed it more into a think/do-tank. I look at the Policy Planning staff now as the secretary of state’s personal think tank, but also the secretary of state’s personal start-up. I often say Policy Planning is very analogous to a venture capital firm. A venture capital firm sees an interesting idea and puts money behind it; in Policy Planning, we look for promising ideas and then put contacts and relationships behind it.

The U.S. government is uniquely positioned to be the world’s greatest matchmaker, and I don’t mean that as a jargony statement. With all of our embassies and consulates around the world, the fact that people will take our phone calls and the fact that we have a really good bird’s-eye view into how different stakeholders can help address different challenges [means] we can play matchmaker well. That’s why when you hear people within State now saying something like "statecraft is as much about building connections as it is doing negotiations," it’s actually something that has meaning.

Of course, we still do negotiations; we still do representation; we still do government-to-government exchanges. But it’s about using new tools and working with new kinds of stakeholders. The technology delegations are a great example.

FP: So it’s more about bringing together different problem-solvers than about technology per se?

JC: So here’s what frustrates me. There are two common misperceptions about the technology aspect of 21st-century statecraft. The first is that the technology side of 21st-century statecraft is just about State Department officials using Twitter and blogging more — in other words, that embracing technology is just about more effectively and innovatively communicating and advocating our policy. I think technology is a valuable tool for that, but to me that’s public diplomacy 2.0.

When I think about 21st century statecraft, I think about technology being used as a tool to empower citizens, to promote greater accountability and transparency, to do capacity building. At its core, what technology does is it connects people to information, which is new media; it connects people to each other, which is social media; and then there’s a far more exciting path that we’re going down now, which is that technology is a tool to connect people to actual resources — like mobile banking or mobile money transfers or telemedicine.

My second frustration is that I embrace technology, but not without an understanding of what the challenges are. My own thinking has evolved over the years. I think when I wrote Children of Jihad, I wrote it with a very optimistic view of what technology can do; today I maintain that optimistic view, but I’m also aware of the challenges we have. So I would say I’m not a techno-utopian, but I’m a techno-pragmatist. I get the downsides of technology; in fact, I’m very concerned about the downsides of technology.

FP: Do you worry that efforts encouraging, or enabling, people to use social media in a place like Iran may be inviting them — especially dissenters and human rights activists — to put themselves at greater risk, with more personal information online? In a worst-case scenario, do you worry about enabling the surveillance operations of a police state?

JC: Technology is a tool, and it’s a platform. Nobody gets arrested for being a blogger; people get arrested for dissent. Nobody gets arrested for putting information about themselves online; they get arrested for being an activist. I’m a strong believer in the fact that you should not blame the tools; you should blame the circumstances.

FP: Going forward, tell us about your future work at Google.

JC: I am going to be director of a new division at Google called Google Ideas. And it’s basically a think/do tank. Much of the model for it is built off of my experiences on the Policy Planning staff. It’s not designed to be, "Let’s pool all of Google’s resources and tackle global challenges."

In the same way Policy Planning works by bringing together a lot of stakeholders in government, out of government, and across different sectors, so, too, will Google Ideas do something very similar. And the range of challenges that it may focus on include everything from the sort of hard challenges like counterterrorism, counterradicalization, and nonproliferation, to some of the ones people might expect it to focus on, like development and citizen empowerment.

What I’m interested in is the SWAT-team model of building teams of stakeholders with different resources and perspectives to troubleshoot challenges. So the reason I say it’s a think/do tank is you need a comprehensive approach to think about and tackle challenges in different kinds of ways. In government, we used to refer to a "whole of government" approach, meaning work with multiple agencies to leverage ideas and resources; Google Ideas will take a "whole of society" approach.

FP: What can you do at Google that wasn’t possible at the State Department?

JC: There are things the private sector can do that the U.S. government can’t do. The big thing is the resources and the capabilities. There are not a couple hundred [computer] engineers in the State Department that can build things; that’s just not what government does. You don’t necessarily have some of the financial resources to put behind these things. It
‘s really hard to bring talented young people in; there are not a lot mechanisms to do it. On some topics, it’s very sensitive for government to be the one doing this.

Christina Larson is an award-winning foreign correspondent and science journalist based in Beijing, and a former Foreign Policy editor. She has reported from nearly a dozen countries in Asia. Her features have appeared in the New York Times, Wired, Science, Scientific American, the Atlantic, and other publications. In 2016, she won the Overseas Press Club of America’s Morton Frank Award for international magazine writing. Twitter: @larsonchristina