Net Effect

The 20th century roots of 21st century statecraft

Let’s imagine a parallel universe for a second. In that universe, the U.S. State Department decides that energy — rather than the Internet — would form one of the core pillars of “21st century statecraft.” To that end, the secretary of state would give a speech about some highly abstract and ambiguous concept like “environmental ...


Let’s imagine a parallel universe for a second. In that universe, the U.S. State Department decides that energy — rather than the Internet — would form one of the core pillars of “21st century statecraft.”

To that end, the secretary of state would give a speech about some highly abstract and ambiguous concept like “environmental freedom” that would strike the right chord with the media — if only because it promises a greener future for all of us!

Since energy-inspired “21st century statecraft” would be difficult to practice without courting the private sector — the likes of Haliburton, Exxon Mobile, and Chevron — their executives would be taken on regular tours of exotic places and invited to private dinners with the secretary of state.

People spearheading this kind of energy-inspired “21st century statecraft” would have a very friendly relationship with the corporate world, occasionally leaving government service to work for the giant energy corporations. 

To add legitimacy to concepts like “environmental freedom,” the U.S. State Department would commission a bunch of supposedly apolitical academic studies at some Ivy League university, recruiting its leading technologists to make it seem that this entire initiative is all about energy efficiency — and not at all about regime change.

Furthermore, as the business goals of the energy sector and the political needs of the American diplomats became intertwined, it would become extremely challenging to make sense of either on its own terms and identify how they influence each other.  

… Call me contrarian if you wish — but I think this is the kind of a universe where U.S. foreign policy has operated for the last 50 years or so, most recently during the Bush administration. Back in the Bush days, there were even a couple of bills and speeches about “energy independence” — not as catchy as “Internet freedom,” of course, but suffused with the same high-pitch rhetoric.

Save for a few people in Dick Cheney’s office, I’m yet to see anyone who thinks that the kind of private-public partnerships all of this yielded had a benign effect on U.S. foreign policy. I mentioned the Energy Task Force in one of my previous blog posts and I’ll mention it again: maybe, it wasn’t such a great idea after all.

Hence a question that has been bugging me for months now: What exactly is so 21st century about “21st century statecraft”?

Am I being unfair to the State Department in drawing such parallels and asking such questions? Well, here are the facts. Silicon Valley CEOs do join American diplomats to exotic locals like Siberia, Syria and Iraq — such practices have now been codified as “tech delegations” — and no one is hiding the fact that Washington expects to profit from Silicon Valley’s Internet brands and services. Likewise, the very same CEOs and other technology industry insiders are invited to private dinners with the Secretary of State.

Despite all the transparency rhetoric of the Obama administration, we don’t have much detail about the kind of academic studies that the U.S. State Department is funding at the Ivy League and elsewhere — but I hope the folks at the Berkman Center can fill us in here at least on their share of the pie (see, for example, this post by Ethan Zuckerman, where he acknowledges that the State Department funds some of his Berkman work).

The Berkman Center, of course, was receiving State Department money during the Bush era as well, so nothing new here (full disclosure: I sit on the board of OSI’s Information Program, which also funds Berkman). To make the connection even more explicit, David Weinberger, a senior researcher/fellow at the Berkman Center, is now also a Franklin fellow at the State Department.

Most disturbingly, more and more leading practitioners of “21st century statecraft” at the State Department are jumping ship and leaving to work for the very CEOs they have just been escorting around the globe. See Katie Stanton‘s departure to work for Twitter and Jared Cohen‘s announced departure to work for Google — the two career moves that, in my opinion, did not get the level of public attention that they truly deserve. (In all fairness, Stanton came to the government from Google — but I think this only strengthens the overall argument about the mostly invisible revolving door between Silicon Valley and Washington).

And, of course, there is no shortage of acts and blurbs by American diplomats that take a completely uncritical attitude towards Silicon Valley. Jared Cohen once again is a case in point: from his decision to reach out to Twitter during the Iranian protests to his statements (“Facebook is one of the most organic tools for democracy promotion the world has ever seen” — quoted in David Kirkpatrick’s The Facebook Effect), much of what he does and says fits the pattern that seasoned observers of U.S. foreign policy would easily recognize.

Good or bad — I’ll save final judgment until my book is out — this is a pattern that predates 21st century. A pertinent question to ask is this: Isn’t the U.S. government showing too much admiration for these two high-profile tech companies with questionable ethics without subjecting them to the level of criticism they truly deserve? Never mind the privacy battles: Unlike Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, both Facebook and Twitter have refused to join the Global Network Initiative — just how uncool is that?

Maybe — and I’m just thinking out loud here — the State Department
should not waste their chef’s time on cooking meals to Twitter’s executives until those do sign up to GNI? Because otherwise it does look like the U.S. government is happy to ignore those companies’ human rights record — as long as they are instrumental to achieving the government’s own policy objectives. That’s very 21st century, indeed. 

And for the muckrakers out there: why don’t you go investigate how it is that Jared Cohen and Alec Ross each accumulated hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter? Is it, in part, because they were on one of Twitter’s “Suggested User Lists” before those got scrapped? My sources in the U.S. government tell me so, and I have no reason to doubt such claims, especially given that the ratio of retweets (Cohen, Ross) per number of followers and the ratio of lists (Cohen, Ross) they are on per number of followers look surprisingly low compared with similarly popular users who reached the same number of followers organically. No crime has been committed here — but if Haliburton had a TV channel and David Addington got his own weekly TV show there while in office, this would have seemed somewhat, well, weird.*

Now, I am not writing this to join the Noam Chomsky branch of critics who see structural problems of U.S. foreign policy everywhere they look. I’ve got a different argument to make: the problems that plagued the U.S. foreign policy in previous decades would not only be perpetuated, they would actually be aggravated in cyberspace. Why so? Because few people treat the Internet as political and subject it to the level of scrutiny that any policy initiatives connected to, say, energy or nuclear weapons would deserve.

Somehow I feel that Heidegger’s quip that “the essence of technology is by no means anything technological” is not particularly popular (or even well-known) in Washington (still, here is a guide to the perplexed; I can only hope that David Weinberger who once was  a Heidegger scholar would take the time to spread some Heidegger love around town). This is too bad, because Heidegger was actually right for a change: given all the myths and misunderstandings surrounding modern technology, anyone dealing with it often misses its highly political nature.

I am pretty sure that if energy had been made into the key component of “21st century statecraft” and two of its leading proponents in the State Department left office to go work for Exxon and Halliburton, this would have triggered a minor outcry — or at least a few moans — from a) the energy blogosphere, and b) the foreign policy blogosphere.

However, I am yet to see such moans triggered by the departures of Stanton and Cohen. The technology blogosphere seems to have completely ignored the political dimension to all this — which was easy to do given all of this summer’s problems with iPhone’s antennas.

Likewise, the foreign policy folks, busy as they are reading the latest Rolling Stone and half-convinced that technology is apolitical anyway, simply have no time or energy to subject the “Internet freedom industry” to the kind of scrutiny it deserves.

Worst of all, I fear that the people who are in a good position to make such criticisms on both fronts — the folks at the Berkman Center, for example, often excel at both technology and international issues — are too tied to the State Department to make as much noise as they should be making.

Once again, nothing new here. We have all seen that movie before. What I object to is sticking a “21st century” label on it. So far, this label has proved a major distraction, for it has made the deep-rooted problems of American foreign policy harder to identify and address.

Similarly, one reason to be suspicious of “Internet freedom” as a priority for U.S. foreign policy is that the end result of pursuing it may have an extremely corrosive effect on the rest of foreign policy making; Twitter won’t make any of those pesky non-digital issues simply go away.

Nothing in what the U.S. State Department has done so far convinces me that they have much awareness — let alone a roadmap (and those they usually have in abundance!) — for dealing with the spillover effects that the promotion of either “Internet freedom” or “21st century statecraft” will have on the rest of foreign policy making.

The technologists, oblivious to the highly pernicious externalities of their own good intentions, can always claim the ignorance privilege: they are simply trying to make the world a better place! They don’t know anything about foreign policy! Don’t hold them accountable! Fine — even though this is dubious ethics-wise. (Confused about how your actions will aggravate the problems of U.S. foreign policy? Go read a book.) But diplomats — these guys are paid to think in terms of externalities… They can’t simply afford to embark on some utopian agenda without first thinking how it might affect what it is that they do all day.

The reality is that the Internet is driven by dynamics that are far more explosive and unpredictable than even oil. Plenty of people around the world may hate Exxon for the kind of U.S. foreign policy that its business needs may demand — but no one exactly accuses Exxon of allowing its oil wells or gas stations to be used as secret meeting venues for the new breed of revolutionaries. No one thinks “anti-government materials” or “censorship circumvention” when they hear “petrol.”

This is definitely not the case with Facebook, Twitter, and Google — which many governments do perceive to be political by the sheer virtue of providing a service that can be used to organize, mobilize, and distribute information. If technology gurus believe their own theories that we are now living in the Information Age, there is absolutely no escaping the fact that information also becomes the most politicized of global commodities.

Building a foreign policy around information may all be fine and even inevitable — but one should start by fully acknowledging its political dimension. (I won’t go into politics of information here — but you may want to check my earlier blog post about the motivation behind Iran’s search engine).

Once you peel away the rhetoric of “21st century statecraft” and “Internet freedom,” this becomes all too obvious; the problem is that such rhetoric is extremely hard to peel away — if only because “freedom of expression” generates far more positive emotions than say, “energy efficiency.” And who would be silly enough to argue against “freedom of expression”?

What we are left with, as a result, is a counterproductive debate about censorship (and that debate itself has been taken over by lobbyists touting their own censorship-circumvention tools) rather than a much more important and far-reaching global debate about the future of foreign policy in the digital era.

* Since such accusations are inevitable, let me address them head-on: no, I’m not trying to establish moral equivalence between Haliburton and Twitter. That said, I do think that we are careening towards a world where such equivalence would be easy to establish. Exxon simply wants to make money on oil — and people happen to die in wars as a result; Facebook simply wants to make money
on exploiting user data — and dissidents simply get outed as a result. See? It wasn’t so hard. In part, because the government wasn’t watching…

p.s. FP’s anti-spam system seems to catch all links posted in the comments. The two links provided by John Palfrey to Berkman’s funding and their State Dept’s project are here and here

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