Heartiest congrats to Nicco & family on their new baby 🙂

While Nicco was attending to his paternal duties, we had the opportunity to hear from Alec Ross, Senior Adviser for Innovation at the State Department.

Wikipedia describes Ross as Secretary Clinton’s tech guru who is “leading the State Department’s efforts to find practical technology solutions for some of the globe’s most vexing problems on health care, poverty, human rights and ethnic conflict.”  (That, admittedly, is a fuzzy job description, but this NYT article by Jesse Lichtenstein titled Digital Diplomacy sheds a lot more  light on what Ross does).

Ross shared a cogent description of the world as he saw it.  Changing demographics – viz. the youth bulge and growing Diaspora – and the end of the Cold War signaled the need to shift from closed – economies, societies and governments – to open ones.  He shared some examples of his work with State (many already mentioned in Lichtenstein’s article) as well as an interesting anecdote  also how a app-development contest in Africa revealed needs that State department officials would never come up with on their own.  (The winner was an application that enabled farmers to track menstruation cycles of their cows for breeding purposes).

But what is digital diplomacy, really?  Diplomacy is defined as the conduct by government officials of negotiations and other relations between nations.  Is digital diplomacy just the same thing but using Nintendo Wii instead of golf clubs?

Apparently not.  Examples of what Secretary Clinton calls “21st century statecraft” include: the State Department’s role in helping to raise more than $40 million for the Red Cross via a text messaging drive in the wake of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and Secretary Clinton’s Jan 2010 speech on Internet Freedom following Google’s brouhaha in China.

Most notable, and perhaps controversial, was the email from Jared Cohen (then working with Ross in the State Department) to Twitter’s co-founder/chairman Jack Dorsey asking the latter to postpone the site’s scheduled maintenance during post-election protests in Iran in June 2009 (later dubbed the “Twitter Revolution”).

Dorsey obliged, sparking debate as to whether Cohen’s move to keep Twitter running contradicted the US stated policy of nonintervention in the Iranian election.  In her article, Lichtenstein quotes Ross as saying “There’s no casework. There’s no legal statecraft precedent for such things.”

Perhaps not.  But broadly speaking, the sine qua non of diplomacy is to secure ones national interests. (For some countries, the specific goal of diplomacy is the avoidance of war, but this probably does not apply to the US today).

In the context of digital diplomacy, the fact is that US State Department — with its growing fraternal links to Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter — enjoys a significant advantage.  In 2009, Twitter was asked to reschedule its maintenance, hoping to facilitate a revolution in Iran.  Could Google be similarly persuaded to modify its search engine optimization algorithms, or Yahoo! convinced to reveal emails sent by a diplomat in a developing country?

In her Internet Freedom speech, Secretary Clinton recognizes that it will not be easy for the State Department to realign its policies and priorities.  But this will have to be done … and quickly.  Because such attempts to leverage on its digital advantage will almost certainly be viewed as selling out on the values — of freedom, equality, human rights — which the US  espouses.

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