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Net Effect: The 20th century roots of 21st century statecraft

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Let's imagine a parallel universe for asecond. In that universe, the U.S. State Department decides that energy -- rather than the Internet -- would form one of the core pillarsof "21stcentury statecraft."

To that end, the secretary of statewould give a speech about some highly abstract and ambiguous conceptlike "environmental freedom" that would strike the right chordwith the media -- if only because it promises a greener future forall of us!

Since energy-inspired "21stcentury statecraft" would be difficult to practice without courtingthe private sector -- the likes of Haliburton, Exxon Mobile, andChevron -- their executives would be taken on regular tours ofexotic places and invited to private dinners with the secretary of state.

People spearheading this kind ofenergy-inspired "21st century statecraft" would have avery friendly relationship with the corporate world, occasionallyleaving government service to work for the giant energycorporations. 

[[bREAK]]

To add legitimacy to concepts like "environmental freedom," the U.S. State Department would commissiona bunch of supposedly apolitical academic studies at some Ivy Leagueuniversity, recruiting its leading technologists to make it seem thatthis entire initiative is all about energy efficiency -- and not atall about regime change.

Furthermore, as the business goals ofthe energy sector and the political needs of the American diplomatsbecame intertwined, it would become extremely challenging to makesense of either on its own terms and identify how they influence eachother.  

... Call me contrarian if you wish -- but I think this is the kind of a universe where U.S. foreignpolicy has operated for the last 50 years or so, most recently duringthe Bush administration. Back in the Bush days, there were even acouple of bills and speeches about "energyindependence" -- not as catchy as "Internet freedom," ofcourse, but suffused with the same high-pitch rhetoric.

Save for a few people in Dick Cheney'soffice, I'm yet to see anyone who thinks that the kind ofprivate-public partnerships all of this yielded had a benign effecton U.S. foreign policy. I mentioned the EnergyTask Force in oneof my previous blog posts and I'll mention it again: maybe, itwasn't such a great idea after all.

Hence a question that has been buggingme for months now: What exactly is so 21stcentury about "21st centurystatecraft"?

Am I being unfair to the StateDepartment in drawing such parallels and asking such questions? Well,here are the facts. Silicon Valley CEOs do join American diplomats toexotic locals like Siberia,Syriaand Iraq -- such practices have now been codified as "tech delegations" -- and no one is hiding the fact that Washingtonexpects to profit from Silicon Valley's Internet brands andservices. Likewise, the very same CEOs and other technology industryinsiders areinvited to private dinners with the Secretary of State.

Despite all the transparency rhetoricof the Obama administration, we don't have much detail about the kindof academic studies that the U.S. State Department is funding at theIvy League and elsewhere -- but I hope the folks at the BerkmanCenter can fill us in here at least on their share of the pie(see, for example, thispost by Ethan Zuckerman, where he acknowledges that the StateDepartment funds some of his Berkman work).

The Berkman Center, of course, wasreceiving State Department money during the Bush era as well, sonothing new here (full disclosure: I sit on the board of OSI'sInformationProgram, which also funds Berkman). To make the connection evenmore explicit, David Weinberger, asenior researcher/fellow at the Berkman Center, is now alsoa 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 thevery CEOs they have just been escorting around the globe. See KatieStanton's departure towork for Twitter and JaredCohen's announced departure towork for Google -- the two career moves that, in my opinion, didnot get the level of public attention that they truly deserve. (Inall fairness, Stanton came to the government from Google -- but Ithink this only strengthens the overall argument about the mostlyinvisible revolving door between Silicon Valley and Washington).

And, of course, there is no shortage ofacts and blurbs by American diplomats that take a completelyuncritical attitude towards Silicon Valley. Jared Cohen once again isa case in point: from hisdecision to reach out to Twitter during the Iranian protests tohis statements ("Facebook is one of the most organic tools fordemocracy promotion the world has ever seen" -- quotedin David Kirkpatrick's TheFacebook Effect), much of what he does and says fits thepattern that seasoned observers of U.S. foreign policy wouldeasily recognize.

Good or bad -- I'll save finaljudgment until my book is out -- this is a pattern that predates21st century. A pertinent question to ask is this: Isn'tthe U.S. government showing too much admiration for these twohigh-profile tech companies with questionable ethics withoutsubjecting them to the level of criticism they truly deserve? Nevermind the privacy battles: Unlike Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, bothFacebook and Twitter haverefused to join the Global Network Initiative -- just how uncoolis that?

Maybe -- and I'm just thinking out loudhere -- the State Department should not waste their chef's time oncooking meals to Twitter's executives until those do sign up to GNI?Because otherwise it does look like the U.S. government is happy toignore those companies' human rights record -- as long as they areinstrumental to achieving the government's own policy objectives.That's very 21st century, indeed. 

And for the muckrakers out there: whydon't you go investigate how it is that JaredCohen and Alec Rosseach accumulated hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter? Isit, in part, because they were on one of Twitter's "Suggested UserLists" before those got scrapped? My sources in the U.S.government tell me so, and I have no reason to doubt such claims, especiallygiven 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 withsimilarly popular users who reached the same number of followersorganically. No crime has been committed here -- but if Haliburtonhad a TV channel and DavidAddington got his own weekly TV show there while in office, thiswould have seemed somewhat, well, weird.*

Now, I am not writing this to join theNoam Chomsky branch of critics who see structural problems of U.S.foreign policy everywhere they look. I've got a different argument tomake: the problems that plagued the U.S. foreign policy in previousdecades would not only be perpetuated, they would actually beaggravated in cyberspace. Why so? Because few people treat theInternet as political and subject it to the level of scrutiny thatany policy initiatives connected to, say, energy or nuclear weaponswould deserve.

Somehow I feel that Heidegger's quipthat "the essence of technology is by no means anything technological" is not particularly popular (or even well-known) inWashington (still, hereis a guide to the perplexed; I can only hope that DavidWeinberger who oncewas  a Heidegger scholar would take the time to spread someHeidegger love around town). This is too bad, because Heidegger wasactually right for a change: given all the myths andmisunderstandings surrounding modern technology, anyone dealing withit often misses its highly political nature.

I am pretty sure that if energy hadbeen made into the key component of "21st centurystatecraft" and two of its leading proponents in the StateDepartment left office to go work for Exxon and Halliburton, thiswould have triggered a minor outcry -- or at least a few moans -- froma) the energy blogosphere, and B) the foreign policy blogosphere.

However, I am yet to see such moanstriggered by the departures of Stanton and Cohen. The technologyblogosphere seems to have completely ignored the political dimensionto all this -- which was easy to do given all of this summer'sproblems with iPhone's antennas.

Likewise, the foreign policy folks,busy as they are reading the latest Rolling Stone andhalf-convinced that technology is apolitical anyway, simply have notime or energy to subject the "Internet freedom industry" to thekind of scrutiny it deserves.

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

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

Similarly, one reason to be suspiciousof "Internet freedom" as a priority for U.S. foreign policy isthat the end result of pursuing it may have an extremely corrosiveeffect on the rest of foreign policy making; Twitter won't make anyof those pesky non-digital issues simply go away.

Nothing in whatthe U.S. State Department has done so far convinces me that they have muchawareness -- let alone a roadmap (and those they usually have inabundance!) -- for dealing with the spillover effects that the promotion ofeither "Internet freedom" or "21st centurystatecraft" will have on the rest of foreign policy making.

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

The reality is that the Internet isdriven by dynamics that are far more explosive and unpredictable thaneven oil. Plenty of people around the world may hate Exxon for thekind of U.S. foreign policy that its business needs may demand -- butno one exactly accuses Exxon of allowing its oil wells or gasstations to be used as secret meeting venues for the new breed ofrevolutionaries. No one thinks "anti-government materials" or "censorship circumvention" when they hear "petrol."

This is definitely not the case withFacebook, Twitter, and Google -- which many governments doperceiveto be political by the sheer virtue of providing a service that canbe used to organize, mobilize, and distribute information. Iftechnology gurus believe their own theories that we are now living inthe Information Age, there is absolutely no escaping the fact thatinformation also becomes the most politicized of global commodities.

Buildinga foreign policy around information may all be fine and eveninevitable -- but one should start by fully acknowledging itspolitical dimension. (I won't go into politics of information here -- but you may want to check myearlier blog post about the motivation behind Iran's searchengine).

Once you peel away the rhetoric of "21st century statecraft" and "Internet freedom," this becomes all too obvious; the problem isthat such rhetoric is extremely hard to peel away -- if only because "freedom of expression" generates far more positive emotions thansay, "energy efficiency." And who would be silly enough to argueagainst "freedom of expression"?

Whatwe are left with, as a result, is a counterproductive debate aboutcensorship (and that debate itself has been taken over by lobbyiststouting their own censorship-circumvention tools) rather than a muchmore important and far-reaching global debate about the future offoreign policy in the digital era.

* Since such accusations areinevitable, let me address them head-on: no, I'm not trying toestablish moral equivalence between Haliburton and Twitter. Thatsaid, I do think that we are careening towards a world where suchequivalence would be easy to establish. Exxon simply wants to make money onoil -- and people happen to die in wars as a result; Facebook simply wants to makemoney 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...

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