21stC Diplomacy: Alec Ross

Been a bit quiet lately – of course, lousy timing to take a couple of weeks off from HB just when Wikileaks hits the Netherlands like a frenzy. Anyway, I have some difficulty reading the NRC’s Juurd ‘Mr NATO’ Eijsvoogel’s sudden Schadenfreude as the lid gets taken off US-Dutch relations. But that’s journalists for you. More on that next time.

Last Wednesday Alec Ross, Senior Advisor for Innovation in the State Department, passed through The Hague to instruct Dutch ambassadors on the finer points of online diplomacy and social media. He took time out in the evening to speak informally at the ambassador’s residence, and someone was kind enough to put me on the guest list. Ross is of course one of the new wave IT gurus that flocked to the Obama campaign, out-media’d Hilary Clinton on the road, and stuck with it to see it through from the upper reaches of State. His was a relatively familiar tale of “rebooting US diplomacy” since 2008, but that doesn’t take anything away from how genuine the urge is amongst that crowd to actually achieve something.

So here’s the pitch. Change is difficult. ‘Change’ and ‘Congress’ don’t go so easily together. But change is happening, like it or not, and in diplomacy more than ever. The embassy-ambassador model is fading out, being replaced by a diverse, uncontrollable information-media environment where NGOs and individuals play as important a role as governments. So far, so familiar, so Clay Shirky. But there are tensions here.

1) Ross talked of the need for global norms on internet freedom. But who, came the question from the crowd, decides on what the norms should be? Ross talked around the problem about building coalitions on a regional basis – Latin America, Africa, etc – and the Global Network Initiative as an example of civil society activism leading the way on online responsibilities. But governments are never far away, and neither is the issue of cultural difference. Is the world really flat?

2) Technology is neutral, it can be used for good or bad depending on one’s inclination. But the implication all along with this crowd is that ICT and social media inevitably lay the grounds for socio-political change – Malcolm Gladwell, take a hike. And its no good adopting the pros of social media in toto without adopting the pros of social media in relation to foreign policy interests and goals.

3) What have been the successes since you entered State, came the question. Raising money for Haiti earthquake victims by SMS (but the Canadians raised far more per capita for the same cause, retorted the former Canadian ambassador, delicately). Internet freedom as a global priority, came the second answer. Once again, the politics was there. Replace Bush’s pre-emption with the benign free flow of information. It may take longer, but its got a lot more appeal.

4) Foreign policy interests or not, governments should not run social media in place of the private sector. Its got to be a case by case process of public-private negotiation – enable private citizens to empower themselves, that is the whole point of the online world, as Ross well knows from experience. But its far from a straight-forward arrangement, as governments have to rely on private companies to provide the public good of internet freedom. Is Wikileaks empowerment, a public good? No – Ross gave the party line that it was effectively based on spying. AlJazeera in the US as empowerment, a public good? It hasn’t been easy to accept for some. Then there is the independent culture of the whole ICT scene, who do not appreciate government influence, never mind government direction. Ross displayed his History graduate background – “They are not United Fruit.” For a Cold War nut like myself, that was a sweet comment.

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