Archive for January 2010

Reflections on 21st Century Statecraft

15 January 2010

In recent months, Secretary Hillary Clinton’s State Department has been undertaking a series of actions under the heading of State’s new “21st Century Statecraft” initiative. In brief, 21st century statecraft is a strategy of expanding diplomacy beyond traditional government-to-government relationships and including everyday people around the world in the business of international affairs– often through the use of mobile and web-based technologies including social networking, online video, blogging, and SMS.

To help explain and better understand what, exactly, 21st century statecraft is, and to provide what I hope will be a useful reference, I’ve compiled below the initiatives of the Obama Administration that fall under this heading:

  • Nowruz Video – In March, President Obama released a video on YouTube in which he spoke directly to the people and leaders of Iran on Nowruz, the holiday marking the Iranian New Year. His address acknowledged the troubled history of the U.S.-Iran relationship, and welcomed “new beginnings” with Iran. The video has been viewed over 100,000 times, and was well-received in Iran.
  • Swat Text – After Taliban forces took over Pakistan’s Swat Valley in May, the U.S. committed $100 million in humanitarian support to aid refugees. But they didn’t stop there-Secretary Clinton encouraged regular citizens take part in the relief effort; by texting “swat” to the shortcode 20222 from any mobile phone, any American could automatically donate $5 to the UN Refugee Agency.
  • Virtual Student Foreign Service – In her speech at New York University’s graduation ceremonies in May, Secretary Clinton announced a new initiative that connects American college students with American embassies overseas, and empowers those students to act as diplomats by engaging directly with citizens of foreign countries.
  • Cairo Speech – Shortly after Secretary Clinton unveiled the 21st Century Statecraft initiative in late May, President Obama gave a much-anticipated speech in Cairo on the relationship between the U.S. and Muslim people (not governments) around the world.
  • Twitter in Iran – The world watched rapt in June as thousands of Iranians marched in opposition to their government, which had just baldly and boldly stolen a hotly contested election. With no control over traditional media outlets, Iranian people took to Twitter to broadcast-in words, pictures, and videos-the power of the uprising and the violence of the government’s suppression. With Twitter scheduled to go down for maintenance in the midst of the uprising, the State Department intervened in support of the freedom of information, as Jared Cohen, who works with Alec Ross at State, contacted Jack Dorsey at Twitter, and urged them to keep Twitter online so as not to silence the protesters in Iran. The Twitter executives obliged, and Twitter was taken offline for maintenance in the early morning hours in Iran, rather than during the mid-afternoon.
  • Congo – Alec Ross visited the eastern Congo in September, the site of one of the longest, deadliest conflicts in the modern era. He returned with ideas for two new initiatives. The first was high-tech: a mobile banking system, to allow the government and international agencies to pay their soldiers, without depending on unreliable cash deliveries through the jungle. The second was low-tech: The State Department would help put ex-combatants on the radio to use their credible voices to speak directly to the militia members and encourage them to demobilize.
  • Cuba -The means of the Obama Administration’s new engagement with Cuba employs some of the tenets of 21st century statecraft– easing remittances and travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans permits people-to-people dialogue. Additionally, relaxing sanctions on telecommunications with Cuba by allowing undersea cables and permitting cell phone carriers to do business in Cuba will empower individuals with information and communications technologies.
  • Mexico Initiative – A new collaborative effort between the State Department, the Mexican government, a Mexican telecom firm, and Mexican non-profits will address one challenge of the drug violence in the border region-the inability of citizens to anonymously and securely tip off the police. The groups, in partnership, will establish a free SMS short-code, to which Mexican citizens will be able to anonymously text tips reporting on incidences of drug-related crime, which would be published to a public database and acted upon by local police.
  • Humari Awaz – Speaking in Islamabad in October, Secretary Clinton announced American support for a mobile-phone based social network in Pakistan. The network is called Humari Awaz, which means “our voice,” and it is accessible via a free SMS shortcode on all five mobile networks. Pakistanis will be able to use these networks for purely social purposes, or to pursue business, media, agricultural, and other ends. The US government will pay for the first 24 million text messages sent through Humari Awaz. The program has met with unexpectedly quick success, with half of the free texts being used in the first few weeks.
  • Civil Society 2.0 – A short time later in Marrakesh, Secretary Clinton unveiled a new “Civil Society 2.0″ initiative, in which the State Department will provide funding and expertise to allow grassroots civil society organizations around the world use technology to grow and work more effectively.
  • Shanghai Townhall – On his recent trip to China, President Obama held a townhall meeting in Shanghai, at which he addressed a group of students. While the event was not broadcast as widely as the U.S. government surely would have liked, the very act of an American president speaking directly to Chinese students, and addressing, if gently, the issue of online censorship in China is a disruptive and empowering intervention for young Chinese who have never had a government official ask them what they think.
  • Addressing Afghans – A portion of President Obama’s December speech on Afghanistan was directed at Afghans themselves. Naturally, very few Afghans tuned in live on TV or on the internet (broadband penetration is around 2%), but the White House took advantage of the fact that about 30% of Afghans have mobile phones: They clipped out the 45 seconds of the speech in which he spoke to the Afghan people, and dubbed the video in Arabic, Pashto, and four other languages spoken in the region. The videos, which are available over mobile networks, have reached thousands who would not otherwise have heard Obama’s words.
  • Texting Haiti – Just hours after an earthquake rocked Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the State Department had successfully coordinated with mGive, a mobile donations platform, to establish a shortcode so that all Americans could donate $10 by sending a single text message. Within days, a million people had sent the word “HAITI” to 90999, raising over $10 million for the Red Cross in their relief effort.

I’m greatly encouraged by the State Department’s focus on this mode of engaging with the world. Since 2006, NDN and the New Policy Institute have been writing and speaking about the power of mobile technology to change our world. The application of this technology in pursuit of our foreign policy objectives is indicative of remarkable foreward thinking, and the fruit these initiatives have already borne are testament in themselves to the future potential of this kind of statecraft.

The Trouble with Repression in a Wireless World

5 January 2010

IranThe British monthly Prospect has been playing host to an interesting back-and-forth between Clay Shirky, the author of “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations,” and Evgeny Morozov, a Fellow at Georgetown and the blogger over at FP’s Net Effect.

They’ve been going back and forth on the power of social media and mobile technology to support democratic movements in repressive states like Iran, Belarus, China, and Moldova. In his December installment, Shirky concedes that the “just-add-internet” zeitgeist takes an excessively optimistic view on the power of technology to change the politics of authoritarian governments. Still, he defends the basic proposition that, by limiting access to information and communications tools, and cracking down on those who use them, governments are robbing themselves of legitimacy at home and abroad. This, he writes, translates to a “net advantage” for insurrection in repressive states.

I found Morozov’s response, which was published today, decidedly off-base in its premise. He argues that, if anything, these new technologies are making things worse for the everyday people who may fight for freedom. He downplays the advantages gained by Iranian protesters through their use of mobile technology– but the ability of protesters to document both their own peaceful demeanor and the abuses perpetrated by the Basiji has cost the Iranian regime a great deal of legitimacy with their own people. The video of Neda’s death became its own rallying cry of the uprising, and undoubtedly caused many Iranians to abandon their support of the government, even if quietly. With this kind of information and evidence free and available, the Iranian government has to work a lot harder to stay in power.

Protesters will use these tools to facilitate their cause, and repressive regimes like Iran’s will fight back using the same technology. I think Morozov is right to cast a dubious eye on the frothy hype that often permeates conversation about how this technology will change the world. In some cases, mobile phones and social networks may not dramatically shift the balance of power between an authoritarian government and those who rally against it. But they create a world– one in which abuses can be documented, information is free, and few can plead ignorance– that is a lot trickier world for a government like Iran’s to live in.