21st Century Statecraft, a Poor Choice of Words, and How Much that Matters

7 September 2010

I know I’m not the only one glad to have Evgeny Morozov back from the Belarusian forest and his poking, prodding skepticism back in the blogosphere– I missed having his posts as fodder to disagree with, and my blood pressure has felt a little low in recent months. His critique last week of Haystack, the much-ballyhood secret censorship-evading software developed by Austin Heap, though almost too snarky to take seriously, leveled serious criticism and raised good questions about a project that has received a lot of press and praise. But his latest contribution, The 20th Century Roots of the 21st Century Statecraft, is a little lite.

Morozov’s basic critique is, first, that the tech folks in the government are a little too chummy with the tech industry people. Fair enough. It is surprising that more people haven’t ended up in hot water for the very close relationships between a few select tech firms and the federal government. It may yet cause problems– both political and, as Evgeny points out, for the implementation of our foreign policy.

In the second half of his post, though, things get weird. Evgeny warns of ill-defined “spillover effects” that will follow from pursuing “21st Century Statecraft” and “Internet Freedom.” Because Twitter won’t solve all manner of non-digital foreign policy problems, he argues, these new strategies are likely to corrode the rest of foreign policymaking, and the State Departments new “utopian agenda” will distract from the real business at hand.

This doesn’t really make much sense, and I think Evgeny senses this, as he keeps backing away from his snarkier rhetoric, to the position that the real problem is a failure to communicate.  That is, his main issue seems to be that “Internet Freedom” and “21st Century Statecraft” are just bad labels. Which they are, I’d say. The phrase “internet freedom” has been widely hijacked to mean everything from Twitter-fuelled regime change to net neutrality; a more apt definition for the State Department’s stated ambitions would be “freedom of expression on the internet.” Bad name? Yeah, probably. Utopian agenda that will overwhelm all other forms of diplomacy? Nuh uh.

All this is made weirder by the fact that, in closing, Morozov pines for “A much more important and far-reaching global debate about the future of foreign policy in the digital era.” With her speech on Internet Freedom in January, Secretary Clinton probably did more to broaden the debate about foreign policy in the digital era than anybody else could have.  Yes, State’s work has spun off a lot of tangential, even unhelpful side conversations– that’s to be expected. But I’d say the sort of side-swipes Morozov takes at State in this post are equally unhelpful in advancing a broad global debate about international affairs in a digital age. Language matters, but getting hung up on a few bad labels doesn’t get us anywhere.

Thoughts?

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