Diplomacy and 21st Century Statecraft

BY Hari Sreenivasan  November 12, 2010 at 10:13 AM EDT

While the title of Senior Adviser for Innovation at the State Department may sound vague, the problems Alec Ross and his colleagues tackle are very real; from poverty to pandemics, from disaster to diplomacy.

In light of the seismic shifts taking place in how information and people interact and engage with one another, Ross says a broadening of the practice of statecraft is necessary. Going forward, that means using a balance of soft and hard power to enable and support relationships between non-state actors, and between representatives of governments.The prescription calls for far more than giving diplomats Twitter training, or simply using social media to push “the message” out. It is also about connecting people to resources efficiently and effectively, from NGOs to governments to people in need of aid.

In addition to spending money on new forms of digital diplomacy, the State Department has more often used its clout to convene bright minds from the private sector and the NGO world in a series of Tech@State conferences. They have included gatherings to share ideas on leveraging mobile technology, finding and empowering technology assistance in Haiti’s recovery and, more recently, rethinking Civil Society.

Whether it be figuring out ways that witnesses of narco-violence in Mexico can safely and anonymously report crimes, or victims of rape can face their attackers through virtual courts in the Congo, or food can reach those in the wake of a natural disaster in Pakistan, Ross argues that these efforts are crucial to how statecraft can become more effective going forward.

While technology can facilitate communications in the scenarios like the ones outlined above, state actors and non-state actors have also figured out how to use the same tools and techniques to further their own anti-American agendas. Part of Ross’ role is to help the State Department monitor and counter those efforts.

For more background on what the State Department defines as 21st Century Statecraft, check out a fascinating essay in Foreign Affairs titled America’s Edge (requires one-time free registration) by Anne-Marie Slaughter. It was published around the same time that the former Dean of the Woodrow Wilson school at Princeton University was appointed as the new Director of Policy Planning at the State Department. There is a more recent essay by Eric Shmidt and Jared Cohen of Google titled The Digital Disruption, also in Foreign Affairs, which discusses the challenges facing diplomacy. Jared Cohen only recently moved to Google; his previous work was with Alec Ross at State pushing 21st Century Statecraft. The New York Times profiled the duo this past summer.
Think tanker Sam Dupont of NDN also gathered a list of 21st century statecraft initiatives in early 2010.

For previous stories in this informal series of people within government doing business unusual, check out our conversation with Todd Park, the Chief Technology Officer of HHS, as well as excerpts of a conversation with both Aneesh Chopra the White House’s Chief Technology Officer and Vivek Kundra the federal government’s Chief Information Officer.

Matthew Kielty edited this video. Follow Hari and Alec Ross on Twitter.

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