Setting the Record Straight

Working in a geeky little niche as I do, it's never a surprise to encounter well-informed people who actually don't have a clue what I mean by "mHeatlh" or "digital learning" or "intermediary liability."  But (and maybe this is just the IR student in me) I expect more from Foreign Affairs. Their online article "Getting Digital Statecraft Right," by Betsy Gelb and Emmanuel Yujuico is so flawed and misinformed, I feel the need to set them straight here-- a bloggerish indulgence that I don't usually go in for.

The problems begin in the first sentence, as Gelb & Yujuico announce that "In January, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for the United States to pursue a policy of 'twenty-first-century statecraft,'" which is, in fact, something the Secretary first called for eight months earlier, in May of 2009. But the bigger issues with their piece are rhetorical, and seem to stem from a misunderstanding of how the State Department has integrated connective technology into their work over the past 18 months, and the nature of their stated plans to continue doing so.

The authors compare our government's efforts to leverage the global communications network to Henry Ford's crackpot scheme to build a model midwestern town in the Amazon rainforest, and to the One Laptop Per Child program's misguided attempts to shower the developing world with inexpensive technology. It's entirely unclear how these failed schemes relate to State's efforts to conduct public diplomacy via social media, or their effort to see internet censorship treated equally to offline censorship.  But somehow, the authors take the lesson that Secretary Clinton is overreaching with her "grandiose" strategy.

While I think Gelb & Yujuico are right that "small wins" are a better objective than "transformative victories," I think the most cursory review of the State Department's 21st Century Statecraft initiative will reveal that its achievements and ambitions are, in fact, small-scale and focused on solvable problems. While the objectives of the Internet Freedom initiative are clearly broader, the intent is not any massive social change, as the authors imply; rather, it's about establishing an understanding that basic human rights ought to be respected in the online sphere.

But deeper than all that, what Gelb & Yujuico misunderstand is that the State Department's efforts are not rooted in some messianic desire to change the world. The truth is quite the opposite: 21st Century Statecraft and Internet Freedom are initiatives crafted in response to changes in the way our world works. We're not throwing technology at other countries and hoping it makes them prosperous and democratic. The technology is already there.  The network is already global. And what the State Department is doing is an attempt to use the same tools that everyone on earth is using, for the same objectives they've always pursued.

Shoot, maybe I should just write my own essay about this.