Our Foreign Affairs Piece on US Digital Statecraft

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 8/01/2010 12:09:00 AM
Dear readers, in case you haven't come across it yet, do read my contribution with professor of marketing Betsy Gelb of the University of Houston on Getting Digital Statecraft Right. If you're a regular reader of Foreign Affairs, it shouldn't be hard to miss as it's been the main feature on their front page over the weekend to date! (I will save this image for posterity.)

For someone who's been sometimes critical of the United States in the past, I find myself in the unusual position of explaining how the US government can better position its "21st Century Statecraft" effort. Originally introduced in May 2009 by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, it was further detailed during a speech given in the wake of the Google in China incident. While we see promise in smaller-scale initiatives as you will read, we too are wary of its potential for being perceived as a broader-scale one that triggers concerns about "information imperialism." Our colleagues at the IELP have expressed similar wariness about how high-faluting talk about "Internet freedom" is contradicted by the US still not resolving the online gaming ban which has hurt the tiny island nation of Antigua and Barbuda. And there's also the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement looming, so it's high time the US government practiced what it preaches.

However, Sam duPont of the New Democrat Network (NDN) expresses caution about our work. Aside from replies I made on the Foreign Affairs site itself, let me add three things: (1) we knew about the 2009 speech being the introduction of the idea, but we referred to the January 2010 one as it is more detailed as to the effort's specifics. For those who regularly publish academic work, you're certainly familiar with having to accommodate editing for clarity and word length. Unfortunately, the sense of the original sentence may have been lost due to no fault of our editing friends at FA, making it appear to some readers as if we thought "21st Century Statecraft" only came into effect in January 2010.

(2) Being neither American nor a partisan, I do believe I can add more of an international perspective to this effort. How do we in the rest of the world view it? In tech slang, I am not a fanboy. Indeed, I find it odd that we would be faulted when we are trying to suggest ways to help improve this effort. By contrast, Evgeny Morozov is far more critical [1, 2]; as are bloggers of the Economist [1, 2]. What is to differentiate digital statecraft from, say, the George W. Bush Foundation's Cyber Dissidents programme? We make suggestions.

(3) "Small wins" also need to be considered in light on the State Department's expertise, which is international relations. You will have a difficult time convincing many that it is ideally positioned to administer several small-scale initiatives since that is not where its comparative advantage lies. Rather, our suggestion is not to engage in the lion's share of these efforts directly given State's limited time and resources but rather to direct them in conjunction with firms, NGOs, and the like.

For the accuracy's sake, here is the unedited original which we submitted. I hope it shed more light on the three points above -
On 15 January 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a wide-ranging speech on Internet freedom at the Washington, D.C. Newseum. Coincidentally or otherwise, this speech immediately followed heated debate over Google’s announcement that it would no longer bow to Chinese wishes that Google self-censor its search results in the mainland. During the speech, she related an idea for “21st century statecraft” that envisions the potential of modern information and communication technologies (ICT) to facilitate social and economic development by providing access to knowledge, markets, capital, and opportunity. All the while, America’s formidable diplomatic, economic, and technological resources would be harnessed to meet these desirable objectives.

Such a speech prompts examination of previous American attempts to bring progress to other nations via technology. We offer three as cautionary examples. All three illustrate one point: that U.S. entities undertaking such projects have often lacked a realistic picture of what could be accomplished by transplanting an American vision beyond its borders.

Fordlandia was Henry Ford’s effort in 1928 to recreate his personal vision of an unblemished Midwest town in the Brazilian rainforest. Commercially, his interest was in achieving vertical integration by sourcing rubber for automobile tires not from British Malaya but from his own Amazon plantation. This unique amalgamation of agriculture and industry was micromanaged to the nth degree, with Ford personally designing menus replete with soya-based foods as he viewed soya as the material of the future. He also prescribed square dances and other wholesome forms of entertainment.

Apparently, Brazilian workers did not take kindly to Fordist social engineering; an ironically named “Island of Innocence” featuring bars, brothels, and nightclubs plying forbidden wine, women, and song soon appeared beyond Fordlandia’s limits to serve its workers. The commercial outcome was no better; Fordlandia was eventually abandoned as caterpillars common to the Amazon but not Malaya feasted on the rubber trees.

Our second example is a current one, the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) program of digital visionary Nicholas Negroponte. He boldly proclaimed that OLPC would distribute 150 million laptops to disadvantaged children in the developing world by 2008, yet by mid-2010 had distributed about 1% as many. Echoing the State Department’s aims for cross-sector collaboration, OLPC combined the expertise of American academia—its foremost engineering university MIT—with the support of firms such as Google, AMD, and News Corporation, together with backing from the United Nations. The machine itself featured groundbreaking specifications for energy efficiency, shock resistance, and connectivity.

From the outset, however, OLPC was hampered by a strong pedagogical vision favoring “learning by doing” via digital media. With messianic fervor, terms like “building a movement” and “revolution” were bandied. However, these messages were greeted with alarm by OLPC’s putative customers—educational departments of developing countries. China was naturally wary of OLPC becoming a political movement given such rhetoric, while India branded its anti-rote-learning philosophy as “pedagogically suspect.” Then and there, governments representing a third of humanity were lost. Lacking the ability to meet the marketing challenges of distribution, after-sales service, and integration into educational ministries’ existing programs, OLPC has floundered, apparently motivated to change the world rather than supply technology on that world’s terms.

Our third example, also contemporary, is the strong U.S. support for the Internet search giant Google, whose founder, Sergey Brin, asked Washington to take a robust stand regarding China’s Internet censorship practices. The firm first positioned itself not only as a for-profit entity hoping to increase its user base and therefore advertising opportunities in this huge market, but also as a pioneer showing the world that free communication represents an American value to which citizens of other nations are entitled.

Although he is unable to link instances of hackers attempting to access e-mail accounts of Chinese human rights activists with official PRC involvement, Brin nevertheless has mentioned both in a manner which suggests their interconnectedness, all the while bemoaning PRC censorship. In time, Google hoped its involvement would result in greater Internet freedom for Chinese citizens. However, the PRC has made few concessions over Google’s newfound discomfort with censorship. Narratives about political freedoms marching hand in hand with economic ones are proving to be na├»ve.

Hoping unrealistically to develop other nations by U.S.-directed methods appears as the common thread here, raising doubts about the reality of Secretary Clinton’s proclamation that “the spread of information networks is forming a new nervous system for our planet” and her perceived need “for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas.” Insofar as the U.S. seeks support for its own ideas regarding the use of technology for development, international relations rather than a supraterritorial notion of cyberspace will help to make or break the effort. Hence, the U.S. should treat its international partners’ concerns and aspirations with respect by adopting a more nuanced perspective. For instance, the Chinese government has just released its White Paper on “The Internet in China” which can set the stage for constructive dialogue.

A first step, then, should be an internal look at cyber-related U.S. policies that have international significance. For instance, American protestations against censorship would seem more convincing if it were not for its own policies involving disparate arms of government that actually restrict Internet freedom. Two instances come to mind.

One involves the questionable prohibition of cross-border trade in Internet gambling. In 2004, the World Trade Organization ruled in favor of Antigua and Barbuda against the United States when the latter banned online gambling services emanating from the twin-island nation, whose population is 85,000. Despite losing on appeal and the virtual destruction of Antigua’s online gambling industry in the meantime, America has yet to satisfactorily resolve this ruling and should do so. Referring to the subprime crisis, Congressman Barney Frank commented that existing U.S. law stops individuals from gambling in the thousands with their own money but allows financial institutions to gamble in the billions with other people’s money.

A second example, so far largely unpublicized, is the proposed Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). In the view of many, this is not a conventional trade agreement but one meant to strengthen intellectual property laws internationally with little consideration of public benefit. The Program on Information Justice and Intellectual Property representing prominent academics and activists worldwide believes ACTA would encourage Internet service providers to police users, disconnect users without due process, and globalize anti-circumvention programs that threaten innovation and competition. Hence, ACTA fuels concerns that the U.S. cares more about the commercial interests of its major copyright holders than about nurturing the creative potential of global netizens.

What can be done besides discouraging actions that make the U.S. seem less than sincere about extending freedom via technology? Organizational theorist Karl Weick highlights the virtue of seeking “small wins” in which broad social challenges are better portrayed as a series of narrower, more tractable ones. Painting 21st century statecraft as an American-led ideological struggle is unwise insofar as it may consume excess resources, mobilize opposition by those who perceive American pushiness, and demoralize supporters in the event of high-profile failure. Weick suggests that the small, well-formed gesture trumps the grandiose, whose tendency is to overpromise but underdeliver.

Interestingly, several American initiatives already demonstrate small wins. These include the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) introducing non-Latin top-level domains so that international users can more easily navigate the Web. As part of 21st century statecraft, the State Department highlights examples such as using cell phones to send donations for victims of the Haitian earthquake and to ensure the anonymity of those reporting criminal activity of drug cartels along the Mexican border. Such actions can not only build goodwill but also test the scalability of projects, which can be undertaken in other contexts where similar social difficulties obtain. Furthermore, small-scale experimentation that allows trial and error without raising excessive concern about “American interference” appears likeliest to succeed in contexts removed from international relations, the traditional purview of the State Department.

In sum, we see development thwarted, not enhanced, by social engineering based on unrealistic assessments of the priorities of other nations. A series of small wins for ICT seems realistic, but the State Department may lack a comparative advantage in this domain, and if so should delegate responsibility to those with experience in smaller scale initiatives. Otherwise, micromanagement can overwhelm. Given 21st century statecraft’s emphasis, David Osborne and Ted Gaebler aptly suggest in Reinventing Government that government should steer, not row—and quite possibly consult with firms and social enterprises as to its direction. By forsaking go-it-alone grand designs in favor of gradual progress together with key stakeholders, America increases its chances of fostering ICT- based development while consigning social engineering to the dustbin of history.
We have some fairly exciting work on the drawing board--as much as academic work gets, that is--to extend this line of research as we have only detailed a few of the many considerations involved. Many problems we face are interdisciplinary; for example we combine IR and marketing knowledge to tackle this issue here. Other interconnected problems can benefit from such an approach. For instance, economists wary of global economic imbalances make sensible suggestions that increasing demand in surplus countries is key. But, how is that to be done? Again, we have combined IPE and marketing in another contribution.

Of course, I am grateful to Foreign Affairs for publishing this piece since, as much fun as blogging can be, it is an ephemeral medium at the end of the day.