Diplomacy Gets High-Tech

Author, "Industries of the Future"
Alec Ross, the Office of the Secretary of State’s senior adviser for innovation, explains how the White House is changing its approach to diplomacy with the advent of new technologies.
  • Transcript


Question: How has American diplomacy changed throughout history?

Alec Ross: From the earliest stage of American diplomacy, dating back to the 18th century, it would take weeks for a single piece of correspondence to move from one continent to another. In the days of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson being our ambassadors to France, they would work and they would send correspondence back and by the time they got some feedback it was literally a month later. That pattern largely held until the introduction of the telegraph and telephony, which then shrunk dramatically the amount of time that it took to communicate and that then held until ten years ago when the Internet became a powerful tool that it is today.

So really, I think the major shifts in diplomacy dating back to the 18th century reflect the major shifts in communications technology. And so 50 years ago, I think that there was very little difference between how we conducted our diplomacy and how we did it in the 18th century. And more often than not, [it] was white guys with white shirts and red ties, sitting over mahogany tables, sipping cups of coffee, talking to somebody who looks just like that across the other side of the table. One thing that 21st century statecraft is doing now is changing that engagement from being exclusively government-to-government; [it is] also allowing us now to engage government-to-people, and people-to-people. And so changes in statecraft don’t often happen that often. And it’s only very, very recently that very unsubtle technology driven changes in diplomacy are taking place.

Question: How you are using social media in diplomacy?

Alec Ross: So, I should say first that the use of social media at the State Department and in the Federal Government is very, very new. You know, it is no surprise to anybody that social media was an important part of Barack Obama becoming president. And after he became president, part of what he brought with him was the value of technology as a way to connect people who are traditionally disconnected from Washington, from the policy-making arena. So what we are doing right now is introducing social media both broadly—meaning the White House and the State Department [is] using it as a big blunt instrument to engage with the people [and] the world around big events like the President going to Cairo or something like that. But what is actually every bit as compelling to me is what we are doing on a far more local basis; our embassy in Lusotur, for example, can use social media in Lusotur to engage the people there and create a smaller, more specialized community of engagement, and some conversations that are more organic [and] reflective of what the real local interests and concerns are.

So social media has these two contrasting possibilities; on the one hand, they can help us engage much larger numbers of people than we have traditionally. So our audience really is the six billion people on the planet. But on the other hand, it allows us to engage people much more locally and more organically than perhaps we’d ever done when our communications were driven exclusively out of embassy and company capitals [that were] only dealing with government officials.

Question: How was social media use to promote Obama’s speeches abroad?

Alec Ross: This is amazing. Let me talk about the most recent one in Ghana. One of the things that we did was our embassy in South Africa created a partnership with a mobile-based social networking company through which we solicited questions for the president and comments to get into the White House immediately in advance of the speech. Two hundred thousand questions and comments came in through this mobile-based social network, in advance of the Ghana speech, which is absolutely spectacular.

What we then did is the president answered questions that [the] African journalists selected [and] they were dubbed and translated in a handful of languages in podcasts. And a couple more examples from the Ghana speech because it gets me very excited: one of the things that we did is, a lot of people get their information through SMS in Africa, so we promoted the speech through SMS, and then we would actually take portions of the speech and push them out via SMS networks. This is another case of how the consumption of media differs from one culture to another. So I personally don’t want to get text messages of somebody’s speech. To me, that wouldn't necessarily be particularly compelling. But on the African continent, what we found is the point of fact that this is how a lot of people get their media. And so we took advantage of understanding how people access media and access information there. And we make good use of it.

Then lastly, a lot of what we did is partnered with Africa based social media and said, “Aright, how we can leverage the President’s speech to reach the audiences that you have captured here? What it is about this that is most interesting to you?” And then we work with them. What it did is, it took a speech that normally would have been a “Speech to Ghana” or to the Ghanaian people, and it turned in to a continent-wide phenomenon where we estimate about 40 million people actually heard the speech.

Question: What is the difference between hard power and smart power?

Alec Ross: Yeah. Smart power is using all of the means to engage possible. Hard power is military power, and a lot of what we saw during the Bush administration was the Untied States leading with its military. There are times where it is appropriate to do so. What some of Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda did merited a military response in Afghanistan. However, what we can’t always do is just say, “Alright, if we have a problem abroad, let’s call the Defense Department.” That can’t be the only way in which we engage a wider world. So smart power is saying, ‘Alright, let’s think proactively about the world around us and let’s think what tools we have at our disposal’. Yes, there’s defense, but there’s also diplomacy, there’s development, and we don’t need to just engage government-to-government.

One of the things that I think Hilary Clinton did that was compelling in her last trip to India was when she went to Mumbai, three days before she went and saw the Prime Minister. Yes, she valued being able to engage with the Indian government, and the work that she and the State Department did with the Indian government was very important, but so too was the outreach that she did with the Indian entrepreneurs. So, two was the outreach that she did to the Indian NGO sector.

So smart power means that we are not just engaging government-to-government over that proverbial mahogany table with flags in the background, but we are also engaging another country’s academics, its entrepreneurs, and its civil society sector.

Recorded on: July 29, 2009