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Ross on challenges of digital diplomacy

How the lack of control in social media is a challenge for 21st century diplomats and an increasingly powerful tool used around the world: Putin, Carl Bildt, Estonia & Cyber Security, Nashi, Hillary Clinton & digital diplomacy training. Fmr. Senior Advisor for Innovation of the U.S. Dept. of State in conversation with Charlie Firestone of The Aspen Institute.

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Video transcript

I'm Charlie Firestone with the Aspen Institute here with a lacrosse former senior advisor for innovation at the US Department of State today we're discussing the toolbox for American diplomacy and specifically digital diplomacy Alec what are some of the challenges to digital diplomacy the single biggest challenge to digital diplomacy is that these are messy spaces social media is a place that doesn't lend itself to control and the traditional form of diplomacy white guys with white shirts and red ties talking to other white guys with white shirts and red ties wearing pinstripe suits with a flag flying in the background that's not what it's like in social media and so the kind of control that diplomats are used to is near impossible in digital diplomacy the 21st century is a terrible time to be a control freak and when you get diplomats outside of their comfort zone where there tends to be a lot of control what you see oftentimes is a tremendous level of risk aversion and the very nature of effective digital diplomacy is that you take on a level of risk that is unusual and and I would point to one of the one of the most effective practitioners of this being the Russians so the Russians come at this from a fascinating standpoint where Putin and his sort of communications guru Victor Peskov both believed that the internet is a creation of an a tool of the CIA and they take an exceedingly paranoid view of all things internet the interesting thing is after sanctions were imposed on Russia they gave a sort of to heck with the torpedoes approach to how they would engage diplomatically online and they built a very powerful propaganda arm that's both overt and covert and because they have created an environment where they don't care about risk they've been extremely productive to a degree to which i think is really caught a lot of american and european playmats off base another challenge is that a lot of the skills that relate to being a particularly effective practitioner of citizen diplomacy using digital tools actually cuts across the grain of the training of a traditional diplomat and so the people who oftentimes they're best at this kind of thing are not likely to find themselves very comfortable inside a foreign ministry or inside the State Department so there's a lot of reverse engineering that has to be done to get our diplomats sufficiently trained so that they can be effective even if you address the issues related to risk it doesn't necessarily fix issues related to aptitude so there's an enormous amount of training that has to be done and then the last thing I would say pointing out a short coming of all of this is I view these networked spaces is getting increasingly negative and while it's easy to start a revolution or start a movement it's increasingly difficult to finish one and while these tools are very very good at tearing things down it's much more difficult to build things up and most of the point diplomacy is not to do tear downs but it's to do things that are building things up and so there's a lot of nuance here that makes it very complicated for diplomats now we've thought of the tools as also organizing tools sometimes so is that a build up or tear down type tool so the these tools have historically been used very productively for organizing but here's the thing one of the big changes in the last three or four years has been the imposition of mass surveillance on social media and so where these tools could have been used very effectively for organizing in 2007 2008 2009 even 2010 beginning in about two thousand eleven the people who were going to be organized against got increasingly sophisticated about how to listen and so now a lot of these open networks a lot of these open tools are terrific for intelligence sir and law enforcement unless you are in a democracy that allows for the freedom of association and assembly then it's not necessarily as good a tool as it used to be for organizing now in a western democracy it's an increasingly powerful tool for organizing and in the United States in the UK through much of Europe we see how positively and productively it can be used but there's a real danger to using it in in more closed societies in places where if you do organized you're breaking the law and so you know there are jails full of people in China and Iran full of people who have attempted to use these tools for organizing in recent years let's touch on another aspect of this which is the impact of the tools on the conduct of diplomacy which is the advent of real-time diplomacy the fact that it's such an immediate media that it changes perhaps behavior of the diplomats themselves this has been one of the most interesting things about the integration of social media and diplomacy when I was at the State Department I soon learned about this thing called the clearance process which effectively is taking the words that are spoken and published and putting them through this rigorous organization-wide vetting process where literally everybody in the building has the pen so to speak there's absolutely nothing about social media that lends itself to that sort of a process and so what it is forced is its forced Foreign Ministries to get outside of the comfort zone of the very carefully parsed clearance process for communications and some foreign ministries have made the pivot others haven't where it tends to work better in this case are for political appointees versus career diplomats because political appointees have the power and the willingness to use the tools more openly and more aggressively whereas a career diplomat somebody who is planning on spending 20 or 30 years inside a foreign min Street will view this as potential career killers if they color outside the lines on policy gets back to the risk tolerance of the department that's right and of the country the country is very risk tolerant in business but maybe not so much for government not just in the Foreign Affairs but in all affairs of government it's interesting you know I saw in Sweden for example Sweden was an example of where these two things can actually be blended so Sweden is a relatively risk-averse country and its foreign ministry is relatively conservative but they had a foreign minister in Carl Bildt who is extremely aggressive he was sort of mr. extrovert as a foreign minister and extremely effective and so it was fascinating to me to see in this case was the leader of the foreign ministry Carl Bildt be so aggressive while the ministry behind him had to really work hard to keep up and he did make changes there but they they're often times can be a mismatch between the level of risk aversion inside the ministry versus the level of risk aversion with the minister built was a pioneer right in the use of new social media tools in diplomacy the state department gets a lot of credit for the creation of 21st century statecraft digital diplomacy and I think that that credit is is deserved but where its success was really proven out was with its adoption in adaptation by other governments and Carl Bildt among them to muscle vez the president of Estonia another we saw a tremendous leadership from around the world in Brazil and Indonesia and recently in the UK and elsewhere so the diffusion of digital diplomacy beyond America has been very important and that's why I think of it as 21st century statecraft it's not just a new strategy used by the United States and by the State Department it's a new way of conducting diplomacy that's increasingly powerful around the world and can it catapult a country into a greater role in world diplomacy if they are adept at these tools than if their traditional diplomats I would point to three countries as an example of this indonesia Estonia and Sweden while Indonesia has a large population it historically is not seen as being anything more than a very small regional geopolitical player but it very intelligently and early adopted digital diplomacy and suddenly had outsized power for lack of a more diplomatic world among the East Asian states similarly Estonia is about the size of your thumb it's got 1.3 million people but because they were so sophisticated about the use of social media it suddenly became you know a real power in Estonia on those issues that they most cared about and lastly Sweden the tactics used by Karl bill I think allowed him to far outpace his peers and it effectively made Sweden appear of an equal of Germany France in the United Kingdom in terms of influencing a lot of diplomacy in the years that built was foreign minister it's kind of interesting about Estonia because they were the subject of a state-sponsored cyber attack correct that's right i think it was in 2007 there was the removal of a statue and the meaning of this statute had different meanings depending on the audience to Estonians to true stone ians they viewed that statue as a symbol of Soviet occupation and that's why it was removed to Russa files this statue was a symbol of Russia's conquest over Nazi Germany after the statue was removed there was a cyber attack by a group called the naxi a state aligned youth cyber group of thugs this cyber attacked Estonia and took him offline for a while so it was the first k have sort of cyber war between states but actually then Estonia took that circumstance and made it into a positive activity so that they became experts on cyber attacks I don't know if there's a causal connection there but there is a causal connection so what happened is after the cyber attack they were there on chapter one page one in terms of the weaponization of code so the Estonians saw sooner than others that the Cold War could become a code war and as such the people at the top of the government began to focus on cyber while it was still relatively obscure around the rest of the world and actually NATO's cyber headquarters is now in tolland in estonia's capital city and there's been this interesting byproduct from it which is actually a lot of economic growth since they recognized early that cyber was going to be so big and so important they've actually helped spawn a cyber industry which is now one of Europe's strongest so Alec what are some of the tools and activities within state that operation eliza's citizen and e diplomacy the State Department is a very hierarchical rules bound place so what we had to do was make sure that the head of our hierarchy a woman named hillary clinton changed the rules to not just allow the use of these tools but to encourage them in some cases mandate them so what we had to do were a couple things first of all formally sanctioned their use secondly create training programs throughout the organization so that people would actually know how to use them you could not become a United States Ambassador during the four years that Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State without being trained by me on digital diplomacy and then thirdly we had to create the budget and pull the organizational levers that allowed digital diplomacy to take root at scale so in 2009 there was just a little handful people who were experimenting in this area of digital diplomacy but fast forward five years later and study by the Brookings Institution counted more than a hundred and fifty full time diplomats who were practitioners of digital diplomacy so I believe that you budget what you value and so there was a process over a number of years of elevating this inside the State Department so that we actually put our diplomats and put our money where our priorities were does the State Department have the technology widespread throughout the department to allow its employees to affect use this effectively you know the state department's technology is horrendous and it has a 1.2 billion dollar annual IT spend and I think it's use is horrendous and that's maybe to a degree the state department's fault but it's a larger fault of the procurement systems that you know make much of the federal government less effective than it ought to be so actually getting our diplomats the tools they need was a persistent challenge and I'm certain it remains a challenge today and what are some of the ways that the employees actually use new media social media Facebook Twitter are there some Instagram some other new ways that they're employing the technology so I think there was a relatively agnostic approach taken to what tools should be used so in my view the best tools to use were those which were most powerful locally so in many European contexts in many North American south and south america and contexts that would be things like Twitter Facebook and Instagram but in Russia that would be from Kentucky ax in Jordan it would be maktoob so the key really is to understand the formation environment in a given country and then choose tools not based on what's being used in Brussels or Washington but choose tools based on what is most resonant locally and that could be something that nobody's ever heard of in Brussels or Washington but which everybody in south korea uses or everybody in vietnam uses