Between WikiLeaks, the Arab world uprisings and spearheading the use of technology in disaster relief from Pakistan to Haiti, Alec Ross — US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s star advisor on technology — has also set out to change the way diplomacy works. And the man who’s been given the nickname ‘The Pitbull’ is certainly making an impact. Writer Thom Woodroofe caught up with him recently to talk about his work, particularly in the Asia-Pacific.
Your full title is Senior Advisor on Innovation to the Secretary of State. What does that actually mean?
What it means is that it’s my job to figure out how we can harness technology in service of our diplomatic and development goals, and figure out how we can take non-traditional approaches to solving seemingly intractable foreign policy challenges.
You’ve called your boss the godmother of 21st century statecraft. What do you mean?
Well it’s interesting. When Hillary Clinton became the Secretary of State, one of the first things she recognised was that our statecraft was no longer bound by vast distances or by national borders. So what she said we had to do was account for the rise of non-state based threats and the disruptions caused by the increasing ubiquity and power of our communications network; and to do so, we’ve built an agenda around that, which we call ‘21st Century Statecraft’.
How do you feel this synchronizes with what other foreign services around the world are doing, particularly in the Asia-Pacific? Where do you draw your lessons from?
Let me say this: ‘21st Century Statecraft’ complements traditional foreign policy tools with newly innovated and adapted instruments of statecraft that fully leverage the networks, technology and demographics of our interconnected world. So the key word there is complements. This isn’t being done at the exclusion of statecraft as traditionally practised. One thing that I’ve noticed is that other governments are increasingly taking note of the degree to which information networks disrupt our foreign policy networks for good or ill. And certain of them, for example the UK and Chile, are themselves now building programmes around this agenda.
At the time, you proclaimed that 2009 was the worst year for internet freedom. How did we see this in the Asia-Pacific region?
When Hillary Clinton made internet freedom a foreign policy priority of ours, what it did was it effectively froze the negative trend that was taking place around the world in which governments increasingly saw the internet as something that could be controlled and function for all intents and purposes like an ‘intranet’. We saw in the cases of Tunisia and Egypt, with governments taking draconian steps to infiltrate, manipulate and monitor the internet, and in the case of Egypt to shut it down entirely. That completely blew up in the faces of these countries. What I hope nations will learn from the examples of Tunisia and Egypt is that if one seeks to control these networks and people, as a consequence of that it might work over the short term, but not over the long term.
One of the best examples of the United States embracing e-diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific was in response to the Pakistan floods. Can you tell us what you did there?
Sure, I mean what we did in Pakistan, as well as in Haiti, was we wanted to get the American people involved directly to help respond to the tragedy that took place there. So first in Pakistan’s Swat Valley where there was extensive flooding, and later in Haiti where there was an earthquake, we built programmes where individual American citizens could use SMS to text message donations for relief efforts. In Pakistan, we learnt how the model worked technically, and in Haiti we built a campaign that went viral and raised $35 million for relief efforts in two weeks.
I’m glad you mentioned Haiti as it’s an incredible story from inception. Briefly, did that all start through a dinner hosted by Secretary Clinton?
So the previous week Hillary Clinton had hosted a dinner which I organised of a dozen or so technologists and innovators, and among those present was the CEO of a company called Mobile Giving Foundation. He educated the Secretary about how text messaging could be used to do philanthropic giving. A week later, after the earthquake hit and the Secretary wanted us to immediately respond, we woke him up. At that point interestingly enough he was in Pakistan and we literally got him out of bed in Pakistan and to work with us overnight to set up a programme so that by the time people had their first cup of coffee the following morning and learned about the scale of the tragedy in Haiti, they were able to take action right then. So by building bridges between our diplomatic leadership and America’s network of technologists and innovators we were able to build products that are far stronger than if we didn't have those bridges in place. It also showed the willingness of Hillary Clinton to make bold moves where success wasn’t necessarily a guarantee.
Part of your role involves running ‘Techdels’ or trips of technology leaders overseas with the State Department. By my count you have visited Iraq, India, Russia, the Congo, Haiti, Colombia, Mexico, Syria and Russia. So why has there not been a large focus on the Asia-Pacific, where so much of this innovation is taking place?
These are all demand driven, these aren’t things that we impose on countries but rather are something that countries ask us to do. So you know from a very simple standpoint this isn’t something where there has been a lot of demand from Asia. I would ascribe that to one of two things: firstly in some places such as Japan, South Korea and Singapore, there’s already an enormous amount of sophistication about how to apply these tools to solve local problems. In other cases, such as Vietnam, I anticipate that there would be a hostile reception to the American government that would bring tools into a country that frankly would open a relatively closed society. So I don’t know how well received American technology, some of which frankly is banned, would be. I have a hard time imagining openly advocating for us to bring that into their country.
More broadly, how would you characterize the Obama administration’s engagement in the Asia-Pacific, particularly under the first ‘Pacific Presidency’?
You know I think that Barack Obama’s head and heart often times brings his attention to the Asia-Pacific region. His own personal history having lived in Indonesia as well as his understanding of the degree to which so much innovation and so much economic growth is coming out of the Asia-Pacific can’t help but draw his attention to that part of the world. So he and Hillary Clinton have both been incredibly attentive to that part of the world, and I would argue have given it far more attention than preceding governments.
I’d like to look a little bit at your own background if that’s okay. What was your path to the State Department?
I started an NGO in a basement in 2000. When we started there were just three of us in a basement, and we grew that into becoming a very large global organisation with programmes in more than a dozen countries in four continents. So I was a practitioner of technology based development programmes of a pretty significant scale. Coming into the State Department, part of what we were seeking to do was apply some of the kind of innovations and innovation policies that had been developed at my NGO and in the Obama campaign and apply it within the State Department.
I should also mention dating further back to the early and mid-1990s that I was a teacher in a very violent, very poor middle school in what was then crack cocaine ravaged Baltimore, Maryland. One of the things that I saw when teaching very poor school children in violent communities was that there was something very intuitive about technology in this generation of young people, and that affinity for technology can be leveraged to help people under the economic mainstream. So there was also a very strong anti-poverty thrust in what I sought to do joining government.
I’m glad you mentioned Teach for America as it seems a shift in gears for you. What motivated you to do that?
I had lived a very academic life. In college I was in the ivory tower; I was fully seized by academia. What I wanted to do was get my hands dirty. I had spent the preceding 21 years of my life reading books. So what I wanted to do when I got out of college was go engage at the community level and go and get out a world that was rooted in the theoretical and live a world entirely of the practical. That was an important step in my life. I don’t think people should live their lives having never experienced at the grass roots. I think that I would be a far less effective public policy practitioner if my experiences weren’t rooted at some point in time being on the front line, being in the communities in the role of a real practitioner.
Why do you they call you The Pitbull?
I think two things. Number one, pitbulls are aggressive and pitbulls are loyal. So I’m aggressive and I’m loyal.
Finally, in the sixth grade you told your teacher you wanted to be president. Is this still true?
Aaaargh, you know what I could throttle my mother for speaking to the press. This is not good; I am forever condemned to live with the words of my mother. So what I have always wanted to do is make an impact, and I imagine I did say that back in the sixth grade.