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.
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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.