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February 26, 2014

Changing the Ends and Means of U.S. Foreign Policy

Alec Ross, former senior advisor to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, discussed the role of technology in diplomacy in a recent talk.

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Alec Ross, who served as senior advisor for innovation under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, disagrees with the notion that America’s power is in decline. Instead, he says, it is “a loss of control” — over the media and the information environment — that is making statecraft more difficult for the United States and other nations.

“The 24-7 news cycle has disrupted the public’s perception of foreign policy,” said Ross at a February 19 conversation with Dean Merit Janow on the role of technology in diplomacy.

In the 1970s, he explained, the former secretary of state Henry Kissinger had the ability to frame a narrative through a few storytellers and media outlets. Today, in contrast, we are losing control over the narrative of statecraft as technology makes it more difficult to have interactions without potential leaks.

“Formal interactions between sovereign nation-states have never been more difficult and less consequential than today,” Ross said.

Where diplomacy is traditionally rooted in conversations behind doors, he said such discussions are almost impossible today, and have therefore become less consequential because of the dimished control of nation-states and the increasing weight of non-state actors.

Ross cited recent events in Egypt to illustrate a loss of control over networks of interlocutors. He said the recent trouble with American foreign policy in Egypt was rooted in the outdated idea that ministers and generals were the main point of contact, when in fact the drivers of change were a segment outside this elite group. American diplomats, he said, failed to engage with those outside of the traditional institutions and hierarchies they were accustomed to engaging.

Based on this declining control by nation-states, Ross predicted that the “zeal to surveil” would result in an environment in which “privacy as we know it will be non-existent in 10 years.”

That is, he said, pointing to the audience, “unless you solve it.”

As technology is sure to rapidly become more sophisticated, laws and regulations need to meet its rise. Ross stressed that it is up to citizens to set up norms and govern the use of technology, rather than be governed by technology.

Based on his observations working in the backstages of U.S. foreign policy over the years, Ross made two more predictions on how technology will continue to affect states.

He said the conversion of currency to code will challenge traditional finance systems, and that in two years there will be at least $100 billion worth of cryptocurrency in circulation. The existence of a currency not rooted in state sovereignty will facilitate capital flight from certain countries and affect transnational commerce.

Finally, he said, cyberconflicts would likely rise between corporations and states, rather than between states. A cyberattack on Google by the Chinese military, for example, might in the future prompt a counterattack from Google. At present, such a response would be restrained by Google’s ties to its home government.

Ross, who is serving as a senior fellow at SIPA this semester at Dean Janow’s invitation, is scheduled to appear at two additional events later in the semester. He will discuss “Breakthrough Innovation and Global Growth” with Jan Svejnar on March 25, and “The Geopolitics of Cyber” with Anya Schiffrin on March 31.

— Doyeun Kim MIA ’14

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