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Hillary Clinton Launches "21st Century Statecraft" Initiative by State Department

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, May 13 2009

When it comes to government agencies adapting to the Networked Age, the State Department is no slouch. It's had an Office of eDiplomacy since 2003; its staffers make heavy use of an internal unclassified online encyclopedia called Diplopedia; it's been blogging since September 2007 at Dipnote; and now State even has a Twitter feed. ExchangesConnect, a cultural exchange social networking site (built on Ning.com) that focuses on foreign exchange students, recently topped its 10,000th member.

Under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the State Department has also been in the forefront of Obama administration moves to experiment with and adopt new ways to interact with the public, including using YouTube and text-messaging as ways to pose questions directly. The overall push is showing results, reports the AP: "Daily views of the Dipnote have doubled from 10,000 a year ago to 20,000 today, with 700 subscribers to its RSS feed, twice as many as in March 2008. The number of followers of the department on Twitter has tripled since Jan. 20, when Obama took office, while the department's Facebook friends have increased by 2 1/2 times in the same period." (Lots more details on State's digital initiatives here.)

But this is just the beginning of a larger conceptual shift, says Alec Ross, who recently was named senior adviser to the Secretary of State for innovation. During the campaign, Ross was a key person in developing Obama's far-reaching technology and open government platform, and he is looking forward to playing a similar role at State. The shift, he says, is away from a sole focus on government-to-government interaction and towards government-to-people, people-to-government, and maybe even people-to-people. Government can be much more creative in how they enable people to engage directly with each other, he argues, and there's no doubt that networked people can become important players on the international stage as well.

Clearly, in an age when Israeli and Lebanese bloggers can IM each other while their countries are at war, it's no longer enough to think of diplomacy as something conducted by white men in suits drinking tea across a mahogany table. President Obama's recent release of a Youtube video bearing greetings for the Nowruz holiday is a taste of what is coming. That video, I learned at the government web managers conference in Washington two weeks ago, actually got more views in Tehran than in San Francisco, which suggests a much deeper kind of diplomacy at work than when a foreign leader manages to give a speech on local television. (YouTube allows video producers to track local viewership.)

This morning at New York University's graduation ceremonies at Yankee Stadium, Secretary Clinton offered a glimpse of this new approach to "21st Century statecraft" in her commencement speech. Citing the broad array of problems facing America and the world, including the threat of pandemics, the financial crisis and global warming, Clinton said, "We need to build new partnerships from the bottom up and use every tool at our disposal. That is the heart of smart power." [Emphasis added.] Noting how networked and connected we are all becoming, she added, "This changing landscape requires us to expand our concept of diplomacy." She reminded students that there was a new kind of public engagement starting to flower internationally:

The biggest challenges we face today will be solved by the 60% of the world's population under the age of 30. Young people like you are using their talents and ingenuity to fashion their own forms of service and diplomacy. For example, two college graduates in Columbia used Facebook [see the Million Strong Against the FARC group] to organize 14 million people into the largest antiterrorism demonstrations in the world. In a few short weeks, their actions did as much damage to the terrorist networks as years of military action.

She also acknowledged the power of voter-centered social networking to change politics at home, noting to broad cheers, "Many of you, I know, used social networking platforms to make Barack Obama the president of the United States of America." (The implication was, I know what happened to me, and I'm paying attention now.)

In her short remarks, Clinton clearly seemed to be trying to, in effect, bring the wisdom and activism of crowds to grappling with international affairs, though her emphasis was mainly on problems that concern every nation, rather than more intractable and dangerous flashpoints like the wars of the Middle East. This isn't (yet?) about connecting people-to-people across warring borders, for example. But it's good that Clinton and her team, led by people like Ross and Jared Cohen, who has been active in a variety of e-diplomacy initiatives, are thinking broadly and ambitiously about these ideas. As she said, "We need to figure out ways to prepare all of our instruments of government to harness the efforts of those who don't enter the foreign service but still engage in their own fights for foreign service," citing sites like Kiva.org as platforms for effective engagement.

My message to you is be the special envoys of your ideals. Use the communications tools at your disposal to spread your values...by creating your own networks you can extend the power of governments to end hunger, defeat disease, combat climate change and give every child the ability to live up to his or her God-given potential.

One bit of hard news Clinton did announce: Over the next year the State Department will be creating "virtual student foreign service internships" where college students will be invited to participate in public diplomacy with US embassies abroad. The (still-sketchy) details are here.

Clearly, the State Department's "21st Century statecraft" initiative is a work in progress. But it also looks like it has Clinton's personal support and high-level leadership at work at fleshing out the details. We'll be watching closely and with great interest.

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