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Alec Ross, Leaving State Department for Private Sector, Talks "21st-Century Statecraft"

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Monday, March 11 2013

State Department Senior Adviser for Innovation Alec Ross will leave government Tuesday and immediately start work on a new policy analysis and advisory shop to governments, investors, and other kinds of institutions — a company that plans to advise its clients on geopolitics in a globally networked world.

"It's not a government affairs company," Ross said via email. "I want to help people make better choices in the face of new dynamics in the marketplace, from the weaponization of code to big data creating and destroying business models."

Ross spent the past four years advising former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on technology-enabled diplomacy, a new position that was created specifically for him. Ross also worked closely with the State Department's former director of policy planning, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and others, to re-think how the department should operate in a networked world where traditional hierarchies of power are losing relevance to determined groups of networked actors. ("The measure of power is connectedness," Slaughter argued in a 2009 essay, "America's Edge," in Foreign Affairs.)

In a protracted email exchange and a phone interview, Ross explained to techPresident where he thinks "21st-century statecraft" now stands and discussed his future plans.

His friends say he helped the State Department seek to adapt to a changing world.

"Alec had not only substantive thoughtfulness, and the ability to speak about and explain these ideas eloquently, but he also had this bureaucratic ability to move and change the institution," said his friend Marvin Ammori, an attorney and a fellow at the New America Foundation. Ammori met Ross during President Obama's 2008 presidential campaign where they both worked on technology policy issues.

Ross' portfolio of responsibilities was wide-ranging. Beyond working to define "21st-century statecraft" with his colleagues, he estimates that he traveled 900,000 miles over the past four years advising allied governments on how they might want to approach the issue too. His work also included advice to government leaders abroad on how to build their Internet economies.

His work at State also included supporting people who wanted to keep lines of communication open in conflict zones. When Muammar Gaddafi tried to cut his country's citizens off from the Internet (and thus the rest of the world) during the civil war in 2011, Benghazi-based telecom engineer Khaled el Mufti and others sought to restore that connection immediately. They relied help from the British mission in Benghazi, which put them in touch with Ross and his technology and innovation team at the State Department, which helped them to negotiate with the Egyptians to provide access to a telecom switch. The team that did all this work to keep the country connected eventually became Libya's ministry of telecommunications.

In a phone conversation from Benghazi, Mufti also praised Ross and his team (specifically Ben Scott, who's now with the New America Foundation) for helping him to develop e-Libya, an initiative to develop electronic commerce, learning and Internet infrastructure.

Ross didn't confine his activities pushing for an open Internet to countries outside of the U.S. When policymakers were pushing ahead with the Stop Online Piracy Act domestically, he also spent a lot of time talking to officials within the administration explaining why the proposed law was a bad idea.

Ross' advocacy for Internet freedom doesn't mean that he isn't for any boundaries at all. When asked about the impact of WikiLeaks on the department's morale, he said that he laughed when he saw the question. He says he doesn't think WikiLeaks has had any impact on the department's morale.

"Wikileaks set the open government backward," Ross wrote in an e-mail. "It wasn't whistle-blowing because whistle-blowing reveals acts of official government wrongdoing. What the cables revealed was rightdoing. 28 months later, the State Department looks good and [Julian] Assange and Wikileaks looks silly. Their view that there should not be secret information of any sort is beyond naive."

The State Department has yet to announce Ross' successors, but Ross said that the department plans to split his position in two. One adviser will focus on policy, and the other on technology.

Below is techPresident's Sunday Q&A with Ross.

Sarah Lai Stirland: You're the first adviser for innovation for the State Department. How did you begin the job?

Alec Ross: Hillary Clinton, Cheryl Mills and I quietly developed the scope of work outside of public view. During her senate testimony in December of 2008 when she was preparing to become secretary of state, she described "a world in which the promise and peril of the 21st century no longer knows the barriers of vast distances or national borders."

My job was created, in essence, to help our diplomacy being able to respond to take advantage of the promise, and hold at bay as much of the peril of this 'boundry-less-ness' as we could.

SLS: Could you describe the boundaries of your job? Because a lot of the time, it can sound a bit vague.

Ross: The job is to maximize the potential of technology and innovation in service of America's diplomatic goals.

There are 196 countries on planet Earth, and this encompasses a scope of work that could include 195 of those.

Innovation is broad, but in terms of how it manifested itself over the past four years, there are a lot of specific deliverables.

SLS: Let's jump to the news: Can you tell me a bit about the company that you're forming after you leave?

Ross: Sure, the purpose of it is to provide guidance to investors, government leaders, corporations and other institutions to help them make sense of the disruptions that take place at the intersection of geopolitics, markets, and network technologies.

SLS: Can you give me an example?

Ross: Sure. So the weaponization of code. Over the past couple of years, it's come to public light that hundreds of billions of dollars are being extracted from the private sector because of cyber attacks originating from states and by hackers closely-aligned with states around the world. So the scope and scale of this is serious enough that government leaders need coaching, investors need coaching, and Fortune 1000 leaders need coaching. Entire financial systems are vulnerable. Any company whose primary asset is its intellectual property is vulnerable, and government leaders have to take protective measures without undermining the open Internet. So there's one very concrete example.

SLS: There are a plethora of cybersecurity companies out there. What would distinguish yours from all these other companies?

Ross: Cybersecurity companies sell gear. Consultants sell a.) gear or b.) technical specs. Everywhere I travel around the world, everywhere I travel, government leaders and CEOs tell me that they need help with the policies and the geopolitics that touch on this and related issues. And so a cybersecurity firm isn't going to be able to understand the geopolitics of the issue. A consultant isn't going to be able to help a government leader to engage diplomatically with the aggressor nation. That is my distinct niche. Our distinct niche is that we will be working on the geopolitics, and not on the gear. We're not upselling gear.

SLS: I don't want to get bogged down in the specifics, because I'm sure you have to think a lot of this through, but the obvious question here is: How does one deal with the Chinese hacking into everything and stealing all our stuff?

Ross: Well, I'll have to send you a bill after I answer this!

SLS: I guess what I'm saying is that we've had incidents where people we think who are affiliated with the [mainland] Chinese government have been hacking, phishing and infiltrating institutions in the United States, and it's very difficult to deal with that. And you're saying that you have ways of advising people to address these situations?

Ross: Yes. There are a variety of different audiences for this. If it's engaging the aggressor nations, you need carrots and sticks. There are international fora, like the World Trade Organization. There are also industry-based initiatives that can and should be created to isolate and punish bad behavior. So there are a variety of different tools in the toolbox for how to do this.

SLS: Are you going to take a break after this?

Ross: I walk out the door at five o'clock on a Tuesday, and I'm on a plane at 6.45. That's not specific to this country, but I'm not taking a breath in terms of work. I'm also pursuing my writing work very aggressively. I'm going to stay very busy from the outset. It'll take a couple of months for the company to get up off the ground, in part because of ethical reasons. I wasn't going to get started while I was still in government. Some people might do that, but I won't, and I don't.

SLS: Tell us a bit more about your writing projects.

Ross: I'm not going to get too much into it right now, but it's everything from short-form Op-Eds to there are a variety of publishers interested in a piece of non-fiction. There are a variety of different folks from the industry to Hollywood who've said: 'Hey, we'd love to lock you up in a room with a screen-writer and see what you come out with.' So there a lot of opportunities out there.

SLS: Cool.

Ross: Yeah. I haven't sought this out, but lots of people in the movie business have said: 'Hey, you've lived a fascinating life, and gotten to see a lot: Don't write anything autobiographical, but wouldn't it be cool if we paired you up with a screenwriter, and you wrote something?'"

I'd also like to think that I have a book in me. And then I plan on staying current and relevant in today's policy dialogue. So I plan on periodically writing Op-Eds as well.

SLS: I had asked you what you were most proud of, and you said, making Internet Freedom a foreign policy issue at the grown-ups' table. How do you forsee that playing out, making Internet Freedom part of the conversation, continuing that conversation going forward?

Ross: I don't it'll be an issue keeping it up as a topic of conversation because there is so much bad behavior out there, and I think so many governments out there have malignant intent in the Internet Freedom space. For me, it's how you win these fights. Obviously there are strategies you use inside government, and that's what I've been doing for the last four years.

SLS: Countries will continue to try to wall off their citizens. Apart from official processes like WCIT, do you feel optimistic that this is a fight that's winnable?

Ross: I think it's winnable because I think ultimately these networks tilt towards openness, but I think there's going to be a bodycount. I think it's going to be a bloody fight, and I think that countries that have different views than the United States on Internet Freedom are going to fight like heck to make networks in their countries closed and controllable, and there are going to be parts of the world where I think the networks will tilt toward openness.

So for example, I'm very optimistic about South America. I'm somewhat optimistic about sub-Saharan Africa, and Northeast Asia. I think Southeast Asia and Oceana are in a better state than South Central Asia.

But I am downright pessimistic about the Middle East. I think that the former Soviet Republics are going to model everything from the very best to the very worst. So on the very best, you have countries like Estonia, and you among the very worst you have the Belarus. So you can see, while you can make some generalizations, it's really going to be a 196-country chessboard.

SLS: Why are you particularly pessimistic about the Middle East?

Ross: I'm pessimistic about the Middle East because I think that the government leaders there are willing to spend just about anything to keep their networks closed. I also think that the religious leaders there play a very unhelpful role. So it's not just the state. They're often backed up by the Muslim clergy. This tends to isolate the Internet public.

SLS: And why are you so optimistic about South America?

Ross: Just because I see such vibrancy there. I think that there are some governments where it's more of an open question what their posture will be, for example Argentina. But I think for the most of the rest of the continent, when I look at Columbia, when I look at Brazil, when I look at Chile, I'm incredibly impressed by the vibrancy of the Internet public, and by the amount of Internet entrepreneurship taking place there, and I think it's just propelling the entire continent in a very positive direction.

SLS: One of the things that you did in your job at the Department of State was working with dissidents in places like Syria and Libya, and one of the things that you listed in response to my question about what you're most proud of is working with the rebels to restore comms in Rebel-held territory in Eastern Libya during the revolution. I did read about Khaled Mufti, and how he gained access to a key piece of equipment at the time. How was State involved?

Ross: So after the networks were shut down, he needed equipment, and he needed equipment to attach to, and we played a role in making that happen.

SLS: This gets me to a question I hoped you could answer: There are so many projects within the Department of State. You helped to establish programs to train dissidents and rebels in repressive countries; you helped set up these programs to help civil society groups, and then there's this program called tech@state. How did you get your arms around everything when you first arrived at the Department of State, (which is quite a large department?)

Ross: 60,000 people working in over 190 countries. Well, it's not something that I had my arms around initially. In 2009, Anne-Marie Slaughter and I spent a huge amount of time studying this field. And beginning to establish a policy-framework for this, a programmatic framework.

You gotta understand, where we are today, things look big, Brookings just wrote a study that counted 155 practitioners of 21st century statecraft. That is a result of four years of work. There is a reason I didn't leave after 18 months or two years. It's because of the work of institutionalization. If I'd have left after two years, I'd have left with some things I could have been proud of, but the work would not have been institutionalized.

The key for me was to stay through years three and four, so it could be institutionalized. So the way I got my arms around it was: It took a long time! The second thing is – it was really rooted in supply and demand. We didn't go out and try and sell innovation, so to speak. It was the ambassadors who came to us with a problem.

It would come from one of two directions, either A: Secretary Clinton's office, who would say hey we've got a problem, can you help us create a solution? Or B, the ambassadors would get in touch with me. I would say that 80% of our projects had their roots in phone calls from ambassadors: "Hey Alec, we aren't solving this inside the embassy, can you and your gang come up with something?"

SLS: Did you have anything to do with that air-quality monitor project in Beijing?

Ross: No, but I love it. The tie in is that they get money from an innovation fund, which embassies can apply to if they have projects that are unbudgeted that are technology-based that they want to stand up. The grants tend to be $100,000.

SLS: So did you implement your ideas through this Quadrennial review process?

Ross: That was part of it, sure. The Quadrennial Diplomatic and Development Review is a four year strategic plan that drives programming and resources, and so Anne-Marie ran it, and I co-chaired the innovation taskforce and there were a lot of ideas that Anne-Marie and I had that ended up in the QDDR. So that was obviously an important instrument, and I have to say, with Hillary Clinton's support. She pushed this. She was very clear with us: She said this is the vehicle through which you can make the kinds of changes in this 60,000 person organization.

SLS: How did you work with Hillary Clinton? Did you have a meeting with her every day?

Ross: Sure, well, first of all, we weren't in the office everyday, given her travel schedule and mine. Whenever I needed to see her, I could see her. She was really accessible. It was pretty informal. We would occasionally have formal sit-downs, and I would have a once a week meeting with Cheryl Mills, her chief of staff.

But there's also e-mail, and whenever we were both in town, and we wanted and needed to see each other, we did.

She's really remarkable. She didn't just promote the work, she protected it. Most of what we did, had a much higher risk factor. I mean most diplomacy is very calibrated against risk. All of our work was very edgy, stuff we were doing for the first time. So her admonishment to me was: 'You're here to make mistakes of commission, rather than of omission.'

SLS: Can you give me an example of a risky project? I'm sure what you would say most of my work was risky, but for example this project to train the rebels in Syria, was that something that you initiated?

Ross: So that was something that was initiated in and around Syria, but after briefing her, she said, "Good, go." Within the norms of the State Department, yes. The individuals don't come to the State Department. It's the NGOs … obviously the State Department had a presence in Syria until we didn't, at which point we then moved into the border areas into Lebanon and Turkey.

SLS: Are there any other projects that you want to shine the light on that went really well?

Ross: I guess the only thing that hasn't gotten as much attention as it deserves, because it's not sexy as restoring communications in Eastern Libya, is our Civil Society 2.0 program. After the election in 2008, the tech community really wanted to give back. They were highly supportive of the Obama administration. And one of the very practical ways that we created for them to give back was this Civil Society 2.0 program.

So we've had amazing trainers from the United States fly absolutely everywhere in the world digging deep with grassroots NGOs to build their digital capacity, and the numbers are big. I mean if you just look at the numbers of organizations that we've trained, and the geographic scope, it's pretty huge.

So for example, I saw this when I was in Lithuania. There was a group from the Ukraine that was focused on disability rights, and they were talking about how there was no public information about handicapped facilities. Well, we had both a database and mapping expert there. The database expert found some obscure dataset that actually showed where the handicapped-accessible facilities in the Ukraine were, and a mapmaker than built a mobile-based map so that if you type your address into your mobile phone, you could find out the handicapped-accessible facilities in the Ukraine. So this is a clear case of: Problem definition: X: Where are the handicapped facilities in the Ukraine? Techie solution Y. Here's the mapmaker, here's the database guy.

Another example might be rooted in Internet Freedom. It might be a Belarusian group saying: Hey, we know the Belarusian State Police monitor e-mail. How do we communicate safely over e-mail? Well, our trainers then show them the latest and greatest ways of getting securely over e-mail, or through communications channels that they haven't thought of yet.

Hillary Clinton announced [this program] in November of 2009. In Marrakesh at the Forum for the Future. I remember her plane was still in the air, and we'd finished the text as she was about to land in Marrakesh, and she then announced the program in Marrakesh.

I was on the phone with a member of staff who was on the plane with her, and we want to announce the program. So you said, how do you get your arms around this? So one of the problems we were trying to solve in 2009 was: "Hey, Hillary Clinton travels all around the world and meets with these grassroots civil society organizations, but they're all very hand-to-mouth in terms of their capacity. Isn't there a way to turbo-boost their efforts with the use of technology?"

So by November, we come up with this idea for the program. Just as a practical matter, I'm in Washington on speaker outlining the program, which is being typed into a laptop on her plane as she lands. She then announces it. So what then follows in 2010 is the design and initial implementation of the program, and in 2011 and 2012, you can see the scale that's it's achieved already more than 1100 organizations trained in more than 80 countries. So you can see why I get excited about this, especially having come from the NGO world where that is 10-15 years worth of work.

Disclosure: In the past, techPresident's parent company, Personal Democracy Media, has worked with the State Department on conferences and events. A State Department grant funded a "TechCamp" event PDM hosted around PDF Latin America in Santiago, Chile in 2010. State funding supported speaker travel for PDF Poland in 2013 and PDF Europe in Barcelona, Spain, in 2009.