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21st Century Statecraft: State Dept. Eyes the Challenge of Conducting Diplomacy in "Messy Spaces"

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, June 2 2009

As we all know, in international diplomacy a word choice here or there can mean the difference between smooth international engagement and a diplomatic tussle. Now, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has, as we've been tracking, been extolling the power of "digital diplomacy" -- the idea that we tech-savvy Americans can meaningfully interact with our counterparts around the world. The future of the U.S. image abroad is in our hands. But few of us are trained diplomats. So what if we goof, blog something impolitic, and set off World War III?

At a Center for American Progress event yesterday, reports NextGov, Alec Ross, the State Department advisor charged with bringing innovation to Foggy Bottom, admitted that "social media is a messy space and government doesn't always lend itself to messy spaces." But Ross argued that a sense of context and proportionality should guide digital diplomacy, here in the context of empowering those within government to engage freely online:

Ross responded that the context of the online discussion, whether the topic is war negotiations or commercial trade, for instance, should determine when it is permissible for a federal employee to speak about State business. "There are different levels of appropriateness and openness for each of those contexts," he said.

Ross pointed to Secretary Clinton's Text Swat program -- which used cell phone SMS texting to send relief monies to Pakistan's war-torn Swat Valley -- as a taste of what tech-powered 21st century statecraft might entail. (State Department photo by Jose Luis Arnal)