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CHAPTER V - Pursuing National Interest in a World of Networks

Pursuing National Interest in a World of Networks
What should American foreign policy look like in the age of networks? What long-standing goals and strategies of diplomacy still hold sway, and where are new approaches needed?

According to Kenneth Weinstein, President and CEO of the Hudson Institute, we seem to be at an inflection point in the relationship of the U.S. to the rest of the world. Some of the basic assumptions that have shaped American foreign policy—the value of globalization, the vital importance of alliances (NATO, WTO, G7) and trade pacts (NAFTA, TPP), the necessity of supporting democratic institutions and human rights—are being called into question. In particular, the pursuit of globalism is increasingly seen as disproportionately helping elites at the expense of ordinary citizens. The new technology has failed to deliver benefits to a portion of the population. Networks, by definition, benefit those who are connected, and tend to exacerbate the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged, less well-connected groups—rural residents, the old, the poor and minorities.

The reality is that the public has a hard time supporting things that they have a hard time understanding. The world has grown more complex, due in part to the technology that has radically changed the way we communicate with each other and created an environment filled with too much information. In the face of this complexity, there is a sharp decline in the willingness to trust the expertise of experts and a rise in a preference for relying on one’s own experiences. The spread of digital networks may “open the door” to democracy, but technology can be subverted for darker purposes. As the Internet has become increasingly pervasive, it has become easier for people to live within their own “filter bubbles” that reinforce their own perspectives and block out opposing points of view. Rather than creating a friendly global village, the Net seems to have fragmented people into a myriad of self-reinforcing, mutually antagonistic tribes ready to do battle with one another.

Shanthi Kalathil, Director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy, cited her research that showed that the presence of a network such as the Internet does not automatically lead to democratization. In her 2003 study, Open Networks, Closed Regimes, she describes the uses and the impacts of the Internet in eight non-democratic countries (China, Cuba, Singapore, Vietnam, Myanmar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt). Kalathil found that “the Internet is challenging and helping to transform authoritarianism…[but] information technology alone is unlikely to bring about its demise.”

Ironically, one country that is making good use of network strategies to extend its influence is China. Its “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative is a vast project to build a new infrastructure along the old Silk Road to link China more closely to Europe. Although it is mainly an economic initiative, the language that is being used to promote OBOR as “the community of common destiny”—opt-in, non-hierarchical, flexible—is very much network-centric. However, when China invests abroad, it is not concerned with building in principles of good governance, which leaves it vulnerable to blowback. The reality is that China sees itself as being at the center of the web it is creating, and that its goal is to expand its influence globally.

At the same time, the U.S. seems to be pulling back from its engagement with the world. As Jerry Green noted, the U.S. is walking away from networks like NAFTA, ASEAN, TPP and NATO that it helped to build in the years following World War II, leaving China to fill the void. Even though American values and American culture give us an inherent advantage in competing with China, we are not taking advantage of them very effectively: We need to get back in the game.

While Americans still seem willing to come together in the face of a dramatic unifying event such as 9/11, that unity has been fleeting. In fact, there are networks that are working to “deinstitutionalize the U.S.” by stoking intolerance, encouraging a fear of the threat of foreign influences and eroding trust in government. The old notion that partisanship ends at the border has broken down.

In this new world, the question is whether we can use the power of network technology to rebuild a consensus around a foreign policy and to increase transparency of and trust in key institutions. Is this a mission impossible, or can we make use of what we have learned about how networks operate to reduce divisiveness and find a meaningful common ground?

Not just online. ADDTech participants agreed that network strategies should be an important part of the toolkit of diplomats, even if online networks are not the only way to connect people, and may well not be the ideal way. It is important to remember that the concept of a network refers to online connections, and to any set of connections that can be described in terms of nodes and links. People and institutions have been connected through networks long before the Internet arrived (and before the telegraph introduced the age of electronic networks in the 19th century). It is noteworthy that David Singh Grewel’s important 2009 study Network Power: The Social Dynamics of Globalization provides adetailed analysis of the power of international networks but does not even include “Internet” in its index.i (Grewel focuses his analysis on the benefits and the limitations that come from membership in groups like the World Trade Organization.)

Esther Dyson, a long-time student of technology, stated flatly that if the goal is to build stronger relationships among disparate groups of people, “offline networks are the way to go.” Online connections, she noted, make it too easy to be snarky and dismissive of others. The inability to see someone else’s body language works against building empathy and diminishes opportunities for nuance.

The Telecommunications/Transportation Tradeoff that Wasn’t

Back in the 1970s, at the time of the first “oil shock,” when gas prices spiked, the Institute for the Future, a non-profit research group in Palo Alto, CA, conducted a study of what was then being referred to (optimistically) as the “telecommunications/transportation tradeoff.” The hope was that virtual meetings could take the place of the real thing, thereby saving money and resources as people substituted electronic media for what was expected to be increasingly expensive physical travel. However, the study concluded that there was, in fact, no tradeoff. In fact, the opposite was true: The more people communicated with others, the more they wanted to travel to meet in person, a fact borne out by the steady increase in global air travel that has paralleled the expansion of global communications networks.

Rick Stengel, Senior Advisor to Snapchat and former director of the State Department Office of Public Diplomacy, agreed that face-to-face (F2F) meetings are the “gold standard” for communications, but acknowledged that arranging for physical meetings on a global scale is labor intensive and expensive. During his tenure at the State Department, he found that the combination of F2F and online connections was a “force multiplier” that is more effective than either one by itself.

Stengel cited the Mandela Fellowship Program, which is part of the State Department’s Young African Leadership Initiative (YALI), as an example of the successful combination of online and offline activities. Each year, the Initiative brings over 500 emerging leaders from Africa to the U.S. to take part in a six-week leadership training program at an American college or university, followed by a summit in Washington, D.C. that includes meetings with U.S. political, business and non-profit leaders. After completing their stay in the U.S., Mandela Fellows continue to stay connected through an online network as well as activities in their home countries. The Fellowship has attracted more than 50,000 applicants, and those who are not accepted are invited to participate in YALI’s online network that provides access to training courses, blogs and online events. Juliana Rotich, co-founder of Ushahidi and an active contributor to YALI, agreed that the Fellowship is successful in creating a “true pan-African network,” and the best way to support participants in the program is a combination of in-person activities supplemented by online interactions.

Haroon Ullah, Senior Member of the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff, agreed that person-to-person connections are probably the most effective diplomatic tool, but the reality in much of the world is that security concerns have turned embassies into “fortresses,” and that it is difficult for diplomats to travel freely and meet people. In Karachi, for example, which is one of the most heavily armed cities in the world, diplomats are able to get out of their embassies only once a month. Christopher Hill, Dean of the Korbel School of International Relations at the University of Denver, acknowledged that the “cost of getting out” of an embassy in many countries is high. He recalled that when he wanted to travel in Iraq, he needed to arrange an escort of several dozen security personnel, which significantly limited his mobility.

Given these constraints, we need new strategies for building communities of interest that can link foreigners to the U.S. Hill noted that when physical contact was difficult, he would rely on social networks to get his message out to the local population. Even in friendly environments, using modern networks can be useful in extending a diplomat’s reach. In Denmark, the U.S. ambassador made a series of highly popular YouTube videos that helped show the local population that “he’s just like us.” In Kenya, a video of the American ambassador dancing with the Kenyan author of a best-selling book was posted online and had a similar impact in helping to humanize the U.S.

Another possibility is to leverage the potential for “citizen diplomats.” Haroon Ullah noted that some 50,000 residents of Karachi have visited the U.S. over the past two decades, but there is no way to identify them and no effort to connect with or follow up with them. Similarly, many American universities maintain networks for their alumni, who span the globe. Geoff Cowan noted that USC has such a network, but he had never considered tapping it to support the U.S. abroad. Americans are, in fact, ready volunteers and might be interested in participating in an informal Diplomacy Corps. Many of the millions of Americans who travel abroad each year welcome opportunities to meet residents of the countries they visit and share experiences. Most Americans, for example, would be willing and able to contradict ISIS’s claim that “there are no mosques in the U.S.”

According to Juliana Rotich, another resource that could be mobilized to serve national interests are U.S-based high-tech companies that operate on a global scale and that embody the power of innovation—which has become one of the most attractive elements of Brand America. She suggested that representatives of high-tech companies could be encouraged not to just take care of their business when they travel abroad, but to devote some time to work with local start-ups to impart some of their expertise. The reality is that high-tech entrepreneurs are now rock stars, the equivalent of the performers who helped to spread American culture in the 20th century. Successful entrepreneurs have an opportunity to tap into the power of aspiration, especially among young people, that exists worldwide. In addition, making an effort to connect with local communities can be a powerful way of rebuilding trust on the ground level.

Monika Bickert agreed, and pointed out that while Facebook is not a country, with some two billion users, it is a key player globally. In order to operate successfully on a global scale, Facebook needs to pay attention to subnetworks which may be local governments, civic societies or small businesses. In fact, Facebook has programs all over the world to help people, using technology to scale its efforts. Like national governments, it recognizes the need to personalize itself with the people it wants to work with. In other words, Facebook and its high-tech peers need to be in the diplomacy business.


iDavid Singh Grewel, Network Power: The Social Dynamics of Globalization (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).

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