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CHAPTER VI - Implications and the Future for Diplomacy

Implications for Diplomacy
Before becoming Dean of the Korbel School of International Diplomacy at the University of Denver, Christopher Hill had a long career in foreign service that included serving as U.S. ambassador to Macedonia, Poland, South Korea and Iraq, as well as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. He confirmed that we are now living in “the age of networks,” and that diplomacy must adapt to function effectively in this new environment in which “horizontal axes are stronger than vertical axes.” The biggest problem to be faced is the relationship of existing institutions—such as the State Department, or even the U.S. government as a whole—to this new reality: When institutions are attacked by networks, how should they respond? How do we restore trust in our institutions? How can we build a coherent foreign policy when everyone is empowered to express an opinion or is ready to believe that they represent the United States?

More specifically, how should diplomats conduct themselves in a networked world? Today’s diplomats must be connected to key networks. They not only need to know policy but how networks work, and how they are influencing change. When they get involved in policy disputes, they need to be prepared to be attacked by networks that are often more powerful than formal structures. Diplomats also need to be aware that a comment made in one country can immediately be passed through a network where it can unleash a wave of criticism. (Hill recalled an incident when a comment made by the Secretary of State in another country was immediately challenged in the U.S. by two Senators.)

Some systemic changes are needed if U.S. interests are to be effectively pursued abroad. The solution is not to dismantle existing institutions because they are no longer relevant, but to find new ways to develop and implement foreign policy. Building consistent support for these policies is challenging but necessary. Americans will need to coalesce around a consensus on how we should operate in the world. Given the limited public funds available to support State Department activities, public-private partnerships will be vital to get the country’s messages out to the world. And, as networks become more powerful, we need to make them more transparent. The ultimate challenge, Hill concluded, is to rebuild America’s standing in the world.

Geoff Cowan responded by suggesting that the best way of dealing with a lack of consensus in this country would be to promote the message that the U.S. is fundamentally about “the clash of ideas.” This concept could empower people in other countries to express their own views and to use networks to connect with others who share them. Charlie Firestone cited a practical example of how this might work: each year, the State Department’s Edward R. Murrow Program brings approximately 100 journalists from around the world to the U.S. to learn about American journalistic practices. One of the people who spoke regularly to the group was Bob Woodward who demonstrated that even those who are critical of the President are welcome in the State Department and that free speech is really protected in this country.

Another program that is effective in promoting American values is the State Department’s Global Entrepreneurship Summits. These annual events, held in different locations around the world, typically include “workshops, panels, ignite talks, pitch competitions, mentoring, and networking sessions aimed to give participants opportunities to gain skills and relationships that will help their ventures grow.” The most recent summit was held in Hyderabad, India in November 2017 and focused on opportunities for women entrepreneurs. Picking up on a point made earlier, several participants called for doing even more to promote the American values of entrepreneurship and innovation through bringing Silicon Valley to the world.

Improving Diplomats’ Network Skills. Even though every Ambassador builds up a network of connections in the countries in which they are posted, many of them fail to pass on their connections when their term is up. Marc Nathanson noted that the State Department now has a policy that every political officer serving abroad should leave for their successor a sheet of contacts that they have cultivated to provide for a continuity of connections.

Knowing how to use Twitter effectively would seem to be another requirement for networked diplomats. According to Ambassador Hill, every Embassy now has an official Twitter account, which it uses to disseminate policy statements and official positions on issues and events. In addition, many Ambassadors maintain individual Twitter accounts, which they use for more personal communications within the country. Rick Stengel added that when he was at the State Department (2013-2016), Twitter feeds from Embassies increased five- to six-fold, and all Embassy websites were given a common appearance.

More broadly, there is a danger that focusing too much on tweeting in order to reach a broad international audience can mean that not enough attention is being given to what is needed locally. And Rick Stengel observed that “all tweets are not as impactful as one episode of Game of Thrones.” In fact, when he travelled abroad, the question that he frequently was asked was, “When will we get Netflix here?” When Netflix decided to expand to more countries, Stengel got congratulations.

Karen Kornbluh pointed out that we already ask a lot from our diplomats and expecting them to be able to create and use networks will add further to their burdens. If we are going to expect them to take on this additional task, we need to provide them with tools and training in network skills. One place where this could be done is the Foreign Service Institute, which already provides a wide range of in-person and online training programs for the State Department and other government agencies. A program to teach social media skills (which are continually evolving) would be a logical addition to the FSI’s curriculum.

Julian Rotich suggested that diplomats be given toolkits that help in creating networks, and trigger the flow of information within networks. Diplomats should also learn about designing empathy into networks as a way of strengthening social connections. Content that stirs emotions is the most powerful means of attracting attention and motivating action—simply disseminating information may not be the most impactful way to use a network.

The Future of Networks and the Future of Diplomacy
Over the past several decades, digital networks expanded dramatically, linking the world in unprecedented ways. Particularly notable is the growing reach of the Internet, now linking 3.8 billion people, or more than half of the world’s population, and the speed with which it enables messages to be communicated. These network connections opened many new pathways to knowledge and give voice to many who lacked it. And networks opened up innumerable opportunities for collaboration that transcends national borders.

The year 2017 has seen a tremendous increase in public awareness of networks and their power. But in the wake of ongoing revelations about large-scale cyber intrusions (Equifax, NSA) and the use of social media by foreign powers to spread disinformation and interfere in internal political affairs in the U.S. and elsewhere, much of the public attention has been negative. Networks and platforms generally viewed as pleasant diversions and benign resources are suddenly cast in a darker, more ominous light. Even leaders of the tech industry are surprised and dismayed by this shift in perception of the products which had been objects of fascination and admiration. If the entire Internet is becoming a battleground for memetic warfare, then everyone is potentially at risk of becoming collateral damage. Finding effective means for coping with the unanticipated negative effects of global networks could well be the 21st century version of the 19th century challenge brought about by the then-new railroad and the telegraph technologies.

For better or worse (or better and worse), networks clearly are playing a crucial role on the global stage. On the one hand, networks bring new risks of disruption from foreign adversaries and from nontraditional non-state actors. But they also offer powerful tools that diplomats can use to carry out their mission. In today’s networked world, diplomats committed to maintaining an orderly world need to understand and employ network principles.

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