Issue #23, Winter 2012

Open-Source Diplomacy

Instead of hunkering down in the wake of the WikiLeaks fiasco, Foggy Bottom should move toward a less secretive diplomacy.

November 29th may be remembered as one of the most important anniversaries in the annals of American diplomacy. On this day, in two separate centuries, events occurred that shaped—and will continue to shape—the course of U.S. statecraft.

On November 29, 1775, the Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, established the Committee of Secret Correspondence. The goal of this committee, comprised of an illustrious band of revolutionaries including Benjamin Franklin and John Jay, was to solicit aid from potential European allies for the nascent American war effort. Equipped with codes and ciphers, the committee became the forerunner of the U.S. State Department, and the habits of secrecy it initiated have over the centuries become the modus operandi for modern American diplomacy.

It was also on November 29 of last year that the world’s newspapers announced the release of the WikiLeaks cables, the enormous and infamous cache of classified State Department cables that suddenly and unprecedentedly fell into the hands of the uncleared public.

There is little doubt that the WikiLeaks breach caused serious and potentially long-term damage to U.S. diplomatic interests. The leaked cables included critical comments made by Saudi King Abdullah and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan about Pakistan’s civilian leaders, making it unlikely these leaders, or many others, will offer their candid assessments to American diplomats anytime soon. U.S. programs to reclaim enriched uranium from a Pakistani research reactor were also revealed, as were the details of how U.S. Special Forces have been providing support to Pakistan’s own military operations. Also swept up were some of America’s most talented diplomats, including Carlos Pascual, who stepped down from his post as U.S. ambassador to Mexico after his blunt assessment of Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s anti-drug efforts turned up in the document dump.

In its wholesale violation of U.S. diplomatic secrecy, WikiLeaks’s actions have only intensified the prevailing tendency in Foggy Bottom and in the Administration to “batten down the hatches.” In October, President Obama signed a sweeping executive order—the so-called “WikiLeaks order”—instructing the national security community to deploy more robust cybersecurity technologies and measures to make the secrecy infrastructure of American diplomacy more restrictive, pervasive, and impenetrable, including more aggressive enforcement mechanisms, new data breach prevention systems, and significantly enhanced protocols for access to official communications. Indeed, this bulked-up secrecy infrastructure may prove effective in preventing future breaches.

American diplomacy, however, need not proceed inflexibly along this track. As traumatic and embarrassing as it may have been, the WikiLeaks episode offers the United States a timely opportunity to reassess its approach to diplomacy to ensure it can remain relevant in the new global information ecosystem. In this new track, rather than trying to resist the increasingly transparent and networked global communications infrastructure in which American diplomacy is now enmeshed, America’s diplomats may choose instead to adapt to new technical, cultural, and policy realities. It has become one of the great ironies of our time that while the United States has one of the most open societies in the world, its diplomatic activities and the technology infrastructure that supports them still remain among the world’s most secretive and siloed.

One urgent consequence of this contradiction is that American diplomacy risks becoming ever more out of touch with, and therefore of less consequence to, the emerging mainstream of engaged citizens around the world for whom concepts such as national interest, identity, and political affiliation are influenced increasingly by the interactive social networks they have formed, rather than by traditional elites and governments. As billions of cell-phone-carrying and Internet-equipped citizens around the world move relentlessly toward more open, participatory, and collaborative forms of communication, American diplomacy—still mired in its habits of secrecy—risks being left behind.

This lag was glaringly apparent during the wave of democratic activism witnessed these past months not only in the streets, but also in the text messages and online social networks of the Maghreb and Middle East. These extraordinary events were not anticipated by American diplomats, and American diplomacy was not able to establish in a timely way a coherent, coordinated, or trusted voice within those critically important new networks of engaged citizens. If the State Department proves unable to maintain America’s leadership—either in physical or now increasingly in virtual environments—other institutions, individuals, networks, or governments surely will fill the vacuum, and not always in ways that serve America’s interests.

Today, one year after the WikiLeaks fiasco and in the wake of the Arab Spring, America’s diplomatic enterprise urgently needs to be retooled. What should be the source code for this new diplomatic track? In a world whose politics increasingly are shaped by ubiquitous networks enabled by social media, the answer lies in the “open source” principles that have drastically reinvented the way citizens, markets, economies, and governments now interact.

America in the Bazaar

In practical terms, the concept of “open source”—which first gained momentum in the early days of the commercial deployment of the Internet in the mid-1990s—describes a means of developing software that ensures it can be licensed, modified, and distributed freely and transparently. Anyone can download open-source software for little or no cost, and can use, share, borrow, or change it without restriction. Relying on open collaboration by software developers, and the transparent sharing of insights between developers and users, open source has become a design principle not merely for software, but also now for a broader range of human endeavors, including business, medical research, biotechnology, and even government. (See “Wiki-Government” by Beth Simone Noveck, Issue #7.)

As the American computer programmer and author Eric S. Raymond described in his famous 1997 essay “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” adherents of the open-source movement saw in software-code writing nothing less than a political philosophy. The core tenet of this philosophy was that the authoritarian and buttressed “cathedrals” of hierarchical and proprietary information systems, whether they exist in cyberspace or in the brick-and-mortar structures of business or government, necessarily will give way to the more collaborative and self-organizing “bazaar” that is the new, networked, information society. In this open-source ecosystem, everything is shared, and adheres to Stewart Brand’s famous adage that “information wants to be free.”

Already, open source has become the dominant ethos for much of the world’s information architecture. Everything from the way we communicate to the way we work, learn, and play is increasingly informed by the principles of open-source software design, which operates on a community model with more decentralized governance. One of the most successful examples of collaborative, peer-based, open-source design is Wikipedia, the online, not-for-profit, and user-generated encyclopedia that has revolutionized the very idea of content creation and distribution. With nearly 20 million articles, 90,000 active volunteer contributors, and more than 365 million readers, the site can be edited by anyone in any of the now 282 languages in which it is published.

If U.S. diplomacy is to flourish in this new environment, it too must prudently but deliberately integrate an increasingly open-source outlook in its operations, its culture, and the design and conduct of the communications networks and systems it deploys. This new diplomacy will leverage many of the attributes and instincts of the open-source technology movement itself—and will look vastly different from diplomacy as we know it. The practice of traditional cable writing from ambassadors at post to their superiors at Foggy Bottom—more often than not ghost written by staff officers and requiring elaborate clearance processes—will give way to platforms of reporting that are not always confidential, and will be accessible to wider internal and external audiences and open to their commentary and critique.

Technical fluency, just like language fluency, will be tested and developed in our diplomats before they are stationed overseas, so that communication via social media, web logs, and other technical means can be more efficient, more pervasive, and more systematic. Feedback about American policies, principles, and practices will be openly sought, encouraged, and actively measured. And our diplomats will focus not only on interaction with government officials, state institutions, and elites, but increasingly on building partnerships with local businesses, students, universities, organizations, and other non-governmental actors supporting issues and values of importance to the United States.

A Strategy for Reform

For any bureaucratic organization, change is hard. But for an institution as globally dispersed and organizationally complex as the State Department, it is exquisitely challenging. Lacking the command-and-control ethos of the Pentagon, and dependent on the morale, dedication, and commitment of its talented civil service, the State Department is an inherently conservative institution, deeply protective of its prerogatives, its personnel, and its traditions. It was not surprising when the White House website reported recently in its open government scorecard that the State Department lagged behind all the 15 cabinet departments in its progress toward implementing the President’s open government and transparency goals.

During my service in Washington as a national security official in the late 1990s, I saw just how stubbornly opposed to innovation the State Department often could be. Even as the World Wide Web became globally available, most State Department personnel abroad had limited or no access to the Internet. Those few who did were forced for security reasons to locate their “open” terminals several feet away from their classified desktops. These open terminals had to be connected to the government’s expensive proprietary global network, which was so inefficient it often provided download speeds as slow as data speeds for faxes.

The technology teams I led at the United States Information Agency recognized that commercial solutions to this problem were readily available, and sought to provide to diplomats in selected embassies around the world higher-speed Internet access using commonly available satellite technology. Over the often-strenuous objections of many in the State Department, the project was able to proceed—but only by using funds solicited directly from Congress. When it came to promoting innovation within the State Department, the key lesson for would-be innovators was that the best approach often was to ask not for permission, but for forgiveness.

Fortunately, attitudes and practices have evolved significantly in the past decade. Despite what some critics on the left may assert, the pre-WikiLeaks Obama Administration took some important steps in the direction of transparency and innovation in American diplomacy. Among other measures, it adapted a decidedly more open-source attitude in its first efforts to wean the U.S. national security community away from reflexive secrecy. In one of his first acts, President Obama issued the Open Government Directive, requiring all federal agencies to take immediate steps to foster transparency, collaboration, and participation. Since then, the Administration has made government data and documents more accessible, launched citizen-generated idea sharing platforms such as to promote collaborative problem-solving between the public and government officials on a range of policy issues, and created the previously mentioned scorecard, which tracks overall performance on openness and transparency across the government.

The Administration has also made investments in more modern technology infrastructure and devoted greater attention to streamlining and modernizing federal communications, technology, and acquisition policies. This includes the establishment of the federal government’s first chief information and technology officers based in the White House, a greater reliance on cloud technologies for data storage, patent reform, initiatives to speed up commercialization of government research and development, and efforts to make broadband spectrum more widely available.

The changes have not been restricted to the White House. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also has championed a more vocal mission for the State Department in the areas of innovation, openness, and technology, including the appointment of the first coordinator for cyber issues, as well as a senior adviser for innovation to help manage technology initiatives across the State Department’s many bureaus focusing on security, privacy, spectrum, and Internet access. A range of new programs also has been launched, including a national innovation competition to elicit new ideas about how technology can more effectively support diplomacy.

But the WikiLeaks contretemps threatens to roll back some of these innovations. And while these initiatives certainly are important steps, we still need a longer-term strategy to ensure America’s diplomatic corps is ready to engage effectively in an open-source world. The full transition from the “traditional” practice of statecraft dominated by more secretive interaction among elites to a more decentralized, technologically enabled, and transparent approach to diplomacy will be accomplished neither under the watch of any one secretary of state nor by any one administration. It will require a sustained, multiyear focus on the part of the executive branch, Congress, and the Foreign Service itself. It also will need to adopt the following set of bottom-line principles and practices—based themselves on core open-source tenets—in order to flourish.


The core principle for this new American diplomacy will be a deeper commitment to transparency itself. This call for openness in diplomatic practice, though often out of fashion since World War I, is not entirely new for American statecraft. In fact, transparency was the first of Woodrow Wilson’s famous Fourteen Points of 1918, in which he laid before Congress a vision for a new postwar diplomacy based above all upon “[o]pen covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.”

Wilson’s perception that the confidence of both the American people and of our allies requires an open approach to diplomacy could not be more relevant today. More than ever, there is a strategic premium in the marketplace and within civil society on open and unfettered communications. American diplomacy ignores this phenomenon at its peril. In this new environment, efforts by American diplomats to engage more openly with publics will be rewarded with increasing trust.

In practical terms, our diplomats must be given significantly more leeway in the future to engage with communities of interest without onerous clearance procedures, permissions, and approved talking points. It also means that the buildings in which our diplomats work must be designed and sited not only with security in mind, but also to facilitate optimal communication with access for local citizens. Locating our diplomatic offices closer to urban centers when feasible will be an important step in this direction.

Technology Engagement

Issue #23, Winter 2012
Post a Comment

Greg Fawcett:

Artfully presented.

As crisis is opportunity, policy makers would do well to heed your call for transparency.

High unemployment among the under 25 demo may present the seeds of a solution. The under 25 set best understand social media, a core communication tool for organizers around the world. This demo must be leveraged for diplomacy through another technology meme: crowdsourcing.

Governments that engage, serve and mobilize their citizens reduce the risk of facing the ire of those citizens in the square, in the park, in the halls, or at the ballot box.

Nov 28, 2011, 5:58 PM
David Marks:

Didn't someone use a very similar analogy a couple of years back?

I stumbled across this post that talks about the same cathedral and bazaar analogy and an open source approach to diplomacy - were you aware of it?

Nov 30, 2011, 10:27 AM
Jonathan Spalter:

Thanks for sharing this post, which I hadn't seen. The essay it cites uses Eric Raymond's famous metaphor as a powerful framework for analyzing a branch of statecraft known as public diplomacy. Its author also cleverly puts into context the issues raised in Greg Fawcett's earlier post regarding modes of communication with the "under-25" demographic though such technology memes as crowd-sourcing. (My article notes the growing relevance of this demographic to diplomacy, which now comprises fully 45% of the world's population.)

The post adds yet more proof that Raymond's concept of the "cathedral and the bazaar" is now the central and most widely referenced metaphor for understanding the open-source software movement, and for explaining how open-source concepts can -- or should -- also extend beyond technology to other spheres of human activity -- from science, to education, capital markets, business and government.

On another point -- it is interesting to note that earlier this week, the lawyer for Bradley Manning, the US Army private accused of illegally passing classified documents to WikiLeaks, said in a court filing that the document dump did not do "any real damage to national security." (Link:

I would disagree. The WikiLeaks breach had immediate impacts on important US relationships, diplomatic careers, and possibly certain national security initiatives. In the longer term, it may call into question the critical issue of trust: Can foreign leaders ever feel reasonably confident they can communicate opens and candidly with American government officials? The restoration of that trust will be an ongoing effort for American diplomats, and I argue in my essay that confidence-building will be facilitated by the integration of a more open-source outlook in the design and conduct of US diplomacy.

Dec 1, 2011, 7:39 AM
Christopher Follenus:

The traditional level of secrecy in government agencies is for another age. The world is a lot smaller now than ever.

I believe that much of the conflict and problems
currently filling our TV screens every evening are due to the world trying to adapt to this new reality of a true global village. Its not an easy adaptation process due to cultural, economic and still outstanding development issues, but also due to the practices of the traditional nation state governments who up to now had been operating in a much more dispersed world.

What the author argues truly is the future. But right now it seems our political leaders
lack the vision to move things forward more creatively to the space where we can have less stringent security. Less stringent security will naturally come when nations,
or rather humanity perhaps in general, adapts to this global village.

Dec 2, 2011, 7:04 AM
tom marten:

great article, well written and researched, and spot on.

a couple of thoughts to take your analysis a few steps further:

1. Wiki-leaks as a catalyst for the Arab spring: it is perhaps not coincidental that the two leaders taken out by the Arab street were viewed as staunch US allies and proteges of Washington; indeed it is common knowledge that former Tunisian intelligence chief Ben Ali was viewed -- rightly or wrongly -- as the CIA's man in Tunis. US support conferred an air on invincibility, if not impunity. When the Arab street realized -- thanks to the publication of State Department cables by Wiki Leaks -- that we Americans were as shocked and dismayed by the human rights abuses, corruption and injustice that Ben Ali and Mubarak presided over in their stagnant regimes, that was a game changer. The Arab street realized that Ben Ali and Mubarak were fair game, and the rest is history.

2. Paradox of thrift and paradox of secrecy: here's a bit of an economics analogy for you poli-sci types: in Econonmics 101 we all learn the paradox of thrift, which says that when one person saves money, that's good. But when everyone in the economy hoards their cash, you have a recession. That's bad. I would advance a similar paradigm with respect to secrecy and diplomacy. In the world of national security and diplomacy, protecting sources and methods is critical. So classifying a State Department cable conveying the intimate thoughts which a local leader confided to a US ambassador, or the ambassador's personal views on a specific political or economic issue in his country, makes absolute sense, if only to protect the privacy (and indeed in some cases, the lives) of the individuals concerned. In fact journalists try to do much the same thing to protect their sources. And that is good. But when everything the USG thinks and does is wrapped in a veil of secrecy, only the bad guys benefit, and that is bad. the Arab street still looks up to the United States, to our values and our ability to live by those values. We are after all a free and democratic society, reasonably free of corruption and with a justice system that works quite well most of the time. That is something that inspires the Arab street and people all over the world. Getting our own views out into the open a little more often -- as was done in a rather untidy fashion by Wiki Leaks -- is a good thing. Hoarding US views only plays into the hands of the corrupt cronies who pretend to be annointed by Washington.

Finally, three personal and somewhat contradictory anecdotes from my life in the State Department to illustrate how much I agree with your analysis, and the need to "reboot" US diplomacy:

1. Rwanda: I was a first tour FSO in Kigali during the invasion of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF -- mainly Ugandan army elements who had "deserted") in 1990. This invasion and the subsequent war of attrition led to the attempted genocide of 1994. At the Embassy we produced copious reporting (I was wondering last year if any of my cables would end up on Wiki leaks!) trying to analyze who was fighting whom, why, and where the weapons were coming from. We conveyed the Rwandan government's pleas for intervention -- it wouldn't have taken much, a few hundered soldiers with some armor to separate the combattants -- but with apartheid ending in South Africa, Mobutu and Zaire dying, and UNITA finally coming to the negotiating table in Angola, there was no bandwidth in Washington to deal with Rwanda, where "our interests are solely humanitarian." (That's a real quote, and arguably true.) After a change of Ambassadors -- an inexperienced political appointee was replaced by a frustrated career diplomat with no Africa experience but intimate knowledge of how to get things done in Washington -- we resorted to sending cables to Washington with the highest classification -- in hopes that the "7th floor" would take notice. And this from an Embassy with no US Marines and no real physical security. But the highly classified cables did yield results, and ultimately led to engagement from Washington and the short lived Arusha peace accords between the Rwandan Government and the RPF. The perverted lesson learned by a junior FSO -- me -- was if you want to get your cables read in State, overclassify them. (Ironically, Rwanda was never really a focus of US foreign policy until CNN captured compelling images of the genocide in 1994, highly classified cables notwithstanding.)

2. Washington: I spent my third tour as an FSO in Washington running economic sanctions policy against Iraq, Libya and North Korea. This meant working closely with US allies in the UN Security Council, and the US intelligence community, to plug holes in the sanctions regimes, by identifying and stopping sanctions violations. The US intelligence community would regularly bring us proof positive -- intercepts, etc. -- of blatant violations of UN sanctions -- including proposed shipments of dual use or military equipment -- by various criminal organizations and individuals in Europe and Russia. At the time we had quite strong support for sanctions in New York. But more often than not, when we tried to get the information into a form that was releasable to other governments -- i.e. a smoking gun -- inevitably ran into the iron curtain of "protecting sources and methods." Finally I had to tell my intelligence community colleagues that much of their data was certainly interesting, but if I couldn't take action on it, I just didn't need to know. The second lesson for a junior FSO: highly classified information may be useful for soldiers and spies, but the benefit to business of diplomacy is marginal at best.

3. France: France at the time of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin was full of spies and informants, and led to the US Government's first use of encryption to keep its correspondence -- which was inevitably read by the French -- private. Encryption, by the way, is not just useful for keeping government secrets under wraps, it is an essential engine of electronic commerce over the internet (secure payments and data transmissions, for example). On my fourth and final tour in the US Foreign Servcie, I got involved in lengthy negotiations with the French in the mid 1990's on electronic commerce and encryption. This was when Windows 95 and Netscape Navigator software were opening the door to the internet on every desktop around the world. The US Government was convinced -- and they were right -- that the business of the internet -- electronic commerce, the buying and selling of physical goods and digital content -- could only flourish if it was protected from the asphyxiating embrace of European regulation, taxes and content quotas. (These are a traditional French specialty, as Franklin himself surmised at the time.) This led to long drawn out negotiations with the French Socialist government of the time, including Finance Minister Dominic Strauss Kahn of recent fame in NYC. The key to an agreement was understanding the motivations and objectives of the French side, which were in fact quite different from the US objectives. Our side was focused on the business objectives -- making the world safe for the likes of Amazon, Microsoft, Oracle, and Cisco -- while the the French were focused on the social objectives -- education, tele-medicine, and rural access to information, etc. That was the easy part. The hard part was getting the information back to the Washington agencies participating in the talks -- USTR, the FCC, the White House, and Commerce. We quickly learned that outside of the State Department no one could read our classified cables from their desktops. We realized that 90% of the content in our cables were "open source," i.e. you could read the same content in the French press or by chatting with the French 'man in the street." The remaining 10% were the personal insights, opinions, and recommendations of the French officials with whom we spoke. We quickly learned to classify our cables paragraph by paragraph, putting the 10% of personal insights that were worthy of "Confidential" treatment in one or two paragraphs, and leaving all the rest unlassified, so that Washington agencies could read the material and act on it. It worked, we got a deal with the French (and the Japanese too, but that's a separate narrative) to preclude taxation and quotas on e-commerce, which has been an engine for economic growth, new jobs, business, and the expansion of the internet around the world. And the rest is history, as you so artfully capture in your piece.

all the best,
tom marten

ps sorry i missed you on your last trip to paris, i'm living in saudi arabia these days. and now i know what you've been doing with your free time in berkley! keep up the good work.

Apr 6, 2012, 4:43 AM

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