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 Challenge.gov 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.
Post a Comment