The Future of Digital Diplomacy: An Interview With Alec Ross
By: Alex Fitzpatrick
Alec Ross, the State Department’s first senior advisor for innovation, is leaving after nearly four years of spearheading the department’s lunge into the twenty-first century.
After leaving the State Department, he’ll take time to write a book and perhaps a screenplay, found a company to advise investors, corporations and government leaders on the “implication of macro-factors emerging at the intersection of geopolitics, markets and network technologies,” mentor up-and-coming talent and work with fast-growing startups to help them understand foreign markets.
In a conversation with Mashable, Ross reflected upon helping to build what he and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton call “twenty-first century statecraft” and shared some advice for his successors.
Mashable: You often talk about twenty-first century statecraft — can you define that for us?
Ross: I define twenty-first century statecraft as harnessing the technologies, the networks and the demographics of the twenty-first century to advance foreign policy goals.
That partially deals with using social media to listen to and engage with communities around the world, but there are other technologies involved too, right?
So a couple of … examples that are not social media based.
One, we’ve set up programs focused on Syria, the purpose of which is to enable the people inside Syria to be able to communicate safely. There have been past examples where the Syrian government, where SyriaTel, which is run by a guy that we’ve designated a terrorist named Rami Makhlouf [and is] a de-facto arm of the Syrian intelligence services … use things like the GPS on people’s mobile phones as a way of identifying where they are and then do a surgical assassination. Part of what we’ve put in place are countermeasures to enable people to communicate more securely.
SEE ALSO: How Skype Is Helping Topple a Dictator in Syria
Another example that I’ll give is in 2007 through 2008, I was very involved on the policy side of the tech media and telecom side of the [Barack] Obama campaign. And a lot of people from that community wanted to get involved in governance after Obama was elected president. One of the things which we’ve done which has been a huge success is our civil society 2.0 program, where we’ve brought techies from American companies and we’ve created around the world what we call TechCamps, where on an intensive basis over a couple of days, grassroots civil society organizations get tech training from rockstar American technologists. And so we’ve now trained more than 1100 organizations from more than 80 countries doing that.
How confident are you that the State Department under Secretary John Kerry will continue your legacy of twenty-first century statecraft?
Very confident. It’s interesting, I think, that money talks. Everything I’ve heard and seen from Sec. Kerry and his leadership team is that they’re only going to invest more in this area.
[The Brookings Institution] recently did a study that said we have 155 full-time practitioners of twenty-first century statecraft. Now that’s not just people using social media, but it’s people working at the intersection of technology and diplomacy full-time. And every indication is that they get it, that they understand this is only going to grow in importance.
Are you leaving behind any kind of roadmap or blueprint for how you think twenty-first statecraft should go after you leave?
The most important thing is that this agenda be institutional as opposed to individual. So the greatest area of focus that I’ve had is making sure that these programs live on and grow after I’m gone.
Now, I’ve sat with the new leadership at the State Department and they have gotten deep downloads from me about what I think the challenges and opportunities are for the road forward. But the onus is really on them to develop their own blueprint. They know my views, but I also think they’ll be well served by bringing in new people with new perspectives and a different set of skills and experiences than I have.
Will there still be a senior advisor for innovation after you’re gone?
It appears like it’s going to be split. I have stewarded both a policy agenda and a ‘building tech stuff’ agenda. And the direction where I think they’re going is that they’ll bring in someone to be a point on policy and a point on ‘building stuff.’
Is that the smart way to go?
I think it’s the smart way to go so long as both people are empowered to walk into the office of the secretary of state. What’s important is for this role to have a seat at the grown-up’s table. Under Hillary Clinton, it did. Under John Kerry so far it does; I anticipate that will be the case going forward but I think that is what is most important.
What words of advice do you have for your successors?
Make mistakes of commission rather than omission. The State Department is a historically risk-averse environment.
And everything my team has done that has been a big success has come with a considerable high level of risk. And you just have to understand and embrace it.
If you just take the easy road or the safe road on everything, you’re not going to accomplish much. You’ll end up with a fancy title, but you’re not going to put any points on the board.
Thank you, Alec, and good luck in the future.