Google Grabs State Dept. Star Jared Cohen for Foreign Policy "Think/Do Tank"

The youngest ever member of the Policy Planning staff showed the State Department how to use technology for diplomacy. Now Cohen's going to see if some of the thorniest foreign policy issues can be tackled from the private sector.

Jared Cohen

Jared Cohen joined Google last week as the director of its newly created Google Ideas “think/do tank”—an entity whose objective is to dream up and try out ideas that address the challenges of counterterrorism, counterradicalism, and nonproliferation, as well as innovations for development and citizen empowerment. He has also landed a side gig as an adjunct fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, focusing on innovation, technology, and statecraft.

Google has now hired Cohen to set up Google Ideas, which will look for innovative approaches to some of the stickiest international issues of the day. Out of his New York office, Cohen will, he told Foreign Policy, seek to “[build] teams of stakeholders with different resources and perspectives to troubleshoot challenges.” As for why he decided to give this a shot in the private sector, rather than in the public sphere, to which these issues have traditionally belonged, Cohen says there are “things the private sector can do that the U.S. government can’t do.”

The big thing is the resources and the capabilities. There are not a couple hundred [computer] engineers in the State Department that can build things; that's just not what government does. You don't necessarily have some of the financial resources to put behind these things. It's really hard to bring talented young people in; there are not a lot mechanisms to do it. [And] on some topics, it's very sensitive for government to be the one doing this.

Cohen's flipped the script with his gig at Google. Before, he was in public service, reaching out to the private sector. Now he’s joining the private sector to see how it can help advance public goals.

Cohen joined Condoleezza Rice’s State Department in 2006, after traveling through Iran and the Middle East. Foggy Bottom’s policy planners hoped his insights would help them figure out how to deradicalize the region’s youth, who were the primary recruiting targets of extremist organizations. But in addition to learning about the hopes and dreams of the Middle East’s young people, he’d also learned about just how wired they were, prompting him to think technology might be able to help advance U.S. foreign policy goals. So he started leading delegations of tech leaders to places like Iraq, to see what they could come up with.

“The hypothesis was very simple,” he told Foreign Policy in September. “If you connect people that have expertise on tools with people that have expertise on Iraq, something innovative may happen.”

During his four years at the State Department, the youngest-ever member of Foggy Bottom’s Policy Planning staff also led tech delegations to Mexico and Russia. He helped keep the lights on at Twitter during the Iranian elections and brainstormed with entrepreneurs and innovators about how cell phones and the Internet could help bring peace and prosperity to the far corners of the world.

Along the way, Cohen got to know Google CEO Eric Schmidt. Cohen and Hillary Clinton’s innovation adviser, Alec Ross, participated in a talk on “21st-century statecraft” with Schmidt at the Googleplex in February. And the two organized a dinner with tech leaders for the Secretary of State earlier this year that included Schmidt, along with Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, Jason Liebman of Howcast, and Andrew Rasiej of Personal Democracy Forum.

A spokesperson for Google declined to provide details about Cohen’s new job, demurring that it was “early days yet.” The gig might sound offbeat for what is still essentially a tech company. But this is, after all, the place that’s been tinkering around with smart grids, solar energy, and self-driving cars. Maybe a think tank focused on, well, peace-through-technology isn’t so far-fetched after all.

And maybe Google is incentivized to innovate, after all.

[Image credit: Flickr user Center for American Progress]

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