In the turbulent center of the Venn diagram involving President Obama’s multilateral foreign policy, open government mandates, and Middle-East unrest is Alec Ross, the Senior Advisor for Innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. From asking Twitter to delay down-time maintenance during the 2009 student uprising to courting programmers for Africa, Ross’s office has been tasked with coordinating the monumental logistics of a new philosophy that embraces global interdependence. Ross spoke with Fast Company about the meaning of the highly controversial “global citizenship” concept, the diplomatic difficulties in supporting subversive technologies, and the future of transparency.
Radical Global Citizenship
Upon entering office, Obama vowed an end to cowboy diplomacy. Ross says the U.S. is exercising influence “on a more multilateral basis, and doing so under the frame of global citizenship, less than quote ‘America’s Values’.”
“The language matters,” continues Ross. “We live in such an interconnected world.”
While, to some, talk of interconnectedness may seem like political pandering and boilerplate, to a large swath of the country, it’s an aggressively contentious worldview. Former UN ambassador John Bolton recently called Obama the “most radical president who has ever been elected,” in a speech pointedly titled “the Case against Global Citizenship.”
For instance, while Bolton and other conservatives slammed Obama for prioritizing Egyptian democracy over an America-friendly despot, the State Department was been busy supporting overtly subversive technologies. One such technology was a “panic button” for activists spying on corrupt governments, which immediately erases any incriminating evidence of snooping, should law enforcement try to imprison an activist for treason.
The “overt” support of subversive technology has the department’s authoritarian diplomatic ties outraged. Yet, Ross remains defiant: “I am perfectly comfortable sitting across the table, as I have many times in the past, listening to people complain about it. The solution, in my eyes, is for them to stop Internet censorship.”
He maintains that “we are only going to be increasingly aggressive about it”
Treating Other Country’s Citizens as One’s Own
Part of global citizenship means spending time and resources that are traditionally reserved for domestic policy on other nations; namely, education and direct citizen access to senior officials.
“In five years, where I hope these tools will have been most disruptive for good is in the educational space,” says Ross. The ubiquity of mobile networks now makes it possible to “deliver world-class education” to previously isolated countries.
For instance, the Department is developing relationships with organizations like the wildly popular mobile content provider, MXit, which broadcasts math tutors to needy students, books to fiction-hungry teens, and HIV awareness information throughout Africa.
In the rural township of Mamelodi, South Africa, the U.S. Embassy aids a curriculum that resembles a healthy mix of African-history month and STEM education. In the Mae Jemison reading room, named after the first female African astronaut, curious children sit “six deep” at computers, learning about e-mail, Google, and cautionary advice on Wikipedia, says Elizabeth Trudeau of the Pretorian Embassy.
Second, direct access to senior officials has been traditionally been reserved for voting constituents–i.e., American citizens. Yet, after the Egyptian revolution, Secretary Clinton held a YouTube-like press conference, especially targeting the tech-savvy activists angry at the U.S. for years of supporting Mubarak.
“The way this would have been done 10 years ago,” says Ross, “is we would have spent a week pre-screening a dozen a Egyptian youth who could have sat with Hillary Clinton around a mahogany table and they would have asked polite questions and we would have gotten a photo op, and we would have had a handful reporters in the room writing nice stories about it.”
Instead, what the below video reveals, are candid responses to hard-hitting questions that include, surprisingly, some unequivocal admissions of failure. When one video commenter asked why the United states “shook hands” with a known dictator, Clinton’s said that the United States had attempted to influence human rights through appeasement and back-door channels, “we were not successful, I will be very honest with you,” she said.
From education to implicit apologies, technology sidesteps the traditional diplomatic channels to the source of unrest.
Wikileaks and Organizational Limits
The State Department has limits–and, Wikileaks is one of them. “We don’t believe in radical transparency,” concedes Ross. “Diplomats cannot conduct business in an environment of total transparency”
As an example, he notes, “one of the most effective members of the diplomatic core, Carlos Pascual, our Ambassador to Mexico” had to resign in the wake of leaked cables.
“While I come from a community that implicitly embraces tools and organizations that can open up historically closed institutions and processes, that has its limits, and I think Wikileaks bore that out.”
Ross is cognizant, however, that the level of secrecy has permanently changed. “Going forward, that transparency is only going to increase. The ubiquity and power of the networks and the tools that attach to the networks is only going to increase.”
Ross is far more interested in tools of education and inclusion than “referendum.” Whereas voting works well for tectonic shifts in power, open government and citizen empowerment devolves influence through a methodical osmosis. There have been attempts with such ideas, such as direct democracy online budgeting in Brazil, but workable models remain elusive. Perhaps, Egypt’s radical transformation will open the door to more substantive opportunities.
“Its not like there’s been a reduction in patriotism here,” Ross jokes. Rather, love of country has been grounded in new realities: “I think we are practicing a more humble foreign policy…because the nature and number of threats are ever increasing.” In a world with an overwhelming number of crises, “you can’t just project unilaterally.”
The risky dive into partnerships with unknown activists and, ultimately, new technologies to empower them, means throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. Ross sums up the State Department’s new approach like this: “We’re willing to make mistakes of commission rather than omission.”