"The man who saved Iran" might be the most hyperbolic thing blogged about Jared Cohen this summer, but not by much. The huzzahs that greeted the news that the 28-year-old State Department staffer called on Twitter to delay a service blackout during the height of the Tehran street protests threatened to obscure the true complexity of Foggy Bottom's new, technology-enabled approach to diplomacy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke of it herself in a commencement speech at Barnard College on May 18. "With social-networking tools that you use every day to tell people you've gone to get a latte or that you're going to be running late," she said, "you can unite your friends through Facebook to fight human trafficking."
And in her agenda-setting July 15 speech to the Council of Foreign Relations, Clinton reiterated, "We are working at the State Department to ensure that our government is using the most innovative technologies not only to speak and listen across borders, not only to keep technologies up and going, but to widen opportunities, especially for those who are too often left on the margins."
The State Department calls this new technology-driven approach "21st-century statecraft." Step off the elevator onto the State Department's seventh floor, turn left, and you enter Clinton's refined dark-wood-and-chandelier bedecked suite. Turn right, and you enter the nondescript office of a band of advisers, which includes Cohen, that serves as Clinton's own think tank. The space is home to Alec Ross, Clinton's senior adviser for innovation, who is helping to spearhead the 21st-century statecraft program. Now 37, Ross made a name for himself riding herd over hundreds of technologists who advised the Obama campaign. When I suggest to Ross that his custom-made job is perhaps an acknowledgement that candidate Clinton underestimated the transformative power of technology, he issues a look common to State staffers. Halfway between grin and smirk, the message is clear: Next question, please. But he will say that he didn't come into the State Department "like Yosemite Sam with my six-shooter firing. I spent my early time here learning."
When Ross arrived, he found Cohen already there. A holdover from Condoleezza Rice's tenure, Cohen serves on the policy planning team charged, in the words of Truman administration Secretary of State Dean Acheson, with "look[ing] ahead, not into the distant future, but ... far enough ahead to see the emerging form of things to come." Cohen quickly saw the emerging form of Twitter's role in Iran, but then again, he's been on the lookout for some time. His office couch is lined with copies of Documents from the U.S. Espionage Den, a hostage-crisis memento from his days as a Rhodes Scholar spent hanging around with Tehran's youth. In his 2007 memoir Children of Jihad, Cohen writes, "The Internet is their democratic society. ... They have become digital revolutionaries, creating, participating in, and popularizing chat rooms, blogs, and forums for discussion about everything from sports to politics." Cohen just so happens to sit in one of the few places in the world where he can come up with an idea -- let's create a virtual student foreign service! -- and have the United States government out promoting it days later.
Ask officials for details on Cohen's outreach to Twitter -- Did he call them? E-mail? Maybe direct-message them on Twitter? -- and there's that look again. (Though this time with an undercurrent of "I'm about as likely to go into details as I am to hand over my debit card and PIN.") In a way, it makes sense. One instance of outreach from the U.S. government to Twitter HQ is symbolic. The bigger picture is that together with an informal but growing band of like-minded staffers, Cohen and Ross are shaping a rebooted technology-assisted diplomacy that is laying the groundwork for human-to-human engagement. A number of initiatives fall under the umbrella of 21st-century statecraft: YouTube channels. The DipNote blog. The translation of Obama's speeches and tweets into dozens of languages. "Text the Secretary" opens a channel to Clinton as she travels the world. A Google map tracks her comings and goings. When Ross says, "I wish there were 15 Jareds," there's a plan to create them. The idea behind the Virtual Student Foreign Service is fairly simple. Take the social network Orkut, hugely popular in Brazil. The U.S. ambassador isn't likely to know Orkut from an orca, but a savvy New York University student could partner with a Foreign Service officer in Sao Paolo to build an American presence on the site, which might in turn ignite the student's interest in a diplomatic career. Then there's support for a grass-roots Colombian anti-guerrilla group that came to life almost entirely on Facebook. "Leaving FARC has traditionally involved handing pieces of paper back and forth under the cover of night," Ross says. "Now, someone can go online and say, 'I'm going to be in Cartegena in four days. What do I do?'"
Hoping to spread the American tech gospel to the rest of the world, in April Cohen led a delegation of social media developers to Baghdad -- one of whom, Twitter's Jack Dorsey, was Cohen's point of contact on Iran. Ross is planning an Afghanistan trip with high-ranking executives. These business-minded junkets point to the fact that lost amid the hubbub over whether Iran's uprising was or was not a Twitter revolution was that it was a special case: a delicate intervention into an unfriendly nation. "The diplomatic side of my agenda gets the attention," Ross says, "but my head and heart live in the development world." Through foreign assistance, State can boost the capacity of world citizens to talk to one another. Schools can be built with broadband cables baked in. Wireless Internet dishes can be attached to public works. In South Africa, the hope is to boost HIV medication compliance through text-message reminders. And Afghanistan's remarkable embrace of cell phones opens the possibility of leap-frogging from a cash culture to mobile banking. Digital diplomacy's promise can provoke grand statements from Ross. "If Paul Revere had been a modern day citizen," he said recently, "he wouldn't have ridden down Main Street. He would have tweeted." What's remarkable is Clinton's equal fervor. Her Barnard address reads as if Cohen and Ross wrote it. She issued a "call to mouses" on behalf of two Current TV reporters sentenced to 12 years in a North Korean labor camp. "Get busy on the Internet," she told graduates, "and let North Koreans know that we find that absolutely unacceptable." The idea to let Americans text $5 donations to refugees in Pakistan's Swat Valley moved from crazy notion to official program in under a week. "Secretary Clinton is the driver of 21st-century statecraft," Ross says. "Period. Full stop."
"What gets me most excited about Text Swat," Ross continues, "is the people-to-people component. But the second thing that gets me excited is how fast it happened. The State Department has a reputation for being ponderous. But this is us moving at Internet speed." Of course, there's a limit to how agile a State Department some want. In fact, we have laws aimed at making it less nimble. The 1947 Smith-Mundt Act prohibits "propaganda" created for foreign audiences from being disseminated in the U.S. But there's real evidence that Smith-Mundt is obsolete in the digital age. During Obama's Cairo speech, you could sign up for State Department text message updates in a wide range of languages and from anywhere in the world -- except the U.S. When Google can today quickly translate Voice of America's Farsi tweets, Smith-Mundt's logic might be fatally flawed.
Some proponents of 21st-century statecraft argue that it's really nothing more than building out infrastructure and boosting digital literacy. There's a reason, though, that Obama's first steps in opening Cuba included freeing Americans to send cell phones to the island. The technical bleeds into the political; skills developed letting friends know you've gone for coffee are applicable when organizing against human trafficking. That's why we recently saw previously apolitical hackers quickly turn their skills to denial-of-service attacks against Iranian government Web sites.
In the end, digital diplomacy raises many of the questions about the political power and promise of American technological savvy. What's to say Iranians won't use their Facebook prowess to back pro-nuclear leadership? Or that mobile banking won't be used to funnel funds to the Taliban? How smart is it to build diplomacy on the backs of corporate networks? What if the Internet and cell networks are the worst mediums for political expression, given that it's far easier to choke every ISP in Iran than to choke every horse in Paul Revere's Boston?
But as one State Department insider put it to me, there isn't much of a choice. From cybercafés in Lusaka to wired schools in Port au Prince, the world is trending toward connectivity. Hillary Clinton's State Department will get in the game. Otherwise, it will get left behind.