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Diplomacy in Action

21st Century Statecraft - Diplomacy in the Age of Facebook and Twitter

FPC Briefing
Alec Ross
Senior Advisor for Innovation, U.S. Department of State
Foreign Press Center
New York, NY
January 14, 2010

Date: 01/13/2010 Location: New York, NY Description: Alec Ross, Senior Advisor for Innovation, U.S. Department of State, Briefing at the NY Foreign Press Center on 21st Century Statecraft - Diplomacy in the Age of Facebook and Twitter. © State Dept Image


Moderator: This is afternoon we are pleased to have Alec Ross, Senior Advisor for Senior Advisor for Innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a role that blends technology with diplomacy. Statecraft was once confined solely to government to government interactions. Advisor Ross stewards the 21st Century Statecraft initiative which extends statecraft to government to people, people to people, and people to government in service of the U.S.’s diplomatic and development goals. And with that I will turn it over to our Senior Advisor.

Senior Advisor Ross: Great. It’s a pleasure to be with you all this afternoon. I think when we scheduled this we didn’t know that it would be at quite as calamitous a time as it is. So while I want to be able to speak broadly about what the State Department is doing to foster what we call 21st Century Statecraft, I wanted to open telling a story that I think is timely and illustrative of the approach we’re trying to do to connect people to people.

In the hours following the earthquake’s aftermath in Haiti, well, I should back up further and say that last week Secretary of State Clinton had dinner with a group of about 10 technology executives, one of whom was a 30-something year old entrepeneur, very successful entrepreneur named James Eberhart who is the CEO of a company called MGive, which basically allows for people to make donations on their cell phones through text message.

In the hours after the earthquake took place in Haiti, at the direction of the Secretary of State we woke up Mr. Eberhart who was no longer in Washington, D.C., but who was actually in Pakistan on a mission for the United States government. And asked him if there was a way in which we could use his technology to help raise money for the Haitian relief efforts, and what was set up within two hours was a free SMS short code, 90999. For every time somebody sends the word Haiti, texts the word Haiti to that SMS short code, a donation is made in the amount of $10 to the Red Cross for relief efforts with no fees, 100 percent of it goes for relief.

What’s remarkable is we did this and we didn’t necessarily know exactly what the results would be, but as of a handful of hours ago more than 400,000 people had done this, raising more than $4 million. So more than $4 million have been raised in about 18 hours by more than 400,000 people literally taking out their cell phones and sending a text.

I think this is remarkable. What it’s illustrative of is how the power of technology can connect people with such enormous immediacy to challenges and opportunities of the day. And it literally was, it was a dinner that the Secretary had last week. She sanctioned going ahead and getting hold of this young entrepreneur in Pakistan, and lo and behold, in less than 24 hours millions and millions of dollars had been raised.

We call this 21st Century Statecraft. Maximizing the potential of technology in service of our diplomatic and development goals.

As we all know, President Obama as Candidate Obama made very effective use of technology in service of the effort of getting elected. Upon becoming Secretary of State, part of what Secretary Clinton has done is said wow, technology’s all good and well. Where it is actually most impactful and where it’s actually most important is where it can materially improve the well being of the globe’s citizens, particularly those citizens who live in poverty. And given that general goal, she pioneered a framework we call 21st Century Statecraft.

2009 was a really big year in terms of 21st Century Statecraft and in terms of how we integrated technology. I can give examples from around the world. From bringing mobile banking, an innovation that was born in Kenya, allowing people who live in cash-based economies to connect to electronic economies. We’ve brought that effort to Afghanistan, we’re helping to scale it in Africa.

Another big problem and important priority of Secretary Clinton’s is the rampant level of crime in Mexico fueled by the drug trade. So we set up a program in Mexico to restore anonymity to crime fighting using the tools of technology.

What we saw over the course of 2009 was the vaunted old State Department, a place where statecraft was largely unchanged from the time that Thomas Jefferson was Secretary of State to near present day where historically our diplomatic engagements have been government to government, usually with a flag flying in the background. Senior official to senior official. Where now, using technology we can connect government to people, people to people, and people to government. So this expands the framework for engagement in a new and impactful way.

Come 2010, looking forward, what we’re looking to do are take the examples of success that we’ve helped generate in places like Africa and Mexico and elsewhere, and institutionalize and scale it.

Of greatest note within this is a very important policy address that Secretary Clinton is going to be making next Thursday on internet freedom. Since becoming Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton has been very engaged on helping to ensure that there is universal access to an uncensored internet. Her address next Thursday is going to address the topic of freedom in a networked world. If we now live in a networked world, if we live in increasingly technology rich knowledge based economy, what are its implications on freedom? That will be the subject of her talk next week. I’m not going to give any additional details about the speech itself because I’m going to allow her to make her own news next Thursday with that address. But one of the points that I want to underscore is her level of personal leadership and engagement on this issue and what I think will be an important policy address next Thursday.

The last thing I will say before making myself available for your questions is that one of the things that we’re hoping to do with this text the word Haiti to 90999 program is amplify it. The more people that know about it, the more people that send text messages, the more effective it is. So whatever your press outlets can do to build awareness of this program the better.

Thank you, and I’m happy to take your questions.

Question: Marty [inaudible] from China’s Xinhua News Agency.

Does the Secretary of State have any comment on Google’s possible pulling out from China?

Senior Advisor Ross: The Secretary has issued a statement, and I’ll point you to the statement that she already issued. What we’ve said is that the ability to operate with confidence in cyber space is critical to a modern economy and society. The United States has frequently made clear to the Chinese our views on the importance of unrestricted internet use as well as cyber security, and we look to the Chinese government for an explanation. I’m going to confine my comments to that.

Question: I just want to follow up on this one Google angle. Your team at the State Department, your job is to use technology to advance rights all across the world, especially human rights. So what do you do when you have one of the largest countries in the world with the highest population that let’s say has a problem like the censorship of the internet?

Senior Advisor Ross: That’s a very good question, and I anticipate that Secretary Clinton’s going to do a great job of answering it next Thursday.

Question: But what do you do, for example, when you're using technology like this SMS concept with Haiti? I‘m sure you must have thought about options to do with China or --

Senior Advisor Ross: I’ll be honest, the first thing we did, with my very small team, was look to ourselves and say you know, what can we do to help out. And it was a young member of our State Department Staff, very talented, who got the idea to do this and it became something big. I think that’s one of the exciting things about technology. You don’t have to be a senator, you don’t have to be some vaunted statesman to come up with the spark of an idea that can then become viral, that can then take hold of the populace. And this is a classic example of that where the spark of an idea with the support of the Secretary of State can take off.

Maybe I would put the challenge back and say this SMS short code, 90999, that’s for American carriers. But I don’t think there’s anything from other countries adopting programs like this. I think that the model of thinking about the increasing ubiquity of mobile technology and leveraging that for social good is a very good thing.

I came to the State Department in April of last year. When I came to the State Department there were an estimated 4.1 billion mobile handsets on the planet. Today, just nine months later, there are 4.6 billion mobile handsets. So just in the time that I’ve been at the State Department, less than a year, we’ve gone from 4.1 to 4.6 billion mobile handsets, a more than 10 percent increase. So I think the learning here, and sort of the global opportunity, is to say that this kind of infrastructure is something that can empower individuals in ways that individuals haven’t previously been empowered. And these 4.6 billion mobile handsets are not all in the United States and Europe. Point in fact, of the increases that are taking place right now, 75 percent of them are all in the developing world. So since I got here, from 4.1 billion mobile handsets to 4.6 billion mobile handsets, 75 percent of those in the developing world.

Question: You're talking about how anyone can spark an idea. Have you seen any promising ideas from the citizens of China that you’re optimistic about?

Senior Advisor Ross: That’s a good question. I will have to study up on that.

Question: You mentioned American carriers. Does the State Department see this as a problem of an American company? Or is this a problem of nationalities? And let’s say like women’s rights issues, Secretary Clinton has spoken about women’s rights issues in China. So do you see this just as a problem of an American company versus another country, or --

Senior Advisor Ross: No, let me ask you to clarify something. When you say “a problem,” what do you mean when you say -– I don’t know entirely what you mean when you say “a problem.”

Question: I’m asking do you see this as an issue of profits or something that a company, let’s say Google, which is an American company, has in a country. They have offices in India, they have offices in other countries. Or do you see this as something more significant and important that the State Department needs to speak out on?

Senior Advisor Ross: I will point you to what I thought were two profound remarks made by President Obama when he was in China, in Shanghai. One remark of his was the more freely information flows, the stronger the society. The second comment he made was, freedom of expression, including on the internet, is a universal right. He didn’t say freedom of expression using American carriers, using American hardware and software on the internet is a universal right.

So what I would say as a response to that is I don’t think we’re looking at these issues through the prism of American business interests. Obviously there are links within American statecraft between economics and human rights. However as we think and I’m not speaking specific to China right now. I’m speaking about 21st Century Statecraft. When we engage in a country, we engage with whatever the locally appropriate business ecosystem is.

For example, earlier in my remarks I gave the example of mobile banking. Mobile banking doesn’t exist in the United States. This was an innovation that was born out of Kenya by a carrier called Safaricom. Ina country of 38 million people, 7 million people in Kenya now use mobile banking. Of those 7 million people, they saw their household incomes increase between 5 and 30 percent. That’s a big deal. Think about if your household income went up between 5 and 30 percent.

Now Secretary Clinton, who is a very very very smart woman, says this is a great innovation. Isn’t this something that can help in Afghanistan? Isn’t this something that can help in the Congo? Isn’t this something that can be helpful in other places that don’t have access to mainstream financial services?

So as we expand this work, we are not even going to American companies to do it. In the Congo, I’ve got a team going out on February 17th. We’re bringing in a Kenyan company, we’re bringing in an Afghani company, we’re bringing in a South African company. Innovation is not something that just exists on American shores. And I think that where products and services have been developed outside of the United States that can help the globe’s citizens, then I think it’s in our interest to help support those, and I’ll point to mobile banking as a cornerstone example of that.

Question: You said something about your team. How many people are working on the 21st Century Statecraft in the State Department?

Senior Advisor Ross: I work in the Office of the Secretary. So I’d simply responds by saying that when the Secretary gets behind something the entire department gets behind something. So I’ll give the examples of Mexico and the Congo.

I have a team, but I don’t have a team in Mexico and in the Congo. We’re not this just anomalous little cell. We’re working with the embassy in Mexico City, with the Ambassador, with the Regional Bureau, and so too in the Congo, for example, we’re working with the Ambassador, with the Embassy staff.

The commitment from the Secretary to bring 21st Century Statecraft to the department is to institutionalize it. It’s not to say oh, here are ten really smart young people, let’s empower them. While that might work over the short term, it’s not going to be institutionalized. So what we are doing is not saying all right, here’s an innovation team. What we’re saying is here is an innovation based department. I’d love for it to be the case that all 30-some-thousand employees of the State Department could say they’re working on 21st Century Statecraft.

Question: How do you assess the consequences of the Google event?

Senior Advisor Ross: I’m going to confine my remarks about the Google event and about China to the statement that I shared earlier, which I can re-read for you if you’d like. But I’m going to confine my remarks to those and to the Secretary’s statement.

Question: Could you talk about a communication between Google and the U.S. government before they gave that announcement on Tuesday?

Senior Advisor Ross: I would say that we were briefed and we appreciated the brief.

Question: You might have talked to this before I came, I was a bit late. But what do you think, are there any promising things happening there as far as 21st Century Statecraft?

Senior Advisor Ross: When you say there, where do you mean?

Question: In the U.S. and Haiti relations and the way --

Senior Advisor Ross: In the example that I gave with Haiti, and obviously we’re talking about hours rather than days or weeks or months since the earthquake has happened. The most promising program we have is this program which I described where people can send –- Were you here when I described the text messaging program? That’s really the most promising thing.

I’ll point you back to our public affairs department for any future comments about what we’re going to do, or any future statements about what we’re going to do using technology, using 21st Century Statecraft in our engagements in Haiti. There will be more, but the program that we’re really emphasizing right now is this text Haiti to 90999 program, because our focus right now is on relief.

Our focus right now is on helping to meet the basic needs of what’s taking place on the ground right now.

Question: What tools do you use to advertise it?

Senior Advisor Ross: It’s interesting. I think there are some interesting lessons to be learned here. While people in the media, everybody from Regis to Paris Hilton have been out promoting this, what’s actually been more interesting in my opinion, what perhaps has been most newsworthy about this, is the impact of social media. We haven't been giving like a bunch of press conferences or anything like that. More than 400,000 people have done this because of Twitter, because of Facebook, because of these social media platforms.

If you go to, I have about 250,000 followers on Twitter. That’s a great distribution channel. If I or other people at the State Department put this information out there, part of what we saw, it’s like there was a constant press conference. People were re-tweeting, they were sharing this information. So I have a feeling that the vast majority of these dollars and the vast majority of participation has taken place because of its amplification over social media. And I think, correct me if you can think of different examples, I think this is the first example of social media being the dominant media form in the face of a large-scale crisis or disaster. It’s very interesting. I think that people are going to be talking about this in the future, and it shows, I think the power of the rise of digital media.

Moderator: We’re going to go ahead to Washington and take a question from Washington. Washingtongo ahead please.

Question: [Washington]. Hi, Alec, thanks for doing this.

You had earlier on, I think it was in response to a question that someone might have asked about China and Google, you quoted President Obama as talking about the more freely information flows the freer the society, and then you talked about the rights to freedom. I didn’t catch the whole quote. And then your own comment after that was I don’t think we’re looking at these issues just through the prism of U.S. business interests.

Could you expand a little bit on what you meant about that? Because you went from that to something about 21st Century Statecraft, so I wasn’t clear, what did you mean when you say we’re not just looking at it through U.S. business interests?

Senior Advisor Ross: That was in response to a question of whether we were looking at it just through the prism of U.S. business interests. So I’ll confine my comments to what I stated previously.

The President and others did not qualify their own language when they made those statements, and I’ll leave it at that.

I’d like to re-read a statement I made previously. The ability to operate with confidence in cyber space is critical to any modern economy and society. The United States has frequently made clear to the Chinese our views on the importance of unrestricted internet use as well as cyber security, and we look to the Chinese government for an explanation.

Question: That’s your own statement, or that’s Hillary Clinton’s?

Senior Advisor Ross: That’s a statement from the State Department. It can be attributed to me.

Question: Thanks.

Question: In your opinion, what kind of social media will be popular, like Twitter or Face in the next future?

Senior Advisor Ross: Which kinds will be more popular?

Question: Yeah.

Senior Advisor Ross: If I had 20/20 vision into that I’d be a venture capitalist and I’d be very rich. [Laughter].

One of the things that I think is exciting about social media is the complete lack of predictability. This time last year I think I was trying to assess myself whether Twitter was like the Macarena. [Laughter]. Whether it was going to come, be hot, and then go away. What we’ve learned is that Twitter is not the Macarena.

Innovation comes at the edge, and it comes from places that people don’t anticipate. So oftentimes we see innovation coming out of big companies; but more often than not I see social media innovation coming out of dorm rooms, coming out of overcrowded work spaces in basements. I have a feeling that whatever is going to be big next is something I haven’t heard of.

Question: If you look back on the Iran, the so-called Twitter revolution there. It’s been criticized for having done as much harm as good that America is trying to impact by helping citizens there. What are your conclusions with respect to that?

Senior Advisor Ross: I think that I will point you to Hillary Clinton’s speech next Thursday. I do believe that access to the tools of the 21st Century is a net good, and again, to quote the President, the more freely information flows the stronger the society and the way in which information flows in the 21st Century is increasingly over our global communications networks and our digital networks. I’ll leave it at that.

Question: In your 21st Century Statecraft, do you plan, you mentioned Congo, Kenya, Mexico. Do you plan to pursue country specific, for one, around the world?

Senior Advisor Ross: What we tend to do is we try to prioritize our engagements with the most pressing foreign policy challenges. So we will be bringing, for example, part of what we’ve done in Mexico has generated sufficient support that Colombia is now interested in how we can use technology to combat narcotics-related violence and crime.

So it’s very organic. We are not pushing these tools out to anybody. More often than not, it’s people coming to us and saying hey, are there American innovations? Are there things at the State Department that can help us on a joint priority? So for example, harkening back to Mexico for a moment, the effort to reduce narco-related violence in Mexico is a shared goal of the Mexican government and the United States government. That’s why we collaborated on this opportunity.

So I have a feeling that in the future it will similarly be the case that where allies of ours and where partners of ours have a concern that we share, that we’ll work with them using technology to help solve it.

Thank you all.

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