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The Question Concerning Technology: From the “Foreign Policy Frontier” of Digital Diplomacy to Afghanistan

August 7, 2011

A friend of mine who currently works as an assistant to Walter Russell Mead sent me what I thought was an intelligent, well-argued piece by Daniel Drezner of Foreign Policy that itself was commenting on a blog post that Anne-Marie Slaughter, whom I have written about on this blog before, posted herself recently. The original piece by Slaughter, entitled “The New Foreign Policy Frontier,” focusing on digital diplomacy. She described events like Google Ideas’ Summit Against Violent Extremism which took place in Dublin in June 2011, and Personal Democracy Forum, “a bottom-up gathering of digital activists from the U.S. and across the Middle East, including bloggers and organizers at the center of the Arab Spring.” The point of Slaughter’s post was to emphasize how events like these – informal arrangements organized through NGOs, for-profit corporations, and citizens can create better mechanisms of governance than “just” state-to-state interaction. As she emphasized at the fulcrum point of her essay:

“Thirty years of urging reform produced next to nothing; 6 months of digitally and physically organized social protests and a political earthquake is shaking the broader Middle East. Twenty years of working toward a treaty to govern carbon emissions has barely yielded an informal “accord.” Yet measures taken by 40 cities organized by the Bloomberg Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative will have far more impact.” 

While I would not disagree with Slaughter that events like these can serve a positive role, I am worried about the overall direction of her analysis here, which parallels the line presented by Jared Cohen (who organized the Summit Against Violent Extremism) in his book on youth in the Middle East.  Authors and foreign policy intellectuals like Slaughter and Cohen, I fear, stick too much to a narrative of technological progress necessarily bringing about political liberalism, a point that Evgeny Morozov has hit on his book. A focus on technology as the main story helps, I suspect, to sell books and bring readers to political blogs, but it often serves as a crutch in lieu of in-depth, substantive analysis of, for example, what Mir-Houssein Mousavi’s political platform actually was – considerable more conservative than that of most Twittering baristas in the Mission. Moreover, I fret that the technology-as-progress narrative tends to obscure the good, more traditional work that any American diplomacy needs to be successful, much of which requires, surprisingly, not self-promotion and self-presentation as a technological Moses, but administrative competence and regional specializations. In order to flesh out these thoughts in more depth, in this post I’d like to elaborate on these points as I work towards some preliminary thoughts on “digital diplomacy.”

Summit Against Violent Extremism: Fashionable and Well-Funded, but what's the point?

In order to begin to have an in-depth conversation about technology and international politics, I feel it’s necessary to say a few words about the connection (or lack of connection) between technological progress and political liberalism. It should, I hope, go without saying that the two aren’t necessarily connected. In the 20th century, Hitler’s Germany remained one of the preeminent mechanical and chemical engineering powers of the 20th century. It nearly produced a nuclear bomb. Stalin’s Soviet Union created one of the most sophisticated international spying and, if you like, patent-stealing or IP theft operations in human history when it managed not only to steal design secrets about the American atomic bomb, but also replicate that design to spearhead its own nuclear bomb program. While the USSR created a Eurasia filled with bad architecture, worse environmental planning, and poor health care and medical technologies, its rocketry, biological engineering, and chemical engineering programs – to say nothing of a world-leading and underrated capacity in math and physics – were world-beating.

These above thoughts might seem disconnected to the overall point of technology and political liberalism. We wouldn’t associate, say, the Soviet biological weapons program, or even Soviet computer science, with political progress, mostly because the former was designed to kill people, not necessarily to bring them together. But with the rise to preeminence of the Internet in the last 20 years – which has largely served to connect people with information in ways uncommon in the 20th century – many commentators in the West began to associate technology itself, or at least information technology, with the rise of political liberalism. Emboldened by the experience of chat rooms, Facebook, and Twitter, which seemed to connect so many people in so many different places, an idea of technology as inevitably bringing people together in an open, democratic conversation took hold. Less attention was paid to how companies like Facebook guard user data, or how people’s Facebook activity was frequently used as ammunition against them in the private marketplace.

 

 

We never associated technology of the biological weapons variety, like that produced on "Renaissance Island" in Soviet Uzbekistan, with progress, but in the 1990s and 2000s the tables were turned

One serendipity in these developments was that real technological great leaps forward were made at precisely the same time that newspaper and other traditional media outlets began to decline. Indeed, the two patterns were linked as advertising giants like Google drew revenues away from newspapers. The median age of newspaper readers went up, too. These two processes put more pressure on editorial boards at major outlets, always in hunt of younger readerships to hook in for life, to highlight stories on technology. If there was a way to inject young, hip, technology into stories about foreign wars or revolutions, even better. Making technology the focus of the story could be good business, sense, too: no need to send someone to Tehran, Baghdad, or Kabul with a translator to find stories if the story itself is about trending Twitter topics, just as easily researched from a desk of a major newspaper company. The need to boost young readers, lower overhead, and make the newspaper product seem relevant all coincided. This, I would submit, also partly explains the surfeit of attention given to authors like Cohen and Morozov, who, for all of their virtues, position themselves more as intellectuals writing about the effect of technology in foreign countries rather than claiming the “Humanists in Foxholes” narrative I have written about earlier. Figures like these – who wrote from think tanks in DC and NYC rather than from the slums of Karachi like Nicholas Schmidle, a journalist whose work embodies a different, for me more admirable ethos – became media darlings.

At the same time, many of the commentators who wrote about Twitter revolutions did remarkably little homework into the actual policies of the countries they were researching. (Morozov is less guilty than this sin of others, as he is originally from Belarus and commands not only fluency in Russian but also a more intuitive, in-depth sense of the institutions that characterize “Trashcanistan” ex-Soviet countries.) A friend of mine, Kayvon Tehranian, a graduate of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School who has conducted research in Iran and Russia and now works for Google, commented on this topic eloquently at a colloquium at a Princeton think tank this past fall:

The crux of Tehranian’s analysis is this, around 2:45 in the video:

In contrast to prior developments in Eastern Europe – the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan – the Moldovan insurrection was summarily defined by Twitter. Whereas once activists were defined by their causes, they seem to now be defined by their tools. [...] This narrative found further steam in the events that unfolded in Iran only three months later, when demonstrators took to the streets to protest the disputed victory of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was re-elected despite all indications that the Iranian people had voted otherwise. Here again, technology took center stage. A tool capable of catalyzing revolutionary foment took the headlines, a news story in and of itself – a second Twitter Revolution in the span of three short months. For a service that was spawned on a restaurant napkin only three years before, that’s quite an acheivement.

But I don’t think this Twitter narrative has attracted the scrutiny it deserves. Consider the fact that most of Iran’s network capacity was purposely disabled by the Iranian government both before, during, and after the election. Consider the fact that most of the Twitter posts that the media cited during the course of the protests that you saw on CNN were in English, not in Farsi. And consider the fact that most of these posts originated from accounts outside of Iran, not from within it, from countries in the West with ample broadband capacity. Lost in all of this fervor was the fact that Twitter was a side story and not the central issue at stake. Somehow it came to dominate the conversation, at least in the broader media’s conversation. [...] Crisis diplomacy was far too sidetracked by the technology narrative, to the detriment of substance. To offer an example, consider to what extent the media coverage of Iran was concerned with, or even informed on Mir Houssein Mousavi’s actual political platform, which had ample in common with the most conservative elements of Iran’s conservative Establishment.

Again, the point is not to totally disparage the role that technology can play in democratic movements around the world. But we need to combine it with, in the case of Iran, at least, an in-depth understanding of the intellectual and economic currents behind both 1979 as well as 2009. Some coverage of the relevance of Twitter is fine, but how about more discussion of the economy under Rafsanjani, or the Iranian reform movement through figures like Mehdi Bazargan, Ataollah Mohajerani, or Abdolkarim Soroush? By not doing so, the media and our foreign policy establishment – which, we have to underscore, comes primarily out of international relations departments and law schools, often with minimal regional expertise or language ability – gives us a superficial, technology-focused narrative, when the real story may have more to do with economics and ideas rather than media.

Finally, I would just like to throw in one story related to this that I believe is relevant. The New York Times has reported recently on the plight of thousands of Afghans in Afghanistan who worked for American troops and diplomats who have had the ability from 2009 to apply for visas to emigrate to the United States.  Out of more than 2,300 applications, however, only 2 have been processed, one of which resulted in a rejection. “They don’t care about us, or they forgot us, or they don’t want us to go there,” says one Afghan. The cause? Administrative incompetence at the Embassy, as well as a lack of staff members. Many times, applicants simply heard no response after they had paid a fee to apply, and continue to live under fear with their families. Given the resentment that many Afghans hold towards the United States for its abandoning of the country after 1989, much less the present American presence, this is clearly a problem and strikes me as something where the US should live up to an obligation that is not even abstract in nature, but rather one that it set out for itself.

Stamping visas in dusty Kabul sure isn't as much fun as inviting hip-hop artists to technology conferences, but it might accomplish more good for Afghans

The point to the broader conversation is that programs like Afghan Allies (the visa program), and their successful functioning, is crucial to American diplomacy and the USA’s reputation around the world. The only problem is, solving these problems is hardly glamorous. It doesn’t entail having a post at a think tank, becoming a media darling, or being portrayed as part of technology’s inevitable glide towards a liberal democratic future. Issues like the small one in Afghanistan require, on the contrary, dedicated servicemen, competent at adjudicating visa cases, capable of interviewing Afghans (whom we have in theory been working with for the past 10 years, so lack of cultural / linguistic knowledge here is indefensible), and a bureaucracy at home that can handle the resettlement and housing that these people will face as they seek to build a better life for themselves and their families in the United States.

The point: in order to develop an intelligent American foreign policy that can handle the macro issues (revolutions in Iran and Egypt) to the micro issues, I would suggest that perhaps we need less of a focus on technology – or at least on technology as the main issue to be dealt with. Maybe, it turns out, there isn’t a good substitute for the drudgery of consular work that unites families or removes them from the sights of violent extremists. Maybe some of the Taliban in Afghanistan actually will not be talked down via a Twitter-fueled conference, in spite of media reports about the inevitability of technological liberalism. The challenge will be for present foreign policy élites, or the next generation thereof, can learn to use technology as a support, a medium, but not the focal point of its efforts to create a global community working towards peace and prosperity. It may not keep the newspapers alive, but it will prevent these Afghans from being killed, and it might lead to a more intelligent American foreign policy.

From → Foreign Policy

One Comment
  1. were almost no ads in the Soviet Union at all, exepct for the rare cases this would be an exaggeration. There were ads in USSR. Of course there were much, much less ads than today. Still I would not call them rare.Still, the ads were of often questionable quality and their purpose was not actually clear. In USSR the goods were in short supply. Anything worth using would be bought anyway as soon as it would appear in the shops or even before that (phenomenon called blat you could get (dostat’) the goods which were not officially on sale if you knew the right guys). Remember there was no free market. So people actually considered advertising unnecessary. The authorities nevertheless insisted that it is necessary as it provides useful information to the masses. My personal opinion is that advertising was kept to make Soviet life a little bit lookalike to the Western life, so that Soviets could insist, that USSR is in all ways similar or even superior to the West.Another example of this would have been the elections in USSR. Absolutely pointless aside from being political show. But it was a tool to create at least a vague impression of democracy to some simple minds in the West and let Soviets to insist that they have what they called people’s democracy the only real democracy at all. (Doesn’t remind you of the Putin’s sovereign democracy ? )

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