The TechCrunch Global Affairs Project examines the increasingly intertwined relationship between the tech sector and global politics.
It should come as no surprise that government bureaucracies move slowly. After all, more than a year into his tenure, the Biden administration has successfully filled less than half of its key posts a year. But that alone makes this week’s release from the State Department’s Office of Cyberspace and Digital Policy (CDP), just six months after its announcement, seem positively snappy by comparison.
You will have to be if you want to be successful. “America is the most technologically advanced country on Earth,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a speech the office announced last year at the Foreign Service Institute. “The State Department should be empowered by that force.”
Until now, however, technology has been, if not an afterthought, certainly not front and center of American diplomacy. Despite the establishment of a cyber office in 2011 under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the office was demoted during the Trump administration.
No more. “Recent years have made it clear how vital cybersecurity and digital policy are to America’s national security,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote to State Department staff in an email Monday provided to TechCrunch. “We are in a competition for the rules, infrastructure and standards that will define our digital future.”
With that in mind, several clear political goals of the new office have emerged. Some are quite broad, such as reducing national security risks from cyber activity and emerging technology and ensuring US leadership in global technology competition.
Other goals, such as setting technical standards in international forums and defending an open, intraoperative internet despite the actions of authoritarian countries like China and Russia, are more concrete and defined. I was encouraged to see Secretary Blinken cheep expressed support last week for Doreen Bogdan-Martin’s candidacy to head the International Telecommunications Union, one of the main intergovernmental organizations that regulate the global Internet.
But first, the State Department itself needs an update. Simply put, the State Department is operationally outdated, so the office’s first imperative, an official tells me, is to modernize the Foreign Service to enable diplomats to better connect with the global digital environment. . That could mean experimenting with new technologies like Zoom to be present in places diplomats can’t physically be, or more creative use of social media. Using the metric of how many embassies or consulates you have in a country as a sign of your presence is now antiquated, the official says. “Establishing the CDP office is a key piece of Secretary Blinken’s plans to build a Department of State ready to meet the tests of the 21st century,” according to a State Department spokesperson.
Beyond that, the office is still in its infancy, but in conversations with current and former State Department officials and outside experts, I’ve learned what officials hope to get out of the office.
CDP will have three policy groups: international cyber security, digital policy, and digital freedom. Each roughly corresponds to pre-existing powers: the office of the cyber coordinator (created in 2011), the Office of Economic and Trade Affairs, and the Office of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, respectively. It will be led by an ambassador general yet to be confirmed; Meanwhile, career diplomat Jennifer Bachus will lead the team as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary.
While the new office will deal with the day-to-day, a separate special envoy position will also be created to focus on longer-term issues around emerging and critical technologies like AI, quantum and biotech.
No longer missing in action?
The “decision to create a new office is an indicator of how seriously [the Biden administration] I see these threats of needing to have more thought leadership and diplomatic ability,” Eileen Donahoe, a former US ambassador who now runs Stanford’s global digital policy incubator, tells me.
One sign of that seriousness is that both offices will, for at least a year, report directly to Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, the department’s number two official. This is a good thing, says Chris Painter, who was the Obama administration’s top diplomat on cyber issues. Sherman, she says, has a long history with cyber issues and worked to integrate technology issues in the regional offices she led early in her career.
CDP will need that high-level support. I’m told the State Department is catching up and trying to bring its expertise — diplomacy and knowledge of international relations — to more technical legislators in the Departments of Commerce, Energy, and other agencies. The implication is clear: the voice of the State has been lost in the inter-institutional process and opportunities have been lost both at home and abroad.
For example, as Nate Picarsic and Emily de la Bruyère have written, the United States has been largely absent from the politics of intergovernmental organizations that quietly set global technology standards. As a result, the US has ceded ground to others, notably Russia and China, but even the European Union, with huge implications for who controls the future of technology.
And as new international entities emerge, such as the EU-US Trade and Technology Council. If the US or the Quad’s technology task force, the State Department should be able to coordinate and advise. Under the Trump administration, “there were good, talented people” working on these issues, Painter tells me, “but no one at the leadership level [able] both to deal with the White House and with high-level counterparts and foreign counterparts. [The new bureau] It helps fill that void.”
“This is a real upfront payment from the department,” says Yll Bajraktari, a former national security official who is now the executive director of the Special Competitive Studies Project, an AI advocacy group. “Integrating the department’s capacity for cybersecurity, digital infrastructure, and governance issues, including Internet freedom, will help create a cohesive diplomatic strategy.”
However, I am surprised by several obstacles that the new office will face. Some are institutional.
For example, there are a host of challenges, Painter says, from writing new cyber regulations to countering state action and promoting human rights issues. “These issues are being discussed in almost every forum. That means we have to be there, actively planning, and that requires people and attention.” Simply staffing the office with enough qualified people to handle all these issues will be a boost.
Some policy advocates I spoke with fear that the new office will end up focusing on cyber issues to the detriment of issues like democracy and human rights. If staffing is politics, the test will be in how the State Department prioritizes staffing for the new office, and who will be the ambassador at large (when asked, a State Department official told me there will be new staff that will cover all policies). areas).
The new office also has to “embed these issues throughout the department,” Painter adds, but that will take time. Secretary Blinken wants the department to think and act differently, but how willing will a newly demoralized foreign service be to embrace the change that is needed to make policy on highly technical issues that many may not be familiar with? Diplomats will have to learn to assert themselves on technological issues in the inter-institutional process with departments such as Defense and National Security with much more experience in these issues. “We have to be patient as the state now develops expertise,” says Bajraktari.
Other challenges are more strategic. I have not been shy about calling for the use of technology in US foreign policy and was thrilled when the US imposed export controls on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine. For CDP to succeed, it must be allowed to influence policy outside the narrow realm of cyber treaties and technical policy (important as they are).
“You can’t put cyber in a box,” Painter tells me. “It has to be part of all the tools we have.” After all, he points out, we don’t have a cyber problem with Russia and China, but a Russia problem and a China problem, period.
Other challenges still combine the institutional and the political. “What is really needed is to understand the interconnectedness between all these issues,” says Donahoe, who advised those who created the new office. She points to the fact that freedom of expression, what we once thought was a human rights issue, has become a weapon when used as disinformation. The state will also have to manage conflicting priorities between agencies; for example, will you side with trade officials who want to back US tech companies or antitrust officials who want to work with the EU to neutralize them?
Meanwhile, many aspects of the technology, from cybercrime to cybersecurity standards, have yet to be developed internationally. Can Washington forge agreement among its allies on what a democratic Internet looks like? Does the United States have the diplomatic and bureaucratic skill to set the rules in the face of efforts by China and Russia to set the agenda themselves? Pundits wondered if Russia would launch a cyber war against the West in response to its support for Ukraine, but we still have no idea what that means.
As authoritarians increasingly use technology to build dictatorships and undermine democracy, it’s a good thing that American diplomats are thinking seriously about how technology fits into American diplomacy and its efforts to advance democracy around the world. These are difficult issues that require a whole-of-government approach. Let’s hope the State Department learns quickly.