21st Century Statecraft

The “Internet moment” in foreign policy

Rapid increases in the availability and power of information technologies are changing the modes of international relations and the conditions for statecraft in the 21st century. In the next few years, the majority of the world's more than 2 billion Internet users will be in developing countries. All of these nations are opening new markets, making new technology policy, and reacting to disruptive forms of social and political activism that are transnational. This is just the beginning. Demand for more connectivity is booming.

The emergence of new kinds of information systems catalyzes change in national politics and international relations. During the Arab Spring, digital networks distributed revolutionary mass media produced by thousands of individuals in the streets of Tunis, Cairo, and Tripoli. These networks also enabled rapid movement building with extraordinary impact. But these technologies are not ideological, democratic or progressive by nature. They enable the desires of users and amplify existing social and political forces. The dynamism of networked societies delivers both positive and negative outcomes to which we must respond.

These new forms of decentralized power reflect fundamental shifts in the structure of information systems in modern societies. Consider the three primary information networks of international relations – trade, personal communications and mass media. The infrastructure that conveys goods around the globe has shifted over the centuries from ships to rail to highways. Our communications networks have gone from post to telegraph to telephone. And our mass media have moved from print to radio to television. Today, all three of these systems operate largely on the Internet. It is a triple paradigm shift converging on a common infrastructure for the first time in history.

Adaptation and transformation in statecraft

The disruptive social, political and economic changes that information networks have unleashed demand that diplomats ask new kinds of questions and reckon with new kinds of challenges. The 21st century statecraft agenda addresses new forces propelling change in international relations that are pervasive, disruptive and difficult to predict. The distinctive features of 21st century statecraft point the way toward deeper changes that will gradually permeate all of foreign policy: expanding its scope, substituting new tools, and changing its values. We are adapting our statecraft by reshaping our development and diplomatic agendas to meet old challenges in new ways and by deploying one of America’s great assets – innovation. This is 21st century statecraft – complementing traditional foreign policy tools with newly innovated and adapted instruments of statecraft that fully leverage the technologies of our interconnected world.

21st century statecraft is rooted in American values that embrace open markets, open societies and open governments. Open information networks have altered power dynamics around the world and forced governments to respond. Broadly speaking, we have seen a decentralization of power away from government and large institutions and toward networks of people. It happens unevenly in different places, but the direction of the trend is unmistakable. Barriers to entry in new markets are far lower. New forms of political speech are creating fissures in traditional societies. And the ubiquity of networks is opening doors for those that were once shut out of economic, social and political power. They are now far more visible to the global community. Millions of citizen journalists are documenting life in their countries for the whole world to see. This makes it much more difficult to maintain a large gap between the aspirations of the governed and the actions of the governing. In the era of digital media, governments can no longer control information systems.

The novel question that diplomats must consider is how governments around the world will respond to these changes? The reaction of the U.S. and many other governments is to align policies and actions with greater openness. In some ways, this is merely accepting the inevitable. These changes are upon us. They cannot be contained. The disruptions we have witnessed bring both new opportunities and new threats. They come wrapped together and we can neither stop nor control them. We can either choose to embrace them and try both to amplify the positive and to mitigate the negative – or we can be buffeted back and forth by changes for which we are not prepared.

These changes are systemic and persistent. To respond adequately, we have built an adaptable agenda of 21st century statecraft that stretches across all of the work that we do. We have made changes in four major arenas:

  1. Our methods of diplomacy;
  2. Our approach to development programs;
  3. Our focus on new policy issues; and
  4. Our work inside embassies, bureaus, and offices.

21st century statecraft – Diplomacy

These technologies are the platform for the communications, collaboration, and commerce of the 21st century. More importantly, they are connecting people to people, to knowledge, and to global networks.”
U.S. Department of State QDDR, December 2010

The traditional work of diplomacy—interactions between representatives of sovereign states—remains the core of our work. However, diplomatic communications have changed remarkably in recent years because of new communications technology. In addition to state-to-state diplomacy, we have added state-to-people, people-to-state, and people-to-people. It is now possible for large numbers of people to participate in sustained and decentralized communication with governments. This is a form of public diplomacy that is transnational in scope and unconventional in tone and breadth of topic. It is also an opportunity to increase mutual understanding between communities, between governments and publics. The nature of digital media is a break from traditional forms of print and broadcast communications. These are one-to-many communication technologies. The Internet is a many-to-many information technology. Consequently, the most valuable component of new media for diplomats is not the ability to speak to new audiences, though that is important, it is the ability to listen to new audiences and better understand their views and values.

The public diplomacy work of the State Department has become increasingly active on social media platforms to reach new audiences. Our diplomats in Washington and at embassies and consulates are being trained and encouraged to integrate both local and global social media tools as a means to create international dialogue. In a few short years, we have accomplished a remarkable scale of activity. We have more than 2.6 million followers on 301 official twitter feeds communicating in 11 languages. We have over 15.5 million fans, friends, and followers on 408 Facebook accounts department wide and we communicate daily with millions on multiple different social media platforms around the world. Including the multiple social media platforms we utilize, we communicate with about 20 million individuals across the globe.

The role of new media in public diplomacy has gone from virtually non-existent to standard practice. Perhaps the most high profile of these engagements was a question/answer session with Egyptian bloggers on the Arabic social media platform masrawi.com in the spring of 2011. During which, more than 6,500 Egyptian youth submitted questions. This is the beginning of a new era in diplomatic engagement that dramatically broadens global participation.

21st century statecraft – Development

Soon the majority of countries in the world will have a majority of their people connected to the Internet. This raises a host of new issues for development policies and programs that seek to leverage the power of information networks to support everything from improving healthcare and education to growing economies and expanding participation in government. Of course, USAID has embraced these new technologies across all of their work and integrated it into their strategic vision under Administrator Raj Shah. The State Department has also begun to adapt its own development portfolio in innovative ways.

An important example of this work is the “Civil Society 2.0” initiative. The vision for this initiative is to build the technical capacity of civil society organizations to accomplish their missions through the use of connection technologies. The Civil Society 2.0 initiative seeks to match these organizations with technology tools and tech-savvy volunteers to help raise digital literacy, strengthen the information and communications networks of NGO's, and amplify the impact of civil society movements. From simple tools, like websites and text messages, to more complex applications like content management systems and social media platforms, technology can be a powerful catalyst for the growth of civil society groups.

To accomplish this mission, we have hosted 17 TechCamps and convened 1,130 organizations from 81 countries around the world. The TechCamps are a two day, hands-on training where we work directly with NGOs to identify technology solutions to their challenges and then build the tools together with them on the spot. Over 1100 civil society organizations have participated and we have seen remarkable results.

  • At TechCamp Montevideo, a Guatemalan education civil society organization partnered with a technology expert in mapping and by accessing free and open data was able to build a map that showed the location of education centers across Guatemala. More data was added to build new levels to the picture to show the relationship of location to standard test scores, classroom size and more.
  • In Vilnius, one civil society participant representing persons with disabilities from the Ukraine learned through TechCamp that he could create a map to show all the places in his home town that were handicap accessible. Mapping accessible locations will help enable members of his organization to get around more easily and also help him visualize to local government the need to make more buildings handicap accessible for him and members of his organization. He is continuing to work on building the map.

Another example of our innovations in development policy came in Libya. Beginning in the early months of the conflict, State Department experts worked with the rebel government in Benghazi to provide diplomatic and technical assistance to reestablish Internet access in eastern Libya. Subsequently, the new government in Tripoli established a ministry of communications and informatics including many of the technology leaders during the conflict. Our diplomats engaged immediately with the new government to provide support for a new strategy of post-conflict stabilization using information networks. A leadership team at the ministry formed a plan called “e-Libya” to increase Internet access in the country and leverage this information network as a tool to grow new businesses, deliver government services, improve education, and interconnect Libyan society. Since the Qaddafi regime denied Internet access to more than 90% of Libyans, the potential for positive social, political, and economic change through access to information networks is considerable. The State Department led a delegation of experts to Tripoli to provide concrete expertise in network architecture, law and policy, e-commerce, and e-government for the e-Libya plan. It may become a model for “digital development” through technical knowledge exchange and partnerships across the public and private sectors.

21st century statecraft – Policy

The rapid expansion of Internet access around the world has focused increased attention on issues of international Internet policy. Because the Internet is a common asset – governed at once by every country in part and by no country as a whole – it requires coordinated governance across a variety of institutions, both public and private. A variety of policy issues are essentially phenomenon of the Internet age – including Internet freedom as a 21st century human rights issue, the structure and implementation of Internet governance, open government practices and cyber-security. But many others are new variants of old disputes that have new digital components. These include policy debates over intellectual property, taxation, data privacy, and consumer protection. As the importance of the Internet as a driver of economic growth and political volatility increases, these policy debates attract more attention on the international stage. The State Department has responded by elevating these issues on our diplomatic agenda, developing greater expertise and capacity among our staff, and engaging assertively in bilateral and multi-lateral channels that address these critical questions.

The cornerstone of the 21st century statecraft policy agenda is Internet freedom. The policy contains three fundamental elements: the human rights of free speech, press, and assembly in cyberspace; open markets for digital goods and services to foster innovation, investment, and economic opportunity; and the freedom to connect—promoting access to connection technologies around the world. A third of the world’s population, even if they have access, live under governments that block content, censor speech, conduct invasive mass surveillance and curb the potential of the Internet as an engine of free speech and commerce. The policy of the United States is to work to promote open governments, open economies and open societies. The United States is now leading a discussion with other world leaders to develop common strategies to protect and sustain freedom and security in the Internet age.

The State Department has also actively developed a policy framework that includes many other Internet policy issues. We have worked to defend the multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance that is now under threat from national interests despite its success in stewarding the Internet as a technology with undeniable global benefits. We have created increased capacity in cyber-security within the Department and engaged around the world to establish confidence-building measures and develop common norms of understanding. And we have helped to lead an initiative with more than 50 other nations to establish the open government partnership to promote best practices for using technologies to establish greater transparency, accountability, and citizen participation in government around the world.

21st century statecraft – Institutional Change

"We must unlock and encourage innovation and entrepreneurship so that our personnel can find creative ways to continue to develop new partnerships, to advance multilateral and regional initiatives, to create whole-of-government solutions through better engagement and coordination with other U.S. government agencies, and to become more effective operators in the field."
- U.S. Department of State QDDR, December 2010

When the State Department concluded its first ever quadrennial diplomatic and development review, we built a plan for the future based on the efficiency and skill of our “civilian power.” The greatest assets the State Department has are the talent and dedication of its staff. Our objective, as directed in the QDDR, is to institutionalize 21st century statecraft practices into all relevant elements of the Department’s work. We seek to foster innovation and ingenuity from within through enhanced training, targeted recruitment of new talent, and innovation in knowledge management and workflow using new technologies. We understand that institutional reorientation starts with an investment in our people and their ideas and creativity.

We are looking at ways to change our business practices to attract a broader diversity of innovative talent and to better measure and select the skills we need in the foreign and civil services of tomorrow. Beyond that, we are exploring ways to reward innovation through new management practices and to share best practices developed through experimentation. For example, we are conducting training at the Foreign Service Institute at all levels, from a-100s to ambassadors. We are teaching our technical staff that their role as technical experts is evolving beyond administering our communications systems. Their skills are now core to our diplomatic work. Broadly, we recognize that conventional practices must adapt faster; new skills must be incorporated more quickly; and new initiatives cultivated and rewarded. The institutionalization of 21st century statecraft involves taking responsible risks and bending the rules of our conventions. It is not an invitation for disorder – but an open door to new ideas for injecting dynamism into our hallways.


The 21st century statecraft agenda was built to address a moment of transition – an era of rapid change at the intersection of technology and foreign policy. It is fundamentally about adaptability not prediction. We believe that in a world of technology that enables pervasive, disruptive social change, the work of diplomats is to increase the speed at which government can respond to that change. We are doing that by leveraging new tools for public diplomacy, experimenting with new approaches to development partnerships, enhancing our focus and expertise on technology policy issues, and improving our internal practices and skill-building to meet these challenges. If the 21st century statecraft agenda is successfully implemented, it will no longer be novel. It will no longer be called 21st century statecraft, because it will simply be statecraft. That is our goal.