Smart power meets smart phones

December 17, 2009

The State Department is accelerating its push into the Internet, hoping to use web sites, blogs and mobile phones to deliver the U.S. message around the world.

The State Department itself unveiled a new-look web site on Thursday, including a video clip greeting from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and one-click “share” options to deliver the message over Facebook, Twitter, and other sites.

CANADA/“No one person or country has a monopoly on good ideas. So I hope this website will be a forum for learning, discussion and collaboration,” Clinton said in the clip.

Clinton’s “innovation” advisor, Alec Ross, told a think-tank audience on Thursday that U.S. statecraft would increasingly take place in cyberspace, with special attention paid to messages deliverable over cellphones — which are now the way many people in developing countries access information.

“The times have changed, and these changes require pivots in our statecraft,” Ross said, noting that worldwide the total number of cellphone handsets had jumped by about 500 million to 4.6 billion during the eight months he has been in office.

“Seventy percent of those are in the developing world,” he said.

The new importance of technology, which include the use of Twitter and social networking tools such as Facebook by young Iranians to coordinate protests and report on demonstrations after disputed June presidential elections, are drawing scrutiny across Washington as an element of the “smart power” strategy that elevates diplomacy and development alongside defense as key elements of U.S. strategy.

Ross said U.S. policy would increasingly focus on promoting communications infrastructure — citing the SEACOM undersea fibre optic cable which links East Africa to Europe and Asia — as well as on “apps” such as mobile banking or mobile healthcare monitoring which can really make a difference in people’s lives.

Ross conceded that the very interactivity of the Internet made it a potentially worrisome vehicle for U.S. diplomacy: after all, who in the end will control the message if everyone is able to have a say?

But he said that the new technologies would only become more important both for the United States and for its enemies such as al Qaeda, which already uses the Internet to deliver propaganda and recruit volunteers.

“The world’s not changing. It has changed,” Ross said, adding that it was critically important that the U.S. stay at the very forefront of technological innovation.  “We are past the tipping point.”

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Photo credit: Reuters/Mark Blinch   (Person poses with a new Blackberry)

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