08/17/2010 11:41 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Messy Digital Diplomacy

This month, the Obama Administration's much-evangelized '21st century statecraft' approach has returned to the headlines -- Secretary Clinton has restarted its "text SWAT to 50555" campaign to help the flood victims in northwest Pakistan, and Jared Cohen has left the State Department's Policy Planning Staff to join Google after a major profile in the NY Times Magazine last month. This return to prominence for this initiative, arguably its first since the Iran elections one year ago, has also exposed some fundamental flaws in the approach -- the Administration has aggressively introduced Web 2.0 tools into US diplomacy, but without the framework of a grand strategy, and seemingly divorced from current behavioral trends on the Internet.

The first flaw, the absence of a grand strategy, exists independently of this 21st century statecraft. This flaw, highlighted last month in Roger Cohen's NY Times op-ed "Winners and Losers," derives from the fractious nature of President Obama's foreign policy team -- its dynamics have not permitted any grand strategy thinkers to step up. This team has produced a National Security Strategy document, but it is filled with platitudes, principles, and vague ambitions; or, as Les Gelb describes it, it is a document that prioritizes everything but refuses to make "hard choices."

It is within this vague national security framework, and fractious team, that Secretary Clinton has been aggressively pursuing 21st century statecraft. Roger Cohen notes the youths, or, "the boys," on the National Security team, and the NY Times Magazine profile on two of these "boys," 28-year-old Jared Cohen and 38-year-old Alec Ross, highlights how they are bringing the entrepreneurial culture of Silicon Valley and Web 2.0 to the outdated world of U.S. diplomacy. They are described as "almost giddy in [their] tech evangelism" against the backdrop of a State Department that doesn't fully comprehend such efforts as "YouTube Diplomacy" with the Muslim world, or more humanitarian efforts via mobile phone for Pakistan and Haiti.

This evangelistic fervor is another flaw: Ross and Cohen reflect a near-messianic belief that new technologies, Web 2.0 tools, and their trial-and-error application to U.S. foreign policy priorities will produce a new Utopian society worldwide, irrespective of the known and unknown diplomatic and other risks of this Silicon Valley-type approach. This evangelism is seductive in its simplicity and passion, and is being mistaken for a proactive strategy instead of the isolated and abstract tactic that 21st century statecraft should be.

Part of the problem is this tactic's policy foundations -- Secretary Clinton's Five Freedoms of the Internet, and the vague concept of "Marshalling New Technologies and Promoting the Right to Access Information" in the National Security Strategy -- are quite abstract. Another part of the problem is that 21st century statecraft is attempting to duplicate the Silicon Valley culture of trial-and-error-and-improve, but without the resources nor the culture of Palo Alto, certainly not of Mountain View. Whereas Silicon Valley is filled with competition and venture capitalist naysayers who understand why something will likely not work, neither the State Department, the Republican Party, nor Congress seem to have have offered a convincing counterargument to these efforts. The dissent, where in there is any, seems to come from bloggers and opinion columns on the sidelines.

Secretary Clinton admits in the NYT Magazine piece that this new approach will have its problems. Now, with Jared Cohen's departure, the State Department will have one less leader in the building who will understand these types of problems. This leaves the Obama Administration, and Secretary Clinton in particular, in a tricky situation: Mr. Cohen may be replaced, but without a grand strategy into which 21st century statecraft fits, this tactic may lose direction as quickly as it grows in prominence.

21st century statecraft requires direction because the rapidly evolving and changing nature of the Web demands it. To date, the Web has not proven to be a hospitable ground for the State Department's efforts: Iran's regime has batted away "YouTube Diplomacy," and previous humanitarian SMS campaigns for Haiti and Pakistan have raised an outpouring of money but have not sustained contributors' interest or participation, or had much impact on the ground, in the long-run. Even today, the renewed "text SWAT to 50555" campaign for Northern Pakistan seems to have a smaller audience on Twitter and Facebook.

There is also evidence that these current efforts are themselves flawed. Harvard academic Ethan Zuckerman's presentation at TedX last month discussed how the Web is addressing the gaps in communication and understanding between peoples and countries, but also how many people are choosing not to engage with each other. The result, on social networks in particular, is the majority of people are sharing information only with others who share their world-view. In this light, 21st century statecraft may be producing "imaginary cosmopolitans" addressing a self-reinforcing audience.

To be clear, the engagement in these new technologies by our State Department is absolutely the right approach; it is the evangelistic belief in the unproven potential of the new technologies, and the race to apply them in very public scenarios without a larger framework, that is misguided. Without more successes, it also risks being compromised as having overpromised and underdelivered within an institution that is looking for reasons not to adapt.

The problem here is a problem of vision. President Obama very clearly understands the implications of this youth-led, technology revolution, yet seems loathe to provide a strategic, conceptual backbone into which these efforts are focused. The Obama Administration must instead focus on engaging and learning in select circumstances that fit within a strategic framework and a more clearly articulated and prioritized national security policy, before it preaches the new gospel worldwide.

The odds are that without a strategy to guide future efforts in digital diplomacy, and without an obvious replacement for Jared Cohen at State, the errors of our 21st century statecraft approach will mutate into new, technology-based foreign policy dilemmas that will fall outside of any existing worldview, and which the U.S. will be ill-prepared, perhaps unwilling, but forced to address.

Andrew A. Rosen is the Principal and Founder of AAgave LLC, a strategic consultancy in digital media, and a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He has previously worked in digital media at Viacom, on the foreign policy staffs for Senators Edward M. Kennedy and Robert Torricelli, and at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, a New York-based think tank.