May 26, 2022

The gaming-updates Global Affairs project explores the increasingly intertwined relationship between the technology sector and global politics.

No wonder the government bureaucracy moves slowly. After all, in the year since he was in office, the Biden administration has successfully filled less than half of its key posts per year. But it does make the comparison fairly flexible, six months after the State Department’s Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy (CDP) announced this week.

To be successful, you must be. “The United States is the most technologically advanced country on earth,” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in a speech announced by the agency at the Foreign Service Institute last year. “The State Department should be endowed with that power.”

But until now, the technology, if not the idea, has certainly not been the focus of American diplomacy. Despite the creation of the cyber office in 2011 under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, its status has been downgraded under the Trump administration.

not anymore. “Recent years have highlighted the importance of cybersecurity and digital politics to US national security,” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken wrote in an email to gaming-updates on Monday. “We compete for the rules, infrastructure and standards that will define our digital future.”
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With this in mind, several clear policy goals for the new agency emerged. Some of them are broader, such as reducing the national security risks associated with cyber activity and new technologies, and ensuring that the United States leads the global technological competition.

Other goals, such as setting technical standards in international forums and protecting an open intra-operational Internet despite the actions of authoritarian countries such as China and Russia, are more specific and definite. I was encouraged by my meetings with Secretary Blinken. tweet Last week, support was expressed for Doreen Bogdan-Martin’s candidacy to head the International Telecommunication Union, one of the leading intergovernmental organizations that governs the global Internet.

But first, the State Department itself needs a revamp. Simply put, the State Department is operationally outdated, so the agency’s first demand, according to one official, is to modernize the Foreign Service so diplomats can better connect to the digital global environment. That could mean experimenting with new technologies like Zoom to go to places where diplomats can’t physically be, or more creative use of social media. The official notes state that using the number of your embassies or consulates in a country as an indication of your presence is now obsolete. “The establishment of the CDP agency is an important part of Minister Blinken’s plan to build a foreign ministry ready for the challenges of the 21st century,” a foreign ministry spokesman said.

In addition, the agency is still in the process of being established, but in conversations with current and former State Department officials and external experts, I learned what officials expect from the agency.

The CDP will have three policy segments: international cybersecurity, digital policy, and digital freedom. Each roughly corresponds to the pre-existing competencies: the Cyber ​​Coordination Bureau (established in 2011), the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, and the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, respectively. It will be led by an ambassador general to confirm this; Meanwhile, career diplomat Jennifer Bacchus will lead the team as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State.

While the new agency will handle day-to-day business, a separate Special Representative will also be created to deal with longer-term issues related to new and important technologies such as artificial intelligence, quantum technology and biotechnology.

Not lost in action now?

“The decision to create a new agency is an indicator of how serious it is” [the Biden administration] Look at these dangers of the need for more thoughtful leadership and diplomatic capacity,” said Eileen Donahue, a former US ambassador who now leads the Stanford Global Digital Policy Incubator.

An indicator of this seriousness is that both offices will report directly to another department official, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, for at least a year. On cybersecurity issues, the Obama administration’s top diplomat, Chris Painter, said, “That’s good.” He says Sherman has a long history with cyber issues, working to integrate technology into field offices, which he has led throughout his career.

Secretary of State Blinken and Deputy Secretary Sherman visited the new Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy. image credit: US Department of State/Ron Przisucha

CDP needs such a high level of support. I’ve been told that the State Department is trying to transfer its experience – knowledge of diplomacy and international relations – to more technical trade decision makers, the Department of Energy and other agencies. The conclusion is clear: the voice of the state is missing from the interagency process, and opportunities are being missed both at home and abroad.

For example, as Nate Pikarcic and Emilie de la Bruyère have written, America has been largely absent from the politics of intergovernmental organizations that quietly set global standards for technology. As a result, the US has ceded land to others, especially Russia and China, but even to the European Union, with huge implications for those who control the future of technology.

And as new international structures emerge, such as the EU-US Trade and Technology Council or the Quads Technology Working Group, the State Department should be able to coordinate and make recommendations. Under the Trump administration, “good, talented people” were working on these issues, Painter said, but not at the senior level. [able] Conduct business both with the White House and with high-ranking and foreign colleagues. [The new bureau] Helps fill this gap.

“This is a real down payment from the department,” said Yal Bayraktari, a former national security official who is now CEO of the AI ​​advocacy group, Specialized Competitive Studies Project. “Integrating the department’s cybersecurity, digital infrastructure and governance capabilities, including Internet freedom, will help build a coherent diplomatic strategy.”

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However, I am struck by some of the hurdles the new agency will have to face. Some of them are institutional.

For example, according to Painter, there are countless challenges, from writing new cyberstandards to opposing government action and advancing human rights issues. “These issues are discussed in almost all forums. That means we have to be there, we have to actively plan, and that gets people and attention.” There will be only one elevator behind the counter with enough qualified people to solve all these problems.

Some policymakers I spoke with suggested that the new agency would focus on cyber issues at the expense of things like democracy and human rights. If there is a personnel policy, then this will be evidence of how the State Department prioritizes new employees – and who will be ambassadors at all (when asked, the State Department official told me that new employees). cover all areas of policy.)

The new agency, Painter said, “needs to roll these things into every department,” but that will take time. Secretary Blinken wants departments to think and act differently, but how willing will the recently demoralized Foreign Service be to accept the changes needed to develop high-tech policy that many may not be familiar with? Diplomats will need to learn how to defend their positions on technology issues in an interagency process with agencies such as defense and homeland security that have extensive experience in this area. “We need to be patient as the state is now gaining experience,” Bayraktari said.

Other tasks are more strategic in nature. I am not ashamed to advocate the use of technology in US foreign policy, and I was delighted when the US criticized Russia for export controls in response to the invasion of Ukraine. For CDP to be successful, policies must be able to influence (though they are important) outside the narrow confines of cyber treaties and technical policies.

Painter says, “You can’t classify cyberspace. “It should be part of all the equipment we have.” After all, we do not have a cyber problem with Russia and China, but a Russian problem and a China problem.

Other problems combine institutional and political ones. “What is really needed is an understanding of the relationship between all of these issues,” said Donahue, who advised the founders of the new agency. She points to the fact that freedom of speech, which we once considered a human rights issue, has become a weapon when used as propaganda. The state will also have to manage conflicting priorities between agencies – for example, will it be with trade executives who want to support American tech companies, or antitrust officials who want to work with the EU?

Meanwhile, many aspects of this technology have yet to be developed internationally, from cybercrime to cybersecurity standards. Will Washington be able to agree among its allies on what a democratic Internet looks like? Does the US have the diplomatic and bureaucratic skills to set the standard against Chinese and Russian efforts to set their own agenda? Experts are wondering if Russia will launch a cyberwar against the West in response to its support for Ukraine, but we still don’t know what that means.

As dictatorships increasingly use technology to create dictatorships and undermine democracy, it’s good that American diplomats are seriously thinking about how technology fits into American diplomacy and how to promote democracy around the world. Efforts are being made to strengthen it. These are complex issues that require an integrated approach on the part of the state. Let’s hope the State Department finds out soon.

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