Technology, Diplomacy & Development: Time to Up Our Game

April 19, 2022 By Liz Schrayer

I still remember when then Secretary of State Colin Powell would travel around the world, and sneak into an office at one of our embassies overseas to see if he could access his computer at the State Department – and lo and behold he could not, given the antiquated system.

In fact, he is still beloved for being the Secretary who brought the Harry Truman Building out of the digital dark ages, throwing away the old Wang computers that cluttered desks and couldn’t communicate with one another, and gave our diplomats email, yes email! Powell ushered in a new era of 44,251 Internet-capable computers with high-speed modems and an end to the screeching sound of dial-up before anyone heard “you’ve got mail.”

Twenty years later, a lot has changed – but not enough.

The reality is that the State Department, USAID, and our other development agencies have historically lagged behind when it comes to technology in both resources and innovation. It’s time to catch and properly equip our diplomats and development professionals with the digital and technology capabilities to compete in today’s complicated world.

More and more, in today’s interconnected world, it’s no longer just about what happens inside any one agency or embassy. It’s not just the tools on a literal diplomatic desktop or the apps on a development officer’s phone. Of course, we need to invest in technology for diplomats so they catch up with their Defense Department peers – but it’s also about driving our planning, programs, and priorities – and treating technology as an instrument for achieving our diplomatic and foreign policy objectives.

The good news is we now have a strong foundation to build upon. In April 2020, USAID launched its first ever Digital Strategy. As described by then Deputy Administrator Bonnie Glick at the time, the new strategy aims to “[chart] a vision for development and humanitarian assistance in the world’s rapidly evolving digital landscape.” This work, partnering with the private sector, is already delivering results on everything from combatting COVID to corruption to disinformation.

In her remarks at the recent Summit for Democracy, USAID Administrator Samantha Power added, “With our democratic allies, we will build a global charter for digital public goods in which governments, civil society, software engineers, and tech companies declare principles for open-source tech products that respect human rights.”

Earlier this month, the new State Department Bureau for Cyberspace and Digital Policy launched its operations. In a significant speech on modernizing American diplomacy, Secretary of State Tony Blinken stated, “We want to make sure the technology works for democracy, fighting back against disinformation, standing up for internet freedom, reducing the misuse of surveillance technology.”

It couldn’t be more urgent in today’s world for the United States to lean in on how we use technology for good in the struggle between digital democracy and digital authoritarianism. The ongoing fight against Russian disinformation and cybersecurity threats illustrates why these efforts matter. We’ve seen important partnerships between the tech sector and the U.S. government – through initiatives like the State Department’s Global Engagement Center and DHS’s Joint Cyber Defense Collaborative – that have resulted in wins for Ukraine on the information battlefield. These efforts are important, and more is needed on the battle against disinformation. Other partnerships are also critical, such as those that work on closing the digital gap in places with limited access to technology, particularly throughout the developing world, and leveraging data and artificial intelligence to fight hunger, disease, and corruption.

But to compete and win on the global stage, it’s not just the tools we give our team that count, but how the United States ensures and shapes the playing field. Ultimately, it means using technology to strengthen the power of democracy and empower citizens everywhere – both here at home and around the world.

The authoritarian forces on the other side see technology very differently. They want to control it to spy on and track their populations and other people. They want to use technology to repress, as we’ve seen in China where Uighurs and Tibetans are tracked through facial recognition. They are sowing  disinformation and misinformation on social media to harm and control their own people and foreign populations, as we’ve seen Vladimir Putin try to do in Ukraine. They are supporting cybercriminals who seek to undermine the security of global technical infrastructure. And they are building their own “sovereign” Internet to insulate their citizens from diverse and democratic viewpoints.

In a world with new and emerging geopolitical threats, we can’t lose our digital leadership in global development and diplomacy to foreign competitors or malign actors. Digital technology is not just an essential element of the information war in Ukraine – it has also become a central part of our efforts to promote inclusive growth, resilience, and democratic societies and it is critical to supporting the most vulnerable.

As policymakers look to address American competitiveness and enhance digital technology in the developing world, this is an important moment. We are fortunate that much of the rest of the world operates on technologies and digital platforms that were built in the U.S. and which are rooted in democratic values. But we are at a crossroads on digital leadership. We must leverage our nation’s greatest strengths – from the innovation of our universities to the technology sector to the power of our global alliances to ensure America can compete and combat the global threats of today and of tomorrow. Otherwise, we may not like who creates the rules of the road.

At a time when authoritarianism is on the march, it’s never been more critical that we invest in promoting a free, open, secure, and networked democratic world, just as we did seventy-five years ago to promote an unprecedented age of peace and prosperity after World War II. It will take all of us at the table – bipartisan leaders in government, our nation’s companies and innovators, America’s development partners and NGOs, and a next generation of young people to lead the way with digital diplomacy and development to ensure a more equitable and connected world.