State Department needs a makeover for the digital age

Getty Images

On Oct. 29, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) will convene its 193 member states to debate a range of key internet issues, including cybersecurity, data flows and privacy, standards for new technology and internet governance.

But without a more coherent and high-profile structure to its “digital diplomacy” function, the State Department will be significantly handicapped in its efforts to defend U.S. interests and demonstrate global leadership at the ITU Dubai plenipotentiary.

{mosads}The Commerce Department, using a narrow definition of digital activity, estimates that the digital economy comprised 6.5 percent of U.S. GDP, or $1.2 trillion, in 2016 and was responsible for 5.6 million jobs. Not surprisingly, digital issues have risen to the top of the international agenda.

In the U.S.-Europe relationship, for example, issues of data flows, privacy, antitrust, and copyright have loomed large for several years. Greater state control over the internet — as sought by China, Russia and others — is a threat to the open internet the United States has always championed.

Free expression online is now under challenge, both from authoritarian governments around the world and from European governments that restrict hate speech and champion a global “right to be forgotten.”

Finally, cybersecurity has become a key international issue as governments use cyberattacks to disrupt other countries, gain illicit access to information and shift political opinion. Cybersecurity is no longer about preventing criminal activity but about deterring and responding to the hostile acts of other nations. 

To deal effectively with the full range of digital issues, the U.S. government needs a comprehensive approach involving multiple departments and agencies — State, Commerce, Defense, the Federal Communications Commission, Homeland Security and others — as well as strong White House involvement.

But the State Department must play a leading role when it comes international outreach on these issues, including negotiations — such as in Dubai — with both friends and rivals. These negotiations require diplomatic resources but also technical expertise and a managerial structure that allows all the digital issues to be addressed comprehensively. 

To be credible and effective, the State Department needs a top “digital diplomat” with the rank of ambassador. Currently, that person is a deputy assistant secretary — a rank unlikely to be treated equally by the heads of other delegations to the ITU meeting, regardless of the individual’s significant expertise.

The Senate confirmation required of all ambassadors will make clear that this digital ambassador represents the whole of the U.S. government. 

In the past, the State Department has divided responsibility for the two key issue areas. Digital policy and information issues were handled by a coordinator for international communications and information policy (CIP) — with the rank of ambassador — under the undersecretary for economic growth, energy and the environment. 

A separate coordinator for cyber issues worked directly for the secretary of State. This arrangement was often confusing for others, including our international interlocutors. Given the growing impact of cybersecurity issues, there is a case to be made for a separate function.

But State’s role is not to detect or prevent these attacks — the Department of Homeland Security, the National Security Agency and many other agencies have better cyberwar capabilities.

State’s role is to put forward the U.S. diplomatic response, and this should be coordinated with U.S. positions on freedom of information and expression, as well as internet governance. A unified Bureau of Digital and Cyber Diplomacy can best address these connected issues in a cohesive and coordinated way. 

This new bureau should be placed in the State Department structure in a way that reinforces the broad scope of its remit — from economics to security— and its role in dealing with foreign governments in both multilateral and bilateral settings.

Recent indications that cybersecurity and CIP might be unified but report to the undersecretary for arms control and international security should not be welcomed.

Such a move would lead the United States to address all internet questions through the lens of cybersecurity. Even cyber issues will benefit by being addressed in concert with other digital issues, including privacy and freedom of expression. 

Finally, if the State Department is to be effective in this new digital age, it must increase the training of foreign service officers in these issues.

Diplomats do not have to become expert technologists, but just as State found it beneficial to create a group of diplomats trained in science and environmental matters, now the department must equip itself for the digital era.

Only by having the right people and the right structure will the State Department be effective in protecting U.S. interests in this brave new digital world. 

Frances G. Burwell is a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and heads its Transatlantic Digital Marketplace Initiative.


The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video