How John Kerry Could Out-Internet Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State

Five ways Obama's presumptive nominee could advance digital diplomacy

Reuters You might call Hillary Clinton the ur-diplomat of the digital age. Under her guidance, the U.S. State Department embraced new technology in a way no secretary of state has done since the fax machine. For better or worse, Clinton added a new dimension to the way Washington engages with the rest of the world.

With rumors that John Kerry may be tapped to take Clinton's place when she departs the agency this month comes rising speculation over how the current chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee might handle State's technological mandate. But a better question isn't what would happen to "21st-century statecraft" under Kerry -- it's what it would take to convince Kerry to consider digital a priority.

Kerry is a manager, and a very capable one. But he's not an ideas man. So unless there's a compelling argument to do something differently, he'll simply leave alone many of the programs Clinton put in place. That's especially true for a project like digital diplomacy, which is valuable precisely because it distributes responsibility downward and away from top-level officials. The next stage of digital diplomacy's development will be hard not because Kerry has some devious plan to dismantle it but because he has no reason to pay attention to it.

Digital diplomats who want to get on Kerry's radar need to appeal to Obama's presumptive nominee in the context of his main responsibilities. And that means making 21st-century statecraft an instrument for big foreign-policy breakthroughs -- not just a tool for keeping up relations with foreign publics. Here's how that could -- could -- happen.

Over the next several years, there'll be a number of opportunities for digital diplomacy to become a go-to weapon in the U.S. foreign-policy arsenal. One of these opportunities has to do with the structure of the Web itself: although it may have been spared from tougher international regulations last December, countries with a strong interest in monitoring Internet activity such as Russia and China are likely to keep proposing new restrictive rules. By helping build friendly coalitions through online tools, the State Department can open another front in the battle for a free Internet and apply direct pressure on opposing negotiators for self-reinforcing political victories.

Digital diplomats can also gain leverage by using the domestic social networks of target states. Consider China, which boasts a rich indigenous Internet culture that Western tools like Twitter and Facebook don't reach. Kerry would be wise to begin investigating Sina Weibo and other Chinese-language Web services as another way to get into the country. And while in repressive countries Internet censors may block these attempts, that in itself gives Washington diplomatic ammunition.

Kerry can use 21st-century statecraft to strengthen public-private partnerships. He can make digital diplomacy more effective by learning from corporate experiments with social tools. (Watching trends in media and journalism will be especially valuable; latching onto memes or trading in bite-size pieces of Internet, as a great deal of even the non-Western Web does, could be one successful model.) He can invest in stronger sentiment analysis tools that will dramatically enhance his agency's ability to interpret open-source intelligence. And that's just a start. But digital diplomats can't assume Kerry -- or whomever is confirmed to succeed Clinton -- will act either way of his own accord. In the best tradition of the Internet, those from below need to make the case for themselves that "21st-century statecraft" can mean more than "PR."