Technology Diplomacy Changes Are the Right Start

By Laura Bate, Matthew Cordova
Monday, November 29, 2021, 8:01 AM

Technology leadership is a strategic imperative with the ongoing global competition to shape the norms and standards governing the development and use of technology in various sectors. But this is not yet a priority within the United States’ statecraft. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a long-awaited reorganization at the State Department to create a permanent home for cyber diplomacy and a special envoy dedicated to emerging technology issues. Unlike a prior attempt to create a cyber office, which was roundly criticized by Congress and other experts, the newly announced structure has been lauded as “the right approach.” 

The restructuring effort is welcome and appears to be well calibrated to the challenges and opportunities for diplomacy in the digital age, but this is just the beginning of a deeper government reorientation. The U.S. has a lot of catching up to do in terms of bolstering cyber and emerging technology teams, particularly relative to adversaries who are aggressively reshaping the geopolitical landscape. Given the stakes involved and the challenge of moving components around any well-entrenched bureaucracy, the State Department must continue to dedicate high-level urgency to the change and work with Congress to empower and sustain the new organizations. 

The Right Approach

A newly created Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy will focus on international cyberspace security, digital policy and digital freedom. Meanwhile, the new special envoy for critical and emerging technology will cover topics such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing. Secretary of State Blinken announced these initiatives in a speech to the Foreign Service Institute, specifying that the leaders of both new structures will report to Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman for their first year.

The newly announced bureau and envoy have enjoyed warm receptions from legislators and experts, especially relative to the less-than-auspicious prior attempt. The proposal modernizes outdated organizational structures and brings greater focus to current department challenges. For example, the new Bureau Cyberspace and Digital Policy reportedly will “integrate the core security, economic and values components of our cyber agenda.” Historically, these three areas would have relied on teams and offices spread across a variety of bureaus, and so the new structure brings together much more cross-cutting authority across these issues. 

Recently, two different congressionally mandated commissions—the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence and the Cyberspace Solarium Commission (where the authors have each respectively served as staff)—recommended changes to allow the department to bring greater prioritization and resourcing to cyberspace and emerging technology diplomacy and foreign assistance. The new proposal appears to align with those recommendations, particularly insofar as the high-level reporting structure is concerned. This signals attention at the highest levels and a deliberate choice not to silo the new entities underneath the State Department’s existing bureaus. Moreover, the one-year trial period for the placement affords flexibility and echoes a provision in the Cyber Diplomacy Act, a proposed bill that is similarly concerned with State’s organization around technical topics. Given all these considerations, it is not surprising to see the broad support for the move. 

Hard but Necessary Change

The reorganization appears to be on the right track, but its announcement was only the beginning of an implementation process that will be packed with hard but necessary changes for the department. Effective diplomacy on emerging issues will need to cut across bureaus, drawing in expertise and equities relating to economics, security, human rights, law enforcement, foreign assistance and more. Across the work of our commissions, details of the recommended arrangement of these elements have varied, but a fundamental premise of both is the same: key priorities around technology are spread too diffusely, scattered across different bureaus and offices, each of which “has a mandate, a budget, and bureaucratic turf to protect.” Moving personnel, mission sets, and funding lines from existing bureaus into these new structures will take clout and persistence.

In order to implement the new bureau and envoy to maximum benefit, we make three recommendations. First, the implementation effort will require high-level attention on the part of the State Department. While the department is seemingly on the right track, the key here will be to sustain this attention throughout its implementation and early operations to ensure ongoing evaluation and feedback about foreign policy impact, and support for adjustments where needed. Additional adjustments are likely, given dynamic trends in geopolitics and technology.

Second, the department must continue to keep Congress involved. Beyond oversight, Congress needs to codify the establishment of the new bureau and the special envoy. Congress’s explicit authorization gives sustainability to the enterprise, preventing the dissolution of these roles at the discretion of future administrations, as happened in 2018. Moreover, legislative authorization that outlines the specific responsibilities of the new ambassador-at-large and the special envoy provides indisputable impetus to overcome bureaucratic resistance to reorganization. That is to say, Congress’s mandate will be critical for moving key equities within the department and working with the interagency. Conveniently, legislation to this effect is already well underway and has already passed in the House. By working with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee now to map their reorganization plan to the Cyber Diplomacy Act, the department can lean into a beneficial partnership to cement the reorganization. 

Third, the success or failure of these new teams, like any organization, will hinge on bringing the right people on board and empowering them. The right talent not only includes leaders and staff with the necessary experience to deal with traditional diplomatic issues but also encompasses those proficient in technology. This talent challenge is by no means specific to the new structures and has already been a clear priority of both Secretary Blinken and Congress. But the need will be all the more pressing as the bureau and the special envoy’s office begin to staff up. 

Indicators of Success

The Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy and the Special envoy for critical and
emerging technology can rely on several early indicators to reveal the effectiveness of the implementation to State Department leaders and Congress. The first will be concrete outcomes on key issues on the agenda. The new Quad Critical and Emerging Technology Working Group, the EU-U.S. Trade and Technology Council, and a January meeting of a U.N. ad hoc committee on a particularly ill-advised cybercrime treaty all provide excellent opportunities for the department to showcase how its newly aligned priorities are creating impactful foreign policy outcomes. 

The new structures’ success will also be evidenced by whether or not the department’s culture embraces these changes. For example, a posting in these new organizations must be an asset on the resumes of foreign service officers, not a liability. This has not been the case for other start-up initiatives in the past such as counterterrorism, conflict stabilization or nonproliferation. The department will also need to provide the career development, training, and educational pathways to ensure that a steady stream of foreign service and civil service professionals have the appropriate technology literacy to conduct effective diplomacy and marshal modern partnerships in a competitive strategic environment. The establishment of programs like public-private talent exchanges or partnerships with academic and commercial institutions would be a strong signal that innovative and collaborative thinking is underway in State’s workforce development. 

Similarly, a more robust diplomatic presence in major U.S. and foreign technology hubs would build needed expertise and connectivity with industry stakeholders. The U.S. government can further expand its interface with industry by building a more coherent and coordinated approach among the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, and the U.S. Commercial and Foreign Commercial Service to operationalize competition vis-a-vis China in particular. The United States has the opportunity to invigorate technology innovation in partner countries worldwide, and the new structures would be key in establishing those priorities. 

Finally, no bureaucratic conversation would be complete without an eye toward budgets. A key harbinger of success for the new structures will be whether or not congressional appropriators put resources behind the new teams. The State Department can help by providing a comprehensive proposal for immediate start-up needs, and congressional authorizers can establish a dedicated cybersecurity capacity building fund and allocated account for cyber and emerging technology foreign assistance to help move this funding in the right direction.

While recent years have seen distinctly lean times for the Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues, the House appropriations report for fiscal year 2022 called for meaningful increases in some areas, particularly cybersecurity capacity building. Whether or not that budget passes, the appropriators’ attention to strategically important technology issues is commendable and foresighted, and will be critical if the new bureau and envoy are to have anything near the level of impact envisioned. The United States’ cyber and emerging technology diplomacy has been a secondary consideration run on a shoestring budget for too long. Now is the time to set clear priorities as only Congress can—with appropriations.

The State Department deserves every bit of the praise it has received for its new plan, but the hardest work is still ahead. Seventh floor leadership must find ways to sustain urgency and focus for cyber and emerging technology diplomacy that has been traditionally accorded to day-to-day crisis management and bilateral relations. Senior leaders at the State Department should invest in engaging with Congress on the Cyber Diplomacy Act and appropriations. Above all, they must bring in and build up talent to fuel the future of U.S. cyberspace and emerging technology as a core feature of American diplomacy and foreign policy.

The views presented are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the United States Government, the departments, agencies or commissions which they serve(d).