Diplomacy in the Digital Age: Are US Diplomats Ready for the Tech Threat?

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Elevating Tech Diplomacy: How the US is Training Diplomats to Navigate the Digital Age

The world today is increasingly defined by digital technology. From the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and cybersecurity threats to the impact of social media and e-commerce on global affairs, the lines between traditional diplomacy and the digital realm are blurring. Recognizing this shift, the US State Department is taking a proactive approach to equipping its diplomats with the skills and knowledge needed to navigate these complex challenges. Tech diplomacy, the use of technology to advance foreign policy objectives, has become a cornerstone of this effort.

In September 2022, the Senate unanimously confirmed Nate Fick as America’s first cyber ambassador, a move that signaled the growing importance of digital issues in US foreign policy. Fick quickly set about modernizing diplomatic training, understanding that preparing diplomats for the realities of the digital age was crucial.

"He understood that we needed to do more and better in terms of preparing our people in the field," says Brian Hop, a veteran diplomat who played a key role in developing the new training program. This program aligns with Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s vision of a modernized diplomatic corps capable of tackling the challenges of the 21st century. "Elevating our tech diplomacy" is one of Blinken’s "core priorities," Fick emphasizes.

The Cyberspace and Digital Policy Tradecraft course, launched at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in November 2022, is at the forefront of this training effort. This comprehensive program aims to equip diplomats with the tools and understanding they need to navigate the digital landscape effectively.

Key Objectives of the Program:

  • Understanding the Stakes: The course starts by emphasizing the importance of digital issues in international relations. "Authoritarian states and other actors have used cyber and digital tools to threaten national security, international peace and security, economic prosperity, [and] the exercise of human rights," says Kathryn Fitrell, a senior cyber policy advisor at the State Department.
  • Promoting the US Tech Agenda: Diplomats must be able to advocate for US tech interests and policies abroad. This includes navigating complex issues like data privacy, cybersecurity, and the development of new technologies.
  • Building a Network: The course fosters collaboration between diplomats and experts at the State Department’s cyber bureau. This helps provide support and expertise to diplomats in the field.
  • Empowering Diplomats: The goal is to empower diplomats to make decisions and address issues autonomously, rather than relying solely on headquarters for guidance. "It’s important to us that tech expertise [in] the department not sit at headquarters alone, but instead that we have people everywhere—at all our posts around the world, where the real work gets done—who are equipped with the tools that they need to make decisions with a fair degree of autonomy," says Fick.

Inside the Classroom:

The Cyberspace and Digital Policy Tradecraft course is a dynamic and engaging program. After completing four hours of pre-work, which includes hands-on exercises with generative AI, diplomats delve into the intricacies of digital policy. The course format offers a mix of lectures, simulations, and interactive discussions, ensuring that diplomats gain a practical and holistic understanding of the issues.

"That has really put us light-years ahead in ensuring that no one is lost on day one," says Hop, highlighting the importance of the pre-work in setting a solid foundation for the course.

The curriculum covers a wide range of crucial topics, including:

  • Cybersecurity: This module delves into the threats posed by state-sponsored hackers, ransomware attacks, and other malicious actors. Diplomats learn about best practices for protecting sensitive data and critical infrastructure, and explore strategies for responding to cyberattacks.
  • Digital Governance: The course examines the challenges of regulating the digital sphere, focusing on issues like online content moderation, data privacy, and the role of governments in shaping the digital landscape.
  • AI and Emerging Technologies: With the rapid evolution of AI and other emerging technologies, diplomats need to understand their potential impact on international relations. This module explores the ethical considerations, security implications, and economic opportunities of these technologies.
  • Social Media and Public Diplomacy: In the age of social media, diplomats must understand how to leverage these platforms for public diplomacy, building relationships, and shaping narratives. The course explores best practices for engaging on social media and countering misinformation.

Beyond the Classroom:

The training goes beyond the classroom walls. Diplomats receive guidance on how to engage with local governments and stakeholders, understand the digital landscape in their host countries, and report back to Washington on critical developments.

"You can’t be calling back to someone in Washington every time there’s a cyber question," emphasizes Sherman, acknowledging the need for diplomats to become independent and effective on the ground.

The Impact of the Program:

The Cyberspace and Digital Policy Tradecraft course has already trained over 180 diplomats, including those serving in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the Americas. Feedback from participants has been overwhelmingly positive, praising the program’s relevance, comprehensiveness, and practical application.

"We want to be able to support officers in the field as they confront these issues,” says Melanie Kaplan, one of the program’s instructors.

This training initiative is making a tangible difference in the field. Diplomatic missions around the world are now better equipped to address the complexities of the digital age, promote US interests, and navigate the challenges of tech diplomacy. The program’s success is a testament to the US State Department’s commitment to preparing its diplomats for the realities of the 21st century, where the digital sphere plays an increasingly significant role in global affairs.

The world is rapidly evolving, and the US government’s commitment to training diplomats in tech diplomacy is a crucial step in ensuring that the United States remains a leader in shaping the future of the digital age. By empowering its diplomats to navigate the complexities of technology and digital policy, the US is positioning itself for a vital role in shaping the global digital landscape, advancing its interests, and promoting a prosperous and secure future.

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Sarah Mitchell
Sarah Mitchell
Sarah Mitchell is a versatile journalist with expertise in various fields including science, business, design, and politics. Her comprehensive approach and ability to connect diverse topics make her articles insightful and thought-provoking.