Open-Source Diplomacy

Instead of hunkering down in the wake of the WikiLeaks fiasco, Foggy Bottom should move toward a less secretive diplomacy.

By Jonathan Spalter

Tagged DiplomacyState DepartmentWikiLeaks

November 29th may be remembered as one of the most important anniversaries in the annals of American diplomacy. On this day, in two separate centuries, events occurred that shaped—and will continue to shape—the course of U.S. statecraft.

On November 29, 1775, the Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, established the Committee of Secret Correspondence. The goal of this committee, comprised of an illustrious band of revolutionaries including Benjamin Franklin and John Jay, was to solicit aid from potential European allies for the nascent American war effort. Equipped with codes and ciphers, the committee became the forerunner of the U.S. State Department, and the habits of secrecy it initiated have over the centuries become the modus operandi for modern American diplomacy.

It was also on November 29 of last year that the world’s newspapers announced the release of the WikiLeaks cables, the enormous and infamous cache of classified State Department cables that suddenly and unprecedentedly fell into the hands of the uncleared public.

There is little doubt that the WikiLeaks breach caused serious and potentially long-term damage to U.S. diplomatic interests. The leaked cables included critical comments made by Saudi King Abdullah and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan about Pakistan’s civilian leaders, making it unlikely these leaders, or many others, will offer their candid assessments to American diplomats anytime soon. U.S. programs to reclaim enriched uranium from a Pakistani research reactor were also revealed, as were the details of how U.S. Special Forces have been providing support to Pakistan’s own military operations. Also swept up were some of America’s most talented diplomats, including Carlos Pascual, who stepped down from his post as U.S. ambassador to Mexico after his blunt assessment of Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s anti-drug efforts turned up in the document dump.

In its wholesale violation of U.S. diplomatic secrecy, WikiLeaks’s actions have only intensified the prevailing tendency in Foggy Bottom and in the Administration to “batten down the hatches.” In October, President Obama signed a sweeping executive order—the so-called “WikiLeaks order”—instructing the national security community to deploy more robust cybersecurity technologies and measures to make the secrecy infrastructure of American diplomacy more restrictive, pervasive, and impenetrable, including more aggressive enforcement mechanisms, new data breach prevention systems, and significantly enhanced protocols for access to official communications. Indeed, this bulked-up secrecy infrastructure may prove effective in preventing future breaches.

American diplomacy, however, need not proceed inflexibly along this track. As traumatic and embarrassing as it may have been, the WikiLeaks episode offers the United States a timely opportunity to reassess its approach to diplomacy to ensure it can remain relevant in the new global information ecosystem. In this new track, rather than trying to resist the increasingly transparent and networked global communications infrastructure in which American diplomacy is now enmeshed, America’s diplomats may choose instead to adapt to new technical, cultural, and policy realities. It has become one of the great ironies of our time that while the United States has one of the most open societies in the world, its diplomatic activities and the technology infrastructure that supports them still remain among the world’s most secretive and siloed.

One urgent consequence of this contradiction is that American diplomacy risks becoming ever more out of touch with, and therefore of less consequence to, the emerging mainstream of engaged citizens around the world for whom concepts such as national interest, identity, and political affiliation are influenced increasingly by the interactive social networks they have formed, rather than by traditional elites and governments. As billions of cell-phone-carrying and Internet-equipped citizens around the world move relentlessly toward more open, participatory, and collaborative forms of communication, American diplomacy—still mired in its habits of secrecy—risks being left behind.

This lag was glaringly apparent during the wave of democratic activism witnessed these past months not only in the streets, but also in the text messages and online social networks of the Maghreb and Middle East. These extraordinary events were not anticipated by American diplomats, and American diplomacy was not able to establish in a timely way a coherent, coordinated, or trusted voice within those critically important new networks of engaged citizens. If the State Department proves unable to maintain America’s leadership—either in physical or now increasingly in virtual environments—other institutions, individuals, networks, or governments surely will fill the vacuum, and not always in ways that serve America’s interests.

Today, one year after the WikiLeaks fiasco and in the wake of the Arab Spring, America’s diplomatic enterprise urgently needs to be retooled. What should be the source code for this new diplomatic track? In a world whose politics increasingly are shaped by ubiquitous networks enabled by social media, the answer lies in the “open source” principles that have drastically reinvented the way citizens, markets, economies, and governments now interact.

America in the Bazaar

In practical terms, the concept of “open source”—which first gained momentum in the early days of the commercial deployment of the Internet in the mid-1990s—describes a means of developing software that ensures it can be licensed, modified, and distributed freely and transparently. Anyone can download open-source software for little or no cost, and can use, share, borrow, or change it without restriction. Relying on open collaboration by software developers, and the transparent sharing of insights between developers and users, open source has become a design principle not merely for software, but also now for a broader range of human endeavors, including business, medical research, biotechnology, and even government. (See “Wiki-Government” by Beth Simone Noveck, Issue #7.)

As the American computer programmer and author Eric S. Raymond described in his famous 1997 essay “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” adherents of the open-source movement saw in software-code writing nothing less than a political philosophy. The core tenet of this philosophy was that the authoritarian and buttressed “cathedrals” of hierarchical and proprietary information systems, whether they exist in cyberspace or in the brick-and-mortar structures of business or government, necessarily will give way to the more collaborative and self-organizing “bazaar” that is the new, networked, information society. In this open-source ecosystem, everything is shared, and adheres to Stewart Brand’s famous adage that “information wants to be free.”

Already, open source has become the dominant ethos for much of the world’s information architecture. Everything from the way we communicate to the way we work, learn, and play is increasingly informed by the principles of open-source software design, which operates on a community model with more decentralized governance. One of the most successful examples of collaborative, peer-based, open-source design is Wikipedia, the online, not-for-profit, and user-generated encyclopedia that has revolutionized the very idea of content creation and distribution. With nearly 20 million articles, 90,000 active volunteer contributors, and more than 365 million readers, the site can be edited by anyone in any of the now 282 languages in which it is published.

If U.S. diplomacy is to flourish in this new environment, it too must prudently but deliberately integrate an increasingly open-source outlook in its operations, its culture, and the design and conduct of the communications networks and systems it deploys. This new diplomacy will leverage many of the attributes and instincts of the open-source technology movement itself—and will look vastly different from diplomacy as we know it. The practice of traditional cable writing from ambassadors at post to their superiors at Foggy Bottom—more often than not ghost written by staff officers and requiring elaborate clearance processes—will give way to platforms of reporting that are not always confidential, and will be accessible to wider internal and external audiences and open to their commentary and critique.

Technical fluency, just like language fluency, will be tested and developed in our diplomats before they are stationed overseas, so that communication via social media, web logs, and other technical means can be more efficient, more pervasive, and more systematic. Feedback about American policies, principles, and practices will be openly sought, encouraged, and actively measured. And our diplomats will focus not only on interaction with government officials, state institutions, and elites, but increasingly on building partnerships with local businesses, students, universities, organizations, and other non-governmental actors supporting issues and values of importance to the United States.

A Strategy for Reform

For any bureaucratic organization, change is hard. But for an institution as globally dispersed and organizationally complex as the State Department, it is exquisitely challenging. Lacking the command-and-control ethos of the Pentagon, and dependent on the morale, dedication, and commitment of its talented civil service, the State Department is an inherently conservative institution, deeply protective of its prerogatives, its personnel, and its traditions. It was not surprising when the White House website reported recently in its open government scorecard that the State Department lagged behind all the 15 cabinet departments in its progress toward implementing the President’s open government and transparency goals.

During my service in Washington as a national security official in the late 1990s, I saw just how stubbornly opposed to innovation the State Department often could be. Even as the World Wide Web became globally available, most State Department personnel abroad had limited or no access to the Internet. Those few who did were forced for security reasons to locate their “open” terminals several feet away from their classified desktops. These open terminals had to be connected to the government’s expensive proprietary global network, which was so inefficient it often provided download speeds as slow as data speeds for faxes.

The technology teams I led at the United States Information Agency recognized that commercial solutions to this problem were readily available, and sought to provide to diplomats in selected embassies around the world higher-speed Internet access using commonly available satellite technology. Over the often-strenuous objections of many in the State Department, the project was able to proceed—but only by using funds solicited directly from Congress. When it came to promoting innovation within the State Department, the key lesson for would-be innovators was that the best approach often was to ask not for permission, but for forgiveness.

Fortunately, attitudes and practices have evolved significantly in the past decade. Despite what some critics on the left may assert, the pre-WikiLeaks Obama Administration took some important steps in the direction of transparency and innovation in American diplomacy. Among other measures, it adapted a decidedly more open-source attitude in its first efforts to wean the U.S. national security community away from reflexive secrecy. In one of his first acts, President Obama issued the Open Government Directive, requiring all federal agencies to take immediate steps to foster transparency, collaboration, and participation. Since then, the Administration has made government data and documents more accessible, launched citizen-generated idea sharing platforms such as Challenge.gov to promote collaborative problem-solving between the public and government officials on a range of policy issues, and created the previously mentioned scorecard, which tracks overall performance on openness and transparency across the government.

The Administration has also made investments in more modern technology infrastructure and devoted greater attention to streamlining and modernizing federal communications, technology, and acquisition policies. This includes the establishment of the federal government’s first chief information and technology officers based in the White House, a greater reliance on cloud technologies for data storage, patent reform, initiatives to speed up commercialization of government research and development, and efforts to make broadband spectrum more widely available.

The changes have not been restricted to the White House. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also has championed a more vocal mission for the State Department in the areas of innovation, openness, and technology, including the appointment of the first coordinator for cyber issues, as well as a senior adviser for innovation to help manage technology initiatives across the State Department’s many bureaus focusing on security, privacy, spectrum, and Internet access. A range of new programs also has been launched, including a national innovation competition to elicit new ideas about how technology can more effectively support diplomacy.

But the WikiLeaks contretemps threatens to roll back some of these innovations. And while these initiatives certainly are important steps, we still need a longer-term strategy to ensure America’s diplomatic corps is ready to engage effectively in an open-source world. The full transition from the “traditional” practice of statecraft dominated by more secretive interaction among elites to a more decentralized, technologically enabled, and transparent approach to diplomacy will be accomplished neither under the watch of any one secretary of state nor by any one administration. It will require a sustained, multiyear focus on the part of the executive branch, Congress, and the Foreign Service itself. It also will need to adopt the following set of bottom-line principles and practices—based themselves on core open-source tenets—in order to flourish.


The core principle for this new American diplomacy will be a deeper commitment to transparency itself. This call for openness in diplomatic practice, though often out of fashion since World War I, is not entirely new for American statecraft. In fact, transparency was the first of Woodrow Wilson’s famous Fourteen Points of 1918, in which he laid before Congress a vision for a new postwar diplomacy based above all upon “[o]pen covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.”

Wilson’s perception that the confidence of both the American people and of our allies requires an open approach to diplomacy could not be more relevant today. More than ever, there is a strategic premium in the marketplace and within civil society on open and unfettered communications. American diplomacy ignores this phenomenon at its peril. In this new environment, efforts by American diplomats to engage more openly with publics will be rewarded with increasing trust.

In practical terms, our diplomats must be given significantly more leeway in the future to engage with communities of interest without onerous clearance procedures, permissions, and approved talking points. It also means that the buildings in which our diplomats work must be designed and sited not only with security in mind, but also to facilitate optimal communication with access for local citizens. Locating our diplomatic offices closer to urban centers when feasible will be an important step in this direction.

Technology Engagement

For today’s diplomacy, this call for transparency also will require more systematic understanding and use of technical platforms like telepresence, social media, and wireless communications tools. To remain relevant, American diplomats also will need to be more present, vocal, and accounted for in the new virtual town squares offered by applications like Twitter. Interacting with local populations and influencers via these new platforms will require more than linguistic and cultural fluency. It also will require technical know-how and adequate equipment. The post-WikiLeaks American diplomatic officers should be as nimble in navigating and posting to trending hashtags as they are in managing complicated official negotiations.

In this new, more technology-driven diplomacy, performance will no longer be measured by the quality and quantity of one’s cable-writing skills, but by the influence of one’s blog posts and the quality, depth, and interactivity of one’s social network. To put it another way, a political officer in Cairo or an economic officer in Tripoli will be rewarded not merely for his understanding of and reporting on the nuances of the proverbial “Arab street,” but equally by her insights on and responses to the latest “Arab tweet.”


In the past 15 years, security and budgetary concerns have forced American diplomats to retreat both literally and figuratively into the increasingly reinforced walls of American embassy compounds around the world. Frontline diplomatic presence in consulates has been pared back. American cultural centers and libraries have been closed worldwide, curtailing what for many citizens around the world was their only and often most influential interaction with American ideals. Bureaucratic procedures and requirements have been made more irksome and time consuming, making it more challenging for American diplomats to operate directly with foreign populations in the academy, media, business, and rural areas.

In a more open-source American diplomacy, Foreign Service officers increasingly will be encouraged, trained, and offered the tools to venture more confidently and securely beyond the diplomatic compound to build sustainable partnerships with and among the communities in which they operate. The antecedents for this type of dynamic and direct collaboration by U.S. diplomats can be seen in posts in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Foreign Service officers have joined with U.S. development officials and the U.S. military to work with local populations in community-based reconstruction and nation-building projects. American diplomats still will be vitally involved in managing official and often confidential bilateral and multilateral relationships and communications. But this official interaction alone will no longer be sufficient.

The Privacy Question

None of this is to suggest that privacy—or secrecy—is dead in the open-source diplomacy of the future. Unquestionably, privacy will always remain a fundamental requirement not only for consumers globally, but also for the effective conduct of America’s diplomatic engagement abroad. Our political leaders and their diplomatic emissaries must retain the option—and have the technical means—to communicate confidentially both with each other and with our allies and even our adversaries in order to advance our national interests.

Moreover, at a time when cyber attacks on America’s infrastructure and computer networks are posing clear and present dangers, our national security community will require ever more layered and defensible cybersecurity resources. The Pentagon’s new Cyber Command is one of the promising new foundations for the U.S. government’s initiatives to integrate cyber defense operations and protect the United States against threats of cyber warfare. From the Pentagon’s perspective, the threats the Cyber Command defends against are not illusory. In August 2010, the U.S. military for the first time warned publicly about the Chinese military’s use of “information warfare units” to develop viruses to attack enemy computer systems and networks.

The need for the United States to deploy ever more tenacious cybersecurity measures has become an urgent national priority, and the Obama Administration has taken decisive and measured steps to meet the challenge. But this commitment to the security of America’s computer networks and critical infrastructure need not be incompatible with parallel initiatives to promote greater transparency, openness, and innovation within our diplomatic activities worldwide. Cybersecurity and protection of America’s critical infrastructure should not be confused with the propensity toward secrecy in our statecraft. Indeed, an increasingly open and transparent posture by American diplomacy will only enhance U.S. security and esteem globally.

A New Diplomatic Corps

Even though the State Department has prioritized so-called “cyber diplomacy” and an increasingly transparent approach to diplomacy, its efforts may prove short-lived unless it changes the way the diplomatic corps itself is recruited and trained. We need to create a more adaptive, technologically engaged, and diversely skilled professional foreign policy corps.

The State Department’s recruiting process has remained largely unchanged since the first merit-based Foreign Service officer test was administered after the Rogers Act created the modern Foreign Service in 1924. According to the State Department’s own website, the selection process for the roughly 30,000 applicants who take the Foreign Service officer test “can be as short as six months, and as long as two years, but will typically fall between those extremes.” The lengthy and onerous evaluation and security screening processes are distinct liabilities for attracting the kind of leaders our nation needs to pursue its diplomacy effectively.

According to the Office of Personnel Management, the federal bureaucracy as a whole has shown improvement in reducing recruitment periods for its workforce—an Obama Administration priority—to an average of 105 days. But the State Department continues to lag well behind, with an average recruitment time of more than 160 days—and considerably more for Foreign Service officers. If it has any hope of competing with the private sector for talented new leaders, the State Department must do better, and at the very least set as a concrete goal in the next four years reducing total hire time—including security screening—for American diplomats to no more than the 80 days called for by the President.

The department also needs to change its largely hands-off approach to the recruitment process. Alarmingly, the modern Foreign Service still is based on a dated “generalists only” construct, which relies on self-selection to get the kind of professionals required for today’s more specialized missions. There is virtually no effort to recruit individuals with specific skills, languages, instincts, or expertise. The State Department needs to overhaul this approach, and begin to identify and recruit the kinds of skilled professionals in new areas such as social-media product development, market research, and strategic communications.

Once these specialists have been hired, they need to be given incentives to stay in diplomatic work. Today’s Foreign Service must find more ways to integrate many of the State Department’s affiliated but broadly dispersed civil-service specialists into its ranks. One approach would be for the U.S. Foreign Service to be reinvented as a new, more unified, and functionally diverse U.S. Diplomatic Service, encompassing a broader range of the increasingly important components of the State Department’s current civil-service work force.

This could be accompanied by a change in the career tracks for Foreign Service officers. Today’s Foreign Service provides five tracks: political, economic, public diplomacy, consular, and management. These tracks have been in place for years with little change. In a new U.S. Diplomatic Service, a range of civil-service specialists working now for various agencies and departments in Washington and at embassies around the world would be more fully integrated into the nation’s diplomatic corps via new career tracks, including in such areas as technology, commercial outreach, security, development and agricultural affairs, and in important new fields such as knowledge management and public-opinion polling and market research. They also would be treated as co-equal to traditional Foreign Service officers in terms of rank, career advancement opportunities, training, and identity.

One more much-needed piece of U.S. diplomacy reform in the post-Wiki-Leaks world is a revitalization of the public diplomacy mission. Nowhere has the need for a new model of public diplomacy—and the arrival of an open-source world—been more evident than in the Arab Spring. But according to recent polls, rather than being seen at the forefront of and in solidarity with these citizen movements—and despite having given rise to many of the technologies and applications that served as the oxygen of the Arab Spring—the United States has been viewed by the Arab street as an impediment to progress. Fully two-thirds of Egyptians surveyed believe the U.S. will try to intervene in Egypt’s political future as opposed to letting the people of the country decide for themselves.

Raymond’s metaphors of the cloistered cathedral and the boisterous bazaar describe more than the tensions existing between the increasingly incompatible spheres of proprietary and open-source approaches to computer coding. They also aptly describe the distinct spheres of operational focus for the State Department itself: the realms of government-to-government engagement on the one hand and of government-to-citizen engagement on the other. In the open-source environment in which diplomacy now functions, there has been a shift away from the relative importance of the traditional “cathedrals” of confidential government and toward the “bazaars” that are the self-directed, technologically engaged, and politically enfranchised networks of citizens. (See Rachel Kleinfeld’s “Global Outreach,” Issue #23.)

In these “bazaars,” the denizens are younger than at any time in recent history: Fully 45 percent of the world’s population today is under 25 years of age. And they represent a particularly important demographic that is maturing at a time marked by increasingly limited direct engagement by the U.S. government. Moreover, in this new environment, power and influence have been shifting away from the “few” toward the “many” as mobile technology increasingly has become ubiquitous (there are now more mobile phones in use on the planet than there are human beings).

It has been the role of so-called “public” diplomacy to manage the increasingly important government-to-citizen and citizen-to-citizen interactions on behalf of the United States. And by any measure, the mission of public diplomacy has become only more central to U.S. foreign-policy objectives. Nevertheless, of the total $54.6 billion budget requested for 2011 by the State Department, public diplomacy programs accounted for just $1.29 billion—less than 2.5 percent of the department’s total budget request for the year. With only 1,070 public diplomacy officers within the Foreign Service, public diplomacy is the second smallest of the department’s five career tracks. Indeed, as of 2009, the State Department employed 60 percent more diplomatic security professionals than public diplomacy officers.

The consequences of these trends have not been auspicious. In a report to Congress written not long after the events of September 11, 2001, a group chaired by former Assistant Secretary of State Edward Djerejian wrote, “At a critical time in our nation’s history, the apparatus of public diplomacy has proven inadequate, especially in the Arab and Muslim world.” To overcome these challenges, and to ensure modern American statecraft can succeed, secretaries of state will need to put at risk more personal political capital with Congress, and with the bureaucracy they lead, to ensure that public diplomacy receives the resources, personnel, training, and technology infrastructure required to operate effectively.

Living in a WikiLeaks World

What WikiLeaks—and the open-source technology environment of which it is as much a symptom as a catalyst—has made jarringly clear is that the U.S. government alone can no longer fully control what remains classified and out of public reach. That power is now split between the government and the global digital technology infrastructure it shares. The nation’s classified archives will always remain at some risk of public exposure. The fundamental question for American diplomacy will be whether it will withdraw more deeply into a musty and increasingly outmoded cathedral of secrecy, or if it will seek to accelerate efforts to be more transparently and muscularly engaged in managing the nation’s interests in an open-source world.

This is not a new choice for American diplomacy. It was Benjamin Franklin, the founding member of the Committee of Secret Correspondence and himself perhaps America’s pre-eminent technology visionary, who was the very first American diplomat to face the dilemma of how to properly balance secrecy with transparency in the conduct of our statecraft. And he answered it with a logic that today would be considered positively open-source in its approach. As the historian Stacy Schiff recounts in A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, during his famous first mission to France to persuade Louis XVI’s foreign minister to support the American cause, Franklin found himself surrounded at every turn in Paris by swarms of spies and nonstop surveillance. Knowing it was impossible to prevent their intrusions, and having little taste for ciphers and invisible ink, Franklin wrote to a friend in 1777 on his philosophy of diplomacy, one that holds a valuable lesson for the post-WikiLeaks world:

It is simply this: to be concerned in no affairs that I should blush to have made public; and to do nothing but what spies may see and welcome. When a man’s actions are just and honorable, the more they are known, the more his reputation is increased and established. If I was sure therefore that my valet de place was a spy, as probably he is, I think I should not discharge him for that, if in other respects I liked him.

It was no surprise that Franklin’s best friends in France were spies. Nor is it a surprise that Franklin’s insights on technology, secrecy, and the art of American diplomacy are proving yet again to be not only prescient, but revolutionary. What Franklin understood at that pivotal new moment in world affairs was that his young and still-fragile nation’s ability to build alliances and esteem would not be enhanced by its inclination toward furtiveness and secrecy, but by its audacity to share confidences. He grasped that the United States should conduct itself with the same openness and transparency in the realm of foreign policy it sought to enshrine in its own republic. In the post-WikiLeaks era, marked also by extraordinary new stirrings for liberty around the world but equally by new dangers, we would do well to heed Franklin’s lessons for American diplomacy.

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Jonathan Spalter is the chairman of Mobile Future, a national wireless technology trade association and think tank. He also has been CEO of technology and research companies based in the United States and Europe. During the Clinton Administration, he was associate director of the U.S. Information Agency. He also served on the National Security Council staff and as a foreign affairs spokesman and adviser for Vice President Al Gore. The views expressed in this article are the author's alone.

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