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From Telegraph to Twitter: Arms Control Diplomacy in the Information Age
January 18, 2012

Remarks by Rose GottemoellerAssistant Secretary
Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance

University of Washington
Seattle, Washington

(As Delivered)

Today, I would like to shake things up a bit and talk about something a little different – the changing nature of diplomacy in the Information Age. Technology and innovation have changed the conditions for statecraft in the 21st century. Treaties and agreements are not being formulated in vaulted, smoke-filled rooms across green baize tables, among grizzled diplomats with endless amounts of time.

For better or for worse, diplomacy now often happens more in the open, and at comparatively break-neck speeds. The world has changed and we diplomats have to to adapt and thrive under new circumstances. The information age is changing how we conduct diplomacy today. To illustrate that fact, I’d like to take you back first to the 19th century’s revolution in diplomatic technology – the telegraph.

When the Civil War ended in 1865, international diplomacy moved at the speed of our fastest ships. One year later, the game changed completely. With the completion of a transatlantic cable linking the United States and Europe, the State Department was able to establish a telegraphic office to handle the new method of communication.

This new technology accelerated diplomacy and also centralized foreign policy by reducing the independence of diplomats. It was costly thought: Succinctness was especially important given the expense involved in sending telegraphs. Diplomats took the brevity message to heart, some more than others. In 1881, the U.S. Minister to Russia, John W. Foster, earned the distinction of sending the shortest diplomatic dispatch ever. Relating the news of the death of Tsar Alexander II, he simply wrote “Emperor Dead.”

While there were many positive aspects of this new rapid communication system, there were also downsides, such as decreased time for reflective decision-making, increased pressure for immediate responses, and increased workloads for coding, decoding and otherwise handling telegrams. New possibilities emerged, too, for electronic espionage.

The State Department had to learn how to make the most out of this new technology without letting it damage or disrupt the business of diplomacy. Eventually, the telegraph was fully embraced, changing diplomacy as we know it. If you’re interested in knowing more about this fascinating history, check out the book by State Department Historian David Nickles, Under the Wire: How the Telegraph Changed Diplomacy. Another fascinating book is Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet, which looked at the impact of the telegraph from multiple angles.

The telegraph, of course, was not the first game-changer: think of the role the printing press played in an earlier time. Now we are in another era of revolution, this time also driven by new information technologies.

My experience negotiationg the New START Treaty put me right in the middle of this revolution, and I’d like to share with you my reflections, based on that experience. We are facing new problems, but also opportunities. We have to start innovating, ditching outdated thinking and embracing new tools of diplomacy.

I would like to make it clear that this is not a policy speech, this is an ideas speech. It is actually the second in a series of idea speeches aimed at challenging us all to do some new thinking. The first speech was called “From the Manhattan Project to The Cloud: Arms Control in the Information Age.” That speech, delivered at Stanford University last October, centered on how the information revolutions can help us to do better at verifying arms control treaties and agreements. The remarks are available on the State Department website, if you would like to read them.

So my next step is to focus on how the information revolution is affecting diplomacy.

21st Century Statecraft

New concepts, I recognize, are not invented overnight, and no one yet understands the full range of possibilities inherent in the information age. My boss, Hillary Clinton, has been a great champion of 21st Century Statecraft, which places a big premium on internet freedom, civil society, and innovation.

In January of 2010, Secretary Clinton gave a groundbreaking speech on internet freedom, establishing the United States as the global leader in the promotion of freedom of expression in the Internet Age. This past December, the State Department opened a Virtual Embassy in Tehran in support of the Secretary’s vision. When she announced the launch of this first-ever virtual embassy for Iran, she made clear that we want to communicate directly to the people of Iran and to support a more direct and robust engagement between our people. The virtual embassy is a hub in Persian and English for information not only on U.S. policy towards Iran, but also a place for insight into American culture and society, to find visa information, and to learn about opportunities to study in the United States.

Internet freedom is the foundation for what Secretary Clinton called Civil Society 2.0. This initiative matches organizations with technology tools and tech-savvy volunteers to help raise digital literacy, strengthen the information and communication networks of NGOs, and amplify the impact of civil society movements. As we’ve seen throughout the Arab Spring, technology can be a powerful catalyst for the growth of civil society groups.

Another component of the 21st Century Statecraft Initiative focuses on bringing innovation to the Department of State and modernizing the practice of statecraft. Of interest to you: we are incorporating new standards for hiring to find young, technology minded staff, emphasizing new media platforms to reach younger and more tech-savvy audiences, and revising the Foreign Service exam to test for problem-solving skills necessary in today’s world.

Our efforts to innovate and bring to bear new media platforms can help save lives. Nine days after Japan’s catastrophic earthquake, two very urgent pleas for help were sent to the Twitter account of our Ambassador in Japan, John Roos. A Japanese hospital needed to transfer 80 seriously ill patients from a hospital just outside the recommended evacuation range around the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The tweets requested help from the U.S. military to evacuate the patients. Through Ambassador Roos, this vital information was provided to U.S. Forces-Japan, and miltary transportation was quickly arranged to move the patients to another hospital.

New START Negotiations

Now, how are we applying 21st Century Statecraft to arms control? In my Bureau – the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, we are incorporating new technologies and methods to our tasks. If you haven’t checked out my Twitter stream, please do so! But beyond such day-to-day business, I’ve have seen the information revolution work first hand, while we were negotiating the New START Treaty.

The talks began following the first meeting between President Obama and Russian President Medvedev, which took place in April 2009 in London, where they agreed to launch negotiations toward a replacement treaty for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty – START – a treaty signed by President George H.W. Bush and President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. That treaty was due to expire on December 5th, 2009, so we didn’t have much time.

I was privileged to be a junior member of the U.S. START delegation in 1990-91, an experience that served me well when negotiating the New START Treaty, its successor. I remember how things were done back then: masses of paper had to be shuttled among delegation members – we were constantly burning up Xerox machines, and faxes flowed from Geneva to Washington and back. Remember the fax machines? It’s disappeared like the dinosaur. In Geneva in 1990, if you had secret and urgent business with Washington, you had to sandwich yourself into a steaming hot secure phone booth and shout to make yourself understood at the other end.

When the New START negotiations began in April 2009, the world had changed. The U.S. and Russian delegations launched into the negotiations committed to conducting them in an atmosphere of mutual respect with a premium on keeping the tone businesslike, even when we did not agree. And we agreed to disagree in private. That was fortunate considering how easily either delegation could have broadcast negative comments that would have reached our respective capitals before we could pick up a phone.

I would say the biggest change in how we did business was email. Instead of burning up Xerox machines and waiting days or weeks for the paper to flow, we could get information around the delegation and to our leaders in Washington within hours, even minutes. Both classified and unclassified materials could be transmitted, decreasing necessary trips back to Washington.

After some discussion, we also agreed to exchange negotiating documents with the Russian team electronically, although on disks and not via email. Interestingly, the Russian MFA had not officially embraced email communication. Even CDs made a big difference to after-hours communication, however. There was a famous story about how in the 1990s, during the START talks, a member of the U.S. delegation had to hurl a satchel of negotiating documents over the fence of the Soviet mission to his counterpart, because no guard was there to open the gates late at night. Obviously, a CD could be handed more easily between the bars of the fence–which we did from time to time.

In my view, these new approaches to a formal negotiating process, especially our new digital toolbox, were a significant factor in the comparatively rapid pace of our negotiations–exactly one year from our first meeting to our last one. No longer bogged down by paper processes, we could make rapid progress. Nowadays, I don’t have to wait until the next time I travel to Geneva or Moscow to advance business with my counterparts; I can email or call from my home or office, or walk across the hall and have a video-chat in our conference room.

AVC Efforts

When we are not negotiating treaties, we are applying 21st Century Statecraft in our day to day operations. We’ve has made some great strides in building our public outreach platforms, engaging with a wide variety of audiences both in and out of Washington, DC. We are digitizing public records, making it possible for you to read my latest speech–this one will be posted today–or toil through the New START Treaty’s article by article analysis. With a growing social media presence and an improved webpage, the Arms Control, Verification and Compliance Bureau is making information about our work clear, accessible and current. We have a Facebook page that is growing every day and as I mentioned already, I am the proud owner of a Twitter account. @Gottemoeller now has around 930 followers. I had no idea so many people would be interested in my 140-character thoughts. Of course, the State Department as a whole has one million followers over its 193 accounts. For now, I will focus on getting to one thousand. Have a look at it!

Our Office of Verification and Transparency Technologies (VTT) has been especially forward leaning in 21st Century Statecraft. VTT is looking at ways to incorporate open source technologies into their work in ways that have never been tried before. They are looking at elevating “civilian power” with citizen-run verification and monitoring projects that could augment standard international safeguards or verification of a country’s nuclear declarations.

This year, VTT is getting ready to launch prize competitions, posing challenge questions with arms control applications to the internet masses. This kind of “crowd sourcing” allows us to tap into America’s collective intelligence in order to spur innovation, and solve tough problems. We are looking for garage tinkerers, technologists, gadget entrepreneurs, and even students in this room to help us advance our arms control and nonproliferation agenda. For example, Smart Phone and tablet apps could be created for the express purpose of aiding inspectors in the verification and monitoring process.

VTT has also been reaching outside of the State Department building. They hosted a transparency workshop for emerging leaders in the field where they we solicited the next generation of arms controllers, steeped in new technologies, for new ideas and ways to incorporate them into our diplomacy. Unlike the very formal government-to-government exchanges of the past, 21st Century Statecraft requires input, innovation and engagement from all of us. We are constantly on the lookout for novel ways to solve problems, old and new.

We look to expand and grow all of these efforts in 2012.

To the Future

While embracing all these new tools and methods, there are certain things to keep in mind. Just like the State Department employees of the late 19th century, we have to be wary of things like security and authenticity. Like the telegrams of yesteryear, emails, tweets and other documents sent through cyberspace can be corrupted or stolen. New technologies require new standards of security. Online communications can also be brief or hurried to the point of being vague; they can be easily misunderstood as rude or even insulting. So diplomats have to continue being diplomatic, now matter how fast they can tap out a Blackberry message.

Further, the ease of information transmission today can also work to our disadvantage. An email to a colleague at home can easily end up in the inbox of a reporter. As a colleague of mine likes to say, you are always one click away from the front page.

We also have the issue of speed. If the telegraph accelerated decision making time, the internet and the 24 hour news cycle have set it to warp speed. Just because we can go fast does not mean we always should. Thoughtful diplomacy just takes time. Indeed, taking a step back and letting things settle may help move the negotiating process forward.

There is also the issue of posterity. Records of negotiations, initiatives and projects are extremely important. They can guide future plans and provide context for current events. Thus, the cable archive of a formal negotiating record has always been a valuable tool for historians and practicioners alike. The more informal nature of a lot of new communications can create holes in our records and gaps in our understanding. We need to think about always tracking and archiving communications, big and small.

Finally, unforeseen disasters can and do arise. Anyone who has had their computer or email system crash can relate. We should be mindful of the ways in which new processes can be derailed and always prepare backup contingency plans.


With that I will stop, as I’d like to get your ideas on how to further incorporate new technologies into arms control diplomacy. How do you think we can blend diplomatic tools that have worked in the past with the new tools at our disposal? We need your ideas, and I very much look forward to our discussion.

Thank you.