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Bypassed Bureaucracies

Bypassed Bureaucracies

Institutional learning in the networked world

By Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook

Every day there’s a new headline on how digital networks are leaning into the domain of statecraft and global politics. When he was head of the CIA, Mike Pompeo said that Russia would be back to interfere in the 2018 US midterm elections. Buddhist nationalists in Myanmar use Facebook to direct genocide against the Rohingya. A Saudi billionaire buys a controlling interest in the digital interventionist collaborative, the Hacker Network, with intent unknown. In a single, global internet-minute, 900,000 people log in to Facebook; 4.1 million YouTube videos are watched; 452,000 tweets encircle the globe, and $751,522 is spent—all in just the span of 60 seconds.[1] What hierarchically organized bureaucracy can keep up with all of that interconnectivity?

New networks and the digital platforms that catalyze their reach are influencing world events at an ever-increasing speed and depth. They challenge state monopolies on violence, security, and even financial transactions. Nation–states are contending with networked actors from ISIS to Doctors without Borders, from Facebook to blockchain-powered Ethereum. State actors are responding in sharply different ways. China has built a Great Firewall, and inside created a vast and closed digital ecosystem, with deep government control. Russia has gone on the offense, unleashing vast troll armies and hacker collectives upon Europe and the United States as the new face of Moscow’s international power. The United States, which created the tools and celebrated the advent of the communications revolution as a means to extend global democracy, now seems overwhelmed and beleaguered by the very technology its own minds created. The sequential advances of a communications revolution, followed by a data amplification and the coming blockchain disruption, have left US and European civilian institutions scrambling to keep up, ceding the field to either the military and intelligence communities. When they fail, politicians move in, wielding the blunt tools of regulation and taxation to contain a challenge that they are ill-equipped to understand or engage.[2]

The United States, which created the tools and celebrated the advent of the communications revolution as a means to extend global democracy, now seems overwhelmed and beleaguered by the very technology its own minds created.

World influence is moving rapidly onto new terrain. Static, hierarchical Western bureaucracies have not come to grips with the evolution of the digital revolution and the pursuit of statecraft when power is diffused and reorganized along radically new lines, as Adam Segal has carefully documented elsewhere in this series.[3] Meanwhile, Western domestic institutions charged with addressing these challenges—intelligence agencies, ministries of foreign affairs, defense, development, and finance—still often work in physical isolation from one another, siloed, inflexible and, in some cases, duplicative in their functions and decision-making capacity. The challenges that arise from a nonpolar, network-bound world require a radical rethink. To thrive in this altering world order, the West needs redesigned institutions, new and faster cycles of learning—and all of it quickly.

Russia and China were quick to react. Both have developed approaches to the current data revolution that strengthen their own national interests as they understand it. They have either reinforced, expanded, or altered the way their bureaucratic institutions function or interact with networks. The United States has found its civilian response defined and, in some ways, constrained by its principled commitments to the freedom of expression and the freedom of markets, which aided in the birth of the digital era. The US State Department would have been the institutional locus to coordinate the national response in this dueling frame. But the inherent tension to balance these fundamental values and the inability of the wider system to stay abreast or ahead of the pace of technological change and finally a change in political leadership now seem to limit the range of institutional response. Most of the current reactive capacity across the West lies with intelligence and military agencies, where, as a former Head of MI6, Jown Sawers, says, “The big data analyst has replaced James Bond,” while auxiliary agencies and bureaucracies struggle with the pace and reach of tech as if it were a giant game of whack-a-mole.[4]

As technological change races ahead, historian Niall Ferguson suggests that governments around the world have two distinct options: exclude and compete, or capitulate and regulate.[5] China and Russia have opted for different variants of the former, while the United States and Europe dabble with the latter.

Ferguson’s mentor, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, takes this warning further with his reflections on how these different strategies and their institutional articulations might clash. He notes how the pervasiveness and interconnectedness of networks across critical sectors, including industrial, financial, and military has “revolutionized vulnerabilities. Outpacing most rules and regulations (and indeed the technical comprehension of many regulators), it has, in some respects created a state of nature […] the escape from which, according to Hobbes, provided the motivating force for creating a political order.” Worried about the lack of institutional creativity both domestically and internationally, Kissinger writes, “Asymmetry and a kind of congenital world disorder are built into relations between cyber powers both in diplomacy and in strategy […] absent articulation of some rules of international conduct, a crisis will arise from the inner dynamics of the system.”[6] One might argue that we are already teetering on that brink.

China: Cyber sovereignty for the national interest

China has made its approach to digital networks part of the reach and breadth of its statecraft, and has dedicated its bureaucracies to the task. Putting up the Great Firewall early, as an extension of already existing censorship, caused little concern within, and seemed rather unthreatening to the international community playing the long-game with China. Thus, in her now-fabled 2010 Internet-freedom speech, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton still championed the idea that “governments shouldn’t prevent people from connecting to each other,” with implied certainty that Western technology, too, would inevitably open China to contact and with it to systems change.[7]

Fast forward only eight years, and the reality looks quite different: China, with the biggest internet market in the world, has led its companies to build a closed system (sold at home as cyber-sovereignty) that mimics—or in some cases is more technologically innovative than— Western competitors, while allowing statewide control over citizen behavior. Chinese companies are openly competing with American firms to shape global rules on privacy, fairness, and censorship. Selling the idea of social credit and facial-recognition tracking as devices to enhance convenience, rather than state control, was the next logical step. More than two million administrators are dedicated to the task of digital listening—to spot would-be dissidents, to control citizenry. And with the emphasis on interconnectedness and convenience, Chinese citizens are buying into the illusion of choice and free will, or—qua network effect—being forced in. As an extension of diplomacy, digital listening is not only limited to its own country’s citizens, as the embedding of Chinese IT systems in the new, Chinese-built African Union building revealed earlier this year. Here, Chinese servers were copying data to servers in Shanghai each night.[8]

At the same time, China ensures its competitive advantage by systematically exploiting the openness of Western systems, buying up cutting-edge technology in artificial intelligence and virtual reality in Silicon Valley and across Europe, ensuring that it owns the IP and manufacturing capacities. Much of this occurs with the outright support and oversight of the Chinese government. Before January 2017, the Chinese government was far outspending the United States in the development of AI for espionage and security. The government’s five-year plan commits $150 billion to these purposes. Compare US spending in unclassified AI programs in 2016—just $1.2 billion. China looks to further flex its muscle in this area and to take full advantage of the leadership change in the United States. The Trump administration’s cuts to scientific research in this area prompted Google-parent company Alphabet’s CEO Eric Schmidt to speculate that China could overtake the US in AI within the decade.[9] In addition, these efforts are supported by China’s cyber economic espionage, up by 53% in 2015 and steered largely by a network of over 100,000 cyber industrial spies linked directly to the People’s Liberation Army, according to a FireEye report.[10]

The Trump administration’s cuts to scientific research in this area prompted Google-parent company Alphabet’s CEO Eric Schmidt to speculate that China could overtake the US in AI within the decade.

As part of “exclude and compete,” China is fusing its traditional economic diplomacy goals with the extension of its data technology to control major infrastructure hubs for its trade-driven “One Belt, One Road” strategy. Ports across South Asia now operate on Chinese data systems. Finally, it flexes its muscle in soft power terms through the openness of Hong Kong, where it uses precisely the Western networks it denies territorial access to promote its worldview through CCTV’s online presence and various channels.

How effective is this coordination of this internal, party-led bureaucratic machinery in wielding the tools of twenty-first century statecraft, as China’s economic power continues to rise? In 2017, the Pew Research Center asked people in 37 countries which leader would do the right thing when it came to world affairs. Xi Jinping easily outranked Donald Trump. In other words, “the US is not losing leadership, [it] is giving it up. [It] is not evening selling it,” according to Jia Qingguo, the Dean of the Department of Diplomacy at Peking University.[11]

Russia: Disruptive diplomacy

Where China’s strategic stance is open competition with the West, Russia aims lower. With data and IT penetration that still lags behind many Western countries, and an aging population in rural areas still wedded to state television, Russia has been able to exploit the tools the communications and data revolution, without fearing an effective backlash. Buffeted by the soft-power tool “RT” (the television station Russia Today), with its narrative of unrelenting Western decline, Russia has dedicated its efforts not toward systemic competition, but to disruptive, clandestine means of power projection—what the National Endowment for Democracy refers to as “sharp power.”[12] Subversion, bullying, and pressure are the hallmarks of this approach to networked power projection.

Unlike China, whose bureaucracies were retooled, upgraded, and reconfigured to the task, Russia has embraced a networked approach to controlling its hacker teams, which are unleashed on physical infrastructure targets, defensive assets, service systems, and on information providers, including Facebook and Twitter. Some teams are monitored by the main intelligence agency, GRU, others by the Federal Security Service, FSB. Outsourcing to private contractors has made this structure rapidly adaptable, flexible in scope and size, and has brought down operational costs, mitigated the risk of detection, and amplified the ability to quickly share technical expertise usually not attracted into government service. Combining a cyber-militia with official state-sponsored hacking teams has “created the most technically advanced and bold cybercriminal community in the world.”[13]

As David Sanger at the New York Times has pointed out, for Russia, with an enfeebled economy and a nuclear arsenal it cannot use short of all-out war, cyber power has proved the perfect weapon: cheap, hard to see coming, hard to trace.[14] The combination of these tools can produce significant damage, as the 2017 NotPetya attacks proved, which took 0.5% off of Ukraine’s GDP and caused $1 billion in damage internationally. As analyst Ian Bremmer comments, “if the West ignores this problem, it will only get worse.”[15]

More recently, it seems Russia has taken a page out of China’s playbook and combined industrial espionage with cybercrime by taking its technology into the heart of Western democracies, smartly camouflaged as anti-virus software, Russian-owned but often produced in these Western countries. Kaspersky Labs, whose software is used by 400 million people globally, has been proven to allow the capture of NSA secrets by Russian operatives.[16]

The United States: The attempt at twenty-first century statecraft

The US State Department was among the first Western non-intelligence bodies to recognize the challenges and opportunities of networks and the early communications revolution. Condoleezza Rice’s idea of “transformational diplomacy” included measures to create eDiplomacy on the tech side, and an inter-institutional rapid crisis-response team on the other, which could connect corporations, NGOs, and government institutions to leverage American strengths.

Former dean of Princeton University Anne-Marie Slaughter expanded upon these efforts when she led the Office of Policy Planning for Secretary Hillary Clinton. Her intention was to transform State into a node of networks, without losing site of the institution’s critical role in preserving national security. In full commitment to Western values of open markets, open societies, and open governments, the US Department of State would further redefine institutional collaboration toward the creation of twenty-first century statecraft, designed to complement traditional foreign policy tools with newly innovated and adapted instruments that leveraged the technologies of the interconnected world. Jared Cohen, a holdover from Rice’s staff, spearheaded the effort—and would later go to be the CEO of Google Ideas/Jigsaw. In a world in which power was decentralized away from governments and toward networks of people, so the logic went, twenty-first century statecraft would address these as “potential tools to be activated, designed, and managed to achieve specific policy goals.”[17] Adaptation and institutional learning would be part and parcel of this strategy.

The intention was to rethink American strategy to reflect both the ability to mitigate the international conflicts which arose from economic, territorial, and military issues between nation–states (the “chessboard,” as Slaughter calls it) with the active engagement and manipulation with networks of all kinds (the “web”), from Save the Children to Tahrir Square protestors to Boko Haram terrorists and the platforms—Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube (all products of American innovation)—that powered their reach. The goal was to create anticipatory foreign policy that could stay more than a breath ahead of constant-crisis mode.

It was an attempt to create interoperable structures on the “hard policy” issues with respect to cyber-security with related agencies, including the expansion of rules- and norm-setting capacities of the State Department, while offering an accountability mechanism in the “soft power” domains of foreign policy: tools, connections with state- and non-state actors active across the world (from corporations to humanitarian organizations) that would promise support and accountability from one of the best resourced foreign-service organizations in the world. Similarly, it was an attempt at matching resources to challenges more effectively. The State Department, so the logic went, would be a node in a world of networks, transforming itself internally in process, personnel, and policy design to anticipate longer-term threats to US security and its standing in the world.

Slaughter’s team broke open siloed thinking: In a first instance, the Harvard-trained lawyer copied a contracting model used by the Department of Defense to be able to collaborate with technology providers, corporations, and NGOs. Tech, as an extension of American innovation, would become a tool of US diplomacy. The most memorable early example? Jared Cohen’s call to Twitter executives to permit continued social-media exchange during the Iranian Green Revolution. Policy shifts within the first Obama administration empowered these changes: While the National Security Council’s competence was expanded on critical “hard policy” foreign-policy decisions, State had the room to maneuver to build an interconnected strategy, published as the 2012 “Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review,” to highlight strategies from development partnerships with local telecom providers in Haiti, to OpenSource Government initiatives, whose big-data sets allowed for better forecasting.[18] New partnerships were formed. Hackers arrived at Foggy Bottom, as a consortium of tech activists supported by the New America Foundation, a prominent think-tank, to develop “internet in a suitcase” in support of nascent democratic movements threatened to lose connectivity, as governments curtailed internet access.

Creating a learning organization: When reform falls short – well short

The institution was learning to collaborate more effectively with networked actors at home and abroad, learning from institutions like the Department of Defense. A series of transformations at State encouraged—at least on paper—the acceptance of greater risk and greater responsibility among staff. It attracted a number of short-term, tech-savvy staff into positions at the Department, creating subtle changes in the security clearance process. In addition, it shifted some of the core functions of the American diplomat, by introducing and expanding digital-listening functions, to achieve better diplomatic forecasting. Hundreds of US diplomats were tasked to closely observe discussions on country-relevant platforms, including across the plethora of Chinese apps, in the service of American national interests, i.e. democracy promotion, open access, and economic diplomacy.

So far, so idyllic.

Bureaucracies, even changing ones, are slow and deliberative by design. Though the State Department’s changes were seen as models for ministries of foreign affairs from Ottawa to London, it could not keep up with the transformative capacity of technology and the power of markets.[19]

Though the State Department’s changes were seen as models for ministries of foreign affairs from Ottawa to London, it could not keep up with the transformative capacity of technology and the power of markets.

As the economic leverage of Big Tech grew from 2011 onward, its algorithms transformed platforms into foreign-policy actors. The communications revolution transformed into a data revolution, with powers beyond what even an enlightened policy-planning unit could have imagined. On YouTube, ISIS recruitment videos were showing up at a faster pace and greater volume than the State Department could keep up with. Facebook, meanwhile, was negotiating market access directly with governments pushing for its “Free Basics,” essentially offering the Facebook experience as the foundation of the internet from Myanmar to Nigeria. Where the State Department once saw these American companies as extensions of American democratic values, Foreign Policy magazine now describes Facebook’s “Free Basics” package as an “African dictator’s dream”—brimming with new capacity for manipulation and social control.[20] Facebook began building its own versions of “internet in a suitcase,” testing solar-powered connectivity drones, pushing local suppliers out of markets across the developing world, relentlessly seeking a greater market share. It even became a competitor for the personnel that State had previously been hiring from the best American graduate schools, building international negotiation and public affairs teams of their own. The “networked town square” splintered, with the increase of more apps and attention manipulators. Shoes and politics were sold the same way. The “attention merchants,” as coined by Tim Wu to describe Facebook and its social media compatriots, preferred screen captivity rather than political action.[21]

Western institutions: Playing catch-up in a networked world

The reasons for incomplete transformation within the State Department and other Western ministries of foreign affairs, including the FCO, read like textbook management-literature: failure to create powerful-enough guiding coalitions and mitigate the loss to established figures in their shifting work environment that changes bring; failure to communicate how the new vision and traditional functions of State could be delivered simultaneously and an inability to anchor changes deeply within the culture before leadership changes (both from the Clinton to the John Kerry State Department, and in the Kerry transition to Rex Tillerson). Inside tensions and outside pressures prevented the evolution of what Slaughter defines as “webcraft.”

By the beginning of 2018, the State Department had fallen structurally and decisively behind the technological evolution. The rapid advent of blockchain is putting even further out of reach the dream of government influence by civilian institutions as they currently exist and operate. With the incomplete transformation of ministries of foreign affairs across the West, the political institutions and defense and intelligence institutions have come to dominate the tools and very understanding of options in the digital world. Where they run short, Henry Kissinger’s fears have come true: without full comprehension of the challenges ahead, parliaments in Europe and the United States are weighing the staid and often incomplete instruments of (additional) regulation and taxation as the means to curtail the influence of big tech players. In the State Department, the learning curve is flat: personnel have been gutted, and its norm-setting capacities in cyberspace have been relegated to a second-tier function in economic relations. Meanwhile, European foreign ministries have been too slow to adapt to even the use of the interpretive capacities of big data or managed to create deeper working relationships with existing networks of foreign policy actors, from corporates to NGOs: where the US once employed hundreds of people to shape anticipatory diplomacy based on big-data processing, the German foreign ministry has finally created its second job opening for a data analyst in the crisis prevention unit, limited to a two-year contract.

In the State Department, the learning curve is flat: personnel have been gutted, and its norm-setting capacities in cyberspace have been relegated to a second-tier function in economic relations.

Capitulation and regulation: Is that all the West can offer in the face of this century of change? In the concluding pages of her book, Anne-Marie Slaughter sets her eyes firmly on the next generation, who will be trained to think in influence networks, be smarter and more creative at developing levers toward exerting power. At this rate, these individuals will opt not to apply their talents to public-service organizations, but rather put these talents to work for the corporations and NGOs that already value their capacities and worldview—if the offer from government doesn’t change. Analysts estimate the lost expertise in the current US State Department will take a generation to rebuild. At this rate, it will be more. However, to lock foreign-policy institutions out of norm-setting in the cyber domain and weaken their capacities to analyze and interact with networks will gravely impact US and European security and foreign policy-shaping capacities. With all Western foreign ministries struggling to chart roles for themselves in the nexus between defense, intelligence, and the executive, new avenues of inter-institutional collaboration on function-design in the area of network management exist. Early collaborative efforts, between the US and the FCO, between the FCO and the Quai d’Orsay and other components of the European External Action Service need to be expanded in this regard to avoid the replications of the weaknesses that befell State. Innovation centers, such as those run by the US Department of Defense, should be charged with examining the functionality of open regulation particularly in the tech sector—but outside the remit of government and in collaboration with corporates, the academy and NGOs. Different initiatives of this sort have already sprung up, including at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard, where the “Defending Digital Democracy Project” leverages institutional knowledge from the DoD, the Department of Homeland Security, Facebook, Google, and the analytical capacities of Harvard Faculty from different graduate schools.

The West cannot afford to capitulate. The costs are too high and the consequences too grave. Opportunities for progress, for inventiveness and creativity exist, though the impulse may have to come from outside government to have lasting impact within. It is high time the United States and the West at large redeploy their strengths of inventiveness to this challenge—not in isolation, but in networked cooperation.


Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook is the founding executive director of the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School, which examines the challenges to negotiation and statecraft in the twenty-first century. She is also the Executive Director of the India and South Asia Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Her areas of expertise include EU-US relations—including trade and security policy—and digital public policy in urban and national contexts. She served on the management team of the European Policy Centre in Brussels before joining Roland Berger Strategy Consultants as Senior Journalist and consultant in 2005. In 2009 she served in the second Bloomberg mayoral administration. Formerly an international broadcast journalist, she still provides expert commentary on transatlantic relations, German and US foreign and security policy, radicalization, and immigration policy and on inequality and urban development for news outlets including Al Jazeera, ABC radio, Wall Street Journal radio, and on German television, radio, and print publications.


[1] Ian Bremmer (@ianbremmer), tweet, February 6, 2018.

[2] Ansgar Baums, “Too Slow to Deliver,” Holbrooke Forum Publications, American Academy in Berlin, 2018. http://www.americanacademy.de/too-slow-to-deliver/

[3] Adam Segal, “Net Reach,” Holbrooke Forum Publications, American Academy in Berlin, 2017. http://www.americanacademy.de/2017/09/04/net-reach/

[4] Sir John Sawers, “Good-bye James Bond, Hello Big Data,” Harvard Gazette, February 28, 2018. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2018/02/former-mi6-head-recounts-how-intelligence-gathering-has-changed/

[5] Niall Ferguson, The Square and the Tower (Penguin Press, 2018), p. 413.

[6] Henry Kissinger, World Order (Penguin Books, 2014), p. 347.

[7] Hillary Clinton, “Remarks on Internet Freedom,” January 21, 2010. https://2009-2017.state.gov/secretary/20092013clinton/rm/2010/01/135519.htm

[8] Shannon Tiezzi, “If China Bugged the AU Headquarters, What African Countries Should Be Worried?” The Diplomat, January 31, 2018. https://thediplomat.com/2018/01/if-china-bugged-the-au-headquarters-what-african-countries-should-be-worried/

[9] Evan Osnos, “Making China Great Again,” New Yorker, January 8, 2018. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/01/08/making-china-great-again

[10] “Redline Drawn: China recalculates its use of Cyberespionage,” FireEye, June 2016. https://www.fireeye.com/content/dam/fireeye-www/current-threats/pdfs/rpt-china-espionage.pdf; The United States has met these incursions with a combination of sanctions, indictments and deal-making, including the 2015 US-China Cyber Espionage agreement, which temporarily limited the trackable cyber IP offenses.

[11] Osnos, op.cit.

[12] National Endowment for Democracy, “Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence,” December 5, 2017. https://www.ned.org/sharp-power-rising-authoritarian-influence-forum-report/

[13] Ross Rustici, of Cyberreason, quoted in John Leyden, “Russia is struggling to keep its cybercrime groups on a tight leash,” The Register, June 6, 2017. See also – https://www.cybereason.com/blog/author/ross-rustici

[14] David Sanger, Eric Lipton, and Scott Shane: “The Perfect Weapon: How Russian Cyberpower Invaded the US,” New York Times, December 13, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/13/us/politics/russia-hack-election-dnc.html

[15] Ian Bremmer (@ianbremmer) tweet, February 16, 2018.

[16] Nicole Perlroth and Scott Shane, “How Israel Caught Russian Hackers Scouring the World for US Secrets,” New York Times, October 10, 2017.

[17] Anne-Marie Slaughter, The Chessboard and the Web (Yale University Press, 2017), p. 41.

[18] US Department of State, “Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review,” 2012, 2015. https://www.state.gov/s/dmr/qddr/

[19] Tom Fletcher, The Naked Diplomat, (William Collins, 2017).

[20] Nanjalan Nyabola, “Facebook’s Free Basics Is an African Dictator’s Dream,” Foreign Policy, October 27, 2016.

http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/10/27/facebooks-plan-to-wire-africa-is-a-dictators-dream-come-true-free-basics-internet/

[21] Tim Wu, The Attention Merchants (Vintage Books, 2016).

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