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Foreign Policy Matters: Technological Innovations - Challenges and Opportunities

Image: Jan Cossiers, Prometheus Carrying Fire.

Image: Jan Cossiers, Prometheus Carrying Fire, image retrieved through Wikimedia, PD-1923.

This paper is part of a continuing series on foreign policy. Read previous installments here.

Technological breakthroughs are inextricably tied to the evolution of societies. Advancements in weapons, agriculture, medicine, and many other fields, have profoundly impacted the course of history. How foreign policy is practiced has also been changed by innovations in technology. Policymakers and practitioners have utilized new technologies to their advantage — and fallen prey to more savvy users and adopters of advanced technology.

As far as current technologies are concerned, the internet is unmatched as a transformative force. It has revolutionized the way that humans communicate, conduct business, and understand one another. As other technological advancements have impacted foreign policy practice in the past, the internet has also forced actors and institutions to react to and assess the applications of this new tool. This process of understanding is not new, but the challenges it presents are. Never before has the world been as directly connected as it is today, and never has a piece of technology been tied to the lives of so many individuals. While the internet as a tool is itself neither inherently good nor bad, its use by the actors and institutions that play a role in the foreign policies of states is still evolving and its impact remains unclear. What is abundantly clear is that the internet has already altered interactions among states and other international actors; it presents both a challenge and an opportunity for governments as they navigate international relations.

The Internet in Brief

Developed by the US government in the 1980's, early versions of the internet were used as a communications tool for academic and military research. By the early 1990's, commercial internet became more readily available. Public interest rapidly grew and use of the internet spread from the West to the developing world. With a broader reach, new services were rapidly developed including: email, instant message, video calls, blogs, video streaming, internet forums, social networking, and a multitude of other services.

These broad and varied services disrupted many existing forms of media and communication. Information became more readily available and easily accessible to broader swaths of the world than ever before. Companies and industries came to rely on the internet as a resource for their businesses. Not just to communicate but to collect data being generated by their customers and capitalize on that data. Governments too have developed an appetite for this data and information, which has allowed for unfettered access to people both foreign and domestic.

Though the US government initially developed the internet it quickly became an international utility with no central governance. Non-profit groups oversee the basic technical functions of the internet, but ultimately it remains a relatively ungoverned space. In this realm, new actors have emerged, including companies, websites, and communities of likeminded people. This multiplicity of new actors presents a major challenge for foreign policy practitioners. While previous technological revolutions have been transformative on a global scale, the scope and pace of the internet’s impact is unprecedented.

Technological Innovations in Context

The magnitude of the internet’s impact on foreign policy is yet to be fully determined. In considering this matter two historical examples come to mind: the printing press and the telegraph.

Johannes Gutenberg's press, with movable type and relative ease of use, allowed for the rapid mass production of information. Suddenly information could be recorded and distributed more rapidly and farther afield than ever before — even surpassing advancements in Asia, where mechanical printing had already been commonplace for centuries. Gaining wider use throughout Europe in the 16th century, Gutenberg's press played a role in the rapid dissemination of new religious ideas. These ideas took root and led, in part, to the Reformation and subsequent religious and political struggles, including the Thirty Years War. Advocates for the Reformation were able to utilize this new technology to their advantage, aptly cultivating and distributing ideas far and wide. The revolutionary use of a new technology led to real conflict, real wars, and ultimately to major and significant societal changes.

The invention of the electronic telegraph in the 19th century was another revolution in human communication. While the printing press allowed for mass quantities of information to be recorded and transported, it was slow. The telegraph was successful in shrinking distances, allowing for news and information to be rapidly and efficiently communicated across the globe. Throughout World War I telegraph systems were widely used to conduct not only warfare, but diplomacy as well. Information and news on new developments were quickly communicated across the world. This allowed not only for foreign policy practitioners to rapidly respond to these developments, but for citizens to be well informed as well.

Innovating Foreign Policy

The greatest single catalyst for change in the practice of foreign policy over the past 30 years has been the internet. Discussions with practitioners suggest that the internet has altered foreign policy practice and presented new challenges in a few different ways.

Tony Blinken, former US Deputy Secretary of State, recalls working in the White House in the early 1990's, a time when everyone would stop working to watch the evening news to get the best and most up to date information. Information was a scarce resource; the more informed you were, the thinking went, the better decisions you could make. Now the deluge of information available, not just to professionals but also to the public at large, is overwhelming. Trying to figure out what is actually important, what is urgent, and what is not, is a major challenge for foreign policy professionals today says Blinken.

The rapid development of computing and internet technology has forced government institutions to play catch-up. As Blinken watched the evening news at the White House, Professor Daniel Serwer, then US Foreign Service Officer, was at the Department of State setting up his own internet connection, the first in his bureau. Serwer had to source the component parts from separate departments and assemble his terminal on his own, as he lacked institutional support. Though this anecdote is over 20 years old, it highlights a challenge that still exists in foreign policy communities, not only the US, but worldwide. How does an institution overcome any gaps in technological literacy and use by foreign policy practitioners?

Innovative technological solutions for foreign policy issues exist and can be readily employed by foreign policy practitioners. However, foreign policy institutions and the actors within them often lack the technical knowledge and understanding to rapidly capitalize on innovative and new solutions. In 2016, the US Department of State sent a delegation to Silicon Valley to explore areas of overlap between the technology sector and US foreign policy goals. Many other governments have emulated this strategy, dispatching officials to California or inviting tech executives to high-level meetings in pursuit of possible collaborations. Technological solutions may exist for many foreign policy pursuits like arms reduction, education, and poverty alleviation. But, in order to understand these solutions, collaboration with outside experts is necessary.

This collaboration presents the third challenge facing the foreign policy community. Private companies have created and capitalized on social networks and innovative technology. And new communities have coalesced in these social networks. Companies, online social communities, and foreign policy actors may not always have the same goals — but they will sometimes overlap with one another. While this is not a new phenomenon, foreign policy practitioners have yet to develop an effective understanding of how to work well with these new dynamic and borderless communities. The imperative now, says Blinken, is for foreign policy institutions to find a way to play the role of an effective convener, rather than a catalyst, marshaling all the different actors towards a shared set of goals.

Challenges for the Future

Foreign policy practitioners are still grappling with the internet, and it remains unclear exactly how it can be best utilized. Above all the internet has been disruptive to the foreign policy community. It has fundamentally changed the way information is delivered and consumed, created great pressure on officials to react rapidly and effectively, widened a gulf of technical knowledge and understanding, and manifested an entirely new cast of actors that act on a borderless global stage.

During the Arab Spring citizens utilized social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to organize and spread news to the outside world as their local governments sought to suppress information and quell the protests. Similar tactics were seen in Hong Kong during the 2014 Umbrella Revolution. In both these instances foreign policy practitioners the world over had to contend with the series of challenges outlined above. They faced intense pressure from their own citizens to quickly respond to these developments; institutions had to adapt to the new modes of communication and tools being used by activists abroad; and it was unclear how to deal with new actors in public discourse, and if that was even appropriate.

This third point is perhaps most salient today. Private companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter have amassed massive amounts of users’ data. The appropriateness of cooperation, and even collaboration, in matters of foreign policy with them, and even non-official user groups, remains an unknown. This applies across all manner of challenges, from online recruitment efforts by extremist groups to the effects of widespread cyber attacks. Resolution of this issue will be hard to find and may be achieved only through careful consideration by well-informed individuals, who must be technically literate and well-versed in foreign policy.

These events, and many others, highlight the challenges facing foreign policy practitioners today. Can traditional actors in this field retain leadership amongst the turbulence created by the internet? Or will these new actors, new disruptions, and gaps in technical knowledge create a new mode of foreign policy conduct?

Further Information from Our Fellows & SAIS Affiliates

Antony Blinken - Entrepreneurs are Everywhere, interview (2016)

Francis Fukuyama - EastWest Institute Global Cyberspace Cooperation Summit, interview (2017)

Michael Chase - You've Got Dissent! Chinese Dissident Use of the Internet and Beijing's Counter-Strategies (2002)


Matt Sindelar is a Research Associate at the Foreign Policy Institute.

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