Skip to main content
Digitalomacy: Extending the Celestial Frontiers of Information Technology
Review by David W. Thornton

bookcoverDigital Diplomacy: U.S. Foreign Policy in the Information Age. By Wilson Dizard, Jr. (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers. With the cooperation of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington, D.C., 2001. Pp. 232. $69.95 cloth, $24.95 paper.

)”Dizard emphasizes and illustrates through relevant examples a consistent theme: ‘The overall effort to reduce global barriers to information flow has been a singular achievement of American digital diplomacy.”

As a former writer and editor, long-time Foreign Service officer, the author of six books on international communications issues, and a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Wilson Dizard, Jr. is extremely well-qualified to assess the reshaping of U.S. foreign policy by the ongoing communications revolution. In his most recent volume, he provides an historical account of the U.S. government’s response to the challenges posed to both the content and conduct of its relations with allies and foes alike as the rapidly accelerating information flows within and among countries brought ceaseless and qualitative change. Throughout his study, Dizard emphasizes and illustrates through relevant examples a consistent theme: “The overall effort to reduce global barriers to information flow has been a singular achievement of American digital diplomacy.”

For one directly and intimately involved in the formulation and analysis of digital diplomacy since the 1960s, the creation of an international accord concerning satellites comes in for especially detailed and enlightening treatment. In the third chapter of this slim and clearly-written volume, Dizard recounts the negotiations culminating in the creation by a 1972 international treaty of Intelsat, the world’s first system of space-based communications. Faced with the inherently transnational characteristics of the fast-emerging capabilities, U.S. businessmen, engineers and diplomats arrived at a common position that ceded national control of the nascent network to a new global entity, yet preserved for the United States a leadership position in the rapidly developing international regime. For Dizard, this approach serves as “a pragmatic example of modifying sovereignty claims in ways that matched modern technological and economic realities.”

A second major challenge to U.S. diplomacy that emerged from the communications revolution of the mid-twentieth century concerned the allocation of the electromagnetic spectrum for the transmission of signals via radio and other media. As Dizard explains, the purely technical and engineering aspects of harnessing this enormous potential could not be kept separate from international political considerations, especially East-West Cold War rivalries and the rapidly emerging North-South divide. Therefore, at least in part because of its technological and commercial leadership in the field, U.S. negotiators faced enormous difficulties during ongoing negotiations of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Concerns of national sovereignty on all sides and fears of cultural imperialism from friends and rivals alike pushed many countries to resist the persistent American call to make the removal of barriers to information flows the underlying principle of any and all accords on international communications. Despite these obstacles, U.S. negotiators were successful in brokering a pragmatic and non-confrontational solution to global spectrum allocation at the 1979 ITU meeting. This seemingly mundane and little publicized accomplishment should be seen as part and parcel of a larger U.S. diplomatic strategy concerning international information traffic that–according to the author–has done much to further America’s commercial and strategic interests, and also to lay the groundwork for the dramatic expansion of international telecommunications in the 1980s and beyond.

Dizard maintains that in the information age of the past two decades, considerations concerning information flows among countries “are now built into almost every major issue, from national security and trade promotion to environmental regulations.” He furthermore agues that the increasing centrality of information policy to U.S. diplomacy has been accompanied by a much enhanced interest in and competence with such issues within the foreign policy apparatus. Viewed from the perspective of the State Department, the challenges of responding to the diplomatic demands of the information age have been at least as political, bureaucratic, and even cultural as they have been technological. Not only has State been compelled to compete with the military services and powerful private actors (telecommunications firms, Hollywood) for influence if not control of information policy, the professional diplomats have been forced to overcome internal resistance in adapting to the new reality of the information revolution. Thus, in Dizard’s estimation the response of Foggy Bottom in adjusting to the challenge of harnessing and managing effectively the vast and accelerating flow of information made available by communications and data processing technologies has been halting and piecemeal. Budgetary constraints have compounded the all-to-evident problems faced by government departments and agencies (witness the inadequacies of the FBI and the “old” INS management of information relative to 9/11!) in keeping abreast of the latest technical and human resource needs in an era of breakneck and cumulative change. As Dizard describes in chapter six (“Restructuring Diplomatic Communications”) many of the high-sounding initiatives to implement new IT methods and capabilities within State during the 1980s and 1990s produced little progress. Only at the turn of the century—especially with the creation in 1998 of the bureau of Information Resources Management (IRM) has the Department of State seen real improvement in its ability “to deal with events in the fast-moving, highly interdependent world of digital diplomacy.”

In the current era of globalization and the opening up of cyberspace to a volume and variety of traffic unthinkable just a few years ago, the economic and strategic stakes for the United States increase as it participates in international negotiations and agreements regarding information exchange. Yet the number and complexity of the vital issue areas affected by digital diplomacy insure that Washington will remain unable to speak with anything resembling a single voice. Indeed, as the perceived salience of international communications increases, the number of executive departments and agencies seeking to establish themselves as leaders in the digital arena have multiplied, with the State Department experiencing a perhaps predictable loss of influence. Even as the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) and Commerce Department asserted their primacy in dealing with the myriad of bilateral and multilateral issues, State suffered the indignity of having its own capabilities diminished via the elimination in 1994 of its communication and information policy bureau (CIP).

Dizard’s book provides a useful and timely introduction to a crucial but often overlooked realm of foreign policy, while its numerous footnotes and extensive bibliography make it a valuable resource for the most advanced students of U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy.

David W. Thornton is Associate Professor and Director of Government Studies in the Department of Government, History & Justice at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina. A frequent contributor to American Diplomacy, Dr. Thornton is the author of Airbus Industrie: The Politics of an International Industrial Collaboration (1995). 

Comments are closed.