As I settle in at The Fletcher School, I find myself thinking about the impact of the “digital disruption” of the past decade.

Our students arrive next week—each of them a digital native, to whom the Internet, social networks and the power contained in their smart phones is as natural as the air they breathe. If you asked them to list the 6 largest nations in the world, most would say, in order, “China, India, Facebook, the United States, Twitter and Indonesia.”

The question before us is simple: as we do our best to prepare leaders who will not only know the world, but impact it deeply, are we focusing sufficiently on the digital world? Have we adapted to this disruptive force as well as we have to other seismic shifts in the global scene?

Perhaps not so much—we clearly have work to do.

When I think back on my years as a military leader, I began to realize how shallow we in the defense space were in this area. The well-known journalist and blogger Spencer Ackerman has explored this frequently, rightly lambasting senior military leaders for failing to energize and capitalize on the digital advantage. He called me one of the “worst tweeters in the military,” which got my attention.

I began to try and use social media more effectively and in real time, and over the next several years learned how powerful a tool it can be, both as means for building bridges and as an influential “force multiplier.” When I tweeted the end of the war in Libya in essentially real-time, even Spencer commended me: I felt I was beginning to find my way in the complex digital space.

Foreign Policy and Diplomacy in the Digital Age

KOTA KINABALU, Malaysia (May 6, 2011) Mineman 3rd Class Matt Miller, assigned to the mine and countermeasures ship USS Avenger (MCM 1), gives children his smart phone to play with at the Bukit Harapan home for disabled and disadvantaged children in Kota Kinabalu. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Brian A. Stone/Released)

Next, I began to think more holistically about connections in the creation of security. I did a TED Global Talk about this a year ago, and it has received more than 300,000 views—not exactly Lady Gaga territory, but a reasonable audience for anyone in a uniform talking about national security. Again, it seems to me there are lessons here in how to create narratives that enhance security.

So flash forward to the present day as I sit as Dean here at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, about to celebrate our 80th anniversary as the oldest graduate school of international relations in the United States.

How is Fletcher doing? One indicator of success might be the impact that Fletcher’s alumni are making in this arena. We’re proud to count among our own many trailblazers on the digital frontier: the first-ever U.S. special representative to Muslim communities, Farah Pandith, whose mandate is “to engage younger generations at the grassroots level” in large part through social networks; the first-ever deputy assistant secretary for digital strategy at the State Department—part of former Secretary Clinton’s 21st Century Statecraft Initiative—Victoria Esser; and crisis mapper and NatGeo explorer Patrick Meier, whose use of digital tools in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti prompted what FEMA called, “the most comprehensive and up-to-date map available to the humanitarian community.”

We also have more recent alumni like Manjula Dissanayake, who founded his online social venture Educate Lanka using his background in finance and Fletcher multidisciplinary training, and Joshua Haynes, who is putting his private sector background and Master of International Business degree from Fletcher to work in the public sector as Senior Development Technologist + Media Advisor at USAID. Our security studies alumni are seizing opportunities as well, like cyber policy advisor Hila Hanif, who works in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and Siobhan McDermott, author of “Wide Open Privacy” and chief policy advisor at AVG Technologies.

Finally, an extremely timely example is the work of Dalia Ziada. Named one of the World’s Bravest Bloggers for her work helping to overthrow the Mubarak regime in Egypt, she remains an important advocate for human rights and women’s rights in a country that continues to undergo upheaval.

We clearly have some bright points of light—but how do we leverage what we know and move forward?

First, I’m looking forward to working with our amazing Fletcher faculty and the School’s vast network of digital luminaries to broaden this important conversation around “Open Source Security” and to explore what it means for educators and for international professionals working in the public, private and non-profit sectors. How do these new tools enhance the capacity for building bridges across nations, sectors and disciplines? What are the challenges and what are the opportunities for individuals and large bureaucratic institutions? What type of training, funding and cultural shifts will need to transpire in order to be successful in the social/digital space?

Second, I will put a podium where my mouth is, so to speak, and teach a class about this next year.  I will spend time gathering more examples, lining up top-notch speakers and practitioners, and putting together a syllabus focusing on Foreign Policy and Diplomacy in the Digital Age—much of it written in the last year or two, frankly.

Third, we’ll be hosting some exciting speakers here at Fletcher, drawn in part by this extraordinary alumni network and contacts we’ve made throughout our careers. Our Edward R. Murrow Center of Public Diplomacy, named for the American journalist who essentially reinvented news in the 20th century, will be working on this.

Fourth, we will look at the national security implications of all this, including defense in the cyber world, the implications of huge public leaks a la Manning and Snowden, and how we can use these digital means to build and enhance security.

Finally, I’m looking forward to participating in interactive dialogues around the world, like this intriguing panel with Spencer Ackerman proposed for SXSW Interactive Festival. I hope you’ll agree this is an important discussion at an important venue, and you will consider adding your voice and joining us in Austin.

I look forward to sharing more with you in the coming year about Fletcher’s multidisciplinary approach to Foreign Policy and Diplomacy in the Digital Age. In the meantime, leave a comment and share your stories about how the social space is reshaping your profession.

6 Responses to Disruptive Force? Or Force Multiplier?: Foreign Policy and Diplomacy in the Digital Age

  1. Dan D. says:

    As a proud Fletcher alum (06), I must say that after reading this I’m a little remiss that I’m not entering this year’s class. The topic of digital disruption and how it relates to diplomacy, security, peace, politics, and war is a vital subject area that will help Fletcher distinguish itself even more from other similar programs and provide graduates with actionable skills that can be put to immediate use. I look forward to living vicariously through incoming students and seeing what other initiatives take shape over your tenure. Congrats!

  2. David Ballif says:

    Thank you, Dean Stavridis, for this blog. I enjoyed meeting you at the GMAP residency this past month.

    Seeing Fletcher’s new leadership focused like a laser beam on the digital world is very reassuring: the country’s oldest graduate school of international affairs will remain cutting edge, relevant and practical.

    Your article and your own path to embracing technology is a wake-up call even to youngsters like me to not slack off in adopting new technologies and mediums of communication. One of the reasons I decided to move to Libya a year ago is that I noticed there was so little information coming out of the country that was written by people who were actually on the ground there. I think it’s time I start my own blog!

    Thanks for the informative post.


  3. Lulu Lehmann says:

    Dean Stavridis, Looking forward to your visit to Austin and SXSW. It will be my first and my nieces tell me it rocks! I work for HHSC on Medicaid policy and we are a bit behind in the social media. It will be an interesting few years as healthcare goes through serious transformation. Reading your works helps me look at the bigger picture. Thanks for what you do.
    Looks like Ms. Lilly is enjoying your retirement as well.

  4. arjun says:

    Dear Admiral,

    why only talk about foreign policy and diplomacy? All the tools of statecraft have been disrupted by the digital age. That the digital influence has been disruptive is beyond doubt – the key to managing it lies around three characteristics of modern warfare – adaptability, flexibility and a leaders ability to penetrate the fog of war.In this case, the fog of war revolves around the huge pile of information, which needs to be sifted. Not only that, the bigger challenge for leaders from all walks of life is not to get overwhelmed by this digital information and opinion, and to retain that ‘human edge’ – ‘the intangible seat of the pants intuition’, which comes from experience. Malcolm Gladwell’s book – Blink – deals well with this phenomenon.

    Cheers sir and keep it going


  5. Chris says:

    Dean Stavridis,

    I was curious if you could comment on Harvard’s non trivial contributions to the development of the current U.S. National Surveillance State. In 2007 the Harvard Law Review quietly published an article titled “The Fourth Amendment’s Third Way.”(Email me for a copy of it or just google the title).

    Ironically this was published right before the enhancements to the FISA laws. Why this matters to you? It is my contention the secret interpretation of the Constitutions Fourth Amendment utilizes the new method of interpretation that Harvard engineered called “dynamic incorporation”, because it justifies the separation of the notion of search and seizure. “Social Convention” and “Originalism” as traditional SCOTUS methods of interpreting the fourth amendment would never reasonably allow such programs to be approved, nor allow the release of tension between the notions of search and seizure. Thus it is highly probable that a duel interpretation of the Fourth Amendment exists. (email me for research supporting these assertions if you care about this topic)

    Thank you for your time. I look forward to your comments.

    P.S. Elena Kagan was the Dean of Harvard Law School when this HLR article was published. Now she is on the Supreme court with a few other prior HLR editors including Chief Justice Roberts who appoints all FISC judges.

    • Zach says:

      Sounds like a great class! Will it be offered in the spring semester or the following academic year (2014-2015)?