Category Archives: united states

The End of the American World: Without Vision there can be no Leadership

America is leaving the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. This is, by scientific consensus, a terrible outcome for the planet. But it is also a disaster for American foreign policy and its role as a global leader.

With this decision I’m left scratching my head. What does America stand for? What does it want the world to look like? I can no longer tell you.

Here, quick test: Name an issue the US Government is taking a leadership position on in the world.

I can think of three. All of which are reactionary, none of which represent of a vision of where we should go. What is easier to tell you is what the US Government — and by this I don’t just mean the president, but also a large number of congresspeople and possible senators—no longer believe is important.

American Priorities.png

US Foreign Policy Priorities

Some of these items — women’s rights and climate change for example — have been contentious domestically for some time. But others formed the bedrock of the American vision for the world. Yes, there are lots of examples of American hypocrisy in its foreign policy (this is true of all countries) but trade, the western alliance (grounded in NATO), human rights and democracy served as general foundations for bringing together key stakeholders around the world in a shared vision of what the world should look like.

That is now all in tatters.

What does America believe in? What is the shared vision around which it will rally allies and unaligned countries? Beats me. Fighting terrorism is important, but it isn’t an organizing principle upon which to build a vision of the future.

China is willing to marshal economic and political capital to fight climate change which it is also leveraging to engage India and others. Its One Belt, One Road infrastructure plan is a vision for re-organizing global trade. Its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank offers an alternative to the World Bank(which it is unclear the current administration even cares about) as a way to fund development and growth.

There is a lot about China’s vision for the world that is unclear and frankly, I’m not comfortable with. It is not hard to imagine a mercantilists’ world where human rights are non-existent. But it at least conveys a vision of shared prosperity, and it has a vision that tries to tackle global shared problems like climate change that require leadership.

And this rot in US leadership is not about Trump. What is clear is that Congresspeople and Senators appear happy to trade American leadership and vision for domestic wins such as repealing the Affordable Care Act and rolling back taxes. When Chancellor Merkel of Germany says the United States can no longer be relied upon, she wasn’t just talking about the president.

It’s the end of the American century, not because America lacks the capacity to lead, but because, at best, it has no identifiable vision for where it wants to take the world. At worst, I’m left inferring its vision is a planet my kids won’t be able to live on and a trade system unconnected to rules but linked to market size and where America must also “win.”

This isn’t to say the alternatives are much better, but those looking for vision and leadership need to hope America wakes from its sleep walk, get very creative in finding partners, or start picking between relatively unpalatable options.

But hoping others change has not been a sound basis for foreign policy in the past, and so I doubt the world will wait long.

The Future of USDS: Trump, civic tech and the lesson of GDS

Across Washington, the country, and the world, the assumptions people have about various programs, policies and roles have been radically altered in the last 12 hours with the victory of President-Elect Trump. Many of my students and colleagues have asked me — what does this mean for the future of United States Digital Service and 18F? What should it mean?

This is not the most important question facing the administration. But for those of us in this space the question matters. Intensely. And we need a response. USDS and 18F improve how Americans interact with their government while saving significant amounts of money. Democrats and Republicans may disagree over the size of government, but there is often less disagreement over whether a service should be effectively and efficiently delivered. Few in either party believe a veteran should confront a maze of forms or confusing webpages to receive a service. And, the fact is, massive IT failures do not have a party preference. They have and will continue to burn any government without a clear approach of how to address them.

So what will happen now?

The first risk is that the progress made to date will get blown up. That anything attributed to the previous administration will be deemed bad and have to go. I’ve spent much of the morning reaching out to Republican colleagues, and encouraging those I know in the community to do the same. What I’ve heard back is that the most plausible scenario is nothing happens. Tech policy sits pretty low on the priority list. There will be status quo for likely a year while the administration figures out what is next.

That said, if you are a Republican who cares about technology and government, please reach out. I can connect you with Jen Pahlka who would be happy to share her understanding of the current challenges and how the administration can use USDS to ensure this important work continues. There are real challenges here that could save billions and ensure Americans everywhere are better served.

The second risk is implosion. Uncertainty about what will happen to USDS and 18F could lead to a loss of the extraordinary talent that make the organizations so important.

Each employee must decide for themselves what they will do next. Those I’ve had the privilege to engage with at USDS, 18F or who served as Presidential Innovation Fellows have often displayed a sense of duty and service. The divisive nature of the campaign has created real wounds for some people. I don’t want to pretend that that is not the case. And, the need to push governments to focus on users, like Dominic, is no less diminished. Across Washington, there are public servants who did not vote Republican who are returning to their jobs to serve the best they can. The current administration has been effective in issuing a call to arms to civic technologists to help government. Now, having created a critical mass of civic technologists in DC, can it hold to continue to have the influence and grow the capabilities a 21st century government needs? Maintaining this critical mass is a test that any effort to institutionalize change must clear.

If you work for USDS or 18F, there are maps. The Government Digital Service was created by a partnership between a Conservative Minister (Francis Maude) and a group of liberal technologists (Mike Bracken et al). I doubt either party was naturally comfortable with the other at first, but an alliance was made and both its strengths and its flaws could serve as one template for a way to move forward.

My own sense is the work of USDS and 18F must be bigger than any one administration or party. For some this is a painful conversation, for others it is an easy conclusion. I understand both perspectives.

But in either case, there must be a dialogue around this work. So please, both sides. Find a way to talk. There is certainly a need for that in the country.

If there is anything we can do at Harvard Kennedy School to convene actors on either side of the aisle to help find a path forward for this work, please let me know. This work is important, and I hope it will not be lost.

Addendum: Just saw Naoh Kunin’s piece on why he is staying. Again, everyone has to make their choice, but believe in the conversation.

Moving to Harvard

Hi friends.

Just a brief note to say that I’ve been invited to come to the Kennedy School of Government to be a Research Fellow in the Science, Technology and Public Policy Program (STPP) at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.  I’ve also been invited to be an Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy at the Kennedy School and to teach on Technology, Policy and Government.

A number of other changes flow out of this news!

  1. I’ll be moving to be Boston in the New Year. Looking forward to reconnecting with old friends from a previous life there, and making new friends. There’s a wonderful community of people there that includes the likes of Nigel Jacobs, Debbie Chachra, Nick Sinai, Susan Crawford, Nick Grossman, Colin Maclay, Mitchell Weiss and many others that I hope I get to see more of.
  2. As I’ll be teaching, please send me any ideas, cases, readings you think I should include as course materials. I’m working on my initial course – an introduction to technology and government – which will focus on how technology can and is changing the ways we deliver services, organize government and make policy. Opportunities and challenges around user-centric design, collaboration vs. cooperation, influence and power, and open data/methodologies will all figure prominently. It is also about bringing what I tried to impart on fellows during the boot camps at Code for America and the Presidential Innovation Fellows Program.
  3. Finally, with my children (only somewhat, but nonetheless…) a little older and these new academic responsibilities, I hope to write more again. Or maybe, more precisely, I hope to write more here again. This blog enables me to organize and structure thoughts (and, on occasion, is a place to get things off my chest). With luck it, along with the classroom, will be that again. While I’ve been silent and busy, the last few years have been an incredible time of learning – particularly in the civic startup space, but also vis-a-vis technology and government more generally – and I look forward to sharing more of what I’ve gleaned.

Leaving Vancouver is hard; I’ve got wonderful roots, family and friends here, and a community and city I care about enormously. But I’m also excited about engaging with colleagues and students at the Kennedy School.

Looking forward to it all.

How Hackers Will Blow Up The World: China, Cyber-Warfare and the Cuban Missile Crisis

I have a piece on TechPresident I really enjoyed writing about how certain technologies – as they become weaponized – can in turn become highly destabilizing to global stability. The current rash of Cyber-Warfare, or Cyber-Spying or Cyber-crime (depending on the seriousness and intent with which you rate it) could be one such destabilizing technology.

Here’s a long excerpt:

This would certainly not be the first time technology altered a balance of military power and destabilized global political orders everyone thought was robust. One reason the world plunged into global war in 1914 after a relatively minor terrorist attack — the assassination of Arch-Duke Ferdinand — was because the hot new technology of the day, the speedy railway, caused strategists to believe it would confer a decisive advantage on those who mobilized first. The advent of nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles of the 1950s had a similar effect, with fears that a first strike “decapitation attack” against Moscow from Turkey, or against Washington from Cuba, could preempt a counter attack.

Cyber warfare may be evolving into a similarly destabilizing type of technology. Prior to the 21st century, cyber attacks were relatively localized affairs. People imagined the main threats of a cyber attack being with virtual thefts from banks, identify theft against individuals and even industrial piracy. Serious problems to be sure, but not end-of-the-world stuff. Even when targeted against the state, cyber attacks rarely pose an existential threat to a country. The loss of state secrets, the compromising of some officials could, cumulatively, be corrosive on a state’s ability to defend itself or advance its interests, but it was unlikely even a combination of operations would shake a mature state to its core.

Two things have changed….

You can read the full piece here. Always love feedback.

Joining the Canadian Government's Advisory Panel on Open Government

Some people have already noticed, so wanted to share the news here as well. Yesterday, the Canadian Government announced the Advisory Panel on Open Government to which I was asked to join.

The purpose of the panel is to serve as a challenge function to the government as it develops its ideas and policies. I see my role as that of pushing the government on where I believe they could be doing more. Obviously, I’ve always been interested in peoples thoughts, hopes and concerns around Open Government (and many of you have been keen to share them with me), my hope is that this will provide another way to inject these ideas into the government’s planning process.

As I make suggestions and recommendations I will attempt to blog about them here, there were, indeed, a number of suggestions I made yesterday during the first Advisory Panel’s meeting, and I hope to write up as I think they will be helpful to other governments as well.

For those curious about who else is on the panel, it is chaired by Minister Clement and I’m joined by a number of other excellent “outside of government” voices (full list of names and bios here as well). In the list below I’ve tried to include twitter handles wherever possible:

Bernard Courtois, Past President & CEO, Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC)

Robert Herjavec, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, The Herjavec Group

Alexander B. Howard, Government 2.0 Correspondent, O’Reilly Media

Thomas ‘Tom’ Jenkins, Head of the Canadian Digital Media Network and Executive Chairman and Chief Strategy Officer, OpenText Corporation

Vivek Kundra, Executive Vice President of Emerging Markets, Salesforce.com.

Herb Lainchbury, Chief Technology Officer, MD Databank Corp.

Colin McKay, Public Policy Manager (Canada), Google

Toby Mendel, Executive Director, Centre for Law and Democracy

Alex Miller, President and Founder, ESRI Canada

Marie-Lucie Morin, Executive Director for Canada, Ireland and the Caribbean, The World Bank

Dr. Rufus Pollock, Co-Founder and Director, Open Knowledge Foundation

Dr. Teresa Scassa, Vice-Dean of Research and Professor of Law, University of Ottawa

As an off topic aside, the first meeting too place using Cisco’s telepresence technology. This essentially is fancy videoconferencing where all the rooms around are virtually identical so that it feels like people are sitting around the same table. It was the first time I’ve tried using it and I was duly impressed. It did mean that the government didn’t have to fly us in from all around the world to meet face to face – a real cost savings and obviously, good for emissions as well.

 

The Geopolitics of the Open Government Partnership: the beginning of Open vs. Closed

Aside from one or two notable exceptions, there hasn’t been a ton of press about the Open Government Partnership (OGP). This is hardly surprising. The press likes to talk about corruption and bad government, people getting together to talk about actually address these things in far less sexy.

But even where good coverage exists analysts and journalists are, I think, misunderstanding the nature of the partnership and its broader implications should it take hold. Presently it is generally seen as a do good project, one that will help fight corruption and hopefully lead to some better governance (both of which I hope will be true). However, the Open Government Partnership isn’t just about doing good, it has real strategic and geopolitical purposes.

In fact, the OGP is, in part, about a 21st century containment strategy.

For those unfamiliar with 20th century containment, a brief refresher. Containment refers to a strategy outlined by a US diplomat – George Kennan – who while posted in Moscow wrote the famous The Long Telegram in which he outlined the need for a more aggressive policy to deal with an expansionist post-WWII Soviet Union. He argued that such a policy would need to seek to isolate the USSR politically and strategically, in part by positioning the United States as a example in the world that other countries would want to work with. While discussions of “containment” often focus on its military aspects and the eventual arms race, it was equally influential in prompting the ideological battle between the USA and USSR as they sought to demonstrate whose “system” was superior.

So I repeat. The OGP is part of a 21st century containment policy. And I’d go further, it is a effort to forge a new axis around which America specifically, and a broader democratic camp more generally, may seek to organize allies and rally its camp. It abandons the now outdated free-market/democratic vs. state-controlled/communist axis in favour of a more subtle, but more appropriate, open vs. closed.

The former axis makes little sense in a world where authoritarian governments often embrace (quasi) free-market to reign, and even have some of the basic the trappings of a democracy. The Open Government Partnership is part of an effort to redefine and shift the goal posts around what makes for a free-market democracy. Elections and a market place clearly no longer suffice and the OGP essentially sets a new bar in which a state must (in theory) allow itself to be transparent enough to provide its citizens with information (and thus power), in short: it is a state can’t simple have some of the trappings of a democracy, it must be democratic and open.

But that also leaves the larger question. Who is being contained? To find out that answer take a look at the list of OGP participants. And then consider who isn’t, and likely never could be, invited to the party.

OGP members Notably Absent
Albania
Azerbaijan
Brazil
Bulgaria
Canada
Chile
Colombia
Croatia
Czech Republic
Dominican Republic
El Salvador
Estonia
Georgia
Ghana
Guatemala
Honduras
Indonesia
Israel
Italy
Jordon
Kenya
Korea
Latvia
Liberia
Lithuania
Macedonia
Malta
Mexico
Moldova
Mongolia
Montenegro
Netherlands
Norway
Peru
Philippines
Romania
Slovak Republic
South Africa
Spain
Sweden
Tanzania
Turkey
Ukraine
United Kingdom
United States
Uruguay
ChinaIran

Russia

Saudi Arabia

(Indeed much of the middle East)

Pakistan

*India is not part of the OGP but was involved in much of initial work and while it has withdrawn (for domestic political reasons) I suspect it will stay involved tangentially.

So first, what you have here is a group of countries that are broadly democratic. Indeed, if you were going to have a democratic caucus in the United Nations, it might look something like this (there are some players in that list that are struggling, but for them the OGP is another opportunity to consolidate and reinforce the gains they’ve made as well as push for new ones).

In this regards, the OGP should be seen as an effort by the United States and some allies to find some common ground as well as a philosophical touch point that not only separates them from rivals, but that makes their camp more attractive to deal with. It’s no trivial coincidence that on the day of the OGP launch the President announced the United States first fulfilled commitment would be its decision to join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). The EITI commits the American oil, gas and mining companies to disclose payments made to foreign governments, which would make corruption much more difficult.

This is America essentially signalling to African people and their leaders – do business with us, and we will help prevent corruption in your country. We will let you know if officials get paid off by our corporations. The obvious counter point to this is… the Chinese won’t.

It’s also why Brazil is a co-chair, and the idea was prompted during a meeting with India. This is an effort to bring the most important BRIC countries into the fold.

But even outside the BRICs, the second thing you’ll notice about the list is the number of Latin American, and in particular African countries included. Between the OGP, the fact that the UK is making government transparency a criteria for its foreign aid, and that World Bank is increasingly moving in the same direction, the forces for “open” are laying out one path for development and aid in Africa. One that rewards governance and – ideally – creates opportunities for African citizens. Again, the obvious counter point is… the Chinese won’t.

It may sounds hard to believe but the OGP is much more than a simple pact designed to make heads of state look good. I believe it has real geopolitical aims and may be the first overt, ideological salvo in the what I believe will be the geopolitical axis of Open versus Closed. This is about finding ways to compete for the hearts and minds of the world in a way that China, Russia, Iran and others simple cannot. And, while I agree we can debate the “openness” of the various the signing countries, I like the idea of world in which states compete to be more open. We could do worse.

Depression and Decline: American Irresponsibility is Ending the American Era with a Bang

Despite the assurances of US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner it is increasingly likely there will be no debt deal. The United States is going to default on its debt. I know it sounds crazy, but I believe it is going to happen. If it does, this is the black swan event no one imagined or was prepared to contemplate. Its impacts are going to be significant. Possibly immeasurable.

For history, August 2nd, 2011 could end up marking the end of the American Era. Sadly, it will not have been inevitable, it will have been entirely self-inflicted and it may now be irreversible. Even if an agreement is reached tomorrow I suspect the world will increasingly be unwilling to entrust the role of global financial system caretaker to the United States. The world has lost faith in America. And why not. Its Congress has demonstrated that it can no longer be trusted with the responsibility of global financial management. Indeed, even its closest allies have had their confidence shaken.

The economic and geopolitical ramifications of this outcome cannot be underestimated.

Economically, we may now be closer to a global depression than at anytime since 1930s. For all the talk of the financial crises being a near miss, this could potentially be much, much worse, simply because the consequences fall outside our predictive models.

What is clear is that America is trapped. In the short term spending less will devastate its population. Today more Americans (18.1%) than ever use food stamps. It takes American workers 40 weeks (and rising) to find a job, twice as long than in any previous recession. 1 in every 6 Americans use Medicaid. Any cuts to these services will have an immediate and harsh affect on the quality of life of a huge number of Americans.

Longer term, America cannot restart its economy. Already the top 5% of Americans by income account for 37% of all consumer outlays. This is unsurprising given the top 5% of Americans account for 34.7% of all income. This is similar to 1929 when the top 5% accounted for the top third of all personal income. This is precisely the type of economic structure that Kenneth Galbraith argues in The Great Crash, 1929, transformed the great crash into the great depression. Rather than being able to rely on a broad consumer base to power economic growth, the United States then (as now) was dependent on a high level of investment and luxury consumer spending driven by a small elite. The crash caused that elite to seize up, leaving the American economy paralyzed.

In other words, the Bush Tax cuts may have killed the US economically, and possibly geopolitical. By killing the surpluses they have broken the US treasury. By radically curtailing wealth redistribution they have fatally eroded the capacity of the US domestic economy to power new growth. Combine this with two wars that have sapped trillions of taxpayer dollars, and it is hard not to see a United States more ill prepared than at any time in its history to deal with an economic crisis. The only question that may remain is how much of the rest of the world it drags down with it.

Of course economic decline could become a leading indicator for political decline.

When I arrived to grad school in 1998 to study international relations the field had spent much of the previous decade grappling with the issue of American decline. Books like The Rise and Fall of Great Powers and Lester Thurow’s Head to Head seemed to suggest that economically and militarily, the United States was in, at the very least, relative decline as a the world’s leading power.

But then the successes of the US economy – coupled with the turn around in the size of the US government’s debt –  meant that as a peer, China felt a long way off while Brazil and India seemed more distant still. Europe was too old, disorganized and unambitious to matter. Russia, was fading quickly from the scene. Suddenly decline theory was, itself in decline.

But today the writings of Kennedy feel even more urgent. America, with or without a raised debt ceiling, cannot afford its empire, or the means to protect it. It may be able to find allies to help shoulder the burden – today the central challenge of 21st century geopolitics is the integration of India into the Western Alliance, something that proceeds apace. But if it defaults (and maybe even if it does not) it’s capacity to raise money at a reasonable rate should a major conflict arise, may be compromised. War, for America, is going to get more expensive because investors may be more nervous.

I want to clearly state that I don’t write any of this with any glee. Leftish non-americans who relish a world without the US hegemony should look at the what the period after Britain’s decline, or any period of hegemonic decline. They generally aren’t pretty. Indeed, they are often unstable, violent and nasty. Not something any country should wish for, especially smaller countries (such as my own – Canada). Moreover, while there is no immediate peer that could take America’s place, it isn’t clear that the most likely candidate – China – is one that most people would feel more comfortable with. Be careful what you wish for.

I hope that I’m wrong. I hope a deal will be reached. And that if it is, or if it isn’t, the impact on the markets will be minimal or non-existent. Or maybe, I just need to have more confidence in what I have often tell others: do not to underestimate America. As Sir Winston Churchill famously noted: “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing…after they have exhausted all other possibilities.” And maybe they’ll have enough time to boot.

But I genuinely fear that in the haze of summer this crisis, as much as it has spurred some scary headlines, remains a sleeper. That we are confronting the mother of all black swans, and that a period of financial turmoil that will make the last two years look like a merry ride, could be upon us. Worse, that that financial turmoil will lead to other, great military and/or political turmoil.

These are scary times.

I can honestly say I never written a blog post that I hope I’m more wrong about.

Update: The Atlantic has a great article worth reading about the origins of the deficit published later this morning that includes a reference this fantastic graph from a few months ago.