Getting Digital Statecraft Right

How to Use Technology to Promote Development

In January, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for the United States to pursue a policy of "twenty-first-century statecraft," which would use modern information and communication technologies to promote development. She foresaw "a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas." All the while, she implied, the United States' formidable diplomatic, economic, and technological resources would be harnessed to meet these objectives. Indeed, the State Department can successfully use technology in its diplomatic efforts -- but only if it adopts a gradual, non-U.S.-centric approach that treats its international partners' concerns and aspirations with respect.

As past attempts to use technology to bring progress to other nations reveal, U.S. policymakers and business leaders often lack a realistic understanding of what can be accomplished. In 1927, for example, Henry Ford set out to re-create his personal vision of an unblemished Midwestern town in the Brazilian rainforest. Fordlandia, as he called it, was intended to achieve vertical integration by sourcing rubber for tires from Ford's own Amazon plantation rather than from British Malaya. This unique amalgamation of agriculture and industry was heavily micromanaged, with Ford personally designing menus replete with dishes made with soy, which he believed to be the food of the future. For the town's residents, he prescribed square dances and other wholesome forms of entertainment.

But Brazilian workers did not take kindly to Fordist social engineering; bars, brothels, and nightclubs plying forbidden wine, women, and song soon appeared beyond Fordlandia's limits. The commercial outcome was no better: Fordlandia was eventually abandoned, as caterpillars common to the Amazon, but not to Malaya, feasted on the rubber trees.

A similar type of mistake was made more recently by the well-intentioned One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program. It aimed to distribute 150 million laptops to disadvantaged children in the developing world by 2008, yet by mid-2010 it had distributed only about one percent of that number. The project combined the expertise of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with the support of companies such as Google, AMD, and News Corporation, as well as backing from the United Nations. The computer itself featured groundbreaking advancements in energy efficiency, shock resistance, and connectivity.

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