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.

From the outset, however, OLPC was hampered by a strong pedagogical vision that favored "learning by doing" with digital media. Catchphrases such as "building a movement" and "revolution" were bandied about with messianic fervor. These messages, however, were greeted with alarm by the program's putative customers: the educational departments of developing countries. China was wary of OLPC becoming a political movement, whereas India branded its anti-rote learning philosophy "pedagogically suspect." And with that, the initiative lost the support of governments representing a third of the world's population. Unable to meet the marketing challenges of distribution, after-sales service, and integration into educational ministries' existing programs, OLPC has floundered.

Another example of a failed effort to apply a largely American vision of technology to a non-U.S. cultural environment involves the Internet search giant Google. In January, after the e-mail accounts of Chinese human rights activists were reportedly hacked, Google's co-founder, Sergey Brin, implied that the Chinese government was culpable for the attacks. To position Google as a pioneer for free communication, he called on Washington to take a robust stand regarding China's Internet censorship practices. The company announced that it would no longer censor its search results in China and would automatically route Chinese users to its uncensored Hong Kong-based service. None of these actions, however, influenced the outcome: Google changed its procedures after the Chinese government considered revoking the company's license. Today, people in mainland China still cannot freely search the Web.  

All these cases share the same fallacy -- that U.S.-directed methods can spur development in other nations. But U.S. policies seeking to extend freedom through technology can be successful -- if the United States refrains from acting in ways that seem less than sincere, and if it adopts a gradual, rather than transformative, approach.

U.S. protests against censorship would seem more convincing if it were not for its own policies restricting Internet freedom. Consider, for example, the United States' questionable prohibition of cross-border trade in Internet gambling. In 2004, the World Trade Organization ruled in favor of Antigua and Barbuda against the United States when the United States banned online gambling services emanating from the twin-island nation. The United States appealed the case and lost, but in the meantime, Antigua's online gambling industry was virtually destroyed. The United States still has not yet satisfactorily resolved this ruling and should do so by conforming to it.

The United States' sincerity has also been called into question due to its strong advocacy for the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which is currently being negotiated with several other countries. This proposal is not a conventional free-trade agreement but rather one that would establish stricter legal frameworks for intellectual-property-rights enforcement outside of existing international organizations such as the World Intellectual Property Organization and the WTO.

As many see it, however, the ACTA would strengthen intellectual-property laws at the expense of the Internet community's well-being. According to the Program on Information Justice and Intellectual Property, which represents prominent academics and activists worldwide, the agreement would encourage Internet service providers to police users and disconnect them without due process. In so doing, innovation and competition would be stifled. The agreement is thus fueling widespread concern that Washington cares more about the commercial interests of its major copyright holders than about nurturing the creative potential of Internet users.
Washington also needs to adopt a more incremental strategy for its digital diplomacy. The organizational theorist Karl Weick highlights the virtue of seeking "small wins," since broad social challenges are better understood as a series of narrower, more tractable ones. Small, well-considered gestures, Weick suggests, trump the grandiose ones, which tend to over-promise but under-deliver -- a reasonable characterization of the ambitious strategy outlined by Clinton.

Several U.S. technological initiatives are already demonstrating modest wins. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, for example, recently introduced domain names in non-Latin letters so that international users can more easily navigate the Web. The State Department highlighted the ability of people to use cell phones for sending donations to victims of the Haitian earthquake and for anonymously reporting drug crimes along the Mexican border. Such small-scale experimentation is promising because it allows trial and error without raising concern about excessive U.S. interference.

If social engineering is based on unrealistic assessments of the priorities of other nations, development is likely to be thwarted, not enhanced. Technological efforts, therefore, must be both internationally oriented and focused on small wins, not transformative victories. By forsaking go-it-alone grand designs in favor of gradual progress, the United States would increase its chances of fostering development through technology. And it would be consigning overreaching social-engineering projects to the dustbin of history.

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  • EMMANUEL YUJUICO is a Research Fellow at IDEAS, a center for international affairs, diplomacy, and strategy at the London School of Economics. BETSY GELB is Larry J. Sachnowitz Professor of Marketing and Entrepreneurship in the Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston.
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