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Commerce Secretary Highlights ‘Commercial Diplomacy’ To Push US Tech

On Monday, in a speech before the Council on Foreign Relations, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker went beyond defending the Trans-Pacific Partnership and discussed the Obama Administration’s view of “commercial diplomacy,” which she defined as the US government working “side by side with the private sector to develop policies with foreign governments that can lead to economic growth both here at home as well as foreign countries around the world.” Pritzker said private sector representatives work with her office on strategy and even travel with the Commerce Department abroad, and are “at the table” during US discussions and negotiations with foreign governments.

Pritzker recounted how the Commerce Department brought representatives of Microsoft, IBM and Cisco to a meeting between the US and leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries. The meeting revolved around US corporate and governmental opposition to data localization, or requiring that user data from the internet be physically stored in the same country where the data originated.

Such data localization policies, more strongly favored after the Snowden leaks made it clear that the US National Security Agency (NSA) was using American predominance in information technology to spy on foreign and domestic internet users, have the potential to hurt US tech firms, who want less restrictions on data to provide internet-based cloud services. As does, of course, the NSA.

Secretary Pritzker claimed her “lightbulb moment” vis-a-vis commercial diplomacy came during a meeting with the Indonesian government, which had expressed interest in having an Apple Store in their country and even asked if Pritzker would contact Apple Inc. to request the company set up a store in Indonesia’s capital city, Jakarta.

Pritzker said that based on this request, she came to the conclusion that the Indonesians did not realize that what they wanted and what they were doing were at odds, as the Indonesian government supported strong data localization and Apple was in-part a cloud services company. Therefore, the US would bring US tech firms to meetings to “make it real” for foreign governments that their policies were hurting “innovation and entrepreneurship.” She said doing this while also bringing in local businesses, which would be effected by US firms entering or leaving their home markets, provided greater “leverage” during the discussions.

What Secretary Pritzker laid out with “commercial diplomacy” bares a strong resemblance to the “Public Diplomacy 2.0” dynamic between the US government and tech firms detailed by Julian Assange of Wikileaks in his book, “When Google Met Wikileaks.”

In an extract from the book, Assange describes a meeting between himself, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, Council of Foreign Relations vice president Lisa Shields, future-State Department speechwriter and communications director for the International Crisis Group Scott Malcomson, and former State Department official and then-Google Ideas Director Jared Cohen. Cohen also served then, as he does now, as a fellow at the Council on Foreign relations, whereas Google Ideas has been re-branded as Jigsaw, which is now under a new Google entity known as Alphabet Inc.

Talk about a stew of corporate and government power. Much like commercial diplomacy, it is hard to know where government service and corporate/private sector/non-profit service ends or begins, as Assange soon discovered when trying to interact with the State Department regarding publishing parts of Cablegate, only to be responded to by the Council on Foreign Relations:

Unable to raise Louis Susman, then US ambassador to the UK, we tried the front door. WikiLeaks investigations editor Sarah Harrison called the State Department front desk and informed the operator that “Julian Assange” wanted to have a conversation with Hillary Clinton. Predictably, this statement was initially greeted with bureaucratic disbelief. We soon found ourselves in a reenactment of that scene in Dr. Strangelove, where Peter Sellers cold-calls the White House to warn of an impending nuclear war and is immediately put on hold. As in the film, we climbed the hierarchy, speaking to incrementally more superior officials until we reached Clinton’s senior legal advisor. He told us he would call us back. We hung up, and waited.

When the phone rang half an hour later, it was not the State Department on the other end of the line. Instead, it was Joseph Farrell, the WikiLeaks staffer who had set up the meeting with Google. He had just received an email from Lisa Shields seeking to confirm that it was indeed WikiLeaks calling the State Department.

It was at this point that I realized Eric Schmidt might not have been an emissary of Google alone. Whether officially or not, he had been keeping some company that placed him very close to Washington, DC, including a well-documented relationship with President Obama. Not only had Hillary Clinton’s people known that Eric Schmidt’s partner had visited me, but they had also elected to use her as a back channel. While WikiLeaks had been deeply involved in publishing the inner archive of the US State Department, the US State Department had, in effect, snuck into the WikiLeaks command center and hit me up for a free lunch. Two years later, in the wake of his early 2013 visits to China, North Korea, and Burma, it would come to be appreciated that the chairman of Google might be conducting, in one way or another, “back-channel diplomacy” for Washington. But at the time it was a novel thought.

On a broader level, this all fits the narrative on the US that anyone who has gotten any information outside of a School House Rock songs knows: America is a commercial oligarchy posing as a republic and, obviously, US diplomacy is about advancing the interests of the economic elite whom the government really serves. Fair enough, but on the ground level there seems to be disagreement on which group within that elite gets the best score.

Assange also notes some bitter feelings between rivals jockeying for position within the US foreign policy (imperial) apparatus. Jared Cohen’s work for Google Ideas was the subject of considerable ire at private intelligence firm Stratfor, where other former US State Department officials seemed to take pleasure in thought of his death at the hands of militants on the Iranian border.

As Assange explains, the commercial diplomacy/Public Diplomacy 2.0 staff oozes down a traditional pipe of public-private sector partnerships and organizations. Like Google Ideas, they re-brand themselves every so often to try and rope in new recruits and amplify relevance:

Google Ideas is bigger, but it follows the same game plan. Glance down the speaker lists of its annual invite-only get-togethers, such as “Crisis in a Connected World” in October 2013. Social network theorists and activists give the event a veneer of authenticity, but in truth it boasts a toxic piñata of attendees: US officials, telecom magnates, security consultants, finance capitalists, and foreign-policy tech vultures like Alec Ross (Cohen’s twin at the State Department). At the hard core are the arms contractors and career military: active US Cyber Command chieftains, and even the admiral responsible for all US military operations in Latin America from 2006 to 2009. Tying up the package are Jared Cohen and the chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt.

War, physical or cyber, is undeniably a form of commerce, and certainly one the US excels in. Perhaps dropping bombs is commercial diplomacy too.

During the discussion on Monday, Secretary Pritzker also noted that the Commerce Department would likely be contracting to update how the department measures economic output, a very lucrative contract. Among the firms the commerce secretary named as possible vendors was Microsoft, Palantir, and Google.

US Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker at a meeting before the Council on Foreign Relations
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Dan Wright

Dan Wright

Daniel Wright is a longtime blogger and currently writes for Shadowproof. He lives in New Jersey, by choice.