By unapologetically fessing up to his own use of nongovernmental email as Secretary of State, will Colin Powell put to rest the brouhaha surrounding Hillary Clinton’s own use, as America’s top diplomat, of a personal email server?
Probably not, given the ever more fractious state of American politics.
But far more ironic than the fact that the use of private email servers by American Secretaries of State was neither unlawful nor particularly unusual is that Hillary Clinton’s arguably more important efforts to advance America’s global technology agenda — and our diplomacy’s technical prowess — have gone almost completely unnoticed.
It’s important to remember that when Secretary Clinton started her job at the State Department, we still were in the early innings of the global Internet revolution. The first iPhone had just been launched. Instagram and Snapchat didn’t exist. Barely a quarter of the world’s population was online. Nokia sold half the world’s smartphones. And the very idea that by 2015 a billion people on one single day would log on to Facebook, or that there would be more mobile subscriptions than human beings, was simply impossible to imagine. And closer to home, the State Department’s technical infrastructure was not just comparatively clunky and underfunded, but shockingly vulnerable, as lone-wolf hackers like Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning singlehandedly were soon to prove.
Yet what seems forgotten amid the nonstop focus on her mail-server preferences is that Hillary Clinton nevertheless had the foresight to grasp the increasing impact of and access to Internet technology on our national interests abroad, and our security at home.
In fact, from day one, she made a major commitment to wrench America’s diplomatic enterprise and the technology supporting it — even if sometimes kicking and screaming — into the technical, cultural and geopolitical realities of the 21st century by championing a much more vocal global mission for the State Department in the areas of innovation, openness and technology. This included the appointment of the first coordinator for cyber issues, as well as a senior adviser for innovation to help manage technology initiatives across the State Department’s many bureaus focusing on security, privacy, spectrum and Internet access. A range of new programs also were been launched, including a national innovation competition to elicit new ideas about how technology can more effectively support diplomacy.
Perhaps more importantly, Secretary Clinton committed significant personal political capital, prestige and effort to formally enshrine the concept of “Internet freedom” as a key new pillar of our national security strategy.
By asserting that America will stand up to tyrants, bullies and dictators around the world in places like Iran, China, Russia, North Korea and Syria who would restrict or even criminalize their citizens’ right to access the Internet and the free flow of information and speech it enabled, Secretary Clinton offered the most pragmatic and muscular vision yet for how American diplomacy could remain relevant in the new global information ecosystem in which it operates.
None of this is to suggest that privacy — or secrecy — would be dead in the diplomacy of the future envisioned by Secretary Clinton. Unquestionably, privacy would always remain a fundamental requirement not only for consumers globally, but also for the effective conduct of America’s diplomatic engagement abroad. The Clinton State Department was adamant that our political leaders and their diplomatic emissaries must retain the option — and have the technical means — to communicate confidentially both with each other and with our allies and even our adversaries in order to advance our national interests.
But to her credit, Secretary Clinton also grasped that in this post-WikiLeaks era, marked by extraordinary new stirrings for liberty around the world and equally by new dangers, we needed to think in more nuanced ways about how to properly balance secrecy with transparency in the conduct of our statecraft, and the security of our homeland.
Whether the use of a private email server by a Secretary of State is appropriate is something that should be properly debated, and likely will be for quite some time. For her part, she has said that, in hindsight, it clearly was not the best choice.
Still, what is beyond argument — and should be beyond reproach — is her bipartisan record of achievement in advancing America’s digital diplomacy, and the State Department’s capacity for technical excellence, on the new Planet Internet on which we all now live.
Put another away, when it comes to Hillary Clinton’s track record on the use of technology in the service of diplomacy and our national interests, we shouldn’t lose sight of the foreign-policy forest for the email-server trees.
Jonathan Spalter served as chief information officer of the United States Information Agency, and chairman of the U.S. government’s National Security CIO Council during the administration of President Bill Clinton. He also was a foreign affairs adviser to Vice President Al Gore, and served as director on the National Security Council at the White House. At the Berkeley, Calif.-based Broadside Partners, he advises technology companies on marketing communications, public affairs and business development strategies.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.