As Barack Obama continues to put his stamp on U.S. foreign policy, he would do well to use the growing role that high-tech firms have been playing lately on the world stage to his advantage. In the age of Facebook and Twitter, U.S. firms project a lot of digital soft power, which could be used to advance America's foreign interests.
It wouldn't be the first time American businesses spearheaded the country's engagement with the outside world. Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Warner Brothers, and other giants in the past helped to shape the foreign image of the United States, generating tremendous cultural capital along the way. Globalization put a taint on that image for a while, but lately Silicon Valley has been leading the way back into global fashion.
The agenda of U.S. high-tech firms has for the most part been conspicuously well-meaning (think of Google's motto, "Don't be evil"). Even Microsoft, the target lately of Europe's anticompetition police, seems benign next to, say, Chevron or Halliburton. Millions of users, from China and Turkey to Saudi Arabia and Russia, have become addicted to Google's services, worship Apple's slick gadgets, and spend much of their time on Facebook and Twitter. Ordinary Russians or Chinese may not care for what goes on in Washington, D.C., but they love what they see coming out of Palo Alto.
This is good news for the U.S. State Department. American tech firms, by pursuing their commercial interests, have created a global communications infrastructure. The Kindle, Amazon's reading device for books and periodicals, could easily make censorship obsolete, yet it's unavailable in any country but the United States. Distributing Kindles to the four corners of the world would not only be a good gesture from Amazon, it would also help promote free speech. Kindle could end an era when visiting foreigners have to smuggle samizdat books in and out of authoritarian countries. It is a dream device for dissidents, all for $299.
Now that Kindle books can also be read on iPhones, thanks to Amazon's recent deal with Apple, the potential to help dissidents is even greater. But American diplomats are not exploiting it. U.S. copyright, as cumbersome as it is, would not be a problem if Washington quietly subsidized the purchase of texts it deems most influential and likely to stir up critical thinking. Imagine if the Bill of Rights, Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World were included in every Kindle shipped to Iran or Belarus, "courtesy of your American friends and supporters"? Similarly, Google and other companies with big resources—both human and technological—should be encouraged to help create new tools for greater anonymity and easier ways to access banned content.
Diplomatic agencies aren't known for being innovative, but partnering with tech firms might change that. Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft have a responsibility to wield their newfound soft power for the benefit of the United States and the world. U.S. diplomats need to embrace fully the powerful diplomatic arsenal that Silicon Valley has to offer.