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State Department Should Return to Its Knitting

Having researched and written about the 100 year history of U.S. State Department’s institutional machinations in the telecom/cyber sector, taught law school graduate courses, and worked with its bureaus and staff over the past 45 years, the latest twists and turns seem to repeat past mistakes.

The fundamental problem is that the U.S. is the only country whose Foreign Ministry is given a significant role and engaged in telecom and cyber matters in global venues. It has been an institutional albatross hanging around the U.S. for the past century. The subject matter knowledge and expertise reside in other government agencies and private sector, and the U.S. misuses career diplomats to engage in complex discussions at venues for which they are not equipped.

The pendulum swings of history

History has witnessed dramatic swings in the State Department’s role since the inception of international network communications facilities and services, and the necessary engagements with counterparts in other nations. The nature, complexities, extraterritorial concerns, national security implications, and constant evolution of the telecommunications/cyber sector have always posed special challenges.

Until the end of the First World War, the only role played by State was its “knitting”—facilitating diplomatic and treaty-based activities pursuant to the Constitution on behalf of the President to the extent necessary. It was Wilson’s Administration who in 1919 first pushed State to expand its role dramatically by attempting to set up a major new treaty instrument and global bodies for all manner of network communications. That effort ended in 1921, and other USG agencies assumed the roles of working with peers in other countries, as well as empowered through delegated authority to develop and negotiate needed treaty instruments beginning in 1927. The FCC, Commerce, and DOD stepped up to the plate and worked with their peers to develop needed global institutional arrangements.

That situation continued until the end of the Second World War, when the Roosevelt Administration expanded the State role on a limited basis largely through the leadership of the legendary Francis Colt deWolf, Jr. That period of State expansion largely disappeared in the 50s as the roles again principally shifted to the FCC, Commerce, and DOD assisted by the Intelligence Community, plus significantly increased roles of major private sector companies. The arrangements were pragmatic, minimalist, and very effective in providing the institutional arrangements to engage U.S. experts with their counterparts and expand commercial opportunities worldwide.

That situation existed until the early 80s when ironically the Reagan Administration—largely through a political appointee—began to build up State’s role again but maintained at a level to largely facilitate engagement of the private sector and those with the expertise in other government agencies. Although occasionally with its problems, this arrangement worked well into the 1990s.

Then the Clinton Administration began turning global network communications into cyber political-economic instrumentalities and expanding the related State role while diminishing those of the expert government agencies. That direction expanded even further during the Obama Administration. The ultimate outcome of those misadventures, no matter how well-intentioned, have had devastating collateral consequences.

So here we are

It is not clear if anyone today cares about the history, even if it tends to repeat itself. The climate in Washington is so toxic to any rational analysis, if not basic facts that the best expectations are to do nothing. The dialogue in the proposed bills and related dialogue is clearly stuck into a kind of 1990s internet cyber fantasia. The reality is that the rest of the world is massively engaged in collaborations in forums bringing about 5G virtualised networks and services together with non-IP low latency communications. The USG government is almost entirely unengaged, and the venues are not Foreign Ministry (a/k/a State Dept.) friendly.

Rather than State mindless expanding turf, hiring scores of new employees, and spending tens of millions, they should be sticking to its basic knitting and facilitating the involvement of the private sector and the expert agencies. That is what almost every other country in the world is doing, including the U.K. and China. The additional resources should go to those other government agencies so they can begin working with their peers in the global forums like 3GPP, NFV ISG, and others where substantive work is occurring, plus ITU for intergovernmental arrangements. If the Administration wants enhanced cybersecurity, they should put their money where their mouth is, and work alongside other countries who are already developing the needed capabilities and arrangements.

By Anthony Rutkowski, Principal, Netmagic Associates LLC

The author is a leader in many international cybersecurity bodies developing global standards and legal norms over many years.

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