Around the Institute

Former State Department Senior Innovation Advisor Speaks to Society of Fellows

August 8, 2013  • Caroline Tory

Photo by Nora Feller

Alec Ross, former State Department Senior Innovation Advisor (Photo Credit: Nora Feller)

Recently, the Society of Fellows—an engaged community of the Institute that actively participate in our educational and policy studies events and provide important financial support to help sustain our mission—welcomed Alec Ross, former State Department senior innovation advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In his presentation, titled “Digital Diplomacy: Harnessing 21st-Century Technologies,” Ross spoke about his work as a young tech innovator, the current shifts taking place in geopolitical power, and what he learned while sitting across the hall from Secretary Clinton. 

Prior to joining the State Department, Ross and a group of young social entrepreneurs founded the non-profit One Economy. They launched a number of programs out of a basement office with the goal of bringing technology and access to information to disadvantaged communities. Of the projects his team created, Ross described the cell phone technology that allows individuals to make charitable donations via text message and a program that enables Mexican citizens to use encrypted text messaging to anonymously report crimes to the police. 

Despite these examples of technology being used to bring about positive change, Ross reminded the audience that these networks can also work against American interests. Citing former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ classification of cyber as the 5th domain of warfare, Ross spoke of “the significant militarization of the internet in recent years.” As an example, he mentioned a Syrian woman who was targeted for assassination through the GPS on her mobile phone.

However, there are also examples of technology being used in the service of US foreign policy goals, including the online platform that was used during the South Sudan referendum to facilitate independent election monitoring. Users were able to post comments, upload video, and send text messages in order to help report violations in the voting process. 

In the second half of his presentation, Ross moved away from technology to speak more broadly about US foreign policy and the current state of American politics.

“Unfortunately,” Ross said, “we’ve seen partisanship encroach into places in our foreign policy where it never did before.” He went on to compare the US response to two different bombings in the Middle East: the 1983 bombings in Beirut and the 2012 attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi. The response following Beirut was markedly less partisan.

“After Beirut, rather than asking ‘who do we fire,’ Democrats and Republicans came together to ask, ‘how do we fix the problem?’”  

So how do we solve the problem of polarization in American foreign policy? Ross believes one solution is to create a “greater presence and power for women.” While at the State Department, Ross noticed that Clinton was consistently the only woman seated at the negotiating table.

Although Ross sees plenty of room for improvement, he still has a positive vision of American leadership after four years in government. Though finding good leadership for the future will continue to be critical. “You can’t Twitter your way to democracy or Facebook your way to effective governance,” concluded Ross. “What we need is good old-fashioned leadership.”

The Society of Fellows will address the topic of leadership in the final luncheon of the summer on August 16th. The event, titled “Mind Shifts: Unleashing Your Leadership Potential,” will feature Lisa Arie, founder of Vista Caballo.

All luncheons are exclusive to the Society of Fellows. If you are interested in joining, please contact Peter Waanders ( at 970-544-7912.