On Thursday Sept. 2, Jared Cohen walked out of the Truman Building with his luggage for a final time, after four years on the State Department's Policy Planning staff, serving under both the Bush and Obama administrations. During his time in government, Cohen, who will be 29 in November, attracted much attention -- both praise and controversy -- for his unconventional thinking about statecraft: for calling on his friend Jack Dorsey to keep Twitter from going through with a scheduled maintenance shutdown during the heady days of the Iranian election last summer; for leading delegations of technology executives, including Google's Eric Schmidt, to troubleshoot problems in Iraq; and for tweeting his observations, with a touch some critics found too lighthearted, to his 300,000-plus digital followers.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, director of Policy Planning for the last year and a half, says his exuberance will be missed: "Jared's time with the Policy Planning staff was a period in which we moved from not only writing memos proposing new ideas, but also finding ways to put those ideas into practice as an initial proof of concept. We are known as the Secretary of State's think tank, but we have become a think/do tank."
In mid-October, Cohen will begin his new job as director of Google Ideas, a new division of the search giant that he is helping to launch. He will also be, as of Tuesday Sept. 7, an adjunct fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, focusing on counter-radicalization, innovation, technology, and statecraft. Cohen is the author of two books, Children of Jihad and One Hundred Days of Silence, and despite his interest in all things new media, is also the owner of an extensive collection of rare books, presidential autographs, and 19th-century campaign memorabilia.
Cohen chatted with FP about his new gig at Google, what he's learned at State, where his interest in the intersection of technology and foreign policy began, and what he thinks his critics get wrong. Excerpts:
Foreign Policy: While you were a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, you made your first trip to Iran for a research project. I understand that project didn't work out as planned, but the time you spent in Iran, which you later wrote about in the book Children of Jihad, spurred your inquiry into unexpected uses of technology. Tell us about that.
Jared Cohen: What I had wanted to focus on was interviewing opposition leaders, government officials, and reformers. I did interview the Iranian vice president and some opposition leaders. But the Revolutionary Guards came into my room in the middle of the night and found a list of people I wanted to interview. That made my original plan impossible, but ended up being one of the most important things to happen because in the absence of my original research being viable, I ended up just wandering the country looking for friends to hang out with.