State Department Innovator Goes to Google

Jared Cohen, a high-profile advocate of the State Department's forays into "21st-century statecraft," is leaving Foggy Bottom for New York. In an exclusive interview with FP, he talks about his time at State and his new project: building a "think/do tank" called Google Ideas.

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.

It became very clear to me that I had gone to Iran wanting to study the wrong opposition. I became obsessed with this idea that the real opposition in Iran is the 67 percent that's under the age of 30, and all I wanted to do was meet as many of them as possible. Even the ones that are part of that counternarrative like the basijis and the pro-regime ones.

Where it became about technology was I had this experience: I was in Shiraz, in the south, at one of these very busy intersections and all these kids --- there was five or six different alleyways all meeting, it was a very, very busy part -- and it was filled with kids perched against the sides of shops all looking at their cell phones. And I asked one: "What are you doing?"

And he said "Oh, this is where we use Bluetooth." He was trying to explain, "This is how I'm figuring out what I'm doing tonight." Another person was trying to recruit a bassist for their band; only one or two doing something that could be loosely interpreted as doing something politically relevant. It was mostly social and recreational. I asked one [youth]: "Aren't you worried? You're doing this right in the open; aren't you worried you're going to get caught?" He looked at me and said, "Oh, nobody over 30 knows what Bluetooth is."

The conclusion I came to there is there's two gaps: There's a generation gap between young people who are socialized and brought up with these technologies and an older generation that's coming a bit late to them (and that questions them before they embrace them); there are downsides to both. And there's an innovation gap between companies that innovate for luxury environments -- i.e., free and open societies -- and repressed populations which use things innovatively.

FP: Let's talk about your time at the State Department. Could you pick one of the technology delegations you led and just narrate it? We hear a lot about "technology delegations," but don't really know what that phrase means.

JC: I might as well start with the first one. The first technology delegation [the State Department] did was in April of 2009 to Iraq: It was me and nine techies from the private sector, including representatives from Google and YouTube.

We met with senior government officials in and around Baghdad. Then we met with American troops, NGOs, private-sector companies, like cell-phone carriers. We met with professors and academics and academic administrators. We met with tons of students. I led the delegation, and it was staffed by people at the embassy; I was the only person from Washington.

I had a very good relationship with the public affairs counselor there, Adam Ereli, who is a really, really smart "push the envelope" kind of guy, who had pitched an idea to me to get some professors out [to Iraq]. Now, we [at the State Department] often lead delegations of academics and NGOs to countries around the world, but we hadn't led delegations of people with expertise on tools. So, I thought: Why don't we take a delegation of technology executives to Iraq?

The hypothesis was very simple: If you connect people that have expertise on tools with people that have expertise on Iraq, something innovative may happen. I just had an intuition this could lead to something interesting. It just sounded right, and the embassy thought it sounded right. The idea was: "Let's see if this can result in concrete deliverables that can provide new solutions to old challenges."

FP: Can you talk about some concrete outcomes? Do you think the trip succeeded?

JC: A lot of deliverables that came out of that trip: We created a program called the U.S.-Iraq internship program, for example. We figured that instead of just bringing Iraqi students on exchanges to the United States to study at high schools and universities, let's create internships for them at technology and other start-ups to immerse them in the entrepreneurial "garage culture." So now we're bringing young Iraqi engineers to the U.S. to work for Twitter, Howcast, AT&T, etc. After they go back to Iraq, based on the connections they built in the U.S. and based on what they've learned in the U.S., they're now building their own networks -- what they believe will be their version of Silicon Valley for Iraq. They're the pioneers of entrepreneurship in a post-Saddam Iraq.

Also, the Museum Project was really cool. Iraq has this amazing national museum, and it's an incredible source of pride. Sixty to 70 percent of the museum artifacts that were stolen in recent years have been returned, but the museum exists in a part of Iraq that is sufficiently turbulent that it is not open to the public. We figured that if people can't go there, let's create a virtual presence for it. So we partnered with about 10 different companies. Google, for instance, sent engineers out and digitized the entire museum with street-view technology, literally rolling trolleys around the museum, taking images of things, and built this whole virtual platform. We had a company called Blue State Digital, which did the Obama campaign's tech stuff, build it out, and Howcast, an online video company, created accompanying "how-to" videos -- like how to tell if your Iraqi antiquity is stolen and what to do about it.

These things aren't going to change the face of Iraq, but what I was trying to do was show how these technology delegations can lead to deliverables that are funded and driven in part by the private sector. While small in this early piloted stage, maybe this can actually be a methodology that can be scaled up at a later date.

FP: Talk about the evolution of thinking behind State Department initiatives now identified as "21st-century statecraft."

JC: The core of it, to me, is bringing together nontraditional partners to do multistakeholder initiatives. The State Department's Policy Planning staff, which is where I've worked for four years, is typically thought of as the secretary of state's personal think tank. Our job is to generate ideas, think out of the box, think long term, and we have the most valuable resource of all, which is the resource of time. We are the only entity, really, in the State Department, maybe the U.S. government, that has the mandate to sit around and think big thoughts and think ahead and put pieces together.

In the four years that I've been in policy planning, I've worked for three excellent directors: Steve Krasner, David Gordon, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, who have all transformed it more into a think/do-tank. I look at the Policy Planning staff now as the secretary of state's personal think tank, but also the secretary of state's personal start-up. I often say Policy Planning is very analogous to a venture capital firm. A venture capital firm sees an interesting idea and puts money behind it; in Policy Planning, we look for promising ideas and then put contacts and relationships behind it.

The U.S. government is uniquely positioned to be the world's greatest matchmaker, and I don't mean that as a jargony statement. With all of our embassies and consulates around the world, the fact that people will take our phone calls and the fact that we have a really good bird's-eye view into how different stakeholders can help address different challenges [means] we can play matchmaker well. That's why when you hear people within State now saying something like "statecraft is as much about building connections as it is doing negotiations," it's actually something that has meaning.

Of course, we still do negotiations; we still do representation; we still do government-to-government exchanges. But it's about using new tools and working with new kinds of stakeholders. The technology delegations are a great example.

FP: So it's more about bringing together different problem-solvers than about technology per se?

JC: So here's what frustrates me. There are two common misperceptions about the technology aspect of 21st-century statecraft. The first is that the technology side of 21st-century statecraft is just about State Department officials using Twitter and blogging more -- in other words, that embracing technology is just about more effectively and innovatively communicating and advocating our policy. I think technology is a valuable tool for that, but to me that's public diplomacy 2.0.

When I think about 21st century statecraft, I think about technology being used as a tool to empower citizens, to promote greater accountability and transparency, to do capacity building. At its core, what technology does is it connects people to information, which is new media; it connects people to each other, which is social media; and then there's a far more exciting path that we're going down now, which is that technology is a tool to connect people to actual resources -- like mobile banking or mobile money transfers or telemedicine.

My second frustration is that I embrace technology, but not without an understanding of what the challenges are. My own thinking has evolved over the years. I think when I wrote Children of Jihad, I wrote it with a very optimistic view of what technology can do; today I maintain that optimistic view, but I'm also aware of the challenges we have. So I would say I'm not a techno-utopian, but I'm a techno-pragmatist. I get the downsides of technology; in fact, I'm very concerned about the downsides of technology.

FP: Do you worry that efforts encouraging, or enabling, people to use social media in a place like Iran may be inviting them -- especially dissenters and human rights activists -- to put themselves at greater risk, with more personal information online? In a worst-case scenario, do you worry about enabling the surveillance operations of a police state?

JC: Technology is a tool, and it's a platform. Nobody gets arrested for being a blogger; people get arrested for dissent. Nobody gets arrested for putting information about themselves online; they get arrested for being an activist. I'm a strong believer in the fact that you should not blame the tools; you should blame the circumstances.

FP: Going forward, tell us about your future work at Google.

JC: I am going to be director of a new division at Google called Google Ideas. And it's basically a think/do tank. Much of the model for it is built off of my experiences on the Policy Planning staff. It's not designed to be, "Let's pool all of Google's resources and tackle global challenges."

In the same way Policy Planning works by bringing together a lot of stakeholders in government, out of government, and across different sectors, so, too, will Google Ideas do something very similar. And the range of challenges that it may focus on include everything from the sort of hard challenges like counterterrorism, counterradicalization, and nonproliferation, to some of the ones people might expect it to focus on, like development and citizen empowerment.

What I'm interested in is the SWAT-team model of building teams of stakeholders with different resources and perspectives to troubleshoot challenges. So the reason I say it's a think/do tank is you need a comprehensive approach to think about and tackle challenges in different kinds of ways. In government, we used to refer to a "whole of government" approach, meaning work with multiple agencies to leverage ideas and resources; Google Ideas will take a "whole of society" approach.

FP: What can you do at Google that wasn't possible at the State Department?

JC: There are things the private sector can do that the U.S. government can't do. The big thing is the resources and the capabilities. There are not a couple hundred [computer] engineers in the State Department that can build things; that's just not what government does. You don't necessarily have some of the financial resources to put behind these things. It's really hard to bring talented young people in; there are not a lot mechanisms to do it. On some topics, it's very sensitive for government to be the one doing this.

Photo courtesy of Jared Cohen


A Changed Climate Skeptic?

Bjorn Lomborg has long infuriated environmental activists with his contrarian views on global warming. Has he now embraced their cause?

It seemed too sensational to be true. On Aug. 30, the Guardian reported that one of the world's most prominent "climate change skeptics," Bjorn Lomborg, had made an apparent about face, now calling for $100 billion to be devoted to stopping global warming. This is a man who, for years, writing books with provocative titles like The Skeptical Environmentalist and Cool It, had argued that climate change wasn't as pressing as other international problems, such as child malnutrition and poverty. Now, he seemed to be saying that stopping global warming was an urgent matter after all. Had the Danish political scientist changed his mind? Was he admitting he'd been wrong? What would this new $100 billion be used for?

In an exclusive interview with FP's Elizabeth Dickinson, Lomborg says his views haven't budged an inch. Rather, he argues that the cap-and-trade approach of Kyoto Protocol fame has clearly failed, and it's time to try a more creative approach -- one that doesn't involve wasting billions of dollars. "At some point," he says, "we have to ask ourselves, do we just want to keep up the circus of promising stuff but not actually doing it?" Excerpts:

Foreign Policy: You've been in the news quite a lot this last week thanks to your new book, Smart Solutions to Climate Change, which many are portraying as a change of heart on climate change. Is that accurate? Have you changed your mind about global warming?

Bjorn Lomborg: No. I always said that global warming's real, it's man-made, and that it is important. The economic models indicate that global warming is going to impact negatively GDP by the end of the century, by somewhere between 5 percent and 2 to 3 percent.

The fundamental point I try to make, though, is that the current set of solutions isn't working. Since 1992, we've been trying to cut carbon emissions by [holding] grand international get-togethers where everyone promises [to cut emissions]. But unfortunately nothing happens and nobody delivers. This book is about asking: Are there other and smarter ways? I helped organize something we call the Copenhagen Consensus on climate, where we brought together 28 of the world's top economists to look at all the different possible solutions to climate change and ask, "How much will it cost and how much climate damage will it avoid?" These top economists, including three Nobel laureates, ranked the smarter solutions. What they found was that the best long-term solution to climate change is dramatically increasing research and development on green-energy technology. [That means getting] green energy to be so cheap that everybody wants some. Don't try to make fossil fuels so expensive that nobody wants to use them. That's not going to work politically, and economically it also turns out to be a very poor way to help the world. Instead, make green energy so cheap that everybody wants to use it.

FP: Where does energy efficiency fit into that equation?

BL: That is one of the things that we should be investing more research and development in. [But] I would be somewhat cautious [about saying] that that's going to be a huge driver. The fundamental issue here is not to tinker at the margins. By all means, replace your light bulbs with energy-efficient ones and eventually LED lights. By all means, buy a Prius. But also recognize that this is not what's going to change the outcome. If we want to have a world that's eventually not emitting carbon dioxide, it requires a dramatic change in energy production. Instead of using a little less of the power that comes out from your coal-fired power plant, make solar panels so cheap that they replace coal-fired power plants.

FP: In The Skeptical Environmentalist, you write optimistically about the impact climate change will have on agricultural production. Are you now concerned about how global warming will affect farming?

BL: It's very clear that one of the things we will need to do is to develop new varieties of agricultural produce. They'll be better able to deal with warmer weather -- that's especially true in the Third World. We should also recognize that we already have a huge challenge ahead of us because we're going to be feeding about 50 percent more people toward the end of the century, or more. We'll need to feed them better because they're going to be richer.

[But] we need to be careful. The models also indicate that the impact of global warming in a well-functioning market system is fairly small. If you look at the models, the worst-case scenario is that global food production by 2085 will be 1.4 percent less than it otherwise would have been. The best-case scenario is that it will be 1.7 percent above. It is going to have a little impact but it's not going to be the major challenge in the 21st century. We're talking about food production reaching in 2086 what it would otherwise have reached in 2085 without global warming.

FP: What about extreme weather? Some people would point to the floods in Pakistan, for example, as a manifestation of what's ahead.

BL: We know that there's going to be more precipitation and that would be consistent with more flooding. [But] we have quite a number of studies in Uruguay, [where there were] big floods in 2000-2002, that seem to indicate that a fairly small part of the flooding could be ascribed to global warming.

Of course the [main] reason that we're seeing flooding is because we've built on a lot of flood plains. So what you're probably seeing in the vast majority [of cases] is an increase in bad infrastructure decisions that have then caused a lot of these floods to be so dramatically damaging.

This gets back to the whole point of asking, "If you want to help Pakistan, how do you do that in the best possible way?" Do you do that by cutting carbon emissions which, even if there is a link, there's probably a fairly weak link and it will only help in 100 years? Or do you help them by focusing on making better infrastructure decisions?

My point here is to be the skeptical environmentalist, not skeptical of global warming -- that's true, that's happening, and that is man-made -- but to ask: If we want to do good, what are smart policies? Proposing to make carbon cuts is really, really hard, and we've seen it fail for the last 18 years. It's probably also not the best way to actually go about doing good for the world. And presumably, that was what we wanted. I doubt very many people care whether there's more or less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. What we care about is that we actually make lives better for our kids and grandkids.

FP: How do we know that it's really a zero-sum game -- that if we don't tackle climate change, we can invest more heavily in smart infrastructure policies, or malnutrition, or one of the other many global needs out there?

BL: It's not a perfect zero-sum game. On the other hand, I do think we need to own up to the fact that the international community seems to have hard time worrying about a lot of different things. I'm not saying that climate should drop off the page. I'm simply saying, right now we seem to be obsessed with pretty much the only solution that we have conclusively seen doesn't work and that the economists have very clearly pointed out is a very poor way of tackling the problem. At some point, we have to ask ourselves, do we just want to keep up the circus of promising stuff but not actually doing it?

For every dollar you spend on traditional carbon policies -- even if you do them well -- the benefits could be measured in just a few cents. That's a poor deal! If you invest dramatically more in research and development of green energy technology, however, for every dollar you spend you can probably avoid about $11 of climate damage. We can do 500 times more good if we do it right.

I actually do believe that there's at least a certain amount of zero-sum game, because as long as everybody talks about Kyoto, that's the only real issue on the agenda. And what we [actually] need to start talking about is dramatically ramping up investments in research and development of green energy.

FP: In 2005, you wrote in Foreign Policy that those of us in the rich world have reached the point where we can afford to think about the environment, whereas the developing world really can't. If we're talking about a research and development solution, isn't that really just a developed world solution? Is there some sort of role for the developing world in this also?

BL: I think we need to own up to the fact that the developing world has much more important priorities. We're unaware that half the world's population still lacks simple things like food and education and water and sanitation and health care. Worrying about global warming [that will happen] 100 years from now is a slight luxury to those people. It doesn't mean we shouldn't do it, but it means that we should also recognize that there are many other things we should be focusing on.

The only real climate policy that we have right now is the EU 2020 policy -- that they're going to reduce [emissions by] 20 percent below the 1990 levels by 2020. The cost is about $250 billion. Let me give you a better way to spend that money. If we spent $100 billion on research and development into green energy, we would do much, much more good. If the EU continues to spend $250 billion for the rest of century, they will reduce temperatures by 0.1 degree Fahrenheit by the end of the century. Wow! I'm really sure our descendents are going to be really really happy.

If we invested that $100 billion dollars [in research] there's a good chance we will be able to cut maybe two degrees Fahrenheit off the temperature by the end of the century. Then, we should invest about $50 billion in different ways to adapt to climate change -- that's of course especially [important] in the Third World, to make sure that they can actually deal with climate change. And then I propose that we should spend about $1 billion dollars in research and development into geoengineering to make sure that we have an insurance policy if something really bad is lurking in the corners of climate-change research. The last $100 billion should be spent on fixing all of the other problems in the world: Give clean drinking water, sanitation, basic healthcare and education to virtually everyone on the planet. We could do that for about $100 billion a year.

FP: Geoengineering has been so controversial lately. What specifically do you think are the means we should pursue? Are you worried at all about externalities we won't or can't anticipate?

BL: The reason why the Nobels did not say: Let's deploy [geoengineering] now is exactly because we haven't spent very much money on looking at it. Could this potentially affect, for instance, the monsoon? We want to know before we start.

On the other hand, we have to recognize that even if we do dramatic things to deal with climate change (which is a very, very unlikely scenario to have happen), we would not be able to measure the difference in temperature come midcentury. We don't have anything that can do anything [about] climate change fast except for geoengineering.

And geoengineering is potentially incredibly cheap compared to virtually everything else we talk about. If you look at marine cloud whitening -- making clouds a little whiter by putting up sea salt into the lower atmosphere -- we could actually pretty much offset all of global warming in the 21st century. The total cost of that would be about $6 billion to $7 billion in total. The cost of a 2 degree Centigrade policy [limiting climate change to 2 degrees through other methods] could easily be $40 trillion a year. We're talking about 5,000 times less [expensive], and only once instead of every year.

The only model that has ever been built wasn't built on public money. It was paid for by the Discovery Channel for their show on geoengineering. There's something fundamentally wrong with having to rely on public entertainment to figure out potential solutions to the big problems.

FP: Politically, what's the best way to inject fresh energy into climate policy?

BL: We've got to stop discussing global warming as if it's a contest between: Is global warming the end of the world, or is it a hoax perpetrated in the American people? It's neither. I think in some ways, the fact that the Guardian made it look like I flip-flopped is because it's so hard for anyone to see the world through any other prism than "It's either black or white -- it's a hoax or it's the end of the world."

It seems like we're still debating if the world is round or flat. I mean, come on, its round. But the real question for Christopher Columbus was: How do I best get to the West Indies? And that's the real issue: How do we plot a course to get from A to B. That's what this book is all about. It's about finding the smartest ways to get to that point.