Is the bold US vision of Silicon Valley diplomacy already over?

By Sarah Lacy , written on March 11, 2013

From The News Desk

I just got an email that Alec J. Ross is leaving the State Department. This is maybe noteworthy in and of itself to about a dozen of our readers, and they probably already got the same email. But, to me, it signals the worrying end of a pro-entrepreneur mini-era in the US State Department.

Four years ago, the State Department under Hillary Clinton made a huge effort to reach out to Silicon Valley and leverage what had worked here to export the Silicon Valley way of company building to emerging markets that desperately needed it. They called it 21st Century Statecraft and the New York Times wrote up a big piece on it here. 

I was one of several people who went on diplomatic missions with the State Department to countries like Iran, Indonesia, and Colombia -- and many much more senior people went as well, including Google's then CEO Eric Schmidt. I was traveling for my book on emerging markets during much of this time and got to know Ross and the co-leader in this effort Jared Cohen, who left to work at Google years ago. Katie Stanton, now head of International for Twitter, was also in this group, as was Suzanne Hall who recently left to join Marissa Mayer's Yahoo. That so many of them have found high level jobs at Silicon Valley companies speaks to the respect the initiative had here. That's no small feat given Silicon Valley's streaks for disdaining the federal government and being geographically insular.

It's normal of course for people to rotate out when a Secretary of State leaves and a new one comes in. And all of these farewell emails emphasize the great work that will be continued in their absence. These people are in politics after all. Each of them would be annoyed at my writing this -- I have no doubt.

But this group really had a passion for teaching people in troubled markets to fend for themselves, and they knew that politicians of all people didn't have the slightest clue how to do that, so they pulled people who did out of their comfort zones to go to war torn regions and opened their eyes.

Suits aside, they didn't act like you'd expect diplomats to. Cohen in particular is a mad man who never wants to be on the beaten path. We were both in Nigeria to speak at a conference a few years ago, and he was jealous when I got abducted by a vigilante gang, and he didn't.

Not surprisingly, many of the State Department folks I got to know over the years felt constrained in a government job. They likely weren't long for the job, no matter who was in office.

These savvy diplomats were great at identifying problems in emerging markets where technology or entrepreneurship could help. But actual solutions were a lot harder to come by. Change like that takes time, and now that they're all gone, I fear a new approach to global stability has been lost before it really got its start.

On my trip to Colombia with the State Department, we spoke to a Colombian general who was risking his life fighting back the FARC in one of its remaining strongholds in the country. The only reason they get recruits, he said, was because there was simply no other economic opportunity for the young people in that country.

Job creation is something we obsess about in the US, but in countries like Indonesia, Nigeria, Colombia, and many others I've traveled to, it is essential if the burgeoning young populations are going to turn away from the easy allure of black markets or radicalism.

This problem won't simply get solved on its own. Expanding multinationals are never going to create enough jobs, nor are the local governments. Local entrepreneurship is really the only answer. And given these countries are already some of the largest populations and rapidly becoming the largest economies in the world, it's hard to think of many other goals that should be international priorities for the West.