Hu's Coming to Dinner: A Year After the Google-China Dust-Up, Has Anything Changed?

Hu Jintao will attend a state dinner about a year since his government and Google duked it out over PRC laws to control internet content. Now is a good time to revisit what the dust-up might mean for the future of U.S.-China relations.
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On Jan. 19, China's President Hu Jintao will attend a state dinner at the White House. This comes about a year since his government and Google Corporation duked it out over Google's refusal to abide by the PRC's laws to control internet content. There were punches thrown and punches pulled. The heavyweight fight was sort of a draw, with no clear winner or loser. Now is a good time to revisit what the dust-up meant then, what it means today, and what it might mean for the future of U.S.-China relations.

The conflict should have been a teachable moment for American companies and those responsible for the design and conduct of U.S. foreign policy. Rightly framed, it could have been a moment to talk about the prospects for a post-industrial age foreign policy for the United States. The Department of State, the Office of the United States Trade Representative, and others in the executive branch could have concluded that the U.S.'s key private sector players are now technology firms, and the nation's policies should keep those firms' interests -- and abilities -- in mind. Companies and their industry associations, meanwhile, could have learned that closer engagement with the policy process could be beneficial.

But for the most part these potentials have not come to pass. American high-tech companies remain heavy hitters economically at home and abroad, but continue to punch way below their weight politically. They remain heavyweight boxers hitting with the power of welterweights. History shows clearly that the dominant economic modes of a country will eventually throw their weight around in domestic, and eventually, foreign policy. But it is now clear that the Google-China match was not the start of a new age of digital diplomacy.

When President Hu comes to Washington, it is unlikely that he will confront much organized or coherent criticism from tech industry leaders; a state dinner rarely offers the opportunity for heart-to-heart talks on substantive issues. But outstanding issues do need to be worked out in non-governmental settings, away from the cameras and temptation to posture. So, then, what's occurred during the less ceremonial 12 months between Google's flare up and Hu's triumphant state visit? In brief:

1. Private companies: Since Google sparred with China, the company has actually stepped up its rhetorical engagements in U.S. international affairs. Most notably, Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO, co-wrote a manifesto of sorts in Foreign Affairs, the most prestigious establishment journal of record. The piece characterizes "the interconnected estate," a riff on the model of the media as "the fourth estate." The piece acknowledges that IT companies' products "are inherently political," and boasts that such products can be "more useful" than a nation's traditional diplomatic efforts.

As a sign of the times perhaps, Schmidt's co-author for the piece was none other than Jared Cohen, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's former adviser on these issues. Cohen, a 29-year-old wunderkind, along with Alec Ross, Clinton's Senior Advisor on Innovation, were the main subjects of a New York Times Magazine story last summer on the new digital diplomacy. But Cohen is no longer working for State. His new title is Director of Google Ideas -- the company's new "think/do tank."

Ratcheting up the engagement a notch, Schmidt (and Cohen) appeared before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York as part of its CEO Speaker Series, which is designed to "highlight the increasing importance of the international business community to U.S. foreign policy." [The Chronicle, December, 2010, p. 5] That's some hyperbole, because the good ol' industrial CEOs have always played to the Council and other important foreign policy bodies; it's only the New Economy bosses who are relatively recent players and whose presence can be called "increasing."

Microsoft's President Steve Ballmer last year did call out Chinese businesses -- but not the government -- over piracy issues. And Intel maintains a Global Public Policy staff and a related public blog. But other industries have a more robust presence in Washington.

2. Industry Associations: Beyond individual companies, what about the trade associations that represent their interests in Washington and internationally? They aren't doing enough, either. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce devotes plenty of space on its website's home page to noting how to follow the Chamber on Facebook and Twitter, but dig deeper and there's not much there. TechNet, an alliance which includes eBay and many other familiar corporate names, boasts of having held 1,000 meetings with politicians during the past 10 years; its listed topics include patent reform and tax policy. Closer to where all such associations ought to be, Business Software Alliance's site speaks of working with the Department of Commerce on intellectual property rights disputes with China -- pirating issues, essentially. And in another positive, but modest sign, the multi-stakeholder Global Network Institute -- in which USC's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism is a participant -- last year released an annual report connecting human rights issues and internet censorship.

3. The White House: President Obama and the rest of the executive branch have mostly allowed the State Department to lead on this issue. The White House has not presented an overarching vision of a new foreign policy for a new digital age. Across the river, the Defense Department has spoken loudly on matters ranging from cybersecurity to drones, but not surprisingly sticks closely to security.

4. The State Department: If any of the possible players have stepped into the ring, it's been a handful of digital foreign policy pugilists in the State Department. Fortunately, the handful includes Clinton and a small coterie of advisers around her that have been pushing the rhetorical envelope. In the same Foreign Affairs volume [Nov / Dec 2010] that included Schmidt and Cohen's piece, Clinton wrote an essay titled, "Leading Through Civilian Power," linking her vision of "21st Century Statecraft" to the major review of diplomacy and development in her recently invented and issued Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review.

5. Beyond the nice words, we see some modest actions. The State Department co-sponsored an "Apps

Domestically, the Department hosted several meetings between high-level technology executives and the Secretary and her advisors, including Dorsey, NYU guru Clay Shirky, and the Webby's Tiffany Shlain. Clinton's team has also taken industry leaders on trade missions to Russia, Iraq, Syria, Mexico, and Columbia. And there have been discrete meetings in Silicon Valley around these issues. Still, these are just starting steps in a long journey.

6. Think Tanks: These groups haven't been as prolific, or as potent, on this big-picture subject as they should be. Brookings published Networked Foreign Policy in 2008 and the Heritage Foundation hosted web commentary on the Obama administration's use of social media tools during and around his Cairo speech. The CFR, RAND and Carnegie occasionally point to these digital, networked issues. The Los Angeles-based Pacific Council on International Policy -- on whose board I sit -- has enlisted me to lecture on the topic and PCIP delegations have traveled north to meet Silicon Valley executives. On Jan. 17 and 18, the Aspen Institute will convene a high level meeting in LA of public, private and NGO leaders as part of its IDEA project run by former FCC chair Reed Hundt on global issues like IPR and open internet. But think tanks and universities also need to do much more in this space.

As a thought experiment, let us imagine a parallel universe. There, a parallel Obama administration presides over the birthing of an innovative, new networked digital foreign policy. But in our own all-too-real universe, the United States is still fighting two land wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The old industrial-age, oil-fixated "wise men" of the Bush administration were pathologically fixated on the past, on the old-style power markers of imperial foreign policy -- oil, territory and us-vs.-them ideology. This leaves Clinton and her team little policy space in which to invent the future, as the demands of the daily overwhelm what might otherwise be easier. The old is dying but the new is not yet born.

The long and the short of it is that when President Hu shows up in Washington on the 19th, he will probably enjoy his meal. He will find an American foreign policy establishment still ordered pretty much along industrial age lines, with industrial age priorities.

Maybe we have to wait for another year to see if the political agitation and policy actions begun last year will move more purposefully toward a new foreign policy for the digital age. A year ago there was still some talk about "China's Peaceful Rise." Since that term has been jettisoned by the Chinese, maybe that's another thing we can import. Anyone for "Google's Peaceful Rise?" Or, even more ambitiously, "America's Peaceful Return."

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