Foggy Bottom is the local affectionate name for the U.S. State Department—because of its location near a former low-lying Potomac River lagoon in Washington DC. It recently announced the appointment of Nate Fick as the head of its “Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy,” pending Congressional approval because it is wrapped up with ambassadorial status. The term “cyber” in this international diplomacy context has come to include all manner of electronic communication and information systems and services, i.e., ICT.
Fick assumes a difficult role that stretches back more than a hundred years ago to Woodrow Wilson’s appointment of Walter Stowell Rogers as the first “cyber ambassador” to deal with an array of rapidly evolving global wireline and radio internetworking technology, national security, and institutional developments unfolding at the end of World War I. Over the past century—through constantly evolving technologies and new appointees every few years—the challenges remain rather the same.
It is worth noting here the oddity imposed by the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. is one of the few, if the only nation globally, that tasks its Ministry of Foreign Affairs with this kind of role and responsibility. Essentially every other country relies entirely on dedicated agencies with relatively permanent subject matter experts working together with industry—generally with extensive experience and long-standing relationships in the specialized international technical venues over many years. The State Department has to implement these capabilities as an intermediary as well as remain constrained by White House directions.
There is also limited institutional history because of constant personnel turnover and the reality that the momentary ephemeral directions and desires of the current Executive Office of the President are the only ones that ultimately matter. As a result, the espoused U.S. views on nearly everything relating to cyber diplomacy have swung from one extreme to the other over the past century and changed vicariously the moment a new Administration assumes power.
The U.S. State Department Bureau here also exists within an extremely complex, insular, largely dysfunctional ecosystem of different branches of government, agencies, industries, and even different Department bureaus—all with very different motivations, jurisdiction, and expertise. For example, the principal expertise for cyber security resides with the National Security Agency, which began addressing the challenges since the initial Ware Report in 1967. The cyber security initiatives have also been significantly impeded by NIST’s pushing work exclusively into the ISO—resulting in monumental cyber blunders. On the ground in Washington, the environment is also exacerbated by well-funded lobbyist armies encamped in almost every office building within a two-mile radius of Foggy Bottom.
Lastly, and perhaps the most difficult challenge today (and certainly compared to sixty years ago), is that the Bureau’s jurisdiction and expertise (aside from the radio domain) is largely confined to legacy international bodies with significantly diminished cyber relevance. Indeed, the most important emerging international cyber regime today is arguably found in European Union institutions that are outside the Bureau’s purview.
However, the decidedly temporary job comes with a neat title with a lifetime membership in the ambassadors club, a classic government oak desk in a rather depressing fifth-floor office at Foggy Bottom headquarters, supported by innumerable foreign service officers worldwide, a few expert staff, and a blank travel ticket. Still, there are potentially useful actions to be taken.
A Brief U.S. Cyber Diplomacy History
Cyber diplomacy history begins at Vienna’s first intergovernmental treaty conference in 1850. No one from the U.S. was present, but it did establish many enduring cyber diplomacy norms and institutional practices, including instruments and venues. Especially important was the treatment of diplomatic communications as the electric telegraph message “packets” were routed through networks transitioning multiple countries. The treatment included allowance for encrypted messages. The norms and practices have endured ever since.
In the mid-1890s, radiocommunication to far-flung diplomatic outposts became feasible and so critical that a global communications center was set up in the White House itself for both giving instructions and collecting intelligence. Because of the open nature of the radio medium, nations with the capacity developed both cyber defense and offense, i.e., SIGINT, capabilities. Within the U.S., it was the Army and Navy departments that perfected the techniques together with a wireless financial investor “representing the Department of Commerce and Labor” who were the first U.S. representatives to represent the nation at the 1903 Berlin Preliminary Conference on Wireless Telegraphy.
As it has from that point onward, the State Department facilitated expert agencies in virtually all intergovernmental cyber treaty conference activities and became the means to designate who had treaty negotiation and signature authority, reported on the results in both public as well as classified reports and telegrams – and ultimately engages the Legal Advisor office to insert reservations, prepare analyses, and draft transmittal letters to the President and onward to Congress for ratification. It is all set permanently into the U.S. Constitution. Thus, at the subsequent actual telecommunication treaty conference in Berlin in 1906, the U.S. Ambassador to Germany was head of the delegation.
It wasn’t until the last days of World War I that first of a series of eminent Cyber Diplomats emerged. Woodrow Wilson designated Walter S. Rogers as a dedicated cyber ambassador that was reviewed by Congress in 1919. Rogers led the initiative to convene the International Conference on Electrical Communications in Washington the next year, which drafted the treaty instrument, which was subsequently manifested in 1932 to integrate wireline and radio communication treaty instruments and create the International Telecommunication Union.
When Rogers was appointed by Wilson in 1919, he was a 42-year-old lawyer from Chicago with an unusual career and knowledge of cyber information systems and law. He was initially a journalist who put himself through law school with a fascination for the potential of wireless communication. It led him to work for the Crane family, whose scion Charles Crane developed an interest in foreign affairs and a close relationship with Woodrow Wilson. Roger’s focus on rapidly conveying information and disinformation during World War I resulted in a senior appointment in Wilson’s Administration, setting up a precursor to USIA, managing related U.S. international telecommunication networks, and a slot on the U.S. Delegation to the Versailles Peace treaty negotiations with Wilson. After Versailles, he was appointed as cyber-ambassador to go forward with the most far-reaching international telecommunication treaty conference ever convened to that point. It was held in Washington in December 1920 and followed in the footsteps of a precursor agreement instituted in Paris in 1919 known as the EU-F-GB-I Radio Protocol instituted among the allied signals intelligence community.
Rogers’ 1920 cyber initiative was met with enormous resistance—both from the new principal industry players who feared regulation as well as those opposed to international organizations and treaty instruments who viewed it as another League of Nations. The incoming Harding Administration stopped it all. Rogers wrote a prescient reflective article in the first volume of Foreign Affairs in 1922 on his experiences and the future.
Rogers went on to found the Institute of Current World Affairs (IWCA), which continues his advocacy today and operates from a small Washington office on N Street to “advance American understanding of international cultures and affairs.” By any measure, he is State’s first champion of techno-diplomacy who significantly advanced the legal and institutional frameworks for its Cyber Bureau today and its role.
Roger’s calling for greater U.S. government engagement also facilitated other initiatives of lasting significance in the years that followed, including greater roles for the State Department. In 1927, the U.S. with Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover’s support hosted the International Radiotelegraphy Conference of Washington in the Chamber of Commerce Building across from the White House. Hoover also chaired the Conference. In addition to incorporating treaty provisions from Roger’s 1920 Washington Conference draft that were further modified in Paris in 1921, the 1927 Conference created the International Radio Consultative Committee (CCIR), which is now the ITU-R.
The 1927 Conference was also the occasion for the father of U.S. cryptography and the Signals Intelligence Service (now NSA), William F. Friedman, presented the first comprehensive History of the Use of Codes and Code Language bridging the radio and cable treaty environments. Friedman noted that these techniques had been used for diplomatic correspondence since at least the 14th century. Subsequently, he participated in multiple treaty conferences, including the formative ITU treaty conference in Madrid in 1932. Although most of his work was accomplished in a highly compartmentalized and secret part of the U.S. government rather than State, the growing collection of released Friedman historical materials reveal a far-reaching cyber diplomacy role among his peers in other nations that continued through his successors that began with his working with French counterparts at Chaumont in 1918.
The 1920s also witnessed the appearance of two of perhaps the most historically prominent U.S. cyber-diplomats over a span of many decades in roles that fundamentally shaped the international telecommunication legal and institutional environments: Frances Colt de Wolf and Gerald Connop Gross.
Born in Brooklyn in 1903 as the son of Hungarian emigrants, Gerry Gross obtained an electrical engineering degree, helped design one of the first radio broadcast stations and worked summers as a ship radio operator. After graduating, he joined the National Bureau of Standards, then the newly formed Federal Radio Commission in 1928. With the 1927 Conference establishing the CCIR, he was part of the delegation to its first meeting at the Hague in 1939, then as head of the Commission’s international section, to the 1932 Madrid Conference creating the ITU. During the 1930s—as he assumed different bureau chief roles at the FCC—he continued to participate in every ITU and CCIR conference and meeting. In 1945, during World War II, he was appointed as head of the ITU’s Radiocommunication Division in Berne, followed by Assistant Secretary-General, followed by Secretary-General from 1958 to 1965. He also facilitated the work of the Atlantic City Conferences in 1947, which created the modern-day ITU and its secretariats, undertook their implementation in Geneva, and at the end of his career, established the international regime and ITU role in managing the implementation and use of radiocommunication satellites.
Over the span of 36 years, Gross’ contributions to U.S. cyber diplomacy were equaled by only one other person – the State Dept’s longest-serving and most influential cyber-diplomat, Frances Colt de Wolf, who was also Gross’ close colleague over the decades. They both retired about the same time in 1964-65 and ultimately passed away within two years of each other a decade later.
De Wolf had an unusual background that significantly facilitated his lifetime service in cyber diplomacy. He was born into two famous and very wealthy New England industrial families—in Aachen, Germany in 1894. His middle name was taken from his grandmother’s surname—the niece of gunmaker Samuel Colt. He was raised initially in London, graduated from Harvard Law School, and moved to Washington where he became State Department Assistant Legal Advisor in 1922 at the age of 28 and earned a Master’s in Law degree at night. In 1931, he went to Geneva to serve in the League of Nations Secretariat and returned to the State Department in 1935 to join its newly formed Telecommunications Division. He served as head of the Division from 1944 to his retirement in 1964.
He was a key member of every U.S. delegation to the ITU over a 26-year period from 1938 until 1964 and chaired the ITU Administrative Council at its formation. He effectively established what is now the core of the State Department’s Cyber Bureau.
While the four people described here are notable, they are by no means exceptional. They are examples of the many thousands of Americans over the past 150 years in Foggy Bottom, other government agencies, companies, academic institutions, and diverse organizations at all levels who have devoted periods of time ranging from single events to entire careers as cyber diplomats at countless meetings and in international secretariats. While in the past they have been predominantly men, women are now playing prominent roles and adding a perspective and additional qualities sometimes missing.
The ITU-centric world that existed at the time Francis Colt de Wolf retired in 1964 continued to evolve and expand significantly over the following two decades. By the start of the new millennium, however, the ecosystem—especially with a combination of global competition, satellite and mobile communication systems, and open public internets—exploded into a diverse array of venues in which the ITU-centricity, except for radio, ceased to exist even as the security concerns and challenges expanded. Two decades later, virtualized communication infrastructures and services have changed the cyber diplomacy and national security worlds even further.
The fact remains that the four-part global institution substantially created by the U.S. over the past hundred years—the International Telecommunication Union—remains the only global intergovernmental entity dedicated to ICT. The treaty instruments of the ITU and its precursors remain—as they have for the past 172 years—the fundamental enabler in public international law of electronic communication among all nations, as are many of its technical standards. It exists and operates independently from the U.N with a strong technical focus. And, in the radiocommunication spectrum management sector, which constitutes the largest ITU component, remains a unique and essential global venue where Nation-States rule and everyone has a strong common interest in avoiding harmful interference.
A New Chapter
Most of the above history is irrelevant in many ways other than celebrating the endeavors of outstanding U.S. cyber diplomats who met challenges of the day and significantly shaped the institutions and regimes that were useful in the past.
It is also not clear to what extent the past solutions are still useful. For example, when radio internets emerged globally and rapidly scaled in the 1920s, combinations of treaty-based norms and institutional activities were used to deal with cyber security and economic competitiveness. Those tools largely lost their utility in the 1990s. The sheer scale and diaspora of cyber venues, activities, and developments are far beyond the capacity of any one entity in Foggy Bottom to discover and comprehend, much less substantially influence.
Perhaps the biggest international cyber diplomacy challenge going forward remains the same – finding useful mechanisms and norms for balancing the myriad interests inherent in extraterritorial virtual instantiations of network architectures, services, and controls. Today’s cloud data centers operate on a monumentally larger scale, technical/legal complexity, throughput, and dynamic than the radio internets of a hundred years ago—with instantaneous access to a trillion different endpoint devices and applications. Where the newly constituted Bureau in Foggy Bottom fits into that picture is unclear.
Still, at least two parts of the new chapter are potentially exciting. The new cyber diplomacy team in Foggy Bottom—working together with the new Deputy National Security Advisor for Cyber and National Cyber Director—can facilitate an effective cybersecurity strategy. In addition, it seems likely that Doreen Bogdan-Martin is likely to be the new ITU Secretary-General. Just as in the 1950s, as Francis Colt de Wolf devoted resources to support Gerry Gross assuming that position at a time of institutional challenges, so will Nate Fick. It is an opportunity to work toward creative and useful means of serving rapidly changing global needs.