Mr. Skinner: I’m Rob Skinner with the United Nations Foundation. We have a great program and it’s going to continue right now. Our next guest could not be a better fit for this year’s Social Good Summit theme: Digital Mobile Action. She has embraced digital and social media as a means to engage citizens, particularly young people, in international diplomacy. Her entire career has been spent working and finding ways to solve our toughest global issues. And every day in her work as United States Permanent Representative to the United Nations she demands—and gets—action from her counterparts in the Security Council and the General Assembly. I guarantee you that nobody in this city has a busier schedule this week than she does. So we could not be happier that she has decided to join us at the 2012 Social Good Summit. Please welcome Ambassador Susan Rice in conversation with Mashable CEO Pete Cashmore.
Mr. Cashmore: Well, thanks so much, Rob, for that introduction. And special thanks to Ambassador Rice. I know it’s an incredibly busy week for you on the eve of UN week. And it’s also a privilege to have a Nobel laureate [Muhammad Yunus] on our stage. So, we thank you for joining us during this week. Obviously, here at the Social Good Summit we’re talking all about how digital can change the world and how we can use it for the greater good.
I’d like to get right into it, actually. President Obama’s going to arrive here in New York tomorrow. What does our audience here and abroad need to know about what the President has achieved in foreign policy and why it matters in their lives?
Ambassador Rice: Well, first, Pete, obviously I want to answer that question. But let me just say thank you to you, and to all of the co-sponsors of this really exciting event. It’s an honor to be here and I appreciate very much this opportunity.
President Obama, when he was running for office, promised several things. And he’s kept those promises. Beginning with repairing our relationships around the world and strengthening and restoring our alliances and partnerships. I get to see the benefits of that every day at the United Nations where I’m working with countries all over the world. And they approach the United States now in a constructive spirit, one of partnership, where their aim is to try to find, with us, common solutions to our most pressing challenges. The president pledged to end the war in Iraq, and has done so. He also said that we would responsibly make the transition in Afghanistan so that Afghans themselves are responsible for their own future and their own security. And thus, that transition is on track, and all American forces will leave Afghanistan by 2014. And the surge forces, which the president sent, have now just returned home. They’re on their way. He also said we would focus very clearly and consciously on al-Qaeda and the threat that that poses to the United States and our allies and partners. He’s done that. al-Qaeda’s ranks, particularly in the Af-Pak region as we call it, have been decimated. And of course its leadership, including Osama bin Laden, also are gone.
He has done a great deal, I think, Pete, to underscore that our leadership has to be based not just on what we say but on what we do, and our most fundamental values. And it is that commitment that has led him to ban torture, for example, in all of its forms, or insist that when we support our men and women in the armed forces that we do so on the basis of equality and thus eliminated Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. These are among the examples of important steps. Obviously also as we think about the events of the last several weeks, I think we’re very proud that we were able to join with others around the world in helping to support the people of Libya in their transition, and to intervene in a way that was crucial to protecting civilians there and ensuring that Qaddafi is gone and that the people of Libya and, indeed, the people in many parts of that region—from Tunisia to Yemen to Egypt—have the possibility now of a future that they chart on their own. So there are many aspects of our security, our values, our relationships around the world, that have improved under President Obama’s leadership such that we’re more secure, we’re more respected, and we’re more effective in accomplishing the goals that are most crucial to the American people.
Mr. Cashmore: And of course, President Obama has—turning to the subject of technology—has been a great advocate of social media. He’s opened a great deal, and used it in his campaigning very recently. And I know that you’re a big user of Twitter, you’re a big advocate of technology. So perhaps you could tell us a little bit about how, you know, technology can be used for foreign policy, and how you can engage with members of the public here in the U.S. and around the world?
Ambassador Rice: Well, I think it’s important to underscore the point that you and your colleagues who are part of this great summit know better than anybody, which is that the power of openness, the power of information, the power of innovation and indeed technology, to change so much of what we do. The president was very clear: he wanted it to change government. He wanted it to make government more accessible to the average American. So we have now something called Data.gov, where anybody can go online and get some of the most detailed information available about our government, how it functions, the budget. He’s insisted that we walk the talk of openness and accountability. And through his various first days in office, with his first executive orders, to the establishment of something called the Open Government Partnership, where we have joined with governments from all corners of the Earth in trying to implement the principles of openness and transparency on a collective basis, not only on a national basis, but in places like the United Nations, where the Open Government Partnership was launched last year.
This notion of transparency and accountability is crucial.
Now, when it comes to foreign policy, this is not the most necessarily modern and agile aspect, traditionally, of American government. But under President Obama’s leadership, and Secretary Clinton’s, the State Department has harnessed social media to be a much more effective tool of our outreach. So, to give you one example, our ambassador to Syria, Ambassador Robert Ford, who is now obviously outside of Syria, has used Facebook to post information about where Syrian tanks are massing, using overhead imagery. which is a benefit not only to expose what the government is doing but also for those that are trying to protect themselves against it, it’s a tool.
I have, as you pointed out, have gotten into Twitter, but I gotta admit—
Mr. Cashmore: What’s your Twitter handle?
Ambassador Rice: @AmbassadorRice.
Mr. Cashmore: @AmbassadorRice.
Ambassador Rice: But I gotta admit, in all honesty, when this started a couple of years ago, I was a skeptic. And I thought, how can I responsibly speak about or conduct foreign policy in what seemed to me like haiku. You know, something of that length. And I thought it sort of might cheapen the coin. But I was so wrong. And I have gotten really into it because I realize it’s a whole different way of connecting with a completely different set of voices and people around the world. It’s helpful in causing me and my colleagues to distill our message to its very essence. So we’ve used Twitter for all kinds of things. You know, I use it to amplify our statements in the Security Council. I use it to draw attention to humanitarian causes, like the famine in the Horn of Africa, or UNICEF’s efforts to raise money around the time of Halloween. I call it, I use it to call out bad guys and dictators when they’re doing, you know, the wrong things.
I’ve used Facebook and I’ve also used YouTube in ways that I think have been important. So, for example, when Libya held its first real elections this past summer, I used YouTube twice. Once in the first instance to try to convey to the women of Libya , the importance of them getting involved and registering to vote, because they’d been a big part of the revolution but I think were sort of feeling daunted or overwhelmed about what role they might play in the transition and beyond. And that had an impact in terms of boosting women’s voter registration. And then I did it again, urging women to run for office and get out and actually vote when the voting period came. So, those are just some of the ways that my colleagues and I have used these new tools in new ways. And I’m sure with your inputs and your ideas we could be more creative, more adept, more agile, and I’m certainly interested in the thoughts that you and others may have on that. But I’ve found it to be fun, one, and two, a great new way of connecting with an audience we wouldn’t otherwise reach.
Mr. Cashmore: Do you see, you know, I’m sure myself and our audience, we’re very pro-social media, we think it can help everywhere. But you spoke a little bit about, you know, the limitations of Twitter, trying to speak a message in a very short span of time. Are there any challenges, limitations? Can social media solve everything or is there, you know, what are the limitations?
Ambassador Rice: It certainly can’t solve everything. It is a tool, it’s not an end in itself, it’s not a solution.
Mr. Cashmore: Right.
Ambassador Rice: And of course there are limitations in that, you know, you are constricted by space. There are some places around the world where social media is most needed but it’s least accessible, places like Zimbabwe and Eritrea and elsewhere. And it is a type of tool, as with other forms of social media, that those that wish to repress have figured out how to harness for their purposes, both through denial of access and using social media for their own less than beneficial purposes. So, again, it’s a tool, and it’s a tool that can be harnessed in many, many positive ways, but it’s also a tool that can’t by itself bring the sort of change that many of us seek, and it can be used in negative ways by those who are so inclined.
Mr. Cashmore: It’s like we say, that technology is ultimately neutral, it’s what you do with it that counts. I guess on that note, you know, you mentioned, that obviously our audience, you know – it’s the kind of audience, they want to get engaged, they want to, you know, help make the world a better place. So, you know, what would your advice to us be if, we, you know, want to make a difference in our communities? You know, how do we leverage technologies to make a difference?
Ambassador Rice: Well, you, as activists and entrepreneurs and innovators, are already on the cutting edge of contributing in critical new ways. My personal view is that we all ought to be about trying to be a force for good and for change that goes well beyond ourselves. I sometimes say as I speak to young audiences that they ought to be not about counting change, not about making money, but about being the change, and making change. And I mean that quite genuinely. Because there are lots of ways to go through life and do well for yourself, do well for your immediate family, or even perhaps your immediate clique, however you define that. But if you’re oblivious to or uninterested in or leaving behind those beyond your immediate circle then you’re not, in my judgment, making important contributions and not living a life of service that I think we ought to aspire to.
Now, service can take all kinds of forms. In my case, I’ve been primarily interested in public service and government service. And I encourage any of you who have that instinct to get involved, to think about our Foreign Service, Civil Service, our military service, joining our pool of development experts who work around the world, or the Peace Corps. But I also believe that there are many, many other ways to serve. You can serve as an entrepreneur, you can serve as a CEO, you can serve as a journalist, you can serve as a social activist, you can serve as a religious leader. But what defines service is a commitment to those beyond yourself.
Mr. Cashmore: Do you feel like, I mean, I was just over at a panel briefly early for the World Bank Commission, they had some young speakers who were saying that this millennial generation is more than any, is more aware of global issues. And there were a couple of entrepreneurs there who, rather than starting the next Twitter or Facebook had decided that they were going to start social good initiatives with their technology knowledge. Do you feel like technology is somehow made us more aware of global issues and more willing to maybe define success as helping others, more so than ever before?
Ambassador Rice: Well, I think, yes, in short. Because it’s given us much greater visibility on what is happening in different parts of the world. The reality is we’re living in an increasingly interconnected world. That’s become a cliché. But it’s true, whether we’re talking about technology, whether we’re talking about threats to our national security. These threats don’t come simply in the form of, you know, a big adversary with a big military. It comes from things like pandemic disease, and climate change, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. These are transnational security challenges that flow freely across the globe. And we can’t do what is necessary to protect ourselves and our people if we’re not prepared to work with others in all different parts of the world to accomplish these goals. Because they’re not the types of threats that are amenable to the kind of power that we’re accustomed to wielding, in every instance.
So, I do think that, you know, when young people have a better understanding of what’s going on elsewhere, they’re going to be more engaged, more effective, citizens. They’re going to be better citizens not only of our country but of the world. And I think that, you know, we need to go beyond what we can learn through technology and actually get out and experience the world. I think it’s vitally important that young people travel, that they try to find ways to live and serve abroad, that they speak foreign languages, and that we don’t allow the world to know us better than we know the world, which, is in fact, the way things are trending. So I think it’s, for, as a matter of security, as a matter of principle, as a matter of our economic strength, as a matter of being true to who we are as a people and a nation, we have to have our youngest people, the next generation, participate in the world, lead and guide the world, as much or more than their peers from other parts of the globe.
Mr. Cashmore: Right, so even though we’re increasingly connected digitally, that, person to person, face to face—
Ambassador Rice: It’s not enough, yes.
Mr. Cashmore: ---travelling the world is still incredibly important
Ambassador Rice: I think so. I think so.
Mr. Cashmore: Just briefly, I’d love to know. You know, we talk about how we’re all empowered by social media, how, you know, increasingly groups are coming together to make change in their communities. In that world where, you know, increasingly citizens are empowered, what’s the role of government? What can government do that we can’t do by all joining together and starting a movement on social media?
Ambassador Rice: Well, there’s obviously—government obviously is only a piece of the puzzle. But we’ve been discussing this in our national discourse over the last several weeks and months. I think it’s an important piece of the puzzle. It’s by no means the solution. It’s by no means the centerpiece. You know, the spirit and the power of the individual, whether through entrepreneurship or social activism or just citizenship, is at the heart of what we believe in and what we stand for. But government performs certain functions without which we couldn’t do what we do and be who we are. The field I work in is an obvious example. The government provides for our security and defense as a nation. It makes and implements our foreign policy. There’s no way that can be done without a central voice which is representative of all of us as people, which is not to say there isn’t a role for NGOs or for social activists or bloggers or what have you in terms of shaping the world in which that policy is made or our defense needs to be preserved. But there’s no substitute for a government’s role in that regard.
Fundamental infrastructure, you know, whether it’s laying broadband cables or repairing bridges or creating our interstate system; those are critical functions of government that we can’t do without.
Where would we be without public education? An essential tool of government, R&D, and supporting, you know, cutting edge technologies and medical research that may not be profitable for private enterprise to invest in yet is critical to the health and wellbeing of our citizenry. Or standing up for and preserving and protecting the rights of all our citizens. I mean, as an African American woman how can I not note that it was through, ultimately, the actions of government that I’m able to vote? That, you know, if you were an American your daughter would be able to vote. And, that, you know, gays and lesbians, and transgender people and bisexuals in our society will increasingly have the rights that all of us expect and enjoy. These are things that government can do that there may not be other ways of accomplishing, and that are fundamental to who we are and what we are as a society.
Mr. Cashmore: Ambassador Rice, thank you so much. Unfortunately, we’re out of time but you can follow @AmbassadorRice on Twitter and, I’m sure, carry on the conversation on social media. So thank you very much.
Ambassador Rice: Thank you. Thank you very much.
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