Freedom and Democracy in the Information Age

Wriston, Walter B.


Freedom and democracy in the Information Age

Freedom and democracy in the Information Age


It has been said that when Adam and Eve were ejected from the Garden of Eden that Adam took Eve’s hand and said, "We live in an age of transition." And this thought has been repeated throughout the ages. Each generation believes it faces unique challenges. And they do. What sets this age apart from every other is the speed of change. For example, it took forty years for radio to get 50 million listeners in the United States; it took thirteen years for television to gain a like number; but it took only four years for the World Wide Web to get 50 million users in America. The time compression means we all have less time to absorb new information, less time to react to changed conditions. In these circumstances it is often easier to ignore changes and stick with what worked in the past. In her book The March of Folly[1] , Barbara Tuchman wrote: "Mental standstill or stagnation—the maintenance intact by rulers and policy makers of the ideas they started with is fertile ground for folly. Generals preparing to fight the last war is a clear but by no means the only example of this tendency."

It is a truism that in warfare the armies of Napoleon could move and maneuver no faster than those of Julius Caesar. Over that span of years there was little progress in communication. Command and control systems until the middle of the 19th century consisted basically of messengers, buglers, and signal flags. With the relatively recent advent of satellites, fiber optics, and uses of the spectrum hitherto thought to be unusable a new situation of warfare has been created. The new information technology has now enabled a remote headquarters miles from the battlefield to reach almost any ship, area commander, or aircraft in real time. Area commanders often have instant communication with squad leaders in the field. This situation, combined with deadly accurate weapons guided by the GPS, is slowly transforming military doctrine in the United States and Britain. Unfortunately, these new networks are also exploited by terrorist organizations, which has created new challenges to nation states. Massive historical transitions like the one now changing the world are not only disruptive, and often painful, but also upset long-held beliefs and require us to think anew—which is itself a painful process.

Examples abound. The contrast in the way statesmen communicate is illustrated by the fact that when President Woodrow Wilson went to Paris to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles, he ordered his Postmaster-General Albert Burleson, to assume control over all transatlantic cable lines in order to control and censor the news from Europe[2] .

Today such an action would be an exercise in futility as no one or no nation can block the flow of information across national borders. Myriad pathways carry information over, around and through national borders as if they did not exist. The 24 hour news cycle is a fact of life.

In the midst of the First Gulf War, Saddam Hussein proposed what was viewed in Washington as a phony peace settlement. The problem for President George Herbert Walker Bush was to convey that judgment to the 26 nations of the international coalition fighting Saddam. As former presidential spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater remembers:

The quickest and most effective way was CNN, because all countries in the world had it and were watching it on a real-time basis … and 20 minutes after we got the proposal … I went on national television … to tell the 26 members … that the war was continuing[3] .

We entrusted a vital diplomatic message in the midst of a war to a private television company seen by the whole world.

In this, and in many other instances, the elite foreign policy establishment was bypassed. When the President of the United States picks up the phone to talk to another head of state, a new paradigm is established. No highly trained foreign service officer meticulously drafted a note, no Secretary of State signed it, and no American ambassadors called on a foreign minister to deliver the message.

The contrast between then and now could not be more striking. Wilson’s strategy was to control the flow of information by fiat. Many governments still wish they could, but Bush realized that he had to be a winner in the world information market.

When one changes the way and the speed one communicates, a chain reaction is started that can affect old processes in politics and business. As recently as 37 years ago the transatlantic cable could carry the grand total of 138 telephone calls between Europe and the United States. The rule in business was to write a letter if the matter was not urgent, send a cable if there was a time constraint, and as a last resort use the telephone. Today the flood of data on the Net has overtaken and rushed past voice communications.

The explosion of ways and speeds of communicating have helped foster the rise of NGOs and their influence. Governments are no longer the only power centers as NGOs, and using the power of the Internet, undertake everything from saving the whales to ridding the world of land mines.

The use of the Internet to dramatically influence national politics was driven home when Matt Drudge, who was perceived by many as a maverick journalist, posted on his website information about a White House intern, which started a political fire storm. His information was picked up by the mainstream media and eventually led to a bill of impeachment of the President of the United States.

The ability to post information, good and bad, true or false, on a website that can be seen by anyone in the world with a computer and a modem, is a truly new situation in the world. Whatever one thinks of this situation, the fact remains that the technology will not go away; it will only get better and faster and constitutes a new state of affairs which must be dealt with by policy makers. One of the great pioneers of the integrated circuit, Carver Mead warned: "We are limited not by our technology, but by the way we think. We still think just the way we thought two hundred years ago, as if nothing had happened." But a lot has happened and our universities need to educate students in the new way of the world without losing the old values that built the country.

Americans are generous people who have poured resources into the developing world, often with little effect. For almost fifty years, many conferences have been held delineating the continuing economic disparity between the West and many of the developing countries, and often conclude by suggesting a common panacea: the transfer of resources from the richer nations to the poorest even though that is known to be a zero-sum game. It took the late physicist Richard Feynman, at the conclusion of a conference, to put his finger on the fallacy:

The idea of distributing everything evenly is based on the theory there is only X amount of stuff in the world …. But this theory does not take into account the real reason for the difference between countries—that is, the development of new techniques for growing food, the development of machinery to … do other things, and the fact that machinery requires the concentration of capital. It isn’t the stuff, but the power to make the stuff that is important.

Economists have long understood this, but Feynman captured the concept in a few words. The rub has been the absence of the accumulation of capital, but Hernando de Soto[4]  has demonstrated that even the poorest countries have massive amounts of locked-in capital that can be freed through titling previous untitled assets. This requires a framework of laws and honest governments to enforce and respect their framework of laws. Given these preconditions, Mr. de Soto has proved his formula works. One of the greatest challenges of our young foreign service officers is to understand what is required to, in Feynman’s words "make the stuff," and start the development process.

Despite all of the advances of science and the ways in which they are changing the world, science does not remake the human mind or alter the power of the human spirit. There is still no substitute for courage and leadership. One other thing remains the same. Business and Diplomacy are now, and will in the future always, be conducted in the medium of politics as long as governments exist; there simply is no other atmosphere available.

What has changed dramatically is the explosive increase in the data that is available to our policy makers in coping with this new world. Hopefully that data, processed by the minds of trained diplomats, will produce real knowledge and, with enough experience, even wisdom. Wisdom has always been in short supply, but it will be sorely needed in the days and years ahead because in the words of a former president, "Only people can solve problems people create"[5] .

We have entered a period when our leaders are once again articulating the concept of freedom. Freedom is a virus for which there is no antidote and, despite setbacks, is spreading across the planet. Once again the realization grows that without freedom, the world is politically and spiritually bankrupt; there simply is no other government program but force. Two World Wars have driven that lesson home. Often forgotten is that the expansion of freedom in the world has been American policy since the founding of the country. Even George Washington, often regarded as the Father of Isolationism, looked upon himself as "a citizen of the great republic of humanity." Those who say we have no interest or responsibility for the expansion of freedom around the globe misread American history.

In what is said to be Thomas Jefferson's last letter written on June 24, 1826, in response to an invitation to attend a Fourth of July celebration, he wrote about America’s decision for freedom: "May it be to the world … (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all) … to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and assume the blessings and security of self government."

It is easy today to get discouraged at the pace of progress in this sound-bite world where talking heads on TV bombard us with pessimism about just about everything. It reminds me of a line from a play by St. John Ervine[6] : "All the enthusiasts of my acquaintance,"said the Bishop, "have no brains and all the brainy people have no enthusiasm. We are dying of hot heads and cold feet." Fortunately for our future, we have young men and women who have both brains and enthusiasm ready and able to play their part in an increasingly complex world. At the end of the day, freedom and democracy are the best, perhaps the only, soil in which peace can grow. The cynics and the so-called realists denigrate the power of freedom, but as usual, Abraham Lincoln said it best in his first Inaugural Address: "Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? Is there any better or equal hope in the world?"


[1] B. Tuchman. The march of folly. Ballantine Books, New York (1984).

[2] W.C. Langsam. The world since 1914. Macmillan, New York (1940) 90

[3] Hernandez D, De Graf. From insider to outsider. Editor and Publisher 1996 (Dec. 7);11.

[4] H. de Soto. The mystery of capital. Basic Books, New York (2000).

[5] Nixon R. 1999. Leadership. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988:16.

[6] Robert's wife