Globalism is getting tangled in the World Wide Web. In fact, the Internet’s disruptive impact on foreign policy is changing diplomatic and defense strategies worldwide.

That was the theme that transcended last week’s World Affairs Councils of America conference, the subject of this month’s Minnesota International Center’s Great Decisions dialogue. The Washington, D.C., conference featured keynote speeches by Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., as well as analysis from several of Washington’s, if not the world’s, foremost foreign-policy experts. They provided a global perspective on the economic, security and diplomatic dynamics shaping the Mideast, energy, education, cybersecurity, the virtual economy and human trafficking.

Even before the World Affairs conference, of course, the impact of the Internet was a hot topic in Washington. Victoria Nuland, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, focused on National Security Agency surveillance in a speech last week at the Atlantic Council.

“The president is determined to get the balance right between our citizens’ security and their privacy,” Nuland said. “… But make no mistake: The intelligence work we do — much of it jointly with allies and partners — has foiled terrorist plots on both sides of the Atlantic and kept us all safer.”

Safer? Perhaps. But not necessarily closer.

The Edward Snowden disclosures may derail planned Pacific and Atlantic trade pacts. The release of a leaked negotiated draft of the Trans-Pacific Partnership’s Intellectual Property Rights Chapter only adds complexity. “If instituted, the TPP’s IP regime would trample over individual rights and free expression, as well as ride roughshod over the intellectual and creative commons,” WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said in a statement.

Getting the security-privacy balance right isn’t just a crucial concern for Foggy Bottom: Silicon Valley is experiencing the international impact, too.

The NSA revelations “have changed things,” David Drummond, chief legal counsel at Google, told the conference. “There is obviously this paramount question of balance between security and civil liberties. … But there is an economic component that is not understood.” His is a business of “trust,” said Drummond. “It’s really damaging for people to lose that trust. It’s added more fuel to the fire to these government efforts to control the Internet around the world.”

That kind of local control would result in the web becoming the “Splinternet,” Drummond said, adding that the issue should be on the table in trade talks. “A country like the U.S. needs to start putting more pressure on countries to uphold Internet freedom as part of their trade negotiations,” he said.

The “Splinternet” would not only threaten Google’s business model; it would also limit the use of social media in accelerating social revolutions. But even Web freedom evangelists like Drummond acknowledge that there are limitations.

“Sometimes people on the Internet get a little carried away, and have this utopian view that it’s all good,” he said. “In fact, it’s changed. But there is still the use of technology to control individuals. The state is still in control. The state still has guns and can put people in jail.”

It also has computers, which can be used as a weapon.

“If you can exploit [computer networks], you can also attack,” said Frank Cilluffo, a former special assistant to the president for homeland security.

“… I said before 9/11, whereas if Osama bin Laden may have his fingers on the trigger of an AK-47, his grandkids will have their fingers on a Mac. … But I see it [used] more in enabling kinetic attacks.”

And beyond states, nonstate actors are using the Internet for nefarious purposes. The computer currency Bitcoin is the primary tool used on what has been called the “deep Web,” where drugs, guns, pornography, fake passports and even assassins can be bought, said Ernie Allen, the president of the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

But because the Internet is itself a tool, it can be used for good, too. Indeed, just as there’s an effort to find balance between security and privacy, a recalibration between the Internet’s utopian and “deep Web” nature needs to be struck, too.


John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. on Friday on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.


The Star Tribune Editorial Board and the Minnesota International Center are partners in “ Great Decisions,” a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go to