State Department Prepares New
Focus on Cyber Diplomacy
August 3, 2022
President Joe Biden's nominee to become the first U.S. ambassador at
large for cyberspace and digital policy faces a Senate confirmation
hearing Wednesday as the administration pushes forward with an
effort to assert U.S. leadership in the development of global
standards and best practices for the modern internet.
Nate Fick, a technology company executive and former U.S. Marine, is
in line to fill the position, which will place him in charge of the
recently created bureau within the State Department.
In announcing the formation of the new bureau last year, Secretary
of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. has "a major stake in shaping
the digital revolution that's happening around us and making sure
that it serves our people, protects our interests, boosts our
competitiveness, and upholds our values."
That includes developing policies meant to deter countries such as
China, Russia and North Korea, which the U.S. has accused of
financing malign online activity, including hacking private
businesses and meddling in U.S. elections.
Experts say the creation of the new bureau and the placement of Fick
at its head, should he be confirmed, will help establish certainty
about U.S. policy related to the internet. The bureau combines three
pre-existing policy units within the State Department: International
Cyberspace Security, International Information and Communications
Policy, and Digital Freedom.
Adam Segal, director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy program at
the Council on Foreign Relations, said U.S. efforts to focus its
approach to digital diplomacy have been haphazard, starting strong
at the end of the Obama administration, but fizzling in later years.
"We kind of dropped the ball on it," Segal told VOA. "And in that
time, lots of other countries developed their own cyber ambassadors.
The U.S. efforts on the international stage have been somewhat
uncoordinated and kind of coming from many different angles. It also
meant that many people just had no idea who to talk to."
James A. Lewis, senior vice president and director of the Strategic
Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International
Studies, told VOA that if Fick is confirmed, he will come to the job
at a moment where American leadership could be critical to the way
policies shaping the modern internet evolve around the world.
"There's a real opportunity here for the U.S. to think about how we
shape the rules and institutions that will govern technology that
will govern cyberspace," he said.
"Challenge 1 for the U.S. is to work with other democracies to come
up with rules, and maybe institutions, for security and digital
policy," he said. "Challenge 2 Ö is to come up with the right kind
of diplomatic strategies, the right kind of international policies
to deal with some very aggressive opponents. And it's not just
hacking. It's not election interference. It's a battle over who
controls the digital environment."
Arguing against authoritarianism
Lewis said that, globally, there are two leading approaches to
regulating activity in cyberspace. In North America, Europe and
among many American allies in the Pacific, the tendency is toward
lighter regulation biased in favor of the free flow of information.
At the same time, countries such as Russia, China and Iran sharply
limit the flow of information to and among their citizens.
"But then there's everyone else, mainly in the developing world,"
Lewis said. "And they're kind of fence-sitters. Their thing is,
'Tell me what works best for my economy. Tell me what works best for
my national sovereignty.'"
Lewis said the task facing the Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital
Policy is to make the case for developing countries to incorporate
openness and freedom into their regulation of the internet rather
than authoritarian control.
"That's where the new bureau has a challenge, but also an
opportunity," he said.
A native of the U.S. state of Maryland, Fick graduated from
Dartmouth College with a bachelor's degree in classics and
immediately joined the Marine Corps as a second lieutenant in 1999.
He was still in the Marines when the 9/11 attacks ushered in the
global war on terror, and he ended up serving combat tours of duty
in Afghanistan and Iraq.
During his time in Iraq, Fick's platoon was accompanied by Rolling
Stone magazine journalist Evan Wright for several months. Wright's
subsequent book, "Generation Kill," won several awards for its
unflinching description of the reaclities of modern combat and was
turned into a miniseries by HBO. Fick is a featured character in the
is also an accomplished writer. His memoir, "One Bullet Away: The
Making of a Marine Officer," was a New York Times bestseller.
After leaving the Marines, Fick earned an MBA from Harvard Business
School and a masterís degree in public administration from Harvard
Kennedy School. He was CEO of the Center for a New American
Security, a Washington-based national security think tank, before
becoming CEO of Endgame, a cybersecurity software firm that was
acquired by the cloud computing firm Elastic in 2019.
Having worked with Fick in the past, Segal of the Council on Foreign
Relations said he is "very familiar with all the issues that the
ambassador is going to have to deal with."
He described Fick as "extremely straightforward, very open and
friendly. He's got a pretty good sense of humor."
Segal said he expects Fick's background with technology companies
will be a major asset if he is confirmed.