Not Clear About the Strategy

by Dave Schuler on March 19, 2014

I’ve mentioned before that I argued for a solid year with my professor of U. S. diplomatic history about whether the U. S. had a foreign policy. I now have the vocabulary to say clearly what I couldn’t then. The United States does have a grand strategy and a foreign policy consistent with grand strategy but, unlike many those of many other countries, they are emergent phenomena. If I had to describe the U. S. grand strategy I would say freedom of commerce on the seas and, in the 20th century, of the skies extending to support for freedom in international trade and the free flow of capital and information.

Contrary to what some people believe none of these things occur in nature. They are artifacts and require vigilance and determination to preserve, can only be preserved by the power of the U. S. federal government, and can only be maintained as long as there’s commitment to them from our elected officials.

That’s why stories like this are upsetting to me:

The Internet is often described as a miracle of self-regulation, which is almost true. The exception is that the United States government has had ultimate control from the beginning. Washington has used this oversight only to ensure that the Internet runs efficiently and openly, without political pressure from any country.

This was the happy state of affairs until last Friday, when the Obama administration made the surprise announcement it will relinquish its oversight of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or Icann, which assigns and maintains domain names and Web addresses for the Internet. Russia, China and other authoritarian governments have already been working to redesign the Internet more to their liking, and now they will no doubt leap to fill the power vacuum caused by America’s unilateral retreat.

Why would the U.S. put the open Internet at risk by ceding control over Icann? Administration officials deny that the move is a sop to critics of the National Security Agency’s global surveillance. But many foreign leaders have invoked the Edward Snowden leaks as reason to remove U.S. control—even though surveillance is an entirely separate topic from Internet governance.

I don’t know if relinquishing control of Icann is a big thing or a small thing. I don’t know whether it’s vital or unimportant. I do know that I’d much rather see a federal government that remains committed to preserving the free flow of trade, travel on the seas and in the air, and information than one that is just too fatigued to be bothered by them or thinks it has bigger fish to fry. Maybe I’m overreacting but it sure seems to me that we’re losing the thread on this.

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