Table of contents
Published by DiploFoundation and Geneva Internet Platform (2021).
Table of contents
Published by DiploFoundation and Geneva Internet Platform (2021).
Councillor Cassis shared his views in a pre-recorded video message.
The event was opened by Federal Councillor Mr Ignazio Cassis (Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, Switzerland), Mr Houlin Zhao (Secretary General, International Telecommunications Union (ITU)), and Dr Jovan Kurbalija (Executive Director of DiploFoundation and Head of the Geneva Internet Platform (GIP)).
The ‘2021: The emergence of digital foreign policy’ event is part of Diplo and the Geneva Internet Platform’s (GIP) research and capacity building work in digital foreign policy. Delve deeper by reading our research report 2021: The emergence of digital foreign policy and visiting our dedicated digital foreign policy page.
Overall, we were joined by 19 practitioners who shared insights from their work in digital foreign policy and diplomacy, and addressed questions from our audience. After the high-level opening of the event, participants joined two parallel ambassadors’ roundtables which focused on ‘digital foreign policy on the ground’ and ‘developing and implementing digital foreign policy’. This was followed by in-depth and interactive practitioner discussions which took place in four parallel tracks and allowed for more detailed discussions with those ‘in the trenches’ of digital foreign policy. The event concluded with a fireside chat titled ‘Africa and digital foreign policy’.
In his opening remarks, Cassis underscored the commitment to a free, secure, and open digital space. He highlighted four key fields of action in this regard: digital governance, prosperity and sustainable development, cybersecurity, and digital self-determination. Unpacking these fields of action, He explained that Switzerland pursues a balanced approach to digital governance, meaning that the digital space is subject to existing norms, and new rules should only be created where necessary. Second, Switzerland is committed to maximising the potential of digital technologies to foster prosperity and development. Third, effective cybersecurity secures successful digital transformation and needs to be pursued in an international framework. Fourth, technological progress is not an end in itself; the primary focus rests on people, their rights and freedoms, and their self-determination.
Zhao underscored that ‘more than ever, technology is making its way to the top of governments’ political agendas’. There is a clear need for countries to collaborate on digital issues. Global information and communication technology (ICT) strategies are needed to stimulate more innovation and investment in ICTs, especially infrastructural investments. Zhao also pointed out that challenges remain with connecting the unconnected. Keeping in mind that this is the decade of action on the sustainable development goals (SDGs), it is crucial to ‘leave no one offline’. Further, we need to recognise that developing and least developed countries will be affected differently from developed countries. For a full overview of Zhao’s remarks, consult the article A new decade for digital foreign policy published by the ITU as a follow-up.
Kurbalija highlighted three key building blocks for the rationale of this event. First, there are a number of countries that have developed comprehensive digital foreign policy strategies and it is useful to reflect on and learn from this emerging trend. Second, Geneva has a very comprehensive ecosystem when it comes to digital issues and, for example, the ITU is a crucial organisation within this ecosystem. Geneva also has a vibrant community of diplomats ‘on the ground’ that focus on and deal with digital issues in their work. Third, Diplo has more than 20 years of experience in capacity building in digital diplomacy and governance. While keeping new developments around digital foreign policy in mind, it is important to continue and intensify capacity-building efforts, in particular with a focus on ensuring that all countries and stakeholders can participate meaningfully.
With these interventions, the stage was set for more in-depth discussions that allowed for a closer look at the various issues that the high-level opening touched upon.
Ambassadors’ Roundtable I: Digital foreign policy ‘on the ground’
The first ambassadors’ roundtable brought together Amb. Mohamed Edrees (Permanent Representative of Egypt to the UN in New York), Mr Chris Painter (President of the GFCE Foundation and former Coordinator for Cyber Issues, US Department of State), Amb. Tadej Rupel (National Coordinator for External Aspects of Digitalization, AI & Cyber Security, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Slovenia), and Amb. Thomas Schneider (Director of International Affairs at the Swiss Federal Office of Communications (OFCOM)). Dr Stephanie Borg Psaila (Director of Digital Policy, DiploFoundation) moderated the discussion. Together, the ambassadors reflected on their work and the future of digital foreign policy. While countries have stepped up their efforts in the area of digital foreign policy and (global) digital governance, a lot remains to be done, in particular in the face of today’s rapid technological developments.
What are the current challenges?
Rupel suggested that a modern and effective diplomacy responds to changes in the technological and political environment. However, some of the challenges posed by technology are more fundamental today, and while technological changes are happening very fast, governments are, by nature, slower to adapt. This was a point echoed by many of the interventions. Edress further pointed to the challenges created by the digital divide between developed and developing countries.
What can be done practically?
Roundtable participants agreed that coordination and greater coherence are crucial. The various interventions made clear that a more cohesive approach is needed to bring together different communities of experts and policymakers. Painter suggested that digital issues need to be mainstreamed and become relevant at the highest political level. Based on the experience of Slovenia and Switzerland, ambassadors Rupel and Schneider highlighted the advantages of drafting clear and coherent strategies on digital topics. Edrees underscored the value of ‘digital ambassadors’ and similar representatives in the conduct of successful and effective diplomacy, as it heavily relies on personality and the conduct of personal relations. Schneider also suggested that there is a need for developing new models of cooperation between stakeholders, as encapsulated, for example, by proposals for adapting the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) to the IGF Plus model. Lastly, the need for capacity building was echoed by all roundtable participants.
What should be the main goal of a digital foreign policy?
Painter suggested that, ultimately, the common effort is dedicated to maintaining and achieving an open, interoperable, secure, and reliable communications infrastructure. Schneider highlighted the importance of countries and societies in finding a balance between competition and cooperation, and working towards win-win solutions. Rupel insisted on a ‘multiple-way vision’ that looks both inward and outward, and keeps the various levels of diplomatic practice in sight. Edrees reminded everyone that ‘we have to manage the unavoidable in order to avoid the unmanageable’.
Broadly speaking, what are the most important lessons for digital foreign policy?
Overall, the discussion in Roundtable I made clear that digital policy issues have found their way to political agendas, but foreign policies still need to mature. There needs to be a political priority for foreign policies to incorporate digital aspects. Even with the necessary political will, the process will not unfold overnight. While technology evolves extremely fast, governments are moving slowly, making it complicated for them to adapt. A whole-of-government approach can ensure coordination and cooperation among the various entities involved in policymaking and governance.
COVID-19 has made us realise just how dependent we are on technology. It has also highlighted the digital divide which can be solved only if we embrace a deeper sense of cooperation. As for the broader digital policy issues, the UN Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation provides important guidelines.
Ambassadors’ Roundtable II: Developing and implementing digital foreign policy
The second ambassador’s roundtable brought together Dr Jon Fanzun (Special Envoy for Cyber Foreign and Security Policy of Switzerland), Amb. Tobias Feakin (Ambassador for Cyber Affairs and Critical Technology of Australia), and Amb. Nathalie Jaarsma (Ambassador-at-Large for Security Policy and Cyber of the Netherlands). Dr Katharina Höne (Director of Research, DiploFoundation) moderated the roundtable in which participants provided a snapshot of the current situation regarding the digital foreign policies of their respective countries, insights into their work, and a look at the key challenges and future possibilities regarding digital foreign policy.
Australia, the Netherlands, and Switzerland have comprehensive digital foreign policy strategies. Why should countries develop such strategies or similar instruments, depending on their context?
‘Digital’ is unmistakably part of a modern foreign policy. Fanzun highlighted a number of fundamental shifts that create a need for governments to establish clear lines of thinking on digital issues in their foreign policies. First, the digital transformation of societies is happening with increasing speed. Second, we see an increasingly fragmented world around digital issues, and geopolitics has returned in the form of digital geopolitics. Third, the private sector plays a crucial role in this area and governments need to find effective ways of engaging with technology companies and other actors. Fourth, while it is well established that international law also applies to cyberspace, what that actually means needs to be further clarified.
What are the advantages of having such a strategy?
Feakin argued that a comprehensive strategy is first of all useful in helping all relevant domestic actors and global partners to have an understanding of the foreign policy goals and the values associated with the country’s digital foreign policy. Second, it helps create transparency around how governments are addressing a variety of digital issues, including cybersecurity. Third, by including all relevant stakeholders in the drafting process, strategies can serve a coordinating function and create buy-in for implementation.
What are some of the key elements of the work of digital and cyber ambassadors?
Jaarsma described her role as having five key elements. First, there is the contribution to furthering and negotiating the international normative framework on digital and cyber issues. Second, the role coordinates the diplomatic response to, for example, cyberthreats, with other countries. Third, it is about support for other countries to increase their cyber resilience and to be able to partake in international discussions effectively. Fourth, human rights and individual freedoms, regarding, for example, online disinformation, internet shutdowns, algorithmic decision-making, and freedom online, are important areas of focus. Lastly, the role addresses challenges associated with new and emerging technologies such as 5G, artificial intelligence (AI), and quantum computing.
What are the main challenges at this point?
The three ambassadors agreed that coordination, both domestically and internationally, remains one of the main challenges. Making use of available data sets within foreign ministries and across ministries in order to foster evidence-based decision-making and include digital tools, such as big data analytics and machine learning, remains a goal to strive towards. In addition, capacity building to enable meaningful participation in global forums and negotiations on digital issues remains high on the agenda for all three countries.
How can the (perceived) tension between promoting universal values and fostering national interests be addressed?
Feakin suggested that everyone involved should be clear on the norms, values, and principles that they represent, and that universal values and national interests do not need to be thought of as contradictory. Fanzun pointed to the need of advancing values with relevant partners and using areas of common ground in order to move forward on specific digital issues. Jaarsma highlighted the importance of being transparent about how the country interprets and applies international law in cyberspace.
Track one: What are whole-of-government, whole-of-country, and whole-of-society approaches to digital foreign policy? What are the benefits?
Ms Sabina Carli (Human Rights Expert & Digital Attaché, Permanent Mission of the Republic of Slovenia to the UN Office and other international organisations in Geneva) and Mr Jonas Grätz-Hoffmann (Political Affairs Officer, Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs) reflected on the relevance of whole-of-government, whole-of-country, and whole-of-society approaches. The track was moderated by Mr Vladimir Radunović (Director, Cybersecurity and E-diplomacy Programmes, DiploFoundation).
How did Slovenia approach its digital foreign policy?
Carli highlighted three key points. First, the country has a clear strategy – Digital Slovenia – which gives a clear direction to all activities. Then there are additional programmes that streamline activities across ministries and government entities. For example, the national programme for AI, which is currently under confirmation, includes a chapter on foreign policy aspects. It mirrors what has been said in other chapters in order to apply it to the foreign policy context. Second, coordination is key and has been achieved through the office of the cyber ambassador which provided national coordination at the highest level. At the same, coordination also takes place at the working level. Third, the multistakeholder approach, powered by the Slovenian Digital Coalition, is crucial in harmonising the work of the different actors from the government and administration, who in turn bring on board non-governmental actors and local actors, such as municipalities.
Switzerland stressed the whole-of-government approach in its foreign policy strategy. What are some of its key components?
According to Grätz-Hoffmann, important components include: (a) developing an institutional culture and skills to use communication and contacts across ministries, (b) focusing on resources that each institution/stakeholder can bring to the table, and (c) focusing on outputs and results.
Why is coordination and cooperation so important?
First, digital issues are a fast-developing field that engages with various stakeholders, including tech communities, which can help governments to catch up and stay up to date. Second, this kind of collaboration also increases the legitimacy of outputs. Third, through bringing different communities of experts together, diplomats gain a better understanding of technical issues and their relevance, and tech experts get a sense of the foreign policy implications of their work.
How can we achieve better coordination among various stakeholders in practice?
Grätz-Hoffman pointed out that Switzerland has several strategies, including a digital foeign policy strategy and a national cybersecurity strategy, that are all aligned with each other. In each case, various stakeholders were able to give input and work with each other in crafting these strategies. More broadly, and perhaps more importantly, the right mindset for cooperation is important.
What are other aspects that can support digital diplomacy efforts?
First, it is useful to remember, as Carli suggested, that informal communications with colleagues from various institutions and stakeholder groups are sometimes only a click away. Such ‘direct-dial’ options can also contribute to flattening the hierarchies of some of the more traditional institutions involved. Second, digital technologies can also be usefully employed to support data and knowledge management. Not only will digital as a tool become more important in the future, but it also signals that ministries and other institutions ‘are walking the talk’.
Track two: Who drafts digital foreign policies and which key elements should be included?
In track two of the practitioner discussion, panellists Mr Johan Ekerhult (First Secretary, Permanent Mission of Sweden to the international organisations in Geneva) and Ms Chrystiane Roy (First Secretary, Digital Policy and Cybersecurity, Permanent Mission of Canada to the UN in Geneva and the WTO) took a closer look at drafting digital foreign policy. The track was moderated by Ms Nataša Perućica (Research Officer. DiploFoundation). They discussed the versatility of digital issues, spanning from infrastructure and cybersecurity to digital inclusion that feature on the foreign policy agenda.
How can or should we define digital foreign policy in the first place?
Digital foreign policy is perhaps best understood as a combination of traditional foreign policy and security policy, but it also comprises trade and development dimensions. Along these lines, it is important to engage tech companies that are responsible for the creation of digital products and services. Considering that both Canada and Sweden have a feminist approch to foreign policy, the speakers highlighted practical examples deployed by their respective countries such as Women in Cyber Fellowship and the Wiki Gap, in order to empower women and address the gender disparity in the digital context.
How is digital foreign policy shaped in practice?
Roy highlighted that Canada does not have a formal digital foreign policy. However, there are strong national policies, such as the National Cyber Security Strategy and Canada’s Digital Charter, which contain aspects of international engagement. In this sense, these documents inform Canada’s digital foreign policy engagement. Ekerhult explained that, while cybersecurity is an important aspect of digital foreign policy, there is a clear sense that a broad whole-of-government approach is needed. In the Swedish ministry, digital issues are, for example, addressed by interdepartmental working groups which range from the working level to the state-secretary level. These working groups produce discussions papers on key digital topics, such as AI, digital economy, and cross-border data flows.
Who are some of the key people involved?
Roy explained that her specific portfolio in Geneva allows her to follow all digital foreign policy issues in all forums, and then work with respective negotiation teams on, for example, the digital aspects of trade negotiations. Canada does not have a dedicated ‘digital ambassador’, but rather a specialist unit that deals with digital aspects in a focused way. Ekerhult echoed Roy’s experience in Geneva and explained that the posting in Geneva allows for a ‘helicopter perspective’ on digital issues and for connecting the dots between various policy issues which can be reflected back to the work of the foreign ministry. Ekerhult also reminded everyone that the question ‘who drafts digital foreign policy’ is a difficult one. ‘Digital’ knows no boundaries and it touches on almost all aspects of foreign policy. As such, it cuts against the idea of organisational units with clear mandates, which challenges traditional ways of organising foreign policy.
How can we ensure that all countries have the capacities to develop their digital foreign policies?
Reflecting on the fact that digital policies are mostly devised by developed countries, the speakers highlighted efforts undertaken by their governments to support the participation of developing countries and extend the participation to other stakeholders. This includes the allocation of specific funds and the establishment of computer emergency response teams (CERTs) in Africa. The speakers also highlighted that more can and should be done.
Track three: Towards implementing digital foreign policies: What institutional set-up and supporting tools can help?
Track three was led by Ms Soraya Zanardo (Attaché, General Delegation Wallonia-Brussels, Permanent Mission of Belgium to the UN in Geneva) and Dr Katharina Höne (Director of Research, DiploFoundation). Track three was moderated by Ms Andrijana Gavrilović (Digital Policy Researcher, DiploFoundation). Zanardo shared insights from her work in Geneva and the specific context of her country, and Höne shared the findings of Diplo’s research in the field of digital foreign policy.
What is the starting point: Drafting foreign digital policies or establishing an institutional set-up?
It depends on the country and their institutional set-up and coordination. For some countries it is helpful to start with a digital foreign policy strategy which can serve as a useful guide to negotiation, policymaking, and implementation. The specific circumstances of each country necessitate a variety of approaches. Zanardo suggested that comprehensive digital foreign policy strategies are not the only approach to effective digital foreign policy. At the same time, a comprehensive digital foreign policy strategy is extremely useful as a tool to communicate priorities.
How do countries communicate their approaches to digitalisation and digital topics?
According to Diplo’s research, there are currently five countries that have comprehensive digital foreign policy strategies: Australia, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Switzerland. In some cases, countries have digital strategies that include foreign policy aspects or they have foreign policy strategies which include digital policy aspects. In other cases, strategic priorities are communicated on the websites of the ministries of foreign affairs.
What are the various institutional settings for digital foreign policy?
There is a spectrum of options, ranging from centralised approaches to more networked approaches. Countries might opt for establishing a network of loosely connected experts, a mailing list and ad hoc actions, a directory of experts and regular meetings, an cross-sectoral task force with an identified agenda, a sectoral strategy (e.g. Digital for Development led by a certain unit), or a fully-fledged digital foreign policy and a dedicated team.
What role can or should ‘tech or cyber ambassadors’ or representatives with a similar role, but a different name, play in implementation?
Establishing such a post can be of help when connecting to senior officials from other ministries and to external state and non-state actors. They can also serve as focal points that other parts of the system can refer to in their work. However, digital diplomacy is a team sport, and they need a team that is going in the same direction to make advancements in digital diplomacy.
How do we deal with the challenge that everything is digital?
There is probably no foreign policy aspect or topic that is not touched by digitalisation or digital topics. How do we address this challenge for implementation, for example when it comes to organising a ministry of foreign affairs or coordinating between different ministries? An explicit digital foreign policy strategy and a clear focal point can help in implementation. However, rather than relying solely on centralising efforts, a networked approach to coordination it is also worth considering.
Track four: What are the particular challenges for diplomats working on digital foreign policy?
Ms Maricela Muñoz (Minister Counsellor, Permanent Mission of Costa Rica to the UN in Geneva) and Ms Charline van der Beek (Attachée, Policy Officer, Permanent Mission of Austria to the UN in Geneva) reflected on the challenges for diplomats working in digital foreign policy. The track was moderated by Dr Stephanie Borg Psaila (Director of Digital Policy, DiploFoundation).
What are some of the main challenges faced by diplomats?
Among the main challenges which diplomats face in tackling digital issues, both speakers pointed to the lack of coordination among ministries and departments, leading to siloed discussions, efforts, and outcomes. In addition, Muñoz suggested that governments tend to be present-focused rather than future-oriented, and often adopt a management-by-crisis approach rather than a management-by-anticipation style. This means that opportunities to anticipate future risks and potential for engagement and cooperation are missed. Overall, as pointed out by van der Beek, there are training and capacity-building gaps.
What are some possible ways to address these challenges?
The internet is still perceived as too technical to be understood properly by non-technical experts. In order to counter this, diplomats may need to take the first, proactive step through a personal interest in digital issues. However, since digital issues are now on diplomatic agendas worldwide, formal diplomatic training needs to include digital aspects. On-the-job training and capacity development throughout a diplomat’s career are also essential. Reskilling and the ability to adjust skills to a rapidly changing field are ingredients for success.
What aspects should be included in training and capacity building?
Beyond a basic understanding of the technologies in question, diplomats need to understand the relation between technological questions and the economic, societal, and human-rights aspects of their work. It is crucial to grasp the interlinkages of and interdependencies between these various issues. Diplomats need to be trained to see and capitalise on these connections.
Why is a basic understanding of relevant technologies so crucial for diplomats?
Diplomats need to have a basic understanding of technological questions as they relate the topics and negotiations they are working on. In particular, diplomats posted at multilateral hubs, such as New York or Geneva, need this basic understanding of technology since they bring together ‘technical aspects and the geopolitical impact’ in their negotiations. Similarly, a good understanding of technological basics can help in finding common ground in negotiations and creating bridges between various positions. Van der Beek suggested that technical issues are also political issues and that diplomats can play the role of bridge-builders between the political and the technical.
Wrapping up: Key points and takeaways
Fireside chat: Africa and digital foreign policy
The fireside chat marked the end of the event and allowed for further broadening the topics that the event touched upon, as well as expanding the horizon of key issues that need to be considered. This part of the event brought together Mr Moctar Yedaly (Fmr Director, Head Information Society Division at the African Union Commission) and Dr Jovan Kurbalija (Executive Director of DiploFoundation and Head of the Geneva Internet Platform (GIP)). Together, they reflected on the specific situation of African countries in the area or digital foriegn policy, provided a map of the current situation, and gave suggestions for ensuring a fuller and more meaningful participation of African countries in global digital negotiations and governance processes.
Are African countries missing from the global negotiations on digital foreign policy issues?
Yedaly argued that African countries are clearly not present enough in digital foreign policy negotiations on, for example, cybersecurity, e-commerce, digital inclusion, and many other topics. There are a few African countries who stand out with their participation in these global spaces, but Yedaly stressed that this is not enough. This relative absence of African countries poses an overall challenge. The strength or participation of individual countries is no longer the most relevant factor. Rather, all countries need to participate. As Kurbalija stated, ‘the absence of African countries is a major problem not only for Africa but also the rest of the digital world’. Due to this absence, the effectiveness and inclusion of these negotiations and processes are called into question.
With these clear challenges in mind, what is the ideal scenario for the future when it comes to Africa and global digital policy?
Yedaly stressed that ‘nobody can be left behind in the global network, and that the network is only as strong as its weakest links’. Diplomats need to have a good knowledge of digital topics. ‘Digital diplomats’ are urgently needed and we need to improve the connection and coordination between diplomats posted abroad and those based in their respective capitals. Connections between African countries that are already forerunners in digital foreign policy and governance and those countries lagging behind need to be made and strengthened. In addition, the process also requires visionary African leaders who can move the digital agenda forward.
The goal for the future is clear: Africa needs to be very active in digital foreign policy and in digital governance. Not only for the sake of Africans, but also for the sake of the rest of the world. Without active participation from Africa, the world of digital governance will not only be missing out, it will simply not function effectively.
What are some realistic and practical solutions to achieve this?
First, African countries should take full advantage of the youth dividend, i.e. the fact that the continent has a comparatively young population. Second, the African Union (AU) needs to be empowered as do African regional communities. Third, African countries need to coordinate better and join efforts in global forums where they can share key tasks regarding the governance of technology. For example, specific countries and institutions can be mandated to deal with emerging technologies such as AI and blockchain. Fourth, capacity building is crucial and involves both capacities within and among countries. Neutral organisations which can further support capacity building, such as the Global Forum on Cyber Expertise (GFCE), also have a role to play. Fifth, diaspora diplomacy can be a useful tool. By involving Africans with specific knowledge and technical expertise from around the world, the digital diplomacy of African countries can be strengthened. Lastly, both the EU and the AU might have an important role to play in balancing between the USA and China, and their respective and divergent approaches to digitalisation.