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10 lessons from 10 years of teaching digital diplomacy at the College of Europe

Published on 12 November 2021
Updated on 19 March 2024

In 2011, I taught my first course on digital diplomacy at the College of Europe. Since then – except for 2020 due to pandemic lockdowns –I’ve spent two days in Bruges every fall to introduce and discuss three aspects of digital (and) diplomacy:  digital geopolitics, the emergence of new topics on the diplomatic agenda, and the use of new tools for diplomatic practices. Every year, this fall introductory course in Brussels is followed by a spring policy immersion in International Geneva.

Classroom at the College of Europe during the course on digital and diplomacy delivered in 2017

Fall introductory seminar on digital diplomacy at the College of Europe (Bruges, 2017)

Discussion on digital diplomacy during visit of students of College of Europe to the Geneva Internet Platform in 2017

Spring policy immersion at the Geneva Internet Platform (Geneva, 2017)

On 11-12 November, I was in Bruges for my 10th course. Anniversaries are great opportunities to take a step back and reflect. This is especially true in today’s digital world, where rapid technological changes prevent us from seeing the bigger picture of tech and society. We tend to overestimate the impact of instant changes and underestimate slower changes that occur over longer periods of time. These glacial shifts provide the backdrop for the blog with answers to the following question:

What are my 10 lessons from 10 years of teaching digital diplomacy at the College of Europe?

1. How digital has reached the top of EU politics?

Digital issues have shifted towards the centre of EU politics over the past decade. In my first years of lecturing, students were primarily focused on the use of social media like Twitter and Facebook. Wikileaks, the Arab Spring, and other developments prompted broader reflections about the impact of digital tools on society. The 2020s have brought more attention to topics such as data protection and digital standards. The question of a digital social contract has emerged, encompassing the relationship between nature (environment, climate change) and digital, two of the key pillars of EU political life.

2. How has the EU fallen in the global digital economy?

In the digital realm, the EU’s global relevancy has declined compared to the USA and China. There is not a single EU company among the top 20 global tech companies. During course discussions, one poignant question was brought up: is Europe in danger of becoming a ‘third-world country of the digital age’? This question is clearly on the minds of decision-makers in Brussels as they try to improve the bloc’s digital economy and close the gap with the USA and China.

3. How can ‘Aikido Diplomacy’ turn EU’s digital weakness into strength?

When my students and I discussed the EU’s place within the digital world, we talked about how the EU could make its weakness an advantage via a form of ‘aikido diplomacy’. Without the interests of tech giants to protect or promote, the EU can mobilise a global coalition of actors and organisations to ensure digital governance is inclusive, fair, and balanced. This approach can follow the EU’s core values: democracy and respect for life, human dignity, and core human rights.

As we deal with tech monopolies and the drive to form more inclusive economies, data protection, the future of AI, and other issues can stand to benefit through the EU’s principle-driven policymaking. The EU’s groundbreaking efforts to regulate big tech companies are widely followed worldwide. China and the USA, in their own ways, are dealing with the monopolistic power of tech companies with several becoming ‘too big to fail’ in the market.

Tech companies are also becoming less ‘tech’, as they invest greater resources into developing and implementing company policies.Facebook has more employees dealing with content and corporate governance than with the technology behind its products.

The EU can capitalise on its expertise and experience in anti-monopoly regulations, landmark legislation like the GDPR, and, more recently, AI regulations as the digital sector becomes more focused on the societal and regulatory acceptance of the technology.

4. How to seize the next opportunity: Digitalisation in service and manufacturing?

While the EU might not be home to the most prominent tech companies, it is prominent within service sectors that are set to experience rapid digitalisation. Europe is a global leader in finance, insurance, education, and health.

Europe is also a leader in digital manufacturing, with Siemens competing against General Electric in data and AI-driven industries.

Dutch ASML is at the top when it comes to manufacturing advanced machines that can produce microchips. Nokia and Ericson are the main rivals to Huawei’s 5G dominance.

There is a lot more to the niches. One of them is in EU administration itself. EU’s complex translation and interpretation machinery should be used to debrief’ its expertise and experience while developing digital translation platforms. There is no need to start from scratch. German Deep-L platform already provides better translations, at least in European languages, than Google and other competitors.

As the digital economy entrenches itself into the cultural fabrics of society, Europe’s cultural diversity and tradition may also become an ‘economic asset’. 

5. How to develop effective interplay between Brussels (hard digital power) and Geneva (soft digital power)?

Over the last decade, we observed enormous growth in the lobbying power of digital companies everywhere, including Brussels. Quite a few of my students ended up working for tech companies, tech think tanks, and other tech-related actors in Brussels’ busy digital scene. For the tech companies, especially from the USA, it became clear that by negotiating with the EU policy machinery, they negotiate with the rest of the world. Many countries have replicated or are in the process of replicating the GDPR, after the EU managed to ‘win’ its data protection battle with the tech industry. The next big test for the ‘Brussels effect’ will be AI governance.

While anti-monopoly, access to data and other ‘hard digital policies’ are negotiated in Brussels, Geneva is a place of ‘soft digital policy’ with universal representation. In International Geneva, countries discuss digital governance, e-commerce, online human rights and other issues that will shape digital growth. This interplay between hard power in Brussels and soft power in Geneva will be essential for inclusive, balanced, and fair digital governance.

6. How to deal with digital divides within Europe?

Europe, like all societies, is experiencing digital divides. Most noticeable may be the contrast between Northern Europe’s ‘Digital Baltic’, and the not as digitalised South. Northern Europe has a higher level of digital immersion and a faster digital economy. This can be seen in the two regions’ opposing perspectives on data sharing as well as online taxation and industrial strategies.

However, there are some unreported successes in the South. Malta was the first country to implement a country-wide fibre-optics network and has had full internet access for decades. Lisbon is a digital hub that has a vibrant start-up community.

The Mediterranean is, in the end, the cradle of human civilization, including a digital one.

7. How to avoid hype and develop critical thinking on digital politics?


Gartner hype curve on digital diplomacy

Gartner hype cycle on digital diplomacy (Diplo, 2021)

Each year, I watch Gartner hype cycles unfold in parallel to our course. The typical September start of new hype is marked by a concerted push in global media about a new technology ‘that will save the planet’. The silver bullet has taken the form of blockchain, e-learning, 5G, AI, and many more.

This year, quantum computing is fast becoming the buzz topic. We will see if Facebook’s Metaverse will ‘take off’.

My fall courses in Brussels were affected by the latest ‘tech fashion’, as students read about them in mainstream media such as NYT, The Guardian, and FT. By students’ spring visit to Geneva in March, the hype starts sliding towards disillusionment. By following real-life situations, they develop their critical thinking skills while identifying and analysing tech hype.

8. What have been the top digital policy issues at the course discussions?

There are a few digital issues that have gone beyond the hype and remain high on the policy agenda.

Content policy, for example, has been a key focus of EU institutions. This was evident at the College of Europe, where students did research on these subjects. Expertise in content policy has proven to be highly sought after in Brussels and among tech companies.

Students began to reflect on digital standardisation as another topic. This was due to China’s rapid growth in standardisation capabilities for 5G and other technologies.

Cybersecurity has featured high in both EU’s diplomacy since the inception of the European External Action Service (EEAS). Currently, the fight against ransomware is an emerging cybersecurity priority.  

One of Europe’s greatest regulatory achievements has been data governance via the GDPR. It has a huge impact on global governance. More and more countries are adopting GDPR-like laws. China’s data and privacy regulations, for example, mirror the structure of GDPR and all its provisions.

AI governance is a promising field, and many would like to see it succeed ‘GDPR style’. The EU has provided a solid foundation for AI regulation. This includes clearly separating ‘known’ areas that can be regulated by existing rules (e.g. data regulation and consumer safety), the ‘known unknowns’ that will require new rules, and the ‘unknown unknowns’, for which it is difficult or impossible to predict the impact of AI on society. This tripartite approach helps to realign current AI/ethics discussions into a more realistic context.

The digital transatlantic relationship has experienced its ups and downs due to differences in policies between the USA and the EU regarding data and privacy protection, online taxation, and AI governance. After the OECD’s deal on online taxes and the creation of the Trade and Technology Council, policy differences across the Atlantic have started to close.

9. How to avoid terminological confusion on digital (and) diplomacy?

Cloud with various prefixes such as cyber, digital and online.

Reducing terminological confusion on digital (and) diplomacy (Kurbalija, 2012)

Is there a correct term for the digital impact on diplomacy? Is it digital diplomacy? Cyber diplomacy? Tech diplomacy? Online diplomacy?

This confusion in terminology has in turn caused confusion in many diplomatic agencies worldwide. The confusion was caused by the mixing of the impact technology has on geopolitics, the emergence of new topics in diplomatic agenda and the use of new digital tools within the diplomatic practice.

While digital diplomacy is the most general term I use, I try to avoid any debates about the “correct term”. Instead, we have to have a clear understanding of what we refer to terms we use between geopolitics, new topics on the diplomatic agenda, and new tools for diplomacy.

In the early days of the EEAS, ‘cyber diplomacy’ was the main term, used to cover cybersecurity issues. As digitalisation advanced, this approach was no longer adequate as it failed to address other digital policy issues such as e-commerce and online human rights.

Gradually, the EEAS has shifted the focus of its policy coverage beyond cybersecurity to include other digital policy issues that are covered in bilateral and multilateral negotiations. The EU mission in Geneva plays a crucial role in the development of an integrated approach to cross-cutting digital issues in International Geneva.

10. How to negotiate a new digital social contract?

Negotiation a ndw Digital Social Contract

Negotiating a new digital social contract (Kurbalija, 2010)

It has been clear over the past decade that a digital social contract is needed at all levels, from local to global. It is time to reexamine some of the foundations of our society. We can go back to the Axial Age (800-300 BC) and the Enlightenment (1600-1800 AD), when the majority of our value base was established.

Typically, social contracts are not signed on a dotted line like other contracts. They refer to the core understanding of what our core values are and how we organise our societies.

Digital, in addition to helping us preserve our natural habitat, will be one of the two key pillars of these emerging social contracts which will be negotiated from local communities to the UN. This is exactly what the UN Secretary-General’s report ‘Our Common Agenda’ is calling for.

Last week, my students and I reflected back on the past in order to see the future. The learning journey continues….

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