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2021: The emergence of digital foreign policy

Published on 26 January 2021
Updated on 10 April 2024

In November 2020, Switzerland introduced its Digital Foreign Policy Strategy, marking a new phase in its efforts to shape the governance of digital issues. For decades, Switzerland has been at the forefront of international digital developments. It hosted the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva in 2003, and played an instrumental role in launching the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). It additionally pioneered the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) confidence-building measures back in 2013. Currently, Switzerland chairs the UN Open-Ended Working Group on Cybersecurity (OEWG). Together with Singapore, Estonia, Rwanda, and the Netherlands, Switzerland has been among the most prominent contributors towards a more inclusive and impactful digital governance globally.

As many countries worldwide look for ways to deal with the digitalisation of foreign policy, the Swiss strategy can serve as a very useful guideline. It brings terminological and conceptual clarity in addressing the interplay between digital and diplomacy. Ignazio Cassis, head of Swiss diplomacy, stressed that ‘Digitalisation is on the one hand an instrument, helping to simplify processes, for example in the area of consular services or IT. On the other, it is also a foreign policy matter.’ This distinction is echoed in Diplo’s research and teaching methodology, which focuses on three main areas of digitalisation’s impacts on diplomacy:

  • Changes in the political, social, and economic ENVIRONMENT in which diplomacy is conducted (e.g. the nature and distribution of power, new types of conflicts, and the changing nature of sovereignty and interdependence in international relations)
  • The emergence of new policy ISSUES in foreign policy such as cybersecurity, privacy, data governance, e-commerce, and cybercrime
  • The use of digital TOOLS in the practice of diplomacy such as social media, online conferencing, and big data analysis

In the following brief, you will find reflections on the Swiss approach to digital foreign policy and other pioneering efforts organised around five questions:

  • Why?: Promoting national interests in the era of digital interdependence
  • What?: Key digital policy issues
  • Who?: Governments, tech companies, and civil society
  • Where?: Multilateral and new business policy venues
  • How?: A mix of tradition and innovation in diplomatic practice

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You can follow Diplo’s ongoing research on digital foreign policy here. It includes a mapping of the main policy approaches as well as summaries of current strategies (Australia, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, and Norway).

WHY?: Promoting national interests in the era of digital interdependence

The protection and promotion of national interests – the core function of diplomatic services – is being increasingly shaped by digitalisation. For example: cybersecurity impacts national security; online platforms support the economic well-being of citizens and companies; the internet facilitates health, education and other critical services for society, especially during crisis as it has been doing during COVID-19 and other pandemics. 

While societies become digitally dependent, governments, with the exception of China and the USA, have very few policy and legal tools to protect the interests of their citizens and companies online. Most governments can do very little if, for example, the data of their citizens is not protected or if their companies are removed from an online platform.

For example, when Facebook announced its new privacy policy for WhatsApp, governments were unable to do much. On the other hand, those that do make an effort – as Australia has recently done in protecting business interests of its media outlets against Facebook and Google – may face hostility. The two companies reacted with threats to stop services for Australian users if its parliament adopts the new media law which would force platforms to share their revenue with traditional news outlets.

For these and many other policy challenges, governments and their diplomats must develop international mechanisms for protecting online rights and the interests of their citizens and companies. Ultimately, these solutions will boil down to answering the question ‘whom to call’ to address digital policy issues, as illustrated below. 

digital communications

International policy solutions must be found through the management of digital interdependence which has increased considerably over the past years – and especially during the pandemic. Zoom meetings, ordering meals via UberEats, following courses on Moodle, and many other (now critical) services depend on a complex infrastructure that criss-crosses national borders. Digital interdependence triggers new vulnerabilities and increases risks. These risks become obvious if national leaders ask a simple question: What could happen if their country disconnects from the internet for any amount of time? The daily lives of millions would be seriously affected across the board: from communication with family and friends, to having access to their jobs and critical services. Containing the growing risks and harnessing the benefits of digital interdependence is quickly becoming a key diplomatic task.

The digitalisation of traditional policy issues, such as trade, health, and the environment, is another major challenge for diplomatic services. E-commerce is taking up more and more of the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) bandwidth. Data, artificial intelligence (AI), and infodemics now feature far more prominently on the agenda of the World Health Organization (WHO). Climate change debates are increasingly linked to digitalisation and the circular economy. And mediators in conflicts worldwide engage with social media and other digital tools that impact internal conflicts. 

Diplomats have to transform traditional policy spaces, approaches, and procedures in order to deal with the impacts of digitalisation. By promoting national interests online, managing digital interdependence, and transforming the traditional policy agenda, diplomatic services worldwide can reform their modus operandi and contribute to the building of a Digital Home for Humanity that would serve as a space where digital policy issues can be addressed in inclusive, informed, and impactful ways. 

WHAT?: Key digital policy issues

Diplo’s digital policy taxonomy includes more than 50 digital policy issues often described as digital or internet governance. In this taxonomy, issues are organised in seven baskets: Technology, Security, Human rights, Economy, Development, Legal, and Sociocultural. 

In the illustration below, each basket is presented as one subway line, while the issues are displayed as stops. The illustration also depicts the various interplays between them. 

Map through digital governance

So far, the following issues have dominated most of the global digital policy agenda:

Over the past two years, digital policy has been moving beyond these issues towards dealing with a wide range of foreign policy issues. This shift is clearly signalled by the UN Secretary General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation which includes more than 30 digital policy issues ranging from digital inclusion to cybersecurity, AI, and digital governance. 

National approaches to digital foreign policy have been emerging from the bottom up, focusing mainly on either infrastructure (the ‘ICANN agenda’), cybersecurity, e-commerce, or human rights. The easiest way to detect national focuses is through the language used by governments. For example, ‘digital’ indicates a holistic approach, while ‘cyber’ signals security and ‘tech’ is more business oriented. ‘Online’ has been used for human rights, and more recently during the pandemic, for describing online learning and meetings. The use of prefixes is also a matter of policy fashions and trends. Back in 2017, when Australia drafted its national digital strategy, ‘cyber’ was very popular and extended beyond issues of security to other fields. ‘Tech’ had a big uptake in Denmark after the term ‘techplomacy’ was coined. ‘Digital-’, as a prefix, has been the most robust and precise prefix used in describing new phenomena. 

Below is a survey of prefixes used in four digital foreign policy strategies. You can see a more holistic approach being signalled by Switzerland, France, and the Netherlands, while Australia seems to focus more on the cybersecurity angle of digital issues.

Table 1 Use of prefixes in digital foreign policy strategies


Switzerland (2020)





Netherlands (2019)


Number of words




































A few common policy issues appear among these national strategies:

  • Digital development, with a focus on access to networks, features in all the strategies. They differ in linkages to the 2030 Agenda and the achievement of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) by emphasising issues such as capacity development, health, and digital.
  • Human rights coverage is typically centred around the protection of privacy and freedom of expression as these issues are most directly affected by digitalisation. In most cases, a more holistic approach to human rights online is yet to be developed. 
  • Economic aspects are centred around digital economy: e-commerce, free flow of data, and competition policy. 
  • Security issues mainly focus around the protection of critical infrastructure and the fight against cybercrime. 

Table 2 shows the coverage of specific issues by tabulating the frequency of certain terms. 

Table 2 Coverage of specific issues based on the frequency of certain terms 










data & privacy





artificial intelligence










human rights

























research & education




















While word choice reflects particular focuses, national strategies also demonstrate countries’ foreign policy priorities and their levels of digital developments. 

Switzerland: The Swiss strategy is the latest and the most comprehensive strategy covering more than 30 issues (as per Diplo’s taxonomy), and organised in 4 main baskets: digital governance, prosperity and sustainable development, cybersecurity, and digital self-development. 

Compared to other strategies, the Swiss strategy has the following unique features:

  • Using data as a cross-cutting aspect for the strategy. Data was mentioned 125 times, referring to 7 baskets: technology (standardisation, interoperability, cloud, link to AI), human rights (privacy protection, individual data ownership), economy (commodity, digital trade competition), security (dependence, conflict resolution humanitarian assistance), legal (jurisdiction, IPRs), development (humanitarian assistance, sharing, fairness, global public goods, sustainable development, health, climate change, electronic waste), and socio-cultural (sharing, fairness). 
  • The concept of digital self-determination anchors digital policy in the core values of humanity, including through the protection of privacy, freedom of choice, social benefits, and democracy. Individual self-determination is centered around control and the use of personal data, including the right to decide who can access such data. 
  • Science is highlighted as an inspiration and a driver of technological change. The Swiss strategy includes quite a few practical points on the links between science and diplomacy

Australia: As illustrated in Figure 1, Australia has established a comprehensive approach from a cybersecurity angle. The policy areas the strategy covers includes digital trade, cybercrime, international security, internet governance, human rights, and development, all of which are determined with cybersecurity firmly in mind.

australia digital policy

The strategy does not feature data highly (only 13 references) and does not mention AI at all. It does establish a quarterly whole-of-government meeting convened by the ambassador for cyber affairs. In addition, there is an Industry Advisory Group for public–private engagement in the area of cybersecurity. 

France: The French strategy covers governance, economy, development, and security. It specifically promotes open and inclusive internet governance and calls for measures to build trust on the internet, and highlights an aim to promote the European digital model as a balance between multilateral and multistakeholder approaches. The implementation of the strategy is the responsibility of France’s anointed tech ambassador. With the implementation of the strategy, France aims to become an important digital hub. 

The Netherlands: The Dutch strategy emphasises development, security, human rights and freedoms, and economy and trade. It is worth noting that the term ‘digital security’ appears in the document as a broader category (see section ‘Digital security and freedom online’), covering the issues of cybersecurity, human rights, and the responsible use of data. ‘Data’ was also used greatly, mostly in reference to privacy, security, personal data protection, data flows, and localisation requirements.

WHO?: Governments, tech companies, and civil society

Digital policy involves a wide range of actors which reflect digital power (tech industry), the role in developing networks (academia and research), or concern for public interest and human rights (civil society). Most digital foreign policy strategies express the need for multistakeholder governance as a way to engage all relevant actors on the national and international levels. 

Tech companies are the main actors in this space, and this reflects their critical role in running digital infrastructure and their growing economic power. For example, Apple’s market capitalisation at the end of 2020 (US$2.23 trillion) was similar to the total 2019 GDP of the entire African continent (US$2.33 trillion), and is close to the GDPs of the UK (US$2.81 trillion), France (US$2.79 trillion), and India (US$2.69 trillion). For a detailed comparison of the economic power of governments (GDP) and companies (revenue and market capitalisation), you can consult Diplo’s Data Engine

Furthermore, Big Tech’s economic power is intertwined with its ‘social power’, as tech platforms have deep insights about how society functions, from people’s purchasing patterns and personal habits, to their political preferences. 

Aware of this power shift, many governments have started engaging the tech industry by, for example, establishing a new kind of diplomatic representation in the Bay Area, Bangalore, and other centres of digital dynamism across the world (see: ‘Where?’ section). 

As for tech companies, there has also been a noticeable shift from traditional corporate lobbying to more long-term participation in diplomacy. For example, Microsoft was among the first companies to pursue ‘diplomacy’ by establishing its presence in the main diplomatic centres, and through an active participation in cybersecurity, development, and human rights initiatives. 

Academia, the tech community, and civil society were dominant players in the early days of the internet when it was mostly being developed at universities and research centres. As the internet became more commercialised in the early 2000s, businesses became more involved in running the internet. This process has accelerated over the past decade with the fast growth of the digital economy. For example, digital standards were once an almost exclusive domain of tech and engineering communities. Lately, tech companies have been shaping standardisation initiatives. Academia, the tech community, and civil society have to strengthen their presence and influence in digital policymaking. In particular, as they should, as the ‘third main actor’(next to governments and the business sector), ensure the protection of public interests during negotiations on content policy, data protection, AI ethics, and other issues with a broader social impact. 

WHERE?: Multilateral and new business policy venues

Traditional diplomatic venues are centred around New York City (the headquarters of the UN) and Geneva (the operational hub of the UN system). Geneva has a long tradition of governing the interplay between technology and diplomacy, dating back to the nineteenth century when the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) was established. Today, most practical and functional aspects of digitalisation are negotiated and implemented via Geneva-based organisations, from telecommunications (ITU) to standardisation (ISO, IEC, ITU), and e-commerce (WTO), to name a few. Most countries have developed expertise and experience in following digital developments via their permanent missions in Geneva. The UN technology envoy, appointed by the UN secretary general, is a new actor who will play a vital role in the digital engagement of the UN system with governments, businesses, and other actors active in this field. 

New digital policy centres have emerged around the fast-growing tech industry. In the USA, digital economic dynamism is based in the San Francisco Bay Area, which hosts most leading tech companies. As Diplo’s study shows, more than 50 countries have been developing their representation in the Bay Area either via traditional consulates in San Francisco or via new types of representation such as the Swissnex hub. While presence in the Bay Area is important for understanding what’s coming next, and for attracting investment, tech companies, on the other hand, station most of their governance units in Washington DC or Boston, highlighting the growing interdependence between governments and Big Tech.

In China, most of the digital dynamism is happening in the Shenzhen area, while Beijing acts as the regulatory and policy centre for digital issues.

In Europe, Brussels is the regulatory capital and exudes global impact. Rules adopted in Brussels are often mimicked worldwide as has been the case with data regulations. The increasing ties between EU development aid and efforts related to digital, makes Brussels an important place for developing countries to establish a diplomatic presence. London is an important financial centre and a hub for AI developments. Paris is home to the OECD, a place where taxation and other digital policies are discussed, as well as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), an organisation that plays an important role in AI governance. La Francophonie (OIF) is also increasing its involvement in the digital realm. 

HOW?: A mix of tradition and innovation in diplomatic practice 

The ways in which digital policy is developed builds on a mix of traditional and innovative diplomatic techniques. These techniques can be summarised in four ‘multi-’ categories: multilateral, multistakeholder, multidisciplinary, and multileveled. 

MultiLATERAL digital governance has long been centred around two main processes: the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) which kicked off in Geneva (2003) and Tunis (2005), and the UN Government Group of Experts on Cybersecurity (UN GGE) which held its first meeting back in 2004. A new phase has started with the digitalisation of specialised policy fields such as trade, human rights, and health. 

MultiSTAKEHOLDER policymaking reflects the fact that most of the digital world is run by a wide range of private and non-state actors. For example, it is difficult to effectively regulate and manage e-commerce without the involvement of tech companies. The development of digital standards requires the involvement of academic, professional, and technical organisations. Multistakeholder processes require new skills and techniques, including effective communication among different professional cultures as illustrated below. 

effective communication

A new ‘hybrid’ governance approach has developed. In ICANN, a multistakeholder space, there is a Government Advisory Committee that brings together national governments.

A multiDISCIPLINARY approach reflects the cross-cutting nature of digital issues, particularly among the technical, economic, legal, social, and human rights aspects. Traditional policymaking is typically contained in silos, which typically use specific language, and frame issues in particular ways. Siloed policy processes are often demonstrated in academic and research coverage. For example, similar issues regarding digital governance are subject to study by a wide range of research communities, from telecoms, trade, content, AI, and other perspectives. Finding a way to tie the work of these communities is a more difficult task. As such, dealing with multidisciplinary policy issues will be the main challenge for diplomatic services, as well as for governments and societies as a whole.

multidisciplinary issues

MultiLEVEL governance should address policy issues as close as possible to those affected by the policies in question. Such an approach also reflects the reality that while the internet is global in its operations, its policy implications are often local and national. Switzerland’s Digital Foreign Policy Strategy 2021–2024 follows a multilevel approach via the well-developed subsidiarity approach inherent in the Swiss political system. As illustrated below, the main challenge is to ensure that ‘policy elevators’ move both ways (up and down) across local, national, regional, and global levels. Transparency and clarity in using a multilevel approach can prevent ‘policy laundering’, i.e. addressing the same issue on different policy levels. 

policy elevator


Next steps: Developing a digital foreign policy

Developing a digital foreign policy requires three main steps, starting with the reorganisation of diplomatic services as the basis for a whole-of-government and ultimately a whole-of-country approach.

Typically, the reorganisation of diplomatic services starts with the appointment of tech/digital/cyber ambassadors as many countries have done. Their main task is to add a digital layer to the traditional foreign policy. Australia and France established such roles in their digital foreign policy strategies. Denmark has been innovated by establishing a tech ambassador in Silicon Valley who also carries out visits to other centres of digital dynamism such as China and India, among others. This role is built around the concept of a ‘rowing ambassador’.

Switzerland has chosen a gradual and decentralised approach which reflects the country’s political culture. Tech and security ministries have developed their own diplomatic capacities and represent Switzerland in specialised negotiations. Switzerland’s Digital Foreign Policy Strategy is a careful balancing act between providing the necessary coordination among different actors while avoiding unnecessary centralisation. As Switzerland is upgrading its foreign policy structure, it will be interesting to follow how it will coordinate diplomatic activities regarding data, the central pillar of the Swiss strategy and an area which requires a cross-cutting approach which involves security, human rights, technological, economic, and other policy aspects.

India has established the New Emerging and Strategic Technologies (NEST) department which will aim to coordinate its national policies and positions in international negotiations, from e-commerce to human rights and cybersecurity.

As countries develop organisational support, they also need to nurture the next generation of diplomats who should be skillful ‘boundary spanners’ that can engage people and institutions across professional and institutional delimitations. Recruitment and training should focus on a good mix of personal skills – such as empathy and active listening – as well as knowledge of a wide range of scientific, economic, and academic disciplines. 

The next layer in creating an effective digital policy is a whole-of-government approach, involving a range of ministries and governmental departments. Tech ministries and regulators deal with policy and standards for technical infrastructure and critical internet resources (i.e. domain name systems, internet protocol numbers, etc.).

Economic and trade ministries focus on e-commerce negotiations through the WTO and regional trade agreements. Their main challenge is the introduction of non-trade issues such as cybersecurity and privacy policy into trade agreements. 

Foreign affairs and security ministries have played a key role in cybersecurity negotiations at the UN level and in regional organisations. International legal experts of diplomatic services were particularly present in the UN GGE negotiations. 

As digitalisation extends to other policy areas, specialised ministries are developing their own coverage in the fields of heath, migration, climate change, and others.

The main challenge for the whole-of-government approach is the coordination of foreign policy around highly cross-cutting issues such as AI and data governance. 

The whole-of-country approach is an umbrella for digital foreign policy. Many actors already participate in international multistakeholder processes or have an interest to join them. They can be important contributors to national efforts to cover a wide spectrum of more than 1,000 digital policy processes and initiatives worldwide. Even major actors, such as the USA, the EU, and China, find it challenging to substantively follow all digital policy processes. The situation is much more severe with small and developing countries which are increasingly absent from global digital negotiations due to limited capacities. Thus, engaging businesses, academia, civil society, and other national actors in creating digital foreign policies could be the only way to establish and maintain representation in the highly diversified and complex field of digital governance. 

Some embryonic forms of a whole-of-country approach have been emerging around the more than 100 national, regional, and local internet governance forums which gather all national actors to discuss digital policies. The need for policy inclusion will require innovative approaches. For example, it is interesting to follow how Switzerland will use direct democracy instruments in its whole-of-country approach as it was indicated in their strategy. 

In the coming years, we can expect the development of new approaches and mechanisms for engaging a wide range of societal actors, which will further reflect the impacts digital developments have on all parts of our modern society.

Additional resources

In addition to this text, a few resources could help in developing a deeper understanding of digital foreign policy. Earlier research on the Swiss approach to internet governance can be found in Politorbis: Switzerland and Internet governance (No. 57, February 2014). For cybersecurity issues, consult the Swiss Cybersecurity Capacity Review. A wider framework of internet and digital governance can be found in An Introduction to Internet Governance. A detailed mapping of the Geneva digital scene is available via the Geneva Digital Atlas

5 replies
  1. Manuel Costa Cabral
    Manuel Costa Cabral says:

    Helpful article
    Not easy to systematize such a chaotic digital work…How governments will evolve to a whole-of-government approach is yet to be seen. Even more challenging to evolve to a whole-of-country approach.

  2. Jovan
    Jovan says:

    Digital foreign policy in developing countries
    Thank you Maricela for bringing a very good point on the risk that gaps in the the digital foreign policy can be wider than in traditional one if developing countries do not move fast in order to grasp digital agenda. It starts with connectivity and access and moves to effective use of digital platforms and protection of rights and assets online …… . Your role in digital awareness building among LAC actors has been very important. Much more needs to be done!

  3. Maricela Muñoz
    Maricela Muñoz says:

    When will digital foreign policy emerge in the developing world?
    As always, I have really benefited from such a rich and circular analysis, and thought-provoking reflections regarding digital and internet governance. It is indeed a multi- stakeholder and multi-layered landscape. As a citizen from the global south, I am left with the impression that it is not too late, yet essential, to embark in this sort of strategic and political conversation at the national, and regional levels in my own region (LAC). Thank you so much for sharing this forward-looking digital digest!


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