Foreign policy describes the sum of policies that a state has adopted towards its external environment.1Berridge, G.R. & James, A. (2003). A dictionary of diplomacy (2nd ed.). Palgrave Macmillan. This can take the form of articulated strategies and priorities, but also more implicit positions that derive from domestic policies, domestic and international dialogues, and interactions with domestic and international stakeholders. Foreign policy is a way for a state to define and safeguard its interests abroad. Some scholars also include tools of implementation in the overall framework of foreign policy. They argue that ‘reduced to its fundamental ingredients, foreign policy consists of two elements: national objectives to be achieved and the means for achieving them.’2Crabb Jr., C.V. (1972). American foreign policy in the nuclear age (3rd ed.). Harper and Row, p. 1. Quoted in Adesina, O.S. (2017). Foreign policy in an era of digital diplomacy. Cogent Social Sciences, 3(1), 1–13.
The emergence of digital foreign policy is a relatively recent development. Digitalisation and digital issues were put on the global agenda around 20 years ago. After the 1990s, during which digital issues were largely perceived as technical issues to be handled by technical experts and highly specialised organisations, governments and ministries of foreign affairs (MFAs) have started to pay closer attention.
The World Summits on the Information Society (WSIS 2003 and 2005) were pivotal in beginning to position digital issues on the global agenda. Yet, it is only over the last five years or so that digitalisation and digital issues have become more firmly anchored in foreign policy. This observation is based on three points. First, since 2017 countries have begun to release dedicated and comprehensive digital foreign policy strategies. Second, at the same time, specialised ambassadorial posts – tech ambassadors, for example – have been established by several Western countries. Third, dedicated teams to address digital issues have emerged in selected MFAs.
In terms of relevant actors, digital foreign policy also goes beyond a traditional conception of foreign policy and diplomacy. Non-state actors – the business sector, the technical community, civil society, and academia – play an increasing role. Big tech companies, due to their economic power and the far-reaching security, economic, and societal implications of their products, have become important dialogue partners for states and their representatives.
Academic and research institutions are crucial for developing networks, bringing about new types of cooperation, and contributing to innovation and the skill development of the next generation. Civil society raises concerns of public interest and addresses, for example, the human rights dimension of digitalisation. In other words, the governance of the digital field has been defined by multistakeholder practices. The IGF and ICANN are some of the most prominent examples of multistakeholderism in the digital field. These are developments that shape digital foreign policy and can no longer be ignored by state actors.
1. Overview of digital foreign policy strategies
To date, five countries have released comprehensive digital foreign policy strategies: Australia, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. Beyond these five, the discussion on whether or not a dedicated digital foreign policy strategy is needed has also reached other developed countries.4Garson, M. & Beverton-Palmer, M. (2021). Response to Foreign Affairs Committee Inquiry on Tech and the Future of UK Foreign Policy. Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.
It is worth stressing, however, that having a dedicated digital foreign policy strategy is not the only approach. Some countries, for example, have foreign policy strategies that include aspects of digitalisation. Some countries have digital or digitalisation strategies that touch on foreign policy issues. There are also strategies dedicated to specific topics, such as cybersecurity or AI.
Five digital foreign policy strategies
- France: Stratégie internationale de la France pour le numérique (International Digital Strategy of France) (2017): ‘The strategy covers digital governance, economy, development, and security. On the normative side, the document stresses the importance of an open and inclusive digital international environment, the promotion of universal access to diverse digital technologies, and the need to build trust on the internet.’6Kurbalija, J. & Höne, K.E. (2021). The era of digital foreign policy: Comprehensive approaches to digitalisation. Revista Política Internacional, 130 (July–December).
- Netherlands: Digital Agenda for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation (2019): ‘The strategy focuses on four priority areas: (a) digitalisation and the Netherlands’ international position, (b) digitalisation for development, (c) digital security and freedom online, and (d) digitalisation in the trade system. The strategy emphasises the need to cooperate internationally to benefit fully from the opportunities of digitalisation.’7Kurbalija, J. & Höne, K.E. (2021). The era of digital foreign policy: Comprehensive approaches to digitalisation. Revista Política Internacional, 130 (July–December).
- Switzerland: Digital Foreign Policy Strategy 2021–24 (2020): ‘There are four areas of priority: (a) digital governance, (b) prosperity and sustainable development, (c) cybersecurity, and (d) digital self-determination. The strategy aims to “raise Switzerland’s profile in the area of digital governance, further develop its digital foreign policy and position International Geneva as a prime location for discussing digitalisation and technology”.’8Kurbalija, J. & Höne, K.E. (2021). The era of digital foreign policy: Comprehensive approaches to digitalisation. Revista Política Internacional, 130 (July–December).
- Denmark: Strategy for Denmark’s Tech Diplomacy 2021–2023 (2021): ‘The strategy is structured along three pillars: responsibility, democracy, and security. It aims for a more inclusive, sustainable, and human-centred technological development.’9Kurbalija, J. & Höne, K.E. (2021). The era of digital foreign policy: Comprehensive approaches to digitalisation. Revista Política Internacional, 130 (July–December).
- Australia: International Cyber and Critical Tech Engagement Strategy (2021): ‘This strategy comes after the initial ‘Australian International Cyber Engagement Strategy’ of 2017 and the 2019 progress report. The strategy is structured along three main areas: (a) values, (b) prosperity, and (c) security. The values include democracy, human rights, ethics of critical technology, and diversity and gender equality.’10Kurbalija, J. & Höne, K.E. (2021). The era of digital foreign policy: Comprehensive approaches to digitalisation. Revista Política Internacional, 130 (July–December).
The key topics of digital foreign policy that are emerging are digital infrastructure, digital as a factor in development, cybersecurity, economic prosperity (including e-commerce), and human rights (including the protection of privacy and freedom of expression). All of these are covered by the strategies of Australia, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. There are, however, differences in emphasis (Table 1).
Table 1. Coverage of specific issues based on the frequency of certain terms.11Kurbalija, J. & Höne, K.E. (2021). The era of digital foreign policy: Comprehensive approaches to digitalisation. Revista Política Internacional, 130 (July–December).
What is also noticeable when comparing the strategies (Table 2) is that there are substantial differences in terminology. Australia employs the term cyber while the Danish strategy favours the term tech diplomacy. France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands focus on digital.
Table 2. The use of prefixes in five digital foreign policy strategies.12The era of digital foreign policy: Comprehensive approaches to digitalisation. Revista Política Internacional, 130 (July–December).
These differences in terminology are noteworthy as they reflect a larger tendency towards terminological diversity. In some cases, differences in terminology convey differences in meaning. Cyber, for example, often carries security connotations, as in cybersecurity. Tech, more often than not, implies a focus on the economy and relations with the business sector. In other cases, the terms are interchangeable. Cyber diplomacy is also sometimes used in a broader way, going beyond cybersecurity to include any area that shapes, or is impacted by, digitalisation.13The Australian strategy uses cyber in this way. Australian Government. (2021). Australia’s International Cyber and Critical Tech Engagement Strategy. Germany includes international cyber policy in its list of key foreign policy topics. Cyber policy is described with a strong focus on security issues but also goes beyond that. Federal Foreign Office. (2017). International Cyber Policy. For the context of Africa, see Allen, K. (2022, January 3). Africa must get up to speed on cyber diplomacy. Institute for Security Studies.
This, however, is more than a linguistic or scholarly concern. Subtle terminological differences might lead to potential confusion regarding the subject of discussion, the wasting of resources and loss of potential synergies, and overall greater difficulties in overcoming policy silos and reaching international or multistakeholder agreements.14Kurbalija, J. (2015, April 17). Different prefixes, same meaning: cyber, digital, net, online, virtual, e-. Diplo. As these differences in terminology, however, are here to stay, it is important to be clear about the terms used and the scope of their meaning.
These strategies serve both as internal and external guidance. Internally, a digital foreign policy strategy helps to define primary goals and thereby serves to unite various domestic actors under one broad aim. It is also helpful in guiding the actions of diplomats, members of the ministry of foreign affairs and other ministries, and other stakeholders. Externally, a digital foreign policy strategy communicates priorities to other state and non-state partners and can serve as the basis for finding mutual understanding and agreements. In both cases, the advantage of the strategy lies in the fact that all digital topics with foreign policy relevance are gathered under the same roof.
Given the breadth of digital foreign policy, there is an emphasis on whole-of-government and whole-of-society approaches. The whole-of-government approach acknowledges that digital foreign policy is not conducted by MFAs alone. Rather, a host of other ministries and domestic agencies are involved; they need to be consulted regularly, are more directly involved in working with their counterparts abroad and are crucial for implementation. To facilitate this process, the Australian digital foreign policy strategy, for example, suggests an International Cyber and Critical Technology Engagement Group, which brings together five different ministries, the prime minister’s office, the attorney general’s office, federal police, and the cybersecurity centre.15Australian Government. (2021). Australia’s International Cyber and Critical Tech Engagement Strategy.
The whole-of-society approach recognises that many different stakeholders are affected by digital foreign policy and are also crucial for successful digital foreign policy.
Digital foreign policy strategies can be developed to different levels of detail and maturity. On one end of the spectrum, very detailed and mature strategies include values, priorities, goals, and proposed measures, and allocate ownership for implementation. All strategies discussed here are located more towards the higher level of maturity, but the strategies of Australia, Denmark, and Switzerland are among the most mature.16Ersze, A. & Garson, M. (2022). A leaders’ guide to building a tech-forward foreign policy. Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. The Danish strategy for example includes key performance indicators to measure progress. Mature strategies have the advantage of giving clear strategic guidance. But they might face the disadvantage of being inflexible and very resource-intensive to prepare.
On the other end of the spectrum, relatively lightweight digital foreign policy strategies might include a vision and general principles but stay away from details and specific measures. Their advantage lies in strategic ambiguity, flexibility, and being comparatively less resource-intensive in their preparation. Disadvantages might include reduced effectiveness and limited value as a guiding document.
Lastly, a digital foreign policy strategy, or the intention of developing one, also raises questions about personnel and institutional structures to support the development and implementation of the strategy.17Sahin, K. (2022, April 1). Außenpolitische Digitalstrategien (Foreign digital policy strategies). SWP-Aktuell. As mentioned, some countries have created dedicated ambassadorial posts, while others have created dedicated teams or units within their MFAs. In addition, digital foreign policy also raises challenges of coordination among ministries and with non-state actors. As previously stated, the Australian strategy includes reference to institutional structures that facilitate coordination. Whether such elements are included in the strategy depends to some extent on the maturity of the strategy. In either case, digital foreign policy raises institutional challenges that need to be considered from an early stage in the process, if possible.
2. Building digital foreign policy strategies
The previous analysis of the five digital foreign policy strategies should not be read as a suggestion that all countries should draft such a document. Other approaches are possible as well, such as covering foreign policy aspects in strategies and plans dealing with various digital issues. We recommend that African countries analyse all these options; assess them against the backdrop of their own national contexts, priorities, and resources; and choose the model that works best for them.
If countries choose to develop digital foreign policy strategies, the following principles (Figure 2) can be followed:
- Overall vision. The strategy should serve as a guideline for future actions and cooperation. The clearer this overall vision and priorities can be articulated, the better.
- Context. The strategy needs to be specific to the country and its unique circumstances, interests, priorities, and capabilities.
- Comprehensiveness. It is important to address a broad range of issues related to digitalisation and their impact on foreign policy. Among them are digital infrastructure, digital as a factor in development, cybersecurity, the digital economy, and human rights.
- Clarity. Clarity in communication is important and the choice of words, given their various connotations, needs to be deliberate. The strategy itself needs to start with utmost clarity to facilitate future cooperation.
- Coordination. Developing and implementing the strategy requires coordination among many ministries and agencies. This is encapsulated in the whole-of-government approach. Coordination also means multistakeholder consultations and collaboration. This includes civil society, the technical community, the business sector, and academia. This is described as the whole-of-society approach. These processes can be time-consuming but are crucial for the future success of the strategy.