Authors: Martin Rauchbauer | Pavlina Ittelson

Tech diplomacy in digital foreign policy

2023

Countries are increasingly implementing digital elements in their policies, defining national digital and digitalisation policies, and in some cases, have created dedicated digital foreign policies. In order to implement them, they create dedicated posts: from the first Danish tech ambassador, to the posts of global digital diplomats, cyber diplomats, and tech envoys, as well as dedicated sections within their ministries of foreign affairs. 
Tech-Diplomacy-Practice-in-the-San-Francisco-Bay-Area-pages-1.jpg

Since 2018, the field of digital foreign policy and diplomacy has evolved considerably. Countries are increasingly implementing digital elements in their policies, defining national digital and digitalisation policies, and in some cases, have created dedicated digital foreign policies. In order to implement them, they create dedicated posts: from the first Danish tech ambassador, to the posts of global digital diplomats, cyber diplomats, and tech envoys, as well as dedicated sections within their ministries of foreign affairs. 

Currently, there are various approaches countries are taking, and different ways the agendas, positions, and range of competencies are defined, all of which have an impact on the definition and practice of tech diplomacy.

Since 2017, countries have developed:

1. Dedicated digital foreign policy strategy and separate tech diplomacy strategy (Denmark)1Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark. Strategy for Denmark’s tech diplomacy 2021–2023. https://techamb.um.dk/strategy

2. Dedicated digital foreign policy strategies with elements of tech diplomacy (Australia2,Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark. Strategy for Denmark’s tech diplomacy 2021–2023. https://techamb.um.dk/strategy France,3Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs of France. (2017). France’s international digital strategy. https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/french-foreign-policy/digital-diplomacy/france-s-international-digital-strategy/ the Netherlands,4Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands. (2019). Digital agenda for foreign trade and development cooperation (BHOS) https://www.government.nl/documents/policy-notes/2019/07/31/digital-agenda-for-foreign-trade-and-development-cooperation-bhos Switzerland,5Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. (2021). Digital foreign policy strategy 2021–2024https://www.eda.admin.ch/missions/mission-onu-geneve/en/home/news/publications.html/content/publikationen/en/eda/schweizer-aussenpolitik/Digitalaussenpolitik_2021-2024 and the UK)6UK Government. (2023). The UK’s international technology strategy. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/uk-international-technology-strategy/the-uks-international-technology-strategy

3. Foreign policy strategies that include aspects of digitalisation

4. Digital or digitalisation strategies with foreign policy aspects

5. Strategies dedicated to specific topics (cybersecurity, emerging technology, AI)

6. Positions related to digital, cyber, or tech policy without a specific strategy

By analysing the digital foreign policies of the six countries that have a separate dedicated policy from the tech diplomacy perspective, we can see differences in how terminology is used and how they focus on different aspects in their respective policies.

Table 1: The use of adjectives and prefixes in six digital foreign policy strategies7Adapted from Kurbalija, J., & Höne, K. E. (2021). The era of digital foreign policy: Comprehensive approaches to digitalisation. Revista Política Internacional, 130 (July–December). https://adp.edu.pe/revista. This table counts the number of occurrences of a particular term or prefix across the whole text corpus.

WP DataTables

There are substantial differences in terminology when comparing the dedicated digital foreign policy strategies (Table 1). Australia employs the term ‘cyber’, while the Danish strategy favours the term ‘tech diplomacy’. France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands focus on ‘digital’. 

World cloud image.

This reflects the priorities of the countries’ digital policies, with ‘digital diplomacy’ encompassing all diplomacy that involves digital aspects and digital as a topic on the diplomatic agenda,8DiploFoundation. (n.d.). Digital foreign policy. https://www.diplomacy.edu/topics/digital-foreign-policy ‘cyber diplomacy’ emphasising the security aspect, and ‘tech diplomacy’ focusing on interactions between nation-state representatives and tech companies (on global or local levels). 

Digital diplomacy refers to the impact of digital technology on diplomacy in three realms:

  • Changing digital geopolitical and geoeconomic ENVIRONMENT for diplomatic activities (e.g. sovereignty, power redistribution, interdependence)
  • Emerging digital TOPICS on the diplomatic agenda (e.g. cybersecurity, e-commerce, privacy protection)
  • New TOOLS for diplomatic activities (e.g. social media, big data, AI)

When analysing how the topic and agenda of tech diplomacy are addressed, these policies all include aspects of tech diplomacy. With the exception of the Danish policy, others do not directly define ‘tech diplomacy’. Rather, tech-diplomacy aspects are dispersed in mentions of strengthening the presence and ties with tech companies in the San Francisco area (Switzerland), the Cyber and Tech Retreat (Australia), support for start-ups and scale-ups (UK), and establishing a start-up liaison officer position in San Francisco (Netherlands), and other aspects. Therefore, the tech diplomacy agenda is a mosaic of aspects of national policies derived from foreign policy, as well as other policies dealing with digital aspects.

The goals and areas of priority engagement of countries practising tech diplomacy align with the particular aims of the national policies. The emerging key topics of digital foreign policy are digital infrastructure, and digital as a factor in development, cybersecurity, economic prosperity (including e-commerce), and human rights (including the protection of privacy and freedom of expression).9DiploFoundation. (n.d.). Digital foreign policy. https://www.diplomacy.edu/topics/digital-foreign-policy 

Table 2: Coverage of specific issues based on the frequency of certain terms10DiploFoundation. (n.d.). Digital foreign policy. https://www.diplomacy.edu/topics/digital-foreign-policy

UK (2023) Switzerland (2020) Australia (2021) France (2017) Netherlands (2019) Denmark (2021)
Data and privacy 110 135 54 76 98 7
Artificial intelligence 55 53 10 8 19 1
Security 98 45 185 58 25 13
Human rights 7 39 89 30 16 9
Governance 36 60 35 26 1 3
Development 77 94 112 74 71 31
Science 31 28 9 3 2 0
Economy/economic 53 68 91 59 47 3
Cooperation 20 57 64 25 41 16
Research and education 45 40 62 24 24 5
Health(care) 8 16 7 2 11 3
Sustainable development goals (SDGs) 2 6 5 2 5 0
Tech diplomacy/techplomacy 1 0 4 0 0 25
WP DataTables

Tech diplomacy topics follow the areas outlined above. However, governments usually allow for a certain level of freedom for the tech diplomat to define topics to pursue. This enables the exploration of new topics in emerging technologies, as well as budding topics on the local level, such as quantum and supercomputing, the metaverse, safety and trust, and disinformation.

In this report, we approach  ‘tech diplomacy’ as a subset of ‘digital diplomacy’. It encompasses the practice of diplomacy that engages with the private tech sector on issues related to digital policy and emerging technology, as well as foreign policy or geopolitical concerns on non-digital technologies such as biotech or microchips.

Structure of tech diplomacy representations

In order to implement foreign policy strategies and practise tech diplomacy, countries have created a variety of positions within their respective governments – both in diplomatic representations and in internal government structures. 

Diplomatic representations dealing with tech diplomacy vary in name and the context of their involvement. Tech diplomats may carry the title of ‘ambassador-at-large’, ‘tech ambassador’, ‘tech envoy’, ‘tech attaché’, ‘digital ambassador’, ‘consul for tech and innovation’, or even both ‘general consul’ and ‘tech ambassador’, or ‘general consul’ and ‘tech envoy’. The reason is simple: to signal to tech companies (and others) the weight of engagement in tech diplomacy. It should be noted, however, that these titles do not strictly adhere to the traditional diplomatic ranks within a nation’s diplomatic representation.

Within their respective government, diplomats adhere to the traditional diplomatic ranks and have the scope of their mandate set anywhere from the global, national, or subnational level. They may be administratively under the ministries of foreign affairs, trade and investment, science and technology, or education. Within the ministries, there may be one person, a structural hierarchy, or several streams of engagement in tech diplomacy running parallel or intersecting. 

Some countries have foregone establishing dedicated positions of tech diplomats in foreign countries and have established positions of experts on digital issues within their existing diplomatic representations (China, USA).11.Erzse, A., & Garson, M. (2022). A leaders’ guide to building a tech-forward foreign policy. Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. https://institute.global/policy/leaders-guide-building-tech-forward-foreign-policy 

As can be inferred from above, the practice of tech diplomacy and its definition varies widely and has not yet reached its maturity. 

There are several challenges stemming from such a variety:

  • Positioning of tech diplomacy within the diplomatic agenda: While some states see tech diplomacy as a type of traditional diplomacy, others categorise it under science and innovation, trade and investment, or even cultural and academic diplomacy. It is in this way that states signal their priorities for tech diplomacy engagement. The fact that the agenda of tech diplomats is usually an assortment of different aspects of various national policies makes the practice of tech diplomacy coordination complicated and, as a rule, requires crossing silos within national governments. This has drawbacks: emerging topics in tech diplomacy, such as environmental tech diplomacy, fintech, or ethical aspects of emerging tech, may not be fully embraced. Additionally, the understanding of the position of a tech diplomat by those they are tasked to engage with may not be the same. In our research, for example, companies did not see trade and investment as part of tech diplomacy, but rather viewed it in a traditional sense of negotiating trade agreements, attracting investment, and promoting local companies abroad. 
  • Hierarchy: When establishing the new position ‘tech diplomat’, states need to decide how this new position will fit into traditional diplomatic structures. This includes decisions on the rank and name of the tech diplomat. Two main issues that were identified are whether having more than one ‘ambassador’ in a foreign country is acceptable and how to define the positions of global digital ambassadors, ambassadors in individual countries, and local tech consuls in a complementary manner.
  • Scope of engagement: With both tech and traditional diplomatic representations in place, the question arises about delineating their competency areas. This is especially visible in cases where a country may have a local consul (tech envoy), a country ambassador, and a global ambassador in place, with all being simultaneously engaged in agendas related to tech diplomacy. There are also examples where the agenda of diplomats reaches beyond tech diplomacy and goes into cyber diplomacy (security and defence). In these cases, coordination within the government is paramount.
  • Communication with others: Diplomatic structures, especially in their new forms, are not easily understood by those who tech diplomats are tasked to engage with. Tech companies have voiced their struggles and confusion in identifying proper contacts within governments to address policy issues or other issues of concern. Clarity on the structure and competencies, or having only one channel of communication for tech diplomacy, eases communication considerably. In our research, companies have mentioned that the success of the Danish model of having a global tech ambassador is partly due to having a ‘face’ and a single point of contact with the Danish government.

On the other hand, the benefits of engaging in tech diplomacy contribute to the stability and development of countries. Specifically, tech diplomacy efforts aim to address a variety of issues, such as:

  • Ensuring that democracy and human rights, especially the right to free expression, are observed
  • Illegal, harmful, and obstructive content detection and moderation, including disinformation and misinformation
  • The role of big tech in the social and economic development of countries, including the welfare of children and the development of new models of business, education, and taxation
  • The development of emerging tech in line with human rights and ethics
  • Shaping future national policies and models, such as financial, educational, and employment policies, and the digitisation of government services
  • Assessing existing and emerging approaches to regulating tech companies and platforms, both to gage compliance by tech companies, as well as technological solutions to regulatory and policy implementation
  • Spurring national innovation, business, and the science environment
  • Keeping abreast of the newest developments in technology and innovation
  • Strengthening multistakeholder engagement in policy development
  • Providing support to businesses and nationals in the local environment

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This paper discusses cybersecurity in Fiji and offers recommendations to challenges such as the vulnerability of systems due to lack of a cybersecurity framework. The poorly framed laws and lack of appropriate policies.

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International cyber security diplomatic negotiations: Role of Africa in inter-regional cooperation for a global approach on the security and stability of cyberspace

This research paper examines African countries cybersecurity readiness and how Africa can play a role in shaping international negotiations and discussions on global cybersecurity governance.

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Revolution @State: The Spread of Ediplomacy

The text is likely missing. Without context, I cannot provide a summary.

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Review of the Use of Social Media by the Department of State

The Department of State's use of social media is reviewed for its effectiveness and potential improvements in engaging with the public and promoting U.S. foreign policy.

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The use of Information and Communications Technology (ICTs) in human rights promotion: A case study of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights

The employment of ICT tools as a weapon of choice at the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, an organ established within the African Union with a broad mandate of spearheading human rights promotion on the African Continent has not been emphasised as a crucial element in the struggle towards achieving human rights promotion and protection on the African continent, with the resulting consequence that the Commission is not as visible and known to the people that it is supposed to serve.

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Cyber-diplomacy: Managing Foreign Policy in the Twenty-first Century

Cyber-diplomacy: Managing Foreign Policy in the Twenty-first Century" discusses the importance of digital diplomacy in modern international relations. It explores how governments can leverage technology to engage with other countries, protect national interests, and navigate cyber threats effectively. This book offers insights into how cyber-diplomacy is reshaping traditional diplomatic practices and the key role it plays in shaping foreign policy in the digital age.

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The Internet and diplomats of the 20th century

The Internet and diplomats of the twenty century: how new information technologies affect the ordinary work of diplomats.

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A study of the UN Working Group on IG – MSP in communication technology for development at the global level

The paper aims to identify best practices and lessons learned in multi-stakeholder partnership (MSP) practices at the global policy level through a participatory methodology based on interviews and an online electronic survey.

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Public diplomacy at the crossroads: Definitions and challenges in an ‘Open Source’ era

The message discusses the current state of public diplomacy and its challenges in an era of open source information.

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The Role of Information and Communication Technologies in Diplomacy and Diplomatic Service

Rapid development of information and communication technologies (ICT) has lead to significant changes in social, economical and political relations of the modern society.

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Une introduction à la gouvernance d’Internet

La gouvernance d’Internet n’est pas un sujet simple. Bien qu’elle traite d’une notion qui se veut être un symbole représentatif majeur du monde numérique, elle ne peut pas être abordée avec une simple logique numérique binaire qui ne reconnait que le vrai et le faux, le bon et le mauvais.

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Digital diplomacy: Conversations on Innovations in Foreign Policy

The message discusses the role of digital diplomacy in shaping innovative foreign policy strategies.

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Humanitarian public diplomacy: International calls to action in the digital era

This dissertation examines IOs (IOs) as emerging stars in the constellation of diplomatic actors, as extra-state and supra-state entities that do not replace, but rather complement, align with and encourage states. Specifically focusing on humanitarian - those attentive to the needs of people - international organisations, the paper explores their use of calls to action as a public diplomacy tool that both activates the public and reflects the needs and desires of individuals and their communities, translated to policy context. Calls to action should be strategic, well-researched, authoritive,...

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The EU’s New Commission: Digital Policy in the Limelight (Briefing Paper #13)

In this briefing paper, Dr Stephanie Borg Psaila analyses Ursula von der Leyen's new EU Commission's emphasis on digital policy for 2019–2024.

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Internet governance (IG) as a diplomatic priority

This dissertation demonstrates that IG is a significant, emerging diplomatic process that should be studied and addressed seriously by diplomats to prepare them to manage the implications it has for future impact on global governance of the Internet.

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The use of ICT in human rights promotion: A case study of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights

The paper seeks to render a critical analysis that will lead and co-ordinate a programme of promotional work across the region, including the integration of ICT strategies in its promotional work.

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Promoting e-Commerce in developing countries

This study examines the advantages and possibilities for the use of digital signatures to carry out electronic transactions. It focuses on developing and transition countries that have not fully implemented the use of digital signatures in their economic, commercial and productive processes. An important aim of this research is to create awareness on the likely effects for enforcing the use of digital signatures to carry out e-commerce transactions on the economies of developing and transition countries. The study also proposes key issues to be considered for policy-makers in countries in orde...

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Emerging Leaders for a Digital World (2011): Dalsie Greenrose Kalna Baniala from Vanuatu

‘With the number of training courses I have attended, including attending the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), I have learnt a lot.’