A diplomatic approach to geopolitics in the digital age - why the EU and the US need to build bridges in the face of Putin's aggression

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan July 20, 2022
It's an age of Digital Diplomacy and that means rethinking some old assumptions and tapping into some new tools in the diplomatic bag...


My God, this is the end of diplomacy!

That was the reported reaction of legendary British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston back in the 19th century when he was presented with his first telegraph message. Quite how he’d react to an age of internet, email and social media can only be imagined.

In today's geo-political climate, the focus is on Digital Diplomacy - AKA in some parts as Techplomacy, eDiplomacy and even Digiplomacy. This month the Council of the European Union has published its recommendations for a Digital Diplomacy strategy across member states and reaching out to build on the bloc’s ties with the US.  The mission statement is clear:

Digital technologies have brought new opportunities and risks into the lives of EU citizens and people around the globe. They have also become key competitive parameters that can shift the geopolitical balance of power. The EU has a growing web of digital alliances and partnerships around the world. It is increasingly investing in digital infrastructure and, under the Global Gateway strategy, in supporting partners in defining their regulatory approach to technology based on a human-centric approach.

Against this background, the Council invites all relevant parties to ensure that digital diplomacy becomes a core component and an integral part of the EU external action, and is closely coordinated with other EU external policies on cyber and countering hybrid threats, including foreign information manipulation and interference.

The Council emphasizes that EU external policies on digital, cyber and countering hybrid threats, including foreign information manipulation and interference, must be fully coherent and mutually reinforcing. This requires “further decisive steps towards a more visible, influential and coordinated Digital Diplomacy, making use of all relevant EU tools”.


The conclusions also stress that EU Digital Diplomacy needs to have multiple purposes:

  • To strengthen the EU’s global role in digital affairs, on the basis of common geopolitical priorities, paying special attention to countries of strategic importance or that have a high level of vulnerability.
  • To actively promote universal human rights and fundamental freedoms, the rule of law and democratic principles in the digital space and advance a human-centric and human rights-based approach to digital technologies in relevant multilateral fora and other platforms.
  • To promote an open, free, global, stable and secure Internet based on the multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance.
  • To influence the shaping of ethical, safe and inclusive international technology standards based on human rights and fundamental freedoms.
  • To contribute to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the development of the UN’s Global Digital Compact.
  • To be in line with the Global Gateway strategy, promote and support resilient and trusted digital infrastructures, the enhancement of democratic digital societies beyond EU borders, digital public infrastructure and digital public goods, and digital commons.
  • To pro-actively advocate for innovation-friendly and human rights-based technology governance and promote the EU’s human-centric and human rights-based approach to the digital transition. -
  • To promote EU internal digital policies and regulations and monitor development of digital policy globally, while also informing the EU’s internal policy making.
  • To contribute to a coherent and mutually-reinforcing implementation of the relevant parts of the EU’s security and defence policy.
  • To contribute to safeguarding the EU’s security also in the context of countering hybrid threats, cyberattacks, and foreign information manipulation and interference (FIMI), including state-sponsored interference, as well as combatting violence and hate speech.
  • To exchange with stakeholders from business, academia and civil society as appropriate, both in the EU and beyond, to identify opportunities that could match the political, economic and geostrategic goals of the EU in third countries.
  • To promote secure, free flow of data with trust.
  • To contribute to the transition to a sustainable future, by promoting innovative European digital solutions that can help achieve a climate neutral economy.
  • To contribute to strengthening the EU’s, Member States’ and partners’ ability to evaluate and address risks, vulnerabilities and critical dependencies in emerging and foundational technologies and enhance the resilience of the EU by strengthening the resilience of partners.
  • To improve the EU’s capability to monitor global digital regulatory activity, international data flows and the data privacy of EU citizens, patterns of digital trade, partnerships between third countries and their effects on the competition framework in the global market for digital technologies and services.

The EU will also open a dedicated office in San Francisco to act as a global center for digital technology and innovation. According to the Council, this will act as:

a means of strengthening transatlantic engagement on the digital agenda, fulfilling the related goals of the EU-US Trade and Technology Council, building contacts with authorities and stakeholders on the ground with a view to contributing to a successful, sustainable and human centric digital transformation to ensure a human rights based approach in accordance with the EU and the US shared values and democratic systems.


On the face of it, that’s all very thorough and seemingly well-intended. Now comes the tricky part - putting it into effective action. The need to get this right has in many ways been highlighted by Russia’s attack on Ukraine. As is all too often the case, war can act as a driver for innovation.

A recent paper from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), an international think-tank that aims to conduct cutting-edge independent research on European foreign and security policy and to provide a safe meeting space for decision-makers, activists and influencers to share ideas, caught my eye.

Written by Visiting Fellow Julian Ringhof and José Ignacio Torreblanca  Head, ECFR Madrid, Senior Policy Fellow,  the paper - The geopolitics of technology: How the EU can become a global player - picks up on the influencing role that the Ukraine incursion is playing in shaping a viable European strategy:

The war has become an accelerator of existing trends and challenges, turning technology into yet another key battleground. Before the war, the EU had already decided it needed to become a geopolitical actor. Indeed, [President of the European Commission] Ursula von der Leyen declared in 2019 that she intended to form a “Geopolitical Commission”…But since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the EU has found a renewed impetus to engage in global technology politics. The EU has expanded its assistance to Ukraine both in the cybersecurity and disinformation domains. It has also approved a comprehensive set of technology sanctions and renewed its commitment to strengthening EU technological sovereignty. Meanwhile, Russia and China have cemented their ‘no-limits’ alliance and committed themselves to accelerate their technological decoupling from the West.

The authors go on:

In its response to the war, the West has deployed massive sanctions on advanced technologies with the intention of paralysing Russia’s industrial base and weakening its military capabilities. And while the Kremlin has prohibited and blocked several foreign digital platforms in Russia to impede the flow of outside information into the country, many other Western technology companies independently decided to cease operating in Russia. Both developments foreshadow a new digital iron curtain. The war in Ukraine has already demonstrated that digital technologies now shape the response to international conflict.

The conclusion is simple, according to the ECFR:

Battles in the digital space have taken centre stage in today’s global power struggles. The EU cannot stay aside. To become a geopolitical actor, the EU needs to learn to play global technology politics and should adopt an ambitious digital diplomacy strategy…If the EU is to learn to speak the language of power, it needs to understand its efforts as part of an integrated digital strategy that can both cooperate and compete with those of China, Russia, and even the US.

On that last point, it’s going to be necessary to build a better relationship with the US, so often seen in Brussels as a technology competitor to be regulated. The ECFR notes:

In Europe, values and regulation play a greater role than they do in the US. This distinction has so far prevented regulatory harmonisation and led to tensions. Still, while these differences may prevent policy harmonisation, they should still allow policy convergence, or at least coexistence – particularly given the common global challenges the EU and the US face. Clearly, the EU and the US cannot counter Russia’s and China’s aggressive technological strategies while refusing to compromise among themselves. Much as they did after the second world war, the US and Europe need to reach a wide agreement to sustain a global and free democratic technology order.

How to do?

In terms of practical advice, the ECFR offers up what it calls a tool box of recommendations., noting:

Ukraine shows that not only does the EU need to have the right instruments for digital diplomacy, but it must also have the awareness, strategy, resources, and structures to deploy them. The previous section laid out a large toolbox of potential digital diplomacy instruments. To effectively use these tools, the EU must establish new structures and devote more resources to enabling EU delegations to inform Brussels, engaging in cooperation with third countries, and deploying support systems in third countries.

The ‘tools’ include:

  • Setting up a worldwide democracy protection fund to protect democratic elections worldwide from foreign influence operations and cyber-attacks.
  • A worldwide digital rights initiative facilitating global regulatory convergence.
  • The establishment of a global alliance on democratic and ethical tech governance.
  • A global cybersecurity fund.
  • A secure technology initiative to monitor foreign investments in critical digital infrastructures and technologies.
  • A sanctions monitoring and implementation initiative to ensure effective implementation as well as coherence with its allies.
  • Enhancement of the Global Gateway initiative.
  • Establishment of the EU-US TTC as a geopolitical vehicle for transatlantic technology cooperation.

My take

The EU Council recommendations/conclusions make for interesting reading as does the full report from the ECFR. This is a hugely complex area, as diplomacy always has been, but it’s clear that there’s an urgent need both to accelerate an EU strategic approach and to strengthen ties with Washington. Given the number of the more rabid right wing US politicians and Fox News pundits openly arguing against assisting Ukraine and advocating appeasement of Putin’s aggression, it’s to be hoped that saner minds prevail.  A strong, coherent transatlantic Digital Diplomacy alliance would be a valuable asset for everyone.

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