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Blog Post | Cyber-diplomacy: A Field in Flux

Three decades ago, cyber-diplomacy did not exist. The interest in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) as a vector of change in international relations was limited to a few mostly technical organisations, and a restricted number of states.

 The late 1990s saw a growing interest on the topic, but we would have to wait almost a decade before states started to fully grasp the challenges and opportunities brought by the formation of this new policy domain.

As often happens in situations where issues acquire a strategic importance, diplomats started to be deployed to the frontline of emerging discussions around the international governance of cyberspace. In the last 15 years, governments around the world have created offices, bureaus, or appointed experts and diplomats to engage with peers, non-state actors in regional and international organisations to discuss and agree on norms of responsible state behaviour, capacity building or confidence-building measures in cyberspace. This has led to what I label as the diplomatisation of cyber policy, in which many of the structures, practices and institutions of diplomacy progressively helped shape this global governance domain.

The emergency of cyber diplomacy can be seen as an example of the general process of how states adjust to new policy domains. In this particular case, there have been a myriad of external dynamics that contributed to it, including the international institutionalisation of the field through formal and informal fora (such as the UN Group of Governmental Experts and the Open Ended Working Group on the role of ICTs in international security), but also internally, where specific political agents (as in the US, Australia or the UK) or large-scale cyber-attacks (as in the Netherlands) pushed individual states to be more pro-active in this domain.

State responses were often more dependent on their respective national diplomatic cultures than on the idiosyncratic nature of the issue. Institutional answers tended to be more in line with what was done in-house regarding similar domains, than in other states. The result is a varied set of diplomats and actors with a wide-range of functions, roles, and levels of responsibility and importance. This is where we start to notice the unsettled and transient nature of cyber diplomacy.

From over 50 interviews we conducted with officials, diplomats and experts, it became clear that there was no consensus on what cyber diplomacy is, or on what being a cyber diplomat entails. For some, it is a narrow field encompassing issues of interstate International cybersecurity, for others it is a wider field that includes issues such as internet governance or even digital economy. In some cases, being a cyber diplomat was limited to following discussions within the UN; for others it included responsibilities regarding disinformation, 5G and even Artificial Intelligence. Some of these responsibilities came with the role (as in the US, where in 2022 Nathaniel C. Fick was appointed Ambassador at Large for Cyberspace and Digital Policy), some were added after the role was created (such as in Australia, Brazil, and Portugal). Given the omnipresence and fast development of digital technology, it is only natural that diplomatic responsibilities in this domain evolve.

In 2017, Denmark created its Techplomacy, and appointed its first Tech Ambassador with offices in Beijing, Copenhagen and Silicon Valley to interact with a broad range of state and non-state actors, including directly with Big Tech companies. Since then, other states have joined in. In 2020, the European Union, who already had a Cyber Diplomacy office within its European External Action Service, created a separate one for Digital Diplomacy to deal with a broad range of tech-related issues, from supply-chains to content moderation.

For now, cyber diplomacy seems to sit in parallel with these other developments, but it is likely that given the multiple overlaps, they may merge in the near future and cyber diplomacy could then become a branch of tech (or digital) diplomacy. Whereas we could see this as the result of state bureaucracies trying to swiftly respond to new challenges, it also leaves open the possibility that underneath its centenary status, diplomacy is a practice in constant flux, in which its rituals and institutions serve to hide the fragilities and inconsistencies of what often are underplanned solutions. In short, through the diplomatisation of cyber policy we can see both the strength of statecraft - in shaping how and where issues are discussed - but also diplomacy’s fragile and transient nature. In that regard, cyber diplomacy may not be more than a reflection of a broader, often hidden reality.

Andre Barrinha, University of Bath.

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