Cyber Diplomacy: a Key Field for European Diplomacy

It is increasingly difficult for any organisation to escape the omnipresent “cyber hype”. So, it is not surprising that in recent years a new field of activity has also emerged in the area of diplomacy: Cyberdiplomacy. Under the influence of digital technologies and the possibilities they afford to create virtual spaces and opportunities for interaction, the relationships between states and societies have undergone revolutionary changes; new actors and channels of influence have emerged. This poses radically new challenges to states when designing foreign policy. However, the creation of (desired) images and realities in bi- and multilateral relations has always been an essential task of diplomacy; “virtual spheres” have been and will remain key issues in “classical” diplomacy, too. But with the revolutionary development of the internet, new possibilities are emerging almost every day, with the emergence of “computer-generated horizons of meaning”[1] and their own dimensions of space and time. The major question is how to shape these politically.

Currently, the foundations of a future global cyber society are being laid. Even if we, at the moment, are rather witnessing a “territorialisation”[2], or even “fragmentation” of the internet. In the future, we might expect shifting borders, changing and overlapping spaces, and the “occupation” of virtual spheres. State institutions and regulations have a significant, though by no means exclusive, influence on what this “virtual territory” will look like. Taking such virtual realities into account in the formulation of political goals and the development and use of new political communication instruments is an essential part of the field of cyber diplomacy.

Though there are comprehensive concepts in this field – such as the European Union’s Cybersecurity Strategy (EUCSS) in December 2020 – defence measures against threats from the cyberspace are only slowly complemented by more preactive approaches. Due to this historical development, the terms “cyber security and cyber diplomacy” were closely linked for a long time or were even understood as identical. But the much-discussed cybersecurity is just one dimension of a modern understanding of cyber diplomacy. Only in recent years have both dimensions become detached from each other to incorporate further aspects.

It is therefore worthwhile to look more closely at areas beyond the field of cybersecurity. The complex confrontation with the “cyber superpowers”, such as the People’s Republic of China or Russia, offers an interesting “learning and action space” and can contribute to the further development of European cyber diplomacy. The EU increasingly wants to include this policy field in its regulatory competence and take on a global pioneering role.

Two aspects examined more closely here should give an impression of the diversity of challenges and possible instruments: first, the creation and regulation of a global cyberspace; and second, the creation of virtual public spheres abroad.

Assuming the “three digital empires”[3] – the USA, the PR China and the EU – the battle for standards and rules in cyberspace has not yet been decided. The EU is (still) very much committed to the paradigm of establishing a multilateral, rule-based order in the cyberspace. Unfortunately, both in the real and virtual world order, this development points to further fragmentation and systemic rivalry, with competing and fundamentally incompatible ideas of order. The bitter disputes over future internet standards, the creation of national cyberspaces in Russia and China, but also the transatlantic conflicts over the protection of privacy signal major fault lines in the cyberspace. How one should actively counter acts of aggression in hybrid conflicts is among the unresolved questions in international law and diplomacy. In the field of global finance and with the introduction of digital currencies and crypto products, established financial systems are coming under massive pressure, while traditional regulatory mechanisms can hardly keep up effectively.

In dealing with the People’s Republic of China, the largest individual challenging actor in the field of cyber diplomacy, the 2000s were associated with great hopes for social change and political opening. The internet was supposed to play a central role in bringing new ideas to the country and developing alternative forms of organisation. However, the “counter-revolution” by the Communist Party was put in place within a few years. The People’s Republic has developed its own impressive cyber diplomacy strategy and combined it systematically with other forms of influence, such as investment or military cooperation. Here, competition with the West takes place intensively in “third markets”. Unfiltered direct communication with the Chinese public via social media has come to a near standstill; one can no longer speak of reciprocity in this field. From a European point of view, therefore, influence must be exerted on two levels: Western democracies must actively engage in shaping the discourse in virtual public spaces both in their home countries and abroad; the hitherto rather passive fight against disinformation is not sufficient. And in the area of human rights or market access opportunities, it remains a thankless but compelling task to press Chinese policymakers to enable unfiltered channels of communication into Chinese society.    

Cyber diplomacy has become a central component of interstate action because spaces and forms of interaction have changed dramatically. The constantly intensifying systemic competition between authoritarian and liberal models of society is, unsurprisingly, taking place with increasing intensity in these virtual spaces. And the fate of an open, liberal order will essentially be decided there. European cyber diplomacy has to make a decisive contribution to the outcome of this conflict.

[1] See Clemens Apprich, Technotopia: A Media Genealogy of Net Cultures (Media Philosophy), 2017

[2] See Daniel Lambach, The Territorialization of Cyberspace, International Studies Review, Volume 22, Issue 3, September 2020, Pages 482–506,

[3] See Susan Ariel Aaronson & Patrick Leblond, 2018. “Another Digital Divide: The Rise of Data Realms and its Implications for the WTO,” Journal of International Economic Law, Oxford University Press, vol. 21(2), pages 245-272,