For the EU to bolster foreign and security policy, it must embrace transatlantic digital diplomacy

Digital technologies and cyberspace are at the epicentre of today’s global power struggles. The Sino-Russian “no-limits” partnership and the war in Ukraine have made it clear that the EU must bolster its digital diplomacy efforts and do so in close cooperation with the US
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the opening of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics | Photo: Alamy

By Julian Ringhof

Julian Ringhof is a Visiting Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations

03 Aug 2022

When Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin declared their “no-limits” partnership on the opening day of the Winter Olympics on 4 February, they had the world's attention. The two leaders unveiled a manifesto to partner against the west, spelling out their opposition to Nato enlargement, condemning AUKUS, the trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and affirming Beijing’s claims over Taiwan. 

Beyond these assertive statements on traditional security issues, the agreement details a new field for strengthened Sino-Russian cooperation that has received little attention, but which is rapidly climbing up the international politics agenda: digital diplomacy. 

In what is the biggest single threat to the open, free and secure internet, both countries laid out their autocratic views for the development of the cyber realm and agreed to “speak with one voice” in the central international forums for digital governance. Accompanied by strong commitments to work together on artificial intelligence and information security, their joint statement underscores that digital technologies and cyberspace have become a key geopolitical battleground. 

Three weeks later, on 24 February, Putin invaded Ukraine. And while Putin’s horrific war rages on Ukrainian soil, Russia, backed by China, is also waging digital battles against Ukraine and the democratic world. Thousands of Russian cyber-attacks have targeted Ukraine, and big cyberthreats are now looming over aspiring Nato members Sweden and Finland. Russia, again supported by China, is also deploying massive disinformation campaigns on digital platforms, spreading false narratives on the war and its international ramifications – including the global food crisis – to steer public opinion in their favour, particularly in eastern Europe and the Global South. 

In light of the new Sino-Russian digital alliance, the ongoing hybrid war and the accelerating geopoliticisation of digital technologies, the European Union must bolster its digital diplomacy efforts and do so in close cooperation with the United States. 

The Union has had a late start to thinking of digital technologies within the realm of foreign and security policy. China’s primary geotech vehicle – the Digital Silk Road – was already six years old when, last year, the EU announced its counter-initiative for digital development in third countries, the Global Gateway. Yes, the Union did initiate the EU-US Trade and Technology Council (TTC) in June 2021. But initially the EU – unlike the US – was unwilling to use the TTC as a geopolitical tool, instead focusing solely on regulatory and trade cooperation. 

The Union has had a late start to thinking of digital technologies within the realm of foreign and security policy

In that sense – as in many other ways – the war was a wake-up call for the Union. In response to Russia’s invasion, both the EU and the US leveraged digital technologies as a diplomatic weapon, and the TTC is starting to become a powerful transatlantic geotech tool. It was the TTC that provided the basis for EU-US cooperation on the unprecedented technology export controls against Russia.

As computer chips meant for refrigerators and dishwashers are now being discovered in captured Russian tanks and drones, and as the country’s biggest armoured vehicle manufacturer was allegedly forced to stop production due to lacking Western components, it appears transatlantic tech sanctions are having a bigger impact on the war than the much debated financial or fossil fuel sanctions.  

But for these export controls to achieve lasting effects – that is to severely weaken Russia’s industrial and military capabilities – continuous transatlantic cooperation on enforcement will be required. Since, in contrast to the US, the EU has limited experience in deploying expansive export controls, US expertise and intelligence will be vital to ensure that transatlantic sanctions are not broadly undermined, especially by China. 

Similarly, fighting Russia’s and China’s global disinformation campaigns will require strong EU-US cooperation. The Union’s new legislation addressing disinformation issues – the Digital Services Act – will not come into force for some time, and what effects it will yield beyond the single market are far from clear. And since it is primarily US platforms on which disinformation spreads, the EU must work together with the US to nudge tech companies to fight disinformation more rigorously around the world. 

Beyond the direct implications of the ongoing war, enhanced EU-US digital diplomacy will be even more crucial to counter Russia’s and China’s long-term ambitions for the digital realm.

In international technology forums like the UN’s International Telecommunication Union, the UN’s Open-ended Working Groups and the Internet Governance Forum, which are largely unknown beyond digital diplomacy experts, China and Russia are working hard – sometimes successfully – to push forward their autocratic agenda.

Enhanced EU-US digital diplomacy will be even more crucial to counter Russia’s and China’s long-term ambitions for the digital realm

Only together can the EU and the US build large international coalitions in these bodies to ensure new international technology standards and cyberspace norms are in line with human rights and democratic values. 

The recently launched Declaration on the Future of the Internet, an initiative co-led by the EU and the US that was signed by 60 countries, provides a valuable diplomatic tool to advance certain transatlantic objectives for the digital sphere. It is crucial not to let this declaration become another paper tiger but instead to pull in more countries and to monitor adherence to its principles among the signatories. 

But certainly, the TTC must remain the main tool for broader EU-US digital foreign policy cooperation and a central component of EU digital diplomacy strategy. Crucially, the TTC must begin to deliver more concrete outcomes in the next months and become more geopolitical than the EU initially intended. 

Joining up forces to monitor and shape the development of international technology standards should become a TTC priority. Moreover, the EU and the US must jointly and more decisively counter increasing Chinese influence in the Global South, resulting from Beijing’s large digital infrastructure investments. Working together to finance secure digital infrastructure, especially in vulnerable and geopolitically important third countries, must therefore become another TTC focus area. 

With a possible change in the White House in 2024, the EU must be cognisant that a Trump or Trump-esque administration could trash the TTC. But if transatlantic cooperation on important geopolitical issues is sufficiently advanced by 2024, even a new US administration may be hesitant to reverse course. Another reason for the EU to double down on its digital diplomacy efforts now and think strategically about cooperating with the US.