Coherent foreign policy in the digital space

Digitalisation offers new opportunities for diplomacy, poverty reduction and sustainable development. But there are also risks involved in the processing of vast amounts of data, the spread of fake news and surveillance. By adopting the Digital Foreign Policy Strategy 2021–2024, the Federal Council is acknowledging digitalisation as a thematic priority of Switzerland's foreign policy.

We see a darkened room with a blue glow containing rows of servers on which digital data is stored.

View of a server room where data is stored and processed. Digitalisation plays an ever more important role in our daily lives. © shutterstock

In the foreword to the Digital Foreign Policy Strategy 2021–2024, which the Federal Council adopted on 4 November, Ignazio Cassis, head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, writes: "Artificial intelligence is increasingly becoming part of our everyday lives and in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic we have seen that digital applications play a key role." This strategy is built on a clear premise: the world is constantly changing and needs a hub, in other words a space that brings together all states, businesses and citizens – all directly affected by the new challenges of digitalisation. International Geneva will be the hub for digital governance. The goal is to promote transparent debate, strengthen international law and encourage international cooperation in dealing with abuses and surveillance, while paying heed to public opinion, and to increase the benefits of new technologies.

Artificial intelligence is increasingly becoming part of our everyday lives, including in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ignazio Cassis, Federal Councillor

Digital technologies, digitisation and the Internet create innumerable opportunities for Swiss foreign policy to strengthen the safeguarding of interests and to promote the needs of the international community. "Digitalisation is on the one hand an instrument, helping to simplify processes, for example in the area of consular services or IT. On the other, it is also a foreign policy matter," explains Cassis.

However, this same intelligence can also be abused to cause damage or serious harm, which is often underestimated. The digital space, via which a huge amount of private and confidential data is transmitted, is now the scene of cyberattacks that threaten not only the privacy of the individual but also reveal great vulnerabilities of states. On this basis, no country and no individual can claim to be able to protect themselves alone. The establishment of a system of global governance for the digital space is therefore essential.

Digitalisation is a foreign policy priority for the first time

Switzerland's Digital Foreign Policy Strategy 2021–2024 sets out the key principles that aim to guarantee an open, free and secure digital space. Additionally, this strategy is part of the broader structure of Switzerland's Foreign Policy Strategy for the next four years, which is implemented in a three-level cascading process. The Foreign Policy Strategy 2020–2023 sets out the broad outline and priorities, while geographic and thematic strategies guide Switzerland's activities in various priority regions and subject areas. Each strategy is approved by the Federal Council.

The Federal Council attaches great importance to digitalisation and it will take on new significance in the 2019–2023 legislative programme.
Ignazio Cassis, Federal Councillor

As such, the topic of digitalisation is a priority in the FDFA's overarching strategy. "The Federal Council attaches great importance to digitalisation and it will take on new significance in the 2019–2023 legislative programme," affirms Mr Cassis. "It will also play an increasingly important role in foreign policy. In Switzerland's Foreign Policy Strategy 2020–2023, it thus features as one of the thematic priorities for the first time."

Use of digital technologies in foreign policy

Switzerland is increasingly engaging with new technologies in its efforts to achieve peace and security in the world, strengthen economic prosperity globally, and support the sustainable development goals set out in the 2030 Agenda. For example, digitalisation is now a recognised instrument to support humanitarian policy. In the event of crises or natural disasters, the analysis of big data and better networking of the actors involved allows missing persons to be found more quickly and the needs of victims to be identified in order to respond as effectively as possible. It affects all departments of the Federal Administration and one way or another fits into all the action plans being implemented by the federal government throughout the world. "It is in our interest to continue to pursue a coherent and effective foreign policy, including in the digital space," writes Cassis.

It is in our interest to continue to pursue a coherent and effective foreign policy, including in the digital space.
Ignazio Cassis, Federal Councillor

Drawing on this, the new Digital Foreign Policy Strategy sets out four fields of action:

Digital governance

Photo of the Celestial Sphere at the Palais des Nations in Geneva featuring a watermark showing binary code composed of the numbers 0 and 1.
What standards are needed to regulate new technologies so they benefit everyone? International Geneva offers a unique platform for dialogue in Switzerland. © FDFA

Establishing a new system of global governance to regulate the use of digital technologies throughout the world is a complex task. Ideally, all countries should be able to agree to comply with specific rules and standards – which would be legally binding – to guarantee proper conduct and respect for the interests and needs of everyone. That said, although a new legal framework would undoubtedly be effective, there is also a need to seek a more flexible approach to digital governance. This is the route that Switzerland has opted for. Without wanting to over-regulate digital technologies, the federal government primarily intends to apply the existing provisions of international law to the digital space rather than create new ones. It is therefore advocating a moderate and measured position.

Prosperity and sustainable development

A smartphone on a table showing the homepage of the SwissCovid application.
Some digital applications promote health and well-being – SwissCovid was designed with the aim of limiting the number of coronavirus infections in Switzerland. © unsplash

The digital transformation is essential to securing prosperity, both in Switzerland and elsewhere. For the federal government, digitalisation is an asset that supports its economy and foreign trade interests. It is a major driver of innovation and is being used wisely by the research community. But these innovations must also make it possible to deliver more effectively on the objectives of international cooperation and universal implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Digital technologies must therefore guarantee major steps forward in the fields of business and finance (fintech), medicine (medtech), peacebuilding (peacetech) and poverty reduction (Tech4Good). This is why digitalisation is also a priority in Switzerland's international cooperation strategy. The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) is already implementing these objectives in various projects. For example, healthcare workers in Tanzania who only received rudimentary training can rely on an application to improve diagnoses for several diseases, including malaria. In 2017, another project facilitated swift compensation for 203,000 farmers in southern India who had lost their rice crops to drought. This was made possible by the national crop insurance scheme and the extent of the damage was identified using satellite imagery.


A Swiss passport placed vertically on a white desk.
Nowadays, biometric passports contain the digital information necessary to protect individuals against all forms of identity fraud. © Keystone

Efforts to promote peace must be strengthened wherever possible. Specifically, in the digital space, this means promoting structures and spaces for dialogue that allow the application of international law and international humanitarian law. Switzerland recognises the validity of international law and seeks to apply it to combat all forms of cyberattack. Cybersecurity therefore involves a range of actors, from states to civil society to economic actors. The multi-stakeholder approach is a constant in Switzerland's foreign policy strategy, as is its long tradition of good offices.

Digital self-determination

Two surveillance cameras fixed on a concrete wall. A symbol representing a padlock is superimposed onto the photo.
Digital technologies are used to guarantee our own security. But every individual should retain control of the data they want to share. © unsplash

Digital self-determination is necessary to ensure that privacy and freedom of opinion and expression are respected. The collection of personal data by digital technologies in our day-to-day lives causes uncertainty about their use, or sometimes misuse, by third parties and states. It must not be possible for any of this data to be used to restrict fundamental individual freedoms. Everyone who is connected to the world through digitalisation or digital technologies must be able to control how their personal data is used and shared and be able to determine how it is used in future.

Swiss expertise and the role of International Geneva

Switzerland has an ambitious objective in terms of digitalisation. Thanks to its consensus culture and its tradition of good offices, it is positioning itself as a mediator in a new and difficult environment. Its institutions, neutrality and overall reputation allow it to build confidence. This is a significant asset for Switzerland, which seeks to play a leading role in the development of appropriate regulation for the digital space. As set out in the new Digital Foreign Policy Strategy: "In light of prevailing digital geopolitics, and a growing trend towards bloc-building, there is an increasing need for mediators. Switzerland can build on its key successes and proven track record in this regard." 

In this respect, Switzerland also cultivates its host state tradition. It intends to draw on the key role of International Geneva to become the global centre for digital governance. The city is particularly active in research into and promotion of digital technologies. Through the presence and reputation of various actors, it provides a space for dialogue where the multi-stakeholder principle fits perfectly with the federal government's basic policy.

Switzerland is at the forefront in the development of digital applications and technologies.
Ignazio Cassis, Federal Councillor

In addition, Switzerland is one of the countries with the most start-ups in the field of artificial intelligence. "With its universities, other research facilities and innovative private companies, Switzerland offers a stable and favourable environment and is at the forefront in the development of digital applications and technologies."

Alongside Crypto Valley in the canton of Zug and the new Trust Valley in the Lake Geneva region, International Geneva has already played a major role in the development of the internet through collaboration with the Secretariat of the UN Internet Governance Forum (IGF) and via CERN. It is also home to the Geneva Internet Platform (GIP), an organisation that promotes understanding and knowledge of new technologies. The new Digital Foreign Policy Strategy therefore provides a ready framework to place Geneva and Switzerland even more at the heart of global digital policy issues.

Start of page