Responding to a unilateral veto: European ‘cyber diplomacy’ after Dubai

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After the dust settled following the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) negotiations in Dubai in December 2012, 2013 poses numerous challenges to the ‘cyber diplomats’ in foreign ministries around the world. Right at the top of the list is how to respond to the failure to reach a global agreement in Dubai and what to do about the increasingly untenable position that the United States has taken in these negotiations.

For more than a decade the U.S. has prevented any United Nations or similar global oversight of Internet Governance, preferring instead to develop new forms of multi-stakeholder governance such as ICANN or the Internet Governance Forum. While proponents point to these solutions as innovative institutions that integrate all relevant stakeholders, critics see them as simply another extension of U.S. hegemony. And indeed, it is primarily the U.S. that has used its power to protect these institutions, both within the U.N. system and at such events as the World Summit on the Information Society 2005 in Tunis.[1] Other Western and particularly European states have been far more ambivalent in their support of these ‘new’ multi-stakeholder institutions, and repeatedly had to be ‘convinced’ in diplomatic negotiations by their American colleagues.

However the U.S. has yet to get almost everything that it wanted and still say no - as was the case in Dubai. This particularly uncompromising position has only increased the misgivings of ‘like-minded states’ around the world, who have always been torn between supporting the U.S., concerns about their own lack of ‘sovereignty’ in ‘cyberspace’ and related concerns of other states in emerging economies. The result has been a tacit European acceptance of multi-stakeholder institutions that reinforce American economic and political dominance of the Internet, while occasionally resorting to more classic tools of foreign policy when they felt that their political influence was lacking.

Worryingly many of the crucial emerging economies do no seem to have been convinced by the multi-stakeholder approach. States like Brazil, Kenya, Mexico, India, South Africa, Indonesia or Turkey have not yet been convinced that these new institutions are indeed ‘the future’ of internet governance and have tended instead to side with the more state-centric approach advocated by Russia and China. While many of these states are ‘grateful’ that their concerns are shared by European and other Western states, they are also unwilling to accept the status quo, particularly when it unilaterally imposed.

Most importantly perhaps, there is very little understanding in European or North American capitals what many of these emerging economies actually want. While it will be difficult for the United States to respond to these preferences credibly given their past negotiating positions and the performance in Dubai, European states do not carry the same baggage. However even then without a basic understanding of the preferences of these states and giving these states a substantive role in the policy development process around these issues, they are unlikely to be swayed. The Russian and Chinese proposal of greater public control over Internet Governance remains highly attractive, not least when coupled with Chinese support of economic growth surrounding communications.

A plausible European response to these problems would be to start listening to the needs and wishes of emerging economies seriously and back this up with a series of commitments. Preparedness to jointly develop serious policy initiatives in the space of Global Internet Governance is one. A commitment to support these initiatives with hard cash in the form of development funding, loan guarantees and technical support in building communications infrastructure is another. At this point in time - a few notable initiatives such as the European Parliaments digital freedom strategy and the creation of the Freedom Online Coalition in Den Haag excepted - Europe has fallen far short of such lofty goals.

Up until the end of 2012 the unilateral veto of the United States was enough to keep the multi-stakeholder model of Internet Governance afloat. However it remains to be seen whether this position will be sufficient during the numerous upcoming debates on Internet Governance between 2013 to 2015. Moreover with Hillary Clinton in the process of leaving the State Department and the ensuing process of musical chairs among the upper echelons, it is unlikely that the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will be able to demonstrate the same level of leadership on ‘cyber diplomacy’ as his predecessor. Instead of wavering between support for the U.S.-led status quo and appreciation of the concerns of non-Western states, European states could engage with emerging economies around the world to propose a way to develop an alternate approach. This would however require a common European strategy on these issues as well as a serious commitment to engagement with emerging economies and their legitimate concerns. Whether either materialises in time before the efficacy of the unilateral U.S. veto runs out remains to be seen.

Ben Wagner is a Researcher at the European University Institute and a Visiting Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.


[1]For an extensive account see Chapter 4 of Mueller, Milton. 2010. Networks and States: The Global Politics of Internet Governance. MIT Press.

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