Time for an update: How cyberspace affects Swiss foreign policy and what to do about it

Frieden & Sicherheit

Science & Tech

The evolution of the Internet has created new problems for nation states, which can best be addressed through international cooperation. Swiss foreign policy objectives are being challenged by this development and hence, they need to be adapted. Switzerland should become more active.


This article belongs to a two-piece Blog about Cyberspace and Cyberwar. To read about Cyberwar in general, go to the article “Wild Web War” by Matthias Rizzi. 

Foreign policy objectives are based on a traditional view of what states want to and can achieve. The Internet – with all the technologies and services it made possible – has effectively changed what states can do, by either limiting their power or opening up new paths. The technological change has also created new objectives. Furthermore, states that manage to adjust their foreign policy objectives in a way that takes into account the new possibilities and challenges posed by cyberspace will be more effective at achieving their foreign policy objectives.

How Cyberspace affects foreign policy objectives

Taking the case of Switzerland, the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs reiterates the five foreign policy objectives enshrined in the constitution: peaceful coexistence among peoples, respect for human rights and the promotion of democracy, safeguarding the interests of the Swiss economy abroad, relieving need and poverty in the world and preserving the natural environment.

Cyberattacks on Estonian and Georgian government servers and “Stuxnet” in Iran have shown how new technologies have opened up new ways to threaten the peaceful coexistence among peoples. Those new cyber instruments are poorly captured by existing laws and regulations. Great confusion and debate exists over what norms apply to them (see for example Tallinn Manual). Taking into account the global and decentralized nature of the Internet and Swiss neutrality, the issue of Swiss responsibility in case of cyberattacks being routed through Swiss territory arises.

While the Internet is often described as a source for good when it comes to human rights (see the use of social media during the Arab Spring), there is no denying that governments can also use it to suppress and influence civil society or to enable mass surveillance as evidenced by the recent NSA revelations. Cyberspace changes how human rights can be promoted – a core Swiss foreign policy objective! – but also creates new ways of curtailing them. Furthermore, cyberspace has added its own human right, based on the desire for open and free information.

The revelations about massive spying through new technologies also show how the third Swiss foreign policy goal – safeguarding the interests of the Swiss economy abroad – is affected by cyberspace. Switzerland, due to its financial sector and presence of high-tech industry and research institutions, has been an attractivetarget for industrial espionage. Furthermore, Switzerland is very reliant on imported resources, e.g. on energy. Hence, when protecting Swiss interests one needs to take into account new threats cyberspace can pose to critical infrastructure.

Arguably, cyberspace creates fewer issues regarding the remaining two goals, poverty reduction and environmental protection. Still new technologies raise questions that affect Swiss foreign policy objectives. How can technology benefit developmental aid? How are resources needed for the production of new technology affecting the environment?

Foreign policy 2.0?

Swiss policy, foreign and domestic, has started to address some particular issues raised by cyberspace, e.g. in the realm of cybercrime through the establishment of CYCO, the Cybercrime Coordination Unit Switzerland, which provides a focal point for reporting cyberattacks and MELANI, the Reporting and Analysis Centre for Information Assurance, where companies and individuals can find information on how to protect themselves as well as situation reports.

Swiss foreign policy has also started to address the issue of Internet governance through Swiss engagement in the World Summit on the Information Society. This is a good first step but Switzerland can go further. First, while domestic steps, especially in the realm of cyber security, are certainly necessary, the global and decentralized nature of the Internet necessitates a global response. In fact, this is already recognized by the existing Swiss cyber strategy. Hence, a foreign policy taking into account how it is affected by cyberspace is needed. One central part of such an adapted foreign policy would be active engagement with international organizations and, importantly, non-state actors such as NGOs, advocacy groups and the industry. There are enough opportunities: the Human Rights Council discusses surveillance, Brazil and Germany pushed an UN resolution in view of the NSA and the EU is working on a new data protection directive. When the pressing cyberspace issues are addressed, no one is waiting for Switzerland so it’s time to get active!