How digital minilaterals can revive international cooperation

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speak with European Council President Charles Michel via videoconference at the European Council building in Brussels, Belgium October 20, 2021. Michel is meeting with several EU leaders prior to an EU summit which begins Thursday. Olivier Matthys/Pool via REUTERS

From London to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, calls to “reimagine” or “revive” multilateralism have been a dime a dozen this year. The global upheaval of COVID-19 and emerging megatrends—from the climate crisis to global population growth—have afforded a new urgency to international cooperation and highlighted a growing sclerosis within multilateralism that even its greatest proponents admit. 

While these calls—and the rethinking they are beginning to provoke—are crucial, a truly new and nuanced multilateralism will require room for other models too. As we described in a paper published last year at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge, digital minilaterals are providing a new model for international cooperation. Made up of small, trust-based, innovation-oriented networks, digital minilaterals use digital culture, practices, processes, and technologies as tools to advance peer learning, support, and cooperation between governments. 

Though far removed from great power politics, digital minilaterals are beginning to help nation-states navigate an environment of rapid technological change and problems of complex systems, including through facilitating peer-learning, sharing code base, and deliberating on major ethical questions, such as the appropriate use of artificial intelligence in society. Digital minilateralism is providing a decentralized form of global cooperation and could help revive multilateralism. To be truly effective, digital minilaterals must place as much emphasis on common values as on pooled knowledge, but it remains to be seen whether these new diplomatic groupings will deliver on their promise. 

Digital minilateralism in 2021

On paper, global leaders are beginning to embrace novel forms of diplomatic collaboration that depart from older, more outdated forms. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has backed minilateralism as a diplomatic tool by supporting the expansion of the G7 to a “D10” of democratic leaders, with digital policy central to the agenda. The grouping would be based on trust and shared values—key features of minilateralism—and seeks to improve cooperation among like-minded democracies on global issues. Other new, more niche, groupings are springing up at a faster pace. These include the GovTech Leaders Alliance, a body that includes countries like Luxembourg and Serbia and cities like Cordoba, Argentina, and Bogota, Colombia. The alliance supports the understanding and uptake of technology innovation to help governments address big public needs. The European Startup Nations Alliance, which includes Cyprus, Portugal, Slovenia, and Iceland, was recently formed to stimulate startup growth among its 26 member countries. Digital Nations, the flagship minilateral for digital government began life in 2014 as the D5 and its members’ recently renewed their commitment to the body by revising its charter earlier this year. 

While the power of some of these new groupings may be limited by their relative peripherality within national governments, their emergence nonetheless signals a growing international interest in the agility of small-group cooperation and rapid peer-learning. Enrique Zapata, a coordinator of the GovTech Leaders Alliance, describes minilateralism as the alliance’s intended “spirit since the very beginning.” This is reflected in the relative informality of the body, its stated promotion of “common principles” to underpin govtech strategies, and its desire to enable small-group trust-based discussion among its members—all qualities that define digital minilateralism. 

The specialist turn

Nearly a decade into the experiment in digital minilateralism, these diplomatic groupings are growing increasingly specialized. When in December 2014, representatives from the United Kingdom, Estonia, Republic of Korea, Israel, and New Zealand met in London to launch the D5, the new network aimed to share lessons-learned from digital government initiatives. It placed a major emphasis on “shared values” in its foundational charter, which was framed around a language of “open government, open values, and open markets.” Today, the novel diplomatic groupings forming around digital governance appear to be shifting emphasis from values-based minilateralism to prioritizing discrete specializations instead, from procurement know-how to “GovTech”. And while the DN summit in London last month was organized around “values-driven innovation”, it too has announced a new focus on expertise. This reorientation is captured in a new mission statement that places emphasis on “developing cutting-edge digital policy and practice”, “sharing approaches and best practices among members”, and “building expertise”—a language distinct from the accent on the value of “openness” that characterized its founding charter. While the practical differences from its earlier focus remain to be seen, the shift in language is notable.

In the context of pandemic management and uncertain economic growth, sharing specialist knowledge on fast-changing policy themes makes sense. In an interview that informed our report on digital minilateralism published last year, Jose Clastornik, the executive director of the Uruguayan National Agency for e-Government and Information Society who led Uruguay’s entry into the DN, described how “sharing knowledge decreases the necessary investment for each individual country in developing their own knowledge, for example surrounding AI.” He noted that for a small country like Uruguay knowledge aggregation regarding innovation “generates savings.” Uruguay joined the DN as part of 2018’s summit focused on AI and initiated a package of work that was based on lessons-learned from peer-countries and included a new national strategy and roadmap for AI, ethical principles for the adoption of AI, and master’s courses in data science that laid the groundwork for AI adoption based on international examples. Uruguay was subsequently ranked top in Latin America in 2021 for “AI-readiness” according to Oxford Insights, a consultancy. With public services expected to face spending squeezes in many countries, the lowered costs implied by collective specialization could prove expedient.

Nonetheless, specialized technical cooperation can quickly run into obstacles when values diverge. Despite the self-professed commitment to common digital values by DN nations, it is remarkable how little its members collaborated to develop shared contact-tracing solutions to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Though its members all shared an interest in using technological applications to fight the pandemic, differences on values such as privacy prevented practical cooperation. These differences were reflected in technological choices about whether to use GPS versus Bluetooth in contact-tracing applications; centralized versus decentralized data storage; and user versus automatic reporting of COVID test-results. One DN-member, Estonia, considered using Singapore’s TraceTogether app but ultimately rejected it. According to the CEO of one of the firms that ended up developing Estonia’s contact-tracing app, Singapore’s version “was made using the principle of a centralized application, where the state has data on who came into contact with whom, and the state decides who to inform and when,” an approach that did not meet Estonia’s “desired level of privacy.” Though some technical knowledge sharing did occur—England and Wales’ code base to allow users to check-in to venues on its  Covid-19 app was based on the technology used in New Zealand—this appears to be the exception rather than norm.

More broadly, the trend toward specialization exposes digital minilaterals to the risk of “runaway technocracy” in which “experts make decisions outside the realm of democratic oversight.” Minilaterals organized solely around specialism, which can be hard for non-experts to access, have a higher risk of taking on this quality and crowding out broader concerns regarding privacy and ethics. 

Where next

These cautionary notes should not dampen enthusiasm for digital minilateralism but help shape its future as an increasingly critical vehicle for cooperation in the international arena over the next half decade. As digital minilateralism develops and matures, we note three approaches to help minilaterals strike a healthy balance between developing trust both internally and with outside stakeholders, while also taking advantage of the opportunity for knowledge aggregation that minilateralism has proven itself well equipped to foster. 

First, as the technologist Azeem Azhar recently pointed out, “for digital minilateralism to close the exponential gap between rich countries and poor, it would need to invite many more players from the developing world to participate.” Azhar’s observation is well made. No member in the Digital Nations is from outside the OECD grouping of wealthy nations. And it appears that no lower or low middle income countries are part of other digital minilaterals which have emerged. Exceptional digital leadership is not constrained to wealthy countries, and minilateral groupings may benefit from broadening membership or widening knowledge dissemination. As we have previously written, there may be a “magic number” of optimum members in any given minilateral, but this need not prevent poor countries from taking part or developing their own.

Second, the level at which digital minilaterals operate should be driven by the problems they are seeking to solve, rather than by traditional nation-state boundaries. Effective minilateralism outside of the digital sphere has already been demonstrated at the city-level. As Azhar notes, the C40 initiative has allowed mayors across the world to collaborate in tackling climate change, and Mayors for a Guaranteed Income has joined together more than fifty U.S. cities in pursuit of a universal basic income. These have delivered results. The former helped secure £27.5m funding from the UK government to launch a new Urban Climate Action Program “to accelerate the implementation of climate action plans in 15 C40 cities across Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America, from Quezon City to Nairobi and Bogota.” The latter has seen pilots approved for basic income schemes in places such as Atlanta. In the digital field, UN-HABITAT Digital City Toolkit, and the EU’s Eurocities programs are seeking to address city-level digitization efforts. And with the growth of megacities, an approach that brings together city and national leadership—such as the GovTech Leaders Alliance—should be welcomed and studied.

Third, digital minilateralism has much further to go in facilitating the adoption of proven approaches. For example, a striking feature of minilateral approaches to date has been a relative lack of sharing of actual technologies. Whilst Canada has “forked” (taking the original source material) code from Gov.UK Notify (a status notification service that is used by more than 4,000 public service teams and in the last year sent 1.6 billion messages) and Estonia’s X-Road platform (a multi-purpose system for sharing and transacting information, delivering more than 3,000 services and 1.5 billion transactions annually) and developed its own programs using parts of the forked codebase, there remain relatively few examples of such activities from minilateral groupings. Indeed, despite significant government platform codebase being published in the open on repositories such as GitHub, code sharing remains rare. Looking at examples where code has been shared, proactive, government-led efforts were undertaken to encourage such sharing. Teams from Estonia, for example, have helped implement X-road in Finland, Kyrgyzstan, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Japan and elsewhere. No such infrastructure exists to share Notify globally, and Notify’s concentrated adoption in the United Kingdom underscores this point. Here, an opportunity may present itself for private sector actors to fill in the gaps. Where commodity technologies, such as cloud hosting, are concerned, there may be a valuable role for non-state entities, with the proper checks and balances in place, to provide technology solutions at scale. 

Accelerating digital minilateralism

The former British diplomat Tom Fletcher writes that “if the flaws in the structures of global cooperation have been exposed, that is a call to fix them.” We agree. But this will take time. Until then, it is imperative that small, committed groups backed by political leadership in their home countries take the lead in addressing the major issues of digital governance that are already hurtling towards us at pace: digital inclusion, algorithmic decision-making, automation, and more. In so doing, digital minilaterals could become influential far beyond the confines of their member countries—both as knowledge producers and disseminators, and through modelling new, more agile organizational structures of global cooperation designed for this century. 

Dr. Tanya Filer leads the Digital State project at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge. She is also the founder and CEO of StateUp.
Dr. Antonio Weiss is a Director at The PSC and an affiliated researcher at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.