Ministry of Foreign Affairs confronts the issue of cybersecurity head-on: ‘Keeping the internet open, free and safe – that’s our goal’


The Dutch government recently launched its cyber strategy for 2023-2028. The strategy aims to keep the internet open, free and safe – now and in the future. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also has a cyber ambassador who works every day in pursuit of this goal. Over the past three years this role has been fulfilled by Nathalie Jaarsma, who passed the baton to Ernst Noorman this summer. Below, the two explain how the ministry is dealing with an increasingly digital society.

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Image: ©Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken

Disinformation, the ultra-rapid development of artificial intelligence (AI) and cybercrime are just some of the challenges that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and other organisations, has to address. A number of significant steps have been taken in this direction in recent years. ‘In 2015 we created a cyber taskforce,’ said Nathalie. ‘We’d been asked by the UK to organise an international cyber conference, and at the same time there was all sorts going on at the UN in this area. We saw that there was a need for cyber diplomacy.’

International framework

That need was quickly translated into a strategy, Nathalie went on to say. ‘The Ministry of Foreign Affairs picked up the gauntlet on behalf of the Netherlands when it came to forging international agreements on responsible state conduct. In other words, setting up a framework for acceptable – and unacceptable – conduct in cyberspace, based on international law.’ Establishing these agreements under the aegis of the UN was anything but a formality, Nathalie remembered. ‘Don’t forget, it’s not often the case that international rules enjoy broad support. It’s even rarer that you can get enough countries together to reach a global agreement on something. But in the realm of cybersecurity, we managed to do just that. The Netherlands was a major player in putting together those agreements, and this was due in no small part to the efforts of the foreign ministry.’


The Netherlands has achieved other results in the cyber realm. Nathalie offered a summary: ‘We established the Global Forum on Cyber Expertise, the only organisation in the world that works to bring together supply and demand in the area of cybersecurity, in relation to government tasks. In addition, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was one of the founders of the Freedom Online Coalition, an organisation dedicated to a free and open internet.’ She continued: ‘The Women in Cyber Fellowship, which supports female government representatives from UN member states in their participation in cyber negotiations, never would have come about without the initiative of a small group of countries, including the Netherlands. This has brought more countries to the table, and we’re also making the cyber dimension a key element of our feminist foreign policy.’

She is also particularly enthusiastic about the digital support being given to Ukraine since the Russian invasion. Nathalie: ‘Ukraine has stayed online! In the news you hear and see a lot about the military support we’re providing there, but we’re also supporting them with cyber resilience, together with other countries and – very importantly – the private sector.’

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Image: ©Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken
Nathalie during negotiations at the UN about responsible international behavior in cyber.


Despite all these positive developments, Ernst Noorman will face some big challenges in the years ahead, in his new role as cyber ambassador. He said: ‘Keeping the internet open, free and safe will not be easy in the coming years. There are geopolitical shifts happening, and some countries seem inclined to keep their own internet closed. The Netherlands wants to prevent that as much as possible.’ He continued: ‘Don’t forget that digital technology can be used in attempts to undermine public trust in democratic processes. The US government, for example, has said that it has observed such attempts during their elections.’

Cyber diplomacy

Ernst brings years of experience as a diplomat to his new job as cyber ambassador. He said: ‘In the Netherlands we’ve gone through a major digital transformation, but this is not universal. How can we ensure that countries that are lagging behind in this area can catch up in a safe way? Because the weakest link in the chain can also have an influence on our security. These are the kinds of questions we’ll be grappling with in the field of cyber diplomacy in the years ahead.’

In that light it was also important not to underestimate the impact of the ultra-rapid development of AI, Nathalie added. ‘All the digital challenges we’ve seen up to now will seem like child’s play compared to AI. From a scientific perspective it can bring tremendous progress, but at the same time it entails certain risks, not least among them the possibility that it could actually endanger our democracy.’

Big Tech

In pursuing its digital course, the Netherlands has to work with tech companies, academia and the research community, and civil society organisations. These include representatives of Big Tech: major technology companies that wield a great deal of power over the internet. Fortunately there are more and more parties that are open to working with the government, Nathalie noted. ‘There’s a group of Big Tech companies that are happy to engage with us. They choose to support democratic countries in the digital world, and they’re looking for ways of doing this. They’re keen to avoid the authoritarian tendencies you see in certain countries, especially online. Indeed, there are even companies that make their own foreign policy for that reason. The framework for this policy is formed by EU legislation, including the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act.’

World leader

It is up to Ernst to embrace both the challenges and opportunities in the cyber realm, on behalf of the Netherlands. He offered a few parting words: ‘It’s not the case that the risks outnumber the opportunities, or vice versa. Digitalisation is an ongoing process, and we need to deal with it. Fortunately, in the Netherlands we can build on an excellent online infrastructure, and we also have a sound cyber policy. As the International Institute for Strategic Studies observed, with good reason: “The Netherlands is a world leader in cyber diplomacy.” This is a good foundation for my work in the years ahead.’