Can diplomacy, a profession based on face-to-face interaction, function during the remote working imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Permanent missions to multilateral organizations, embassies, and consulates around the world represent governments, attend matters of national interest, and implement public policies. It is often overlooked that diplomacy is more than the formal relationship between states. In large part, diplomatic relations depend on the personal relationship between the people that represent nations. Traditionally, diplomats have relied on direct interactions to foster political will, enhance commerce, enable cooperation, serve their citizens abroad and address global issues that no country can face alone.
Before 2020, official visits of heads of state and government, ministers, or other national authorities were key for reaching agreements, strengthening relationships, and advancing issues of great importance such as sustainable development, peace and security, human rights, and environmental protections. Sometimes you must be in the same room to best understand with whom you are talking, their reactions, tones, and body language. Sometimes you need to step out of a negotiation with a colleague and exchange ideas in an informal setting, like over a coffee or a drink, in order to find commonalities or alternatives. Sometimes a one-on-one conversation can help find solutions on issues that seemed to be stalling for way too long.
Diplomacy during the pandemic
The pandemic has restricted travel, banned large gatherings, closed conferences and negotiating rooms, and created a new virtual format for day-to-day diplomatic work. Virtual meetings, workshops, and webinars fill the agenda. These days, online platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Webex, provide diplomats with the only window to multilateral negotiations.
Virtual settings provide opportunities to connect to meetings around the world, exchange knowledge more quickly, reduce travel costs and commute time, and allow broader participation of actors. In consular services, documents and procedures can be processed online and be delivered by mail, even for electoral processes. At the same time, however, you lose the personal touch. There is no clear definition of how responsibility extends, when time zones should be respected, when work duties end and private life continues, as regular working hours are disrupted for extended periods of time and simultaneous sessions. Procurement advocates may even question the costs of having diplomats stay in place if part of their work is done remotely, misunderstanding that the pandemic is temporary.
Pandemic adaption at the UN
International processes have made efforts to adapt, since the most pressing global issues “cannot wait.” Since the start of the pandemic, most negotiations at the UN have been held virtually, and in-person gatherings of the General Assembly have focused on high-level events and the adoption of resolutions. In September 2020, the high-level week at the United Nations, which traditionally brings together Presidents and high-level representatives in New York, was held almost entirely virtually. In 2021, efforts were made for limited in-person participation, but still gave the possibility for countries to participate virtually and through pre-recorded messages, and with no side events which allow interactions with other relevant stakeholders. Other important events such as the Conferences of the Parties of the Convention of Biological Diversity, and of Desertification, were postponed to 2022, as negotiation of substantive issues remained unfeasible to be completed virtually. COP26 on Climate Change, held in the United Kingdom in November 2021, was one of the few exceptions and took place in person with a high number of participants —almost 40,000 delegates—, despite travel restrictions. It took numerous measures to avoid becoming a super spreader event.
But complications remain, especially for developing countries that have small delegations, face technological gaps and, on several occasions, cannot fully engage in negotiations, resulting in final outcomes that may not be the best nor reflect a balance for everyone. As large in-person meetings are envisioned, participation is compromised, as there remain high inequalities in access to safe and affordable COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics, despite reiterated calls for solidarity.
Telework and the future of UN diplomacy
As in other sectors, diplomacy has adapted to the challenges of the pandemic. As the world slowly overcomes the pandemic, we should not only go back to the old ways. To “build back better” we must recognize the potential of teleworking in the context of international relations and diplomacy. Virtual meetings can bridge distances quickly and at virtually no cost. They can play an auxiliary role especially where diplomats have already built relationships based on face-to-face exchanges. Digital diplomacy is an evolving field with tremendous potential, but it still has various gaps to be bridged and needs skilled diplomats to shape it and make it more inclusive. As the fundamental principle for international cooperation, nothing can replace personal interaction. That is why it is important to ensure equal opportunities to safely attend in-person meetings, in which trust, connections and common understandings are built. Power dynamics shift or can be more balanced, as the notion of a country is personalized into the participation of representatives, who often engage with each other as peers. The relationships between countries are really the relationships between people.
About the Author
Andrés Córdova is a career diplomat working at the Permanent Mission of Ecuador to the United Nations in New York on issues related to sustainable development. He holds a Master of Public Administration from Columbia University, with concentrations in International Economic Policy and Management, and Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management. You can follow him on Instagram @andresdavidcordova.