I propose that the pandemic has had a positive effect on diplomacy. I do so fully aware that I could have always resorted to the overused adjective “interesting” to describe that very effect. In any event, my aim is to show how the pandemic has aided the digitalization of diplomacy, and how that has ultimately led diplomats to become more aware than ever before of the nature, significance and peculiarity of their work.
The very nature of diplomacy is personal. It has to do with human interaction and face-to-face engagement, be it public or private, official or unofficial, with one, two or hundreds of other diplomats. But diplomacy will always involve in-person relationships meant to build trust and understanding to perform, precisely, the tasks diplomats are mandated and expected to fulfill and which have been so intensively discussed by wise scholars who interpret what diplomats sometimes inadvertently “progressively develop” before “codification” makes its entrance.
With confinement came urgency and initial bewilderment in foreign ministries and embassies too. A great deal of diplomatic activities had to go digital in a rush and migrate to virtuality. And this affected not only consular assistance and official meetings but also trade, cultural and other public diplomacy initiatives that would have been unconceivable in digital formats weeks before. The very personal nature of diplomacy was at stake without the possibility of reading rooms and body language or having corridor informal chats that, in most cases, end up settling issues debated in the main halls.
Significance of diplomatic work may be a controversial side of my argument as diplomats have been rightfully accused of egotism in some cases, not only in the past. But the pandemic has allowed for reassurance for every diplomat performing consular responsibilities while Covid was hitting hard and her or his country fellows were in real problem. While borders and airspaces were being shut down and flights cancelled, consular officials were under extreme pressure to solve rapidly growing enquiries that became desperate calls for assistance in most of the cases.
Against all odds and limited resources (resources are never enough in cases of emergency), consuls were as aware as never before of the many tools at their disposal, in particular the soothing value of a friendly voice on a phone or a virtual hug. Digitalization of consular diplomacy proved to be key as a public service in order to keep communities informed round the clock through permanently updated posts in social media and other digital resources and, very importantly, engaging meaningfully with them online to channel the massive requests and enquiries that were received 24/7.
Beyond consular digital assistance and relief, diplomacy has also been of great significance as it flexed its muscles on health, science and technology as priority matters, far beyond the geopolitical connotations gained by the recently coined “vaccine” variety of diplomacy. Active action on health diplomacy was deployed by governments, international organizations and many “stakeholders” with an interest and commitment in solving this world scourge, bilaterally and multilaterally, and digitalization proved to be a timely and available means to facilitate interaction, be it under the auspices of WHO, PAHO, G20 and every other forum sensibly calling for attention on the need to work together against Covid.
On the other hand, it was the peculiarity of diplomacy that made it initially impossible to conceive of activities other than in-person when the pandemic took us all by surprise. In the context of forced confinement, the peculiarity of diplomatic work was put to test. Even when digitalization of diplomacy had been around for a while and many countries had been making good use of the tools that ICTs offered also in the realm of diplomacy, the digital diplomacy that had been practiced so far had more to do with public diplomacy and not so much with its traditional sibling, be it bilateral or multilateral.
In fact, for many years Ministries of Foreign Affairs, embassies and diplomats had been resorting to social media as a means to also accomplish diplomatic objectives. So much so that the text of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations could be easily updated if we were given the chance to insert where appropriate the adverb “virtually” in almost every paragraph, as a new alternative way to also exercise most functions, duties and rights set out in the text.
But, again, most of the digitalization of diplomacy seen during pre-pandemic world mainly involved public diplomacy, that is, that field of diplomacy addressed to foreign audiences instead of strictly official counterparts, a “dialogue” meant to engage directly with the public, without intermediaries and not merely channeling down messages with official positions on the myriad of affairs taking place in the world.
Digitalization for all
Diplomacy scholars have been writing profusely about public diplomacy and, more recently, about its catalyzed digitalization after Covid impacted. The growing debates among them is very fruitful and immensely useful for diplomats who became besides more and more aware of their contributions as they perform their duties digitally less inadvertently than before, even when they also contribute to further controversy as evidenced in revealing academic debates among contenders such as Dr. Ilan Manor on the actual relevance of “soft power” as a term in public diplomacy in the digital age, among so many other appeased duels on, for instance, the value of algorithms as audiences or the “bigger, better toolkit” that diplomats inherited from the pandemic experience.
Besides the sudden realization of how “digital” a diplomat can also be, the good news brought about by the initial lack of means imposed by the pandemic on diplomatic activity is that digitalization transcended the public diplomacy field and finally reached -openly, completely and unashamedly- the realm of traditional diplomacy. So much so that digitalization of conventional diplomacy made its entrance in both the bilateral as well as the multilateral stage.
The moment was ripe out of necessity: world leaders, high-level officials of states and international organizations and diplomats themselves shifted a great deal of their activities towards virtuality. They engaged online with their peers, held bilateral meetings, made official virtual visits and joined virtual summits and multilateral meetings convened in virtual No Man’s Land at the time indicated in their own watch and that, in this case, did not always coincide with that of the rest of their colleagues connecting from their own time zones.
In so doing, diplomats not always had the chance to wait for their instructions to do so. Not every Foreign Ministry was ready to react in such a hurry and with the necessary flexibility. This failure to quick adaptation was not so much related to lack of means or digital divides but, rather, to cyber security concerns and, in many cases, confidentiality.
The insistence on the use of the word “initial” to describe the reactions and sense of hopelessness that some diplomats had to go through when Covid hit first is totally deliberate. And on this, “positive” (not merely “non-negative”) comes as a sensible way to describe a consequence of the pandemic on the digitalization of diplomacy: it enhanced resourcefulness and creativity, and pragmatism overtook “zoom fatigue” and bureaucratic lethargy at the end of the day.
The pros and cons of virtuality are many and have been extensively analyzed by academia and practitioners alike. During the pandemic, listening was prioritized as a salient component of public diplomacy, sometimes instinctively, as wisely reckoned by USC CPD Professor Nick Cull. Virtuality has enhanced one of the main functions that every diplomat is tasked not only to do but to do it successfully: building bridges. As noted by plenty of recent studies by scholars and researchers, lessons learned are plenty and the benefits of virtuality are many, but it is an even more self-evident truth now that diplomacy will remain a face-to-face business which can and must go hand in hand with technological innovation.
The future is hybrid
“The future is hybrid” is a frequent refrain these days since, due to Covid restrictions, diplomacy has been elegantly forced to adapt to virtuality and, only later, adopt it — a transition masterfully described by Oxford Professor Corneliu Bjola. And virtuality is here to stay and coexist with traditional in-person diplomacy.
Growing speculation is that many instances of preparatory work will be done online given the easy accessibility and, of course, less resources involved, while reserving face-to-face instances for substantial phases of negotiations or other diplomatic activities. This would go hand in hand for certain multilateral meetings, for instance, but diplomats know well that sometimes it is the setting up of an agenda what consumes them most and, more often than not, details are ironed out over a coffee at 3 am after the fourth or fifth round of formal negotiations in the main hall next door. A well-known motto in UN circles accurately summarizes this: Vienna cafés will always be necessary. And yes, it also pays a tribute to the cafeteria lodged in the UN headquarters in New York.
Hybrid will also remain a valid useful tool for bilateral diplomacy, for sure, reserving in-person handshakes and photo-ops for high-level visits previously agreed online. Against the forces of the “deglobalization phenomenon” dissected by Professor J. L. Manfredi, public diplomacy will stand up proud to continue to make the most of digitalization now that it has reaped the benefits of reaching audiences broader than the original target, advancing dialogue with civil society, engaging international students in virtual exchanges and attracting foreign publics in wine tastings, art exhibits — and even tango lessons now also held online.
In short, the good news is this: the future of diplomacy is hybrid. The challenge is to blend the advantages of virtual and in-person diplomacy to benefit each other. Chats over coffee, previously agreed online, will be even more celebrated in this new hybrid world — meaning more Vienna cafés will be necessary.