Like many sectors of public and private life, diplomacy has been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. As the virus has spread all over the globe, the sense of diplomatic helplessness has been overwhelming. Conflicts continue unabated. Some have even worsened. Since the pandemic broke out, not a single major diplomatic breakthrough has been observed. And if one significant change sticks out from this whole period, it has been the exacerbation of the U.S.-China rivalry.
Arguably, geopolitics was already in poor shape prior to the virus. With the pandemic, diplomacy had to struggle with the new work settings of smart devices and distanced conversations. True, it was not the only government activity that had to cope with this innovative working configuration. But compared to the performances of some other government departments, diplomacy has lost ground.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that diplomacy has traveled so uneasily in these tormented days. But is its poor achievement merely the consequence of a deteriorating international environment that the virus exacerbated? Or are there more fundamental vulnerabilities inherent to the diplomatic trade that the coronavirus unexpectedly uncovered? And if so, can the pandemic serve as a useful reminder for more effective diplomatic craftsmanship overall?
As lockdown restrictions unevenly recede, no one knows what life after the pandemic will look like. For diplomats, their instinct may well be to revert to their former working routines. But there are lessons to be learned from the pandemic, which revealed preexisting foreign policy fault lines. From the flaws laid bare, a more accurate understanding of the nature and purpose of diplomacy has emerged. If properly channeled, these lessons could lead to more effective diplomacy.
This study has benefited from many interviews conducted with diplomats of different nationalities stationed in Brussels, New York, and Paris. These exchanges reveal a common awareness about the significance of the virus’ impact on diplomacy and the urgency of retaining the lessons.
Geopolitics and the Virus: A Vicious Circle?
Common opinion has it that the coronavirus has presided over a global geopolitical deterioration. It may not have been a game changer, but the virus certainly accelerated the ongoing, negative trend toward a more polarized and fragmented world.
At the multilateral level, respectable efforts to promote peace have met with considerable impediments. The UN secretary general’s call for a global humanitarian ceasefire at the start of the pandemic fell on deaf ears. Diplomatic attempts at channeling this political message through a UN Security Council resolution took three months to conclude positively; in previous virus crises, the same diplomatic process was achieved in less than a week. In the same vein, efforts have so far failed to convene a virtual summit of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council to discuss the coronavirus fallout.
The same ineffectiveness was observed in most of the UN agencies or other multilateral fora, across all sectors. The Geneva-based UN organizations have tried to maintain a steady flow of activities, but their minimalist working agenda has produced very few results thus far. Torn between the United States and China, the World Health Organization has kept a low profile during a crisis in which it should have taken a more robust lead. As for the G7 and the G20, their few virtual meetings delivered scarce output. As of the writing of this article, the convening of the next G7 summit is still fraught with uncertainty.
There is no doubt that the U.S.-China confrontation was a major contributing factor in this downfall, and it’s a telling illustration of diplomacy failing to sell the merits of international cooperation. The inability of the diplomatic community to make public health considerations trump nationalistic concerns testifies to the rout of the multilateral system.
Diplomacy at the state level has not fared better. Since the beginning of the pandemic, no positive development has taken place in Syria or in Yemen, where different warring parties have been consolidating their territorial gains. Even direct access for humanitarian assistance across the northwest Syrian borders was restricted to a single passage at exactly the time when it was needed most. Efforts for a ceasefire in Afghanistan did not deliver, while peace talks between the government and the Taliban still look uncertain. In Ukraine, painstaking negotiations just before the pandemic broke out stirred a glimmer of hope, but the follow-up to last December’s Normandy Four meeting has led to little progress. The Venezuelan standoff between the regime and the opposition shows no sign of cooling down. And the tension in Africa’s numerous hotspots, from Nigeria to Mozambique, has continued.
If any change happened during the current pandemic, it has been for the worse. Libya’s confrontation has spiraled into a new strategic dimension as Turkey and Russia shore up their support to the respective Libyan sides, and with other regional players also raising the stakes, this new configuration of antagonistic forces is conferring a strategic dimension to the whole conflict. Further south, Islamic State affiliates are still infiltrating the Sahel region and beefing up a ruthless competition with al-Qaeda. A similar upsurge of violence has been observed with Boko Haram’s attacks along the borders of Nigeria, Chad, and Niger.
The U.S.-China Confrontation
In this environment of ceaseless instability, the most significant deterioration took place with the escalation in the U.S.-China rivalry. Before the virus hit, the confrontation was mostly focused on trade and tariffs; throughout the pandemic, it has morphed into a multidimensional conflict. It has spared no field from public health, security, and defense to digital technology, education, and human rights. Both sides have contributed to the tailspin with a flurry of sanctions and countersanctions.
Yet significant changes in U.S. strategy toward China had been fomenting long before the virus emerged. They began with President Donald Trump’s entrance in the White House, which entailed a shift from the previous administration’s prudent engagement policy with Beijing to an open strategy of U.S. preeminence and Chinese slow down. The game was then set for constant arm wrestling between the two global powers against the backdrop of a United States obsessed with its possible loss of dominance.
The coronavirus caused a diplomatic chain reaction. The combination of China’s self-promotion campaign to blunt any criticism of its virus cover-up and the United States’ stern exploitation of its rival’s guilt was the perfect storm for diplomatic free fall. The swiftness of this escalation is striking, but the pandemic helped accelerate events. It offered the U.S. government an opportunity to blame the Chinese regime for the U.S. population’s suffering and to excuse—at least in the early days of the pandemic—its own poor crisis management.
At the end of the day, the virus has brought the U.S.-China rivalry to a level of tension never seen before. It has shaped geopolitics into a new landscape of sharp divisions and straight confrontation—the cold war of the digital age that is probably here to stay for many years to come. Was this inevitable? Far from it. Usually pandemics are fertile grounds for multilateralism to thrive. Previous outbreaks like SARS in 2003, H1N5 in 2008, and Ebola in 2014 demonstrated the capacity of nations and multilateral organizations to collaborate and fight efficiently against a virus. With the surge of the coronavirus, the same worldwide cooperation could have rapidly gone into motion. But it did not, and this absence needs explanation.
The Pandemic’s Impact on Diplomacy
In fact, diplomacy has been largely sidelined as it’s squeezed between bad politics on one side and poor working methods on the other.
The Unprepared Geopolitical Backdrop
From a political perspective, the coronavirus spread in a crisis-stricken environment that multilateral institutions and bilateral diplomacy had been unable to mend. Where finance experts made efforts to learn the lessons from the 2008 financial breakdown and tested the necessary tools to face new challenges, diplomats were hit unprepared. To justify their lack of anticipation, diplomats have underlined the virus’s sudden emergence and the range of its rapid extension. But these elements cannot entirely account for the sense of powerlessness that has prevailed in diplomatic circles as the crisis unfolds. This failure has more to do with past political wobbling and procrastination, problems that were left unattended.
Europe is a good case in point. As the virus spread, the first EU member state decisions went in the same direction of national protection. Closing internal borders, producing medical protective gear domestically, and imposing strict lockdowns were quick deliverables that reassured citizens. But union members were acting alone. The free movement of European citizens quickly halted. Years of meticulous cooperation were set aside, and the most revealing aspect was that EU insiders were only mildly surprised by this turn of events. In fact, past acrimonious debates, deep divisions among union members, and postponed decisions have gradually eroded the sense of collective solidarity. When the hard shock of the pandemic hit an already profoundly weakened system, European diplomacy found itself helpless after allowing the union’s governance to be insidiously undermined. Since then, the EU has started to regain some of the lost ground. But it will need more than a one-off recovery plan to rekindle a sense of cohesiveness.
On the world stage, the same impression of helplessness has prevailed as the long list of ongoing crises remains intact. The fantasy that a larger threat like a virus could halt armed conflicts rapidly ran up against dire reality. As demonstrated by the UN secretary general’s unanswered call for a global ceasefire, diplomats were unable to convince combatants to put down their arms to work on peace settlements. These inconclusive diplomatic efforts left an opening for the virus to prosper. Too much prevarication and too many delay tactics have worn down the stamina of world diplomacy and left behind a sense of powerlessness that the coronavirus could only compound.
The Improvised Diplomatic Practices in Days of Lockdown
Caught up in the reality of a global geopolitical stalemate, diplomats have also been tested in their daily work by the practical limitations caused by the pandemic. Everywhere, diplomacy has had to adjust to the lockdown. In many ways, the prevailing situation—at least at the start of the crisis—brought diplomatic activities to a near standstill. Mostly confined at home, without the technical support of secured networks for confidential conversations, diplomats had their workspace limited to virtual conferences and webinars. They had to adapt and learn to live within the constraints of this new reality.
The virus also made life more difficult for diplomats when clashes broke out on the ground. Following military incidents that burst out across the line of contact in Ukraine or between Armenia and Azerbaijan, mediators from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe or the Minsk Group were at a loss to assess accurately the situation on the ground. Limitations on travel and physical meetings prevented them from gathering facts and forced them to mitigate by giving field observers more flexibility. But these arrangements have complicated reporting processes and delayed ceasefires.
All in all, lack of personal contact with colleagues and counterparts left diplomats with a general loss of information and a sense of deep discomfort. This feeling was particularly visible in multilateral diplomacy where repetitive blocking tactics prevailed. Summed up in two words, those were days of creeping uneasiness.
The Advantages of Virtual Diplomacy
As they adapted to using digital technology, diplomats gradually found a positive side to this restricted regime. Their daily activities, duly adapted to the new realities, resulted in some unexpected yet favorable features. Diplomats interviewed for this article stress that the virtual diplomacy practiced during the pandemic induced new working trends, both complex and promising.
More Time Available but Scarce Results
The first and most obvious working change relates to time management. Virtual diplomacy prompted a near revolution in the scheduling habits of professional diplomats. As a direct consequence of canceled travel, time was reinvented as an affordable resource. Internet conversations with counterparts became the new normal. Hours spent on trains and airplanes to visit colleagues or attend meetings were suddenly available for other tasks. And many diplomatic activities were revealed for what they were: dispensable. As one interviewee commented, many time-consuming dialogues could be handled in a much more efficient manner going forward.
Has this unexpected opportunity been fully seized by professional diplomats and their leaders to improve their productivity? European diplomacy during the lockdown paints a mixed picture. Undoubtedly, European foreign affairs ministers increased the number of meetings as they virtually convened an additional two times a month. The same happened with the European leaders’ meetings that multiplied between March and June. But these numerous virtual discussions were generally inconclusive. High-level remote meetings became essentially an addition of individual monologues. Interestingly, one institutional fallout of this new technique has been the EU high representative for foreign policy’s more autonomous public statements. He has given himself more room to deliver statements on several important issues (for example, relations with China, Israel’s annexation plans, and the U.S. withdrawal from the WHO). Some European ministers, frustrated by such freewheeling, have since pressed to reconvene physical gatherings.
A More Connected Network
Travel restrictions limited bilateral visits and meetings. By the same token, they revived the role of diplomatic networks. Embassies and multilateral delegations represented a significant source of confidential and reliable information. Staff on the ground are now seen as a useful asset for solid and accurate assessments. National diplomats and also local actors working for international institutions and humanitarian organizations recaptured their sometimes forgotten role as natural intermediaries between home office and field. With central officials unable to visit, local representatives thrived during this unexpected reset. According to several interviewed diplomats, this rebalancing also improved the quality of preparations for virtual discussions, notably at higher levels. Under less time pressure and with improved connections to local diplomats, more information could be collected and files more duly completed.
Yet this high degree of preparation only reinforced the inherent limitations of these digital methods. Virtual meetings cannot deliver the spontaneity and unexpected twists of face-to-face conversation. Digital devices are useful substitutes, but they are not the same as in-person communication and cannot pretend to be. This explains why most diplomacy during the lockdown period often had an air of unfulfilled promises. Some of the necessary tools were missing in the diplomatic toolkit.
A More Differentiated Process
In their interviews, diplomats often confessed that virtual diplomacy could not deliver the whole of diplomatic craft. It could supply dialogue but could not provide ground for negotiations nor legal decisions. Exchanges of information and arguments can be shoehorned into virtual diplomacy, but genuine negotiations are less well served. Here again, the shortcoming applies particularly in multilateral circles. Personal contacts, interruptions that allow sideline conversations, and informal gatherings during coffee breaks are a natural part of multilateral processes. These ingredients have been missing with virtual diplomacy. As for legally binding decisions, they were, at least in virtual EU Council meetings, considered incompatible with electronic devices by legal experts and sent back to physical reunions. As a result, digital methods cut with precision between these different components of diplomatic craftsmanship. It naturally separated virtual conversations dedicated to strategic dialogues or high-principled exchanges and direct physical meetings focused on more detailed negotiations and drafting exercises.
The European Union has perfectly illustrated this reality during the coronavirus crisis. Preliminary exchanges between European leaders on a bilateral, or even multilateral, basis to discuss a massive financial recovery plan were held digitally. These were considered a preparatory stage. But when push came to shove and genuine collective negotiations were required, leaders had to meet in Brussels where they rapidly resumed their traditional haggling marathons. More or less at the same time, the EU’s mediation in the Serbia-Kosovo crisis followed a similar line: it was resumed through e-meetings with the Serbian president and the prime minister of Kosovo to allow both sides to reaffirm their mutual positions, and then it swiftly moved to a physical meeting in Brussels to start substantial talks.
The same distinction applied at the level of EU ambassadors who became de facto negotiators of last resort. Being the only people who continued to physically meet regularly in EU buildings, they were tasked to negotiate the final drafts their ministers could not finalize on screen. In a reversal of diplomatic traditions, officials were asked to conclude the process in substitute to their ministers.
In the end, the coronavirus slowed down the diplomatic process. It also fragmented diplomatic methods and introduced discontinuity in the diplomatic sequence. But, through the division of labor between virtual and physical diplomacy, the pandemic also offered a more precise image of the diplomatic trade. Furthermore, it contributed to a better understanding of the distinct stages of the diplomatic process and how to more efficiently use time and expertise.
Lessons From the Pandemic
While it may still be early in the coronavirus pandemic, some conclusions can be drawn. These could set the agenda for revising diplomatic craftsmanship in three main directions: the need to update and improve time management of diplomatic activities; a better connected diplomatic network to make full use of existing resources; and finally, a fresh reset to invent new ways and means for strategic thinking.
Pandemic restrictions uncovered new possibilities for diplomats to modernize their trade, get rid of some obsolete practices, and take advantage of new digital tools. They also underlined how to make a clearer distinction between the successive stages of diplomatic practice. In the midst of the crisis, diplomats did not always make the best use of these possibilities. They now have a second chance.
Improved time management would more efficiently allocate time to distinct diplomatic activities through a combination of digital conversations and physical meetings. When online discussions can fulfill limited tasks, they should replace long-distance travel. Face-to-face meetings should be left for the final steps of negotiations. It would save time and money and refocus energy on the relevant priorities.
This effort for a stricter distinction between virtual and physical options could also apply to multilateral organizations. The virus permitting, annual assemblies of UN institutions and regional organizations should stay in their present physical form, as these gatherings give opportunities for multiple sideline meetings and on-the-spot encounters. But occasional high-level meetings could be set up in a more selective manner. The possibility of passing the same political message through a less time-consuming digital device should be considered. In short, virtual habits that developed during the pandemic could help shape a more agile diplomatic craft with a smarter consumption of time resources.
Connected Diplomatic Networks
With more regular use of digital dialogues, bilateral embassies and delegations in multilateral institutions have started to regain some of their lost status in diplomatic networks. And if traveling from home capitals is to be considered a less amenable commodity from now on, local diplomats should regain some of their added value. Diplomacy must reinvest in network coordination and much needed cross fertilization.
Naturally, headquarters will be tempted to take shortcuts and reach out directly to their foreign counterparts. But that would be moving in the wrong direction. Should virtual diplomacy be integrated into diplomatic activities, solid preparation for e-meetings, in particular those taking place at senior levels, will require more involvement from local diplomatic staff. Before that high-level call, their contribution remains essential to relay the latest information from the ground or the current mood in a town. A more interconnected diplomatic network should therefore be the natural consequence of this growing digital use.
Revamped Strategic Thinking
Finally, on top of this reinvigorated diplomatic craftsmanship, there should be a specific layer for strategic input. One of the missing links today in geopolitics relates to diplomacy being hooked on small-time tactics and oblivious of long-term stakes. Because of multiplying crises, the constant pressure of ongoing crises and growing rifts, or simply the increasing complexity of the international scene, strategic thinking often gets lost along the way. As a logical consequence, when leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron call for an in-depth discussion on the future of NATO or EU strategic autonomy, their remarks are considered out of place.
Could the pandemic experience help rekindle a strategic mindset? It would be far-fetched to hope that any major overhaul of power politics would happen soon and even more so to expect that a simple change in diplomatic methods would be enough to shore up strategic thinking. Any transformation of the current geopolitical landscape will probably require gradual steps before any significant progress can be made. But strategic thinking must be an essential component of that incremental process. If there is one lesson to be learned from the ever-worsening geopolitical situation, it is that enhancing the strategic dimension of foreign policy must come first. In today’s global world, a renewed strategic mindset should influence all parts of the diplomatic service. And an updated diplomatic trade coming out of the pandemic could positively serve that purpose.
The pandemic gives a new sense of urgency to strategic thinking for two reasons. One is about process—the possibilities introduced by the new virtual methods could allow for more time dedicated to strategic reflections. The other one is related to the present geopolitical downfall. In times of power politics, nothing will improve without a wake-up call about the risk of falling over the cliff’s edge. The downward spiral induced by the deepening rift between China and the United States calls for a more comprehensive vision of the potential dangers. At some point, Chinese and U.S. leadership, with the support of other world leaders, will have to engage in a genuine strategic discussion above and beyond the present short-term exchanges. If, for that purpose, diplomatic experts can anticipate and provide savvy strategic thinking to prepare a leaders’ conversation at the right level and in the relevant fora, their contribution will be priceless.
During the pandemic, diplomacy has faced numerous dark clouds. And more threats could be coming as the virus’s evolution remains uncertain. So far, the pandemic has amplified geopolitical fragmentation and deepened the fault lines between nations. Simultaneously it has slowed down diplomatic processes and brought most peace efforts to a standstill. Yet it has unleashed new possibilities for improving the diplomatic trade, if diplomats are ready to seize the opportunity. The virus lockdown could, in the end, help release untapped resources for the sake of a more effective diplomacy and open the way to a more strategic management of global affairs.
Transformation never comes easily. And good intentions often wear out as routine finds its way back. Yet it would not be a small irony if, at the end of a period so adverse to diplomacy, the pandemic crisis gives birth to a renewed diplomatic craftsmanship.