In the world of diplomacy, gone are the days of handshakes, bilateral meetings or international summits attracting a horde of world leaders and diplomats to discuss issues of the day.
Swamped by their desperate bid to contain the novel coronavirus outbreak within their borders, leaders are forced to hold over their foreign policy goals and prioritize global responses to the deadly disease.
That leaves traditional diplomacy ground to a halt, superseded by virtual video conferences devoid of close personal contact that has been deemed indispensable in carrying out foreign affairs. While cybersecurity and infrastructure capable of supporting fast and reliable connectivity remain as paramount concerns, one change in the post-COVID-19 world could be global diplomats turning to online diplomacy.
Some world leaders, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, took part in the Group of Seven teleconferences in mid-April over resuming economic activities in the post-coronavirus world. Group of 20 ministerial meetings, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank all convened web conferences last month as alternatives to in-person meetings.
The replacement has left many diplomats — deprived of one-on-one, face-to-face parleys to gain trust, and also of opportunities to read between the lines by examining subtle tones and facial cues and then seek some middle ground in negotiations — uneasy.
In an international summit meeting like the G7 or G20, lower-ranking official representatives from each state known as sherpas hash out the details before heads of states fly into a host country to save time. The leaders only then finalize their commitments and tackle any disagreements by addressing them both inside and outside official negotiation settings.
“I think the fact that they can’t (meet in person) in the middle of a crisis is a disadvantage,” said Masahiro Kohara, a former career diplomat stationed in Sydney and Shanghai and now a professor of Japanese foreign policy at the University of Tokyo.
“On the one hand, holding an online meeting means world leaders can convene a meeting at any time. But on the other hand … when they are at odds over an issue, they try to seek compromise outside a meeting setting, including over meals. It’s hard to do that online if there are no such components. The more complicated an issue is, it’s much harder to resolve online.”
Kohara raised Abe’s “golf diplomacy” with U.S. President Donald Trump as an example of the value of in-person diplomacy. The prime minister has attempted to cultivate close relationships with the president — well-documented for his erratic, cantankerous personality and holding to an “America First” principle — through his favorite leisure activity on multiple occasions.
Some observers say their personal relationship has worked in Japan’s favor and that the country has relatively managed well to dodge Trump's wrath, unlike Europe and China.
Sharing meals at the same table together is also critical in diplomacy, Kohara explained. The atmosphere could be less tense and leaders or diplomats may reveal true intentions that would not have been shared during negotiations, deepening mutual understanding, building a relationship and displaying their personality. Those personal elements couldn’t be overtaken by online interactions, he noted.
Negotiations also could become harder to achieve in an online meeting, wrote Nick Ashton-Hart, a representative at private firm Digital Trade Network in Geneva, in a Council on Foreign Relations blog post in April. In contrast to an in-person meeting in which a counterpart sits across from an individual, “remaining disagreeable is easier” if the negotiation is from one’s home due to a lack of peer pressure.
“Much of the hard work of reaching agreements takes place in smaller, off-the-record gatherings,” he wrote. “It is possible to facilitate online equivalents of these processes, but it is more complex than simply walking down the aisle and having a quick word or running into people in hallways.”
There are other issues as well. Diplomats and leaders are apprehensive about online security. In diplomacy, where highly sensitive and classified information is exchanged, ensuring robust security in online communications could be costly and time-consuming.
Earlier last month, the German foreign ministry reportedly restricted the use of the videoconferencing service Zoom because of its lax security standards. The Taiwan government and New York City schools banned using the app altogether.
Technological glitches, miscommunication and even old-fashioned clumsiness with technology impede meetings as well. When the U.N. Security Council held a meeting last month, it was rife with problems: noise disrupted the meeting as diplomats forgot to turn off microphones when they were not speaking, audio came and went away and some attendees were disconnected, footage reported by Al Jazeera showed.
Countries with limited technology infrastructure, and oftentimes lacking the resources to improve their situation, could find themselves at a disadvantage, which could widen the digital divide as developed countries reinforce their telecommunications system, such as by incorporating 5G technology.
But shifting gears toward Zoom diplomacy does not have to be all negative, argues Toshikazu Inoue, a professor at Gakushuin University specializing in Japanese foreign policy history.
The success of online diplomacy depends on how much trust has already been in place between countries or leaders, especially in times of crisis when information is scarce yet one has to make an important diplomatic decision, he said.
Despite resistance from some diplomats’ to embrace video conferences and technological glitches, the inability to hold in-person meetings because of the coronavirus has unexpectedly highlighted the benefits of having online meetings, Inoue added, adding communication options and increasing its diplomatic importance.
“For example, during the Cold War, world leaders had hotlines to avoid catastrophe by accidentally pushing the nuclear button,” he said. “Something like Zoom is like a modern version of that in a sense. I think it can help to build trust even more since one can look at a counterpart’s face … and there’s usefulness for new communications tools in times when world leaders need to make a swift decision yet are still able to see each other’s faces even though they are far apart. ”
Even after COVID-19 is eradicated, ways of life may not be the same compared to before the outbreak, he added.
Kohara, the former diplomat, predicted countries have no option but to rapidly develop the necessary infrastructure to go online in diplomacy. Japan is an important ally to the U.S., and both countries must strengthen a solid telecommunication system to exchange sensitive information such as on North Korea.
“Viruses causing infectious diseases can be mutagenic every five to 10 years. Considering that the movement of people is halted and social distance measures are implemented each time, holding in-person face-to-face talks is difficult,” he said. “If there are no options other than online, I think going online will become the new normal.”