Viral diplomacy: in the age of coronavirus, how statecraft and summitry will have to adapt

At this time of global crisis, we need fewer face-to-face meetings and literal handshakes – but diplomacy more than ever

FILE - In this June 28, 2019, file photo, President Donald Trump, right, shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan. Intelligence officials say Russia is interfering with the 2020 election to try to help Trump get reelected, The New York Times reported Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
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As corona goes viral, we are learning that predictions can be both contagious and futile. But here – recklessly – are a few for the moments between washing our hands.

Firstly, we will realise that of all the contagious predictions we shared, those from medical experts were the most reliable. Second, as at any time of collective challenge, we will see the best and worst of humans. Third, as Bill Gates has commented with respect to technology, we will overestimate the short term implications, but underestimate the long term impact.

Flying people from around the world to sit in close proximity for gruelling periods in airless rooms falls well outside WHO guidelines on avoiding infection

At times of global crisis, we need diplomacy more than ever. Diplomats are the lubricant in the system that ensures that ingenuity, co-operation and collaboration between countries can take place.

But these are also moments when diplomacy can be weakened. Resources move to other priorities. Or, when the global economy goes through shocks on this scale, they are no longer there.

In the short term, the crisis could knock out some of the international summits currently set for 2020. Flying people from around the world to sit in close proximity for gruelling periods in airless rooms falls well outside WHO guidelines on avoiding infection.

Key meetings in 2020 include the 50th anniversary of the non-proliferation treaty, in New York from April. It is looking orphaned in the era of Presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, and this was a chance to reassert its importance.

Mr Trump is also no fan of the G7, except perhaps on home territory in an election year. So it should go ahead at Camp David in June, albeit in low key fashion and with pandemics on the agenda. The UN, also in need of a confidence boost, is due to gather in September in New York to mark its 75th anniversary. And the G20 – which UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown rejuvenated in 2009 in response to the last global economic crisis of this scale – meets in November in Riyadh.

COP26, perhaps the most important and urgent of the 2020 summits, meets in Glasgow in November. Five years after the historic Paris Agreement, states will set out plans to meet their pledges to hold average global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Few are on track, and the virus could mean crucial time is lost and resources are redeployed.

Should these summits fall victim to the virus, diplomats will need to scramble to create the drama and forcing moment of a big conference without the usual grip and grin photos, face-to-face time for leaders or (a more recent addition) Donald Trump walkout.

One impact may be that leaders discover that the answer to every global problem is not an international conference.

Covid-19 will also limit international travel for leaders and diplomats. Every leap forward in communications – the stirrup, ships, telephones, videoconference, WhatsApp – reduces the reliance on what US journalist Edward Murrow called “the last three feet”. But direct personal contact is still the magic ingredient for the best diplomacy. Statecraft is the only business that elevates the handshake to the evidence of success and not just the start of a process.

So diplomats will need to accelerate experiments with technology, and apply a fresh mindset to how best to connect. One senior UK official is pioneering ‘virtual visits’ that don’t involve setting foot in the country. Another foreign ministry has already dubbed the increased number of crisis meetings with key embassies ‘COVIDeoconferences.’ One silver lining is that diplomats will leave less of a carbon footprint. Some new working practices will outlive the virus.

In the medium term, crucial peacemaking efforts – Syria, Libya, Israel/Palestine – could be set back. With more diplomats absorbed by the immediate crisis response, there will be less energy to contain viruses such as extremism, radicalisation and injustice, or to protect refugees and civilians under attack. As the Brits have found with Brexit, it is hard to maintain consistent application when one issue becomes so headline-grabbing. Former US President Dwight Eisenhower warned, long before social media and Oval Office tweeting proved him right, that “what is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”

In the medium term, the virus could shift geopolitics. It is too soon to say whether more authoritarian or democratic governments will prove better at responding. The economic and reputational hit will be greater in some countries than others, moving them up or down the hard and soft power league tables. Some key elections may be won or lost on whether Covid19 is quickly contained – it would be ironic if the notoriously germaphobic Donald Trump were to lose the White House in November because of a virus. Whatever the outcome of the election, America will have a president in the most vulnerable demographic.

But, like technology, it may be the longer-term implications that matter most, long after the coronavirus takes its place in the under-documented history of infectious disease. These could include real setbacks to cross-border efforts to tackle crime, narcotics and terrorism; plenty of people will not let a good crisis go to waste. This or future pandemics may create a new form of migration – away from areas perceived to be at higher risk of pandemics. Alongside climate-driven migration, this could be a huge driver of geopolitical change. The sad reality is that the pandemic is also likely to hit the more vulnerable hardest, increasing perceptions of inequality and fuelling distrust of governments and elites.

Perhaps most damaging of all, the virus might become another weapon in the armoury of those who believe that the answer to the 21st century is to build a bigger wall. A pandemic that exposes the weakness of systems for international cooperation will lead some politicians to campaign on more nationalist platforms.

What can we do, beyond follow the medical advice?

We can stockpile compassion for those individuals, communities and nations that the virus will hit hardest. We can sanitise our political debate of the xenophobia and selfishness that the crisis will encourage in some quarters. We can keep calm and carry on with the quiet, patient work of educating the next generation, including the Alexander Flemings who will discover the vaccines of the future. We can choose not to wash our hands of the long list of other challenges we need to confront.

And maybe we can come to observe that all of those challenges – from climate to conflict to automation to pandemics to genuine equality of opportunity – require us to work more closely together as human beings. Even if there are times when we need to distance ourselves from one another.

Tom Fletcher CMG is a former UK Ambassador, visiting professor at NYU and the Emirates Diplomatic Academy and the author of ‘The Naked Diplomat’