Diplomats and foreign ministers are slowly emerging from their Covid-induced hibernation, but the 75th United Nations general assembly – supposedly a display of the world’s connectedness – will largely be an exercise in remote Zoom diplomacy.
World leaders will not be at the podium in New York delivering set-piece speeches, but instead will be sending pre-recorded messages from behind their flag-festooned office desks in their capitals. Only national diplomats already in New York will be present in the UN chamber, probably about one per country.
The US told UN member states that anyone who wanted to come had to self-quarantine for 14 days upon arriving in New York. As a result it will be an general assembly like no other. The behind-the-scenes bilaterals, side events and chance encounters that turn the annual meeting into a diplomats’ playground will be absent.
There will be no repetition of the drama of last year, for instance, when Emmanuel Macron shuttled through New York hotel suites late at night in an attempt to persuade Donald Trump and the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, to bury their differences over the Iran nuclear deal.
The UN secretary general, António Guterres, took the decision to close the UN campus on the East River early in March, even before Broadway or the New York museums had shut their doors. “The UN politically could not afford to become a hotspot within a hotspot that New York was becoming,” said Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesperson for Guterres.
Like many organisations, the UN was put through a crash course in remote working. Many diplomats say they have felt like fish out of water over the past few months, rattling around empty embassies, reminding colleagues to unmute on video calls.
Virtual ministerial country visits to Yemen are hardly a substitute for the reality, while cultural events, such as tango lessons or wine tasting, represent an online challenge. “The way we communicate constantly changes with technology from the telex and diplomatic pouch to the mobile phone. But this is a face-to-face business,” one EU diplomat in London said.
Hreinn Pálsson, the deputy chief at Iceland’s UN mission, explained the pitfalls of zoom diplomacy during a recent Zoom seminar. “The trouble is everything is on the record,” he said. “We do not write reports back home about the political situation in the US. What we do is provide the background, and you get the background from private conversation.
“So many conversations on Zoom end with ‘I will tell you the background to all this over a cup of coffee later’. That is the hindrance. You cannot get hints, nods and winks to guide you.”
In London a senior ambassador in the thick of a major crisis fulminates: “We cannot do our job. This cannot go on much longer. Diplomacy is all about confidentiality. We cannot trust Zoom and other technology. The assumption must be that the security is compromised.
“Anyway, diplomacy is tactile and about relationships. If there are 12 people around the table in the room, I can see who is laughing at my joke, who is engaging, who is looking hostile and what the atmosphere in the room will bear.
“With Zoom, there is no real interaction, but compromise needs interaction and diplomacy feeds off compromise. It is all far too formal and hierarchical. We press the mute button at the end and we are no further. Everyone has set out their previous position in 12 monologues. Maybe it’s fine for businessmen, but not for us.”
Another London-based ambassador said true diplomacy occurred in the impromptu side meetings, not in the formal exchanges where ministers are flanked by officials determined their minister does not stray from the official brief. “Diplomacy is partly about creating an atmosphere, perhaps over dinner at the embassy, where people talk privately, freely. Our task is to pollinate.”
One diplomat with 40 years’ experience said: “The French say you cannot truly build a relationship of trust until you have had lunch with them three times. Through video calls you can maintain existing relationships, you cannot cultivate new ones.”
Arguably the isolation has had a practical impact. Some rounds of talks between the EU and the UK were either lost or conducted online, and latest reports suggest some of the blockages only eased after face-to-face meetings in London.
That does not mean Zoom diplomacy has no merit, or that it has not prompted innovation. Foreign policy thinktanks and academia have opened their doors to find a wider global audience. Jean-Christophe Bas, the chief executive of the Dialogue of Civilisations Research Institute, said: “Actually what we have seen is that Zoom and other digital tools are making dialogue and negotiations more accessible, and can help to bring a wider range of people together – people who would never otherwise have been at the same table.”
And like any office worker, diplomats have been forced to re-evaluate their use of time, and to be more efficient. For instance, since March more than 120 meetings ahead of the G20 summit in November, including so-called sherpa meetings of behind-the-scenes advisers, have been conducted entirely online and the saving in airfares and carbon emissions is vast. But the lack of in-person attention-focusing meetings may yet have an impact.
Now, slowly, diplomacy is waking up. In August foreign ministers seemed to collectively decide to restart in-person visits, often ignoring quarantine restrictions. The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, travelled to the Middle East to seal the accord between the UAE and Israel. The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, spent a week in Europe visiting five capitals before the EU-China virtual summit. The UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, has been to Israel and Washington. A few intrepid European ministers made it as far as Libya, and Libyans held a dialogue in Montreux.
The smile-for-the-camera handshake is being replaced by an awkward elbow or fist bump, but as the general assembly will show, diplomacy is gingerly moving back into the light. However, ministers do not want to be seen defying the travel rules their own governments have imposed on their people. And even if the diplomatic channel means you can jump the queue, few miss the airport.