Diplomacy is dead. Long live diplomacy!

This is an onsite edited excerpt of the G|O Briefing newsletter

By Vincent Landon

When US President Joe Biden meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva on Wednesday, 16 June, traditional diplomacy gets a welcome shot in the arm.

“There is never any substitute for leader-to-leader engagement, particularly for complex relationships,” Jake Sullivan, US National Security Advisor told the White House press corps last week.

The existence of traditional diplomacy has been questioned at times in the 15 months since the corridors and meeting rooms of the Palais des Nations emptied and the various entities of the UN system faced the challenge of responding to COVID-19.

Yet rumours of its demise continue to be greatly exaggerated and just as the telegram and telephone failed to sound the death knell for traditional diplomacy, so 15 months of intense online activity has revealed clear limitations in the virtual world.

“If you can establish a personal relationship, if you have the opportunity to do more than simply give speeches to each other, you have a better chance of seeing someone else’s perspective and of finding common ground,” says, Stephen Rapp, former US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues.

Rapp, who prosecuted Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, and was once described by US Secretary of State, Antony J. Blinken as “giving hope to those who bear the scars of atrocities…helping restore their dignity, repair their communities, and even remake their futures,” told The Geneva Observer that his work would be unthinkable without meeting people personally.

“Sometimes obviously once you have established that relationship, it’s possible to communicate quite quickly by phone or other means but those kinds of contacts would be fairly valueless if you didn’t know the person on the other side.

“Personal relationships don’t overcome real differences but to the extent that this is about finding common ground, even with countries which are adversarial on other issues, it really is essential to have that 360-degree view of each other, the three-dimensional view as opposed to the two-dimensional view that you get from a Zoom screen.”

It’s a view echoed by Ambassador Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, Permanent Representative of Austria to the United Nations Office at Geneva and President of the Human Rights Council (HRC) for its 14th cycle last year. What the Human Rights Council has experienced over the past 15 months perfectly illustrates both the opportunities and limitations of our brave new online world.

“It’s easier to camp on a red line on video,” she says. “Sometimes it is just so hard to really understand where delegates stand without being in a room together. After everyone has stated their formal position, it is vital to be able to chat to a colleague and find out how important an issue really is for them and where you have some leverage. You cannot do that in a virtual meeting.”

Towards the end of last year, negotiations with consultative committees on procedures to adopt special representatives ran into a stumbling block.

“Sometimes you arrive at a situation where you have almost everybody on board, and just one delegation still has a problem and can’t really address it because you don’t quite understand what it is all about,” says Tichy-Fisslberger. “That would normally have been solved in the coffee break in a very informal manner and, as it was, it took us two more weeks to sort it out with digital means.”

Online meetings existed long before COVID-19. Back in October 1963, the ITU broke ground with a direct exchange of live televised messages. The Secretary General of the United Nations spoke to a conference from New York, and theSecretary General of the ITU answered from the Conference Hall in Geneva.

Yet the litany of complaints about online meetings over the past two decades sound all too familiar—bandwidth, technical challenges and the difficulty of working in different time zones.

The pandemic has succeeded in accelerating existing trends and helped to focus the debate on which methods are worth keeping and which are less than ideal.

One key question is whether official meetings should be hosted on proprietary online platforms.

“It is a matter of principle that public issues are discussed in public spaces whether offline or online,” says Jovan Kurbalija, executive director of DiploFoundation and head of the Geneva Internet Platform.

“The UN Security Council meets at the UN building in New York. It does not meet in a private hotel or flat. So we need a space for online diplomatic meetings, which is neutral, which everybody can access, which is very secure and whose‘diplomatic archive’ can be saved beyond national jurisdictions. Ideally, this space should be built on open-source technology with inputs from countries, companies and citizens worldwide.”

A different issue is the extent to which questions of protocol, procedures, points of order, objections and voting rights should be reflected in the online world. The HCR presidential statement, for example, was adopted by consensus in May 2020 given that no rules of procedure existed to allow voting to take place online.

When these processes of the physical world are transposed to online meetings or video conferences, participants have rarely rated the experience highly.

“Working online is an opportunity to work in a different way,” says Ignacio Packer, Executive Director, ICVA (International Council of Voluntary Agencies), a global network of humanitarian NGOs. “This could be an opportunity to move the needle a little bit.”

Perhaps we cannot simply replicate online but instead must replace a diplomatic architecture whose origins date back to the end of World War II, with a fresh set of rules, fit for purpose in the digital age. New techniques for moderating, chairing, engaging, negotiating and even for reading body language are urgently needed.

And what is the future for physical UN venues like Geneva, New York, Vienna and Nairobi? Do countries still need embassies all across the world if meetings are taking place online anyway?

A virtual meeting would have offered a practical solution to a challenge which arose pre-pandemic in January 2020 when Kiribati in Oceania had to be represented in Geneva for its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of its human rights record.

Smaller and developing countries might well be better served with all the experts they can muster online than a single representative flying into Geneva at considerable expense. It would also level the playing field. An EU delegation performing a UPR typically consists of 20 people from half a dozen ministries.

“We are trying to encourage developing countries to use this approach, to consider their diplomatic service not only as people who sit in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs but all people who can represent their country’s interests in dealing with complex digital issues such as digitalisation or Artifical Intelligence (AI),” says Kurbalija. “A PhD student or AI researcher could be the right digital diplomat.”

Where time and money are short, better outreach and clear efficiency gains, not to mention the positive environmental impact of reduced air travel, look like strong selling points. Such an approach blurs the line between missions and capitals and also calls for a rethinking of roles and responsibilities.  

One thing is clear. More people around the table does not necessarily translate into a better quality of exchange.

In the first quarter of 2021, the International Geneva Welcome Centre (CAGI) conducted a survey among international Geneva NGOs on their transition to online platforms. More than two thirds of respondents said that virtual meetings increased accessibility and allowed for broader participation but that opportunities for in-depth exchanges and informal interactions were reduced. They also cited technical problems faced by partners in the field, complexity of processes and issues with translation.

Meanwhile NGOs outside Geneva have expressed concern about limited participation and feeling sidelined with fewer opportunities to meet and influence representatives of member states.

Organisations across Geneva are feeling their way tentatively towards solutions. The HRC, for example, has arrived at a compromise, allowing the average number of NGOs that spoke in previous years on a particular subject to participate virtually on a first come, first served basis.

Perhaps the reading of facial cues and body language—those things that still distinguish homo sapiens from homo avatar—will become second nature online. At that point, International Geneva might really be forced to rethink its role as an essential hub for resolving the world’s challenges.

During the pandemic several NGOs have reduced their footprint here and are unlikely to reverse that decision. Could new ways of working pose a risk to the ecosystem of International Geneva, which thrives on informal information exchange?
As different regions emerge from the pandemic at different rates and as long as quarantine restrictions apply on some countries but not others, a judicious mix of virtual and in person briefings looks set to dictate diplomatic discussion for the foreseeable future.  

The hybrid format works particularly well for certain audio and video testimony.  In June 2020 at the HRC's urgent debate on racism, Philonise Floyd, brother of George Floyd, delivered a video message. In September 2020, in the urgent debate on Belarus, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, opposition candidate in the 2020 presidential election, participated without travelling to Geneva.

Yet hybrid runs the danger of making second class citizens of those participating on screen.

Achieving equality between those attending in person and those joining remotely and addressing connection problems remain a work in progress.

A litmus test could be the WTO ministerial conference, scheduled for November.

“We need to find a good balance between what is necessary in terms of physical meetings, what makes sense and what is more effective when we do it virtually,” says Ambassador Jürg Lauber, Permanent Representative of Switzerland to the United Nations and to the other international organisations in Geneva. “The goal has to remain the result, the outcome, the efficiency of the system.”

Online meetings serve their purpose for an exchange of information and bringing a wider range of experts into meetings. The most delicate negotiations such as peace talks on Syria, Libya and Yemen continue to be conducted in person in Geneva.

“Maybe in a generation or two, you will be able to negotiate very sensitive things without being face to face but right now, given the age group of the people doing this work, that doesn’t work,” says Richard Hill, former senior staff member of the ITU with experience working as a civil society activist in other organisations.

“The biggest problem for the UN system is that a lot of the solutions, compromises, agreements and consensuses gets negotiated in informal meetings and no one has yet figured out how to do that with the electronic tools."

The great caveat here is time. Certain activities, which are not possible online for the moment, might be in the years ahead. So are the limitations as much a generational issue as anything? Will the post-post-post Covid generation take to online platforms for diplomacy as easily as riding an e-bike?

“Diplomacy is essentially about networking and people contacts and this is much harder when you don’t have the possibility to sit together over coffee,” says Lauber.

Yet those to whom the online baton will pass, think nothing of talking for hours with unseen friends and online acquaintances while playing collaborative games.

Perhaps the reading of facial cues and body language—those things that still distinguish homo sapiens from homo avatar—will become second nature online. At that point, International Geneva might really be forced to rethink its role as an essential hub for resolving the world’s challenges.