Diplomacy in the Zoom Era

On July 23, 2020, Stephane Dujarric, Spokesperson for the United Nations Secretary-General, kicked off a conversation on virtual diplomacy by sharing multilateral perspectives on the opportunities and challenges the UN is facing in this new Zoom era. Meridian Rising Leaders Council members Gerry Diaz Bartolome, Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of Argentina; Hreinn Palsson, Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of Iceland; and Kezia McKeague, Director, Latin America Practice, McLarty Associates joined to share their bilateral and commercial perspectives on the discussion, which was moderated by RLC Co-Chair Ben Chang, Deputy Vice President for Communications & Spokesperson for Princeton University and a former U.S. diplomat.

Highlights from the conversation

THE CURTAIN HAS BEEN LIFTED. UN Secretary-General Spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said the UN is extremely worried about the stagnated progress on the Sustainable Development Goals due to the impacts of the enduring pandemic. “Even before this, it was clear some indicators would not be met.” With gaps in access to online learning, many students in developing nations have been out of school since the onset of the pandemic – and a majority are unlikely to return, mostly girls, which will setback progress on women’s empowerment. When it comes to climate, “we’re at a crossroads”, as governments need the private sector to invest in ways that ensure a sustainable post-Covid recovery.

LOCKDOWN CHANGES INTELLIGENCE GATHERING. The United Nations is a unique biosphere populated with UN staff, diplomats, NGOs and journalists, says Dujarric. Pre-pandemic, journalists served as “pollinator bees” who roamed the halls with UN staff or had coffee with diplomats in the delegates’ lounge to gather intelligence that informed reporting on multilateral affairs. From a commercial perspective, the same informal intelligence gathering also happens on the sidelines of meetings with government officials. In regions like Latin America, WhatsApp is an effective tool for doing business with trusted contacts – but in a face-to-face business it’s difficult to create new relationships via Zoom.

UNGA GOES DIGITAL. For the first time ever, the annual Meeting of the United Nations General Assembly will be mostly virtual. Heads of State will send pre-recorded digital messages, with one representative from each country physically gathering at headquarters in NYC for the formal meeting proceedings. While the UN Secretary-General plans to deliver in-person remarks from the podium, there will be none of the side events typically hosted in venues around the city – which are often prime opportunities for commercial diplomacy and vital relationship building that help drive key business and policy decisions thereafter.

ZOOM: A FORCE MULTIPLIER IN THE CULTURAL SPHERE. As embassies transitioned to virtual operations, their cultural programs also shifted online. Cultural diplomacy has everything to do with the physical gathering in embassies, whether for concerts, art shows or wine tasting. “The personal meeting is key,” said the Embassy of Argentina’s Deputy Chief of Mission Gerry Diaz Bartolome. “In person, you can chat with a movie director or curator and interest them in your country and culture.” The Argentine Embassy has successfully moved tango lessons and movie premieres online, reaching audiences beyond the U.S. by sharing the opportunities with other Argentine embassies in countries around the world. Likewise, Nordic embassies teamed together for the annual Nordic Festival, which went virtual for the first time and grew its audience from a couple hundred people to tens of thousands of people around the world tuning in to online concerts.

BALANCING SECURITY AND MENTAL HEALTH WITH CONNECTIVITY. Digital tools and technology have made the logistics of connecting easier and less costly. As webinars and collaborative software continue to replace in-person conferences and meetings, it’s unlikely for business travel to resume to pre-pandemic frequency, particularly as “essential” takes on new meaning. There are, however, setbacks for high-level or sensitive affairs. “Zoom can give a false sense of transparency,” said Dujarric. The UN Security Council held its first in-person meeting this month to discuss confidential matters. For this reason and other IT security concerns, the Security Council has been discouraged from hosting meetings via Zoom. Echoing these sentiments, Violet Skeva, First Secretary of Political and Economic Affairs for the Embassy of Malawi, shared how some work just cannot be done through Zoom. Diplomats were on the ground in Malawi to observe the elections that recently took place. On the flipside, many home-bound diplomats have taken on new responsibilities amid the pandemic which, coupled with Zoom fatigue, have taken a mental toll. On top of her current duties, Skeva has also been engaging with the Malawian diaspora on deeply personal and communal issues. Assisting families that cannot reach loved ones or send remittances because of the country’s poor internet connectivity or coordinating on the passing of friends and family have proven to be emotionally challenging.

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