The Covid-19 pandemic may have permanently changed the way diplomacy is conducted. Diplomacy has traditionally relied on physical contact in both formal and informal settings. Physical diplomacy has included the presentation of credentials of accreditation by ambassadors to heads of state; participation in global summits and bilateral, trilateral, quadrilateral, etc. meetings; diplomatic receptions, and so on.
In the era of Covid, virtual diplomacy was on display in India on May 21 when India’s President Ram Nath Kovind accepted the credentials of the ambassadors of Australia, Mauritius, Rwanda, Cote d’Ivoire, North Korea, Trinidad and Tobago, and Senegal via video conferencing. The unusual method for the presentation of credentials, which would have normally taken place in a formal ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhavan presidential residence in New Delhi, was the first of its type for India, and, possibly, the world.
The United Arab Emirates ambassador in London, rather than host a diplomatic dinner for Members of Parliament at his residence, arranged for a virtual dinner, which saw prepared food, paid for in advance by the UAE embassy, delivered to the homes of the guests, all of whom joined the virtual dinner via videoconferencing. But UAE Ambassador Mansoor Abulhoul admits that there is a pent up demand for traditional diplomacy, writing recently, “For all that Zoom, Twitter, and Instagram have changed the way we work in recent weeks, none of them are as powerful as old-fashioned, face-to-face diplomacy.”
The advent of virtual diplomacy, while helping to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, has removed the facet of personal connections that have been produced by face-to-face meetings between presidents, prime ministers, monarchs, foreign ministers, and others. It was the camaraderie developed in summit meetings between President Richard Nixon and both Chinese leader Mao Zedong and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, as well as between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, that helped to defrost chilly Cold War relations between the superpowers.
Since the Covid-19 outbreak, major international meetings have been held virtually. These have included the G-20 Summit and the Spring 2020 meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, as well as formal virtual meetings of the European Parliament and the World Health Organization’s Assembly and informal videoconferences of the UN Security Council. The World Health Assembly videoconference was boycotted by Donald Trump, who, with his freezing of U.S. financial assistance to the organization, has forfeited a longstanding U.S. presence within WHO to China and India.
The G-7 Summit, originally scheduled to be held in person at Camp David, the U.S. presidential retreat in Maryland, was changed to a virtual meeting. However, Donald Trump changed course and announced that the G-7 would be held in person at Camp David. However, it was uncertain whether any other G-7 leader would attend, particularly since Trump’s Mar-a-Lago private club in Palm Beach, Florida became a Covid hot zone during a March summit between Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, both Covid public health protection skeptics. Members of the Brazilian delegation tested positive for the virus as did the Republican Mayor of Miami, an invited guest at the summit meeting. In April and May, Covid-positive cases were reported in the West Wing of the White House, as well as in the president’s private residence.
In a recent interview with “Japan Times,” Masahiro Kohara, a former Japanese diplomat and current foreign policy professor at the University of Tokyo, summed up the current dilemma for diplomacy among world leaders. Kohara said, “I think the fact that they can’t [meet in person] in the middle of a crisis is a disadvantage,” adding, “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 also brought up another issue, shared by diplomats and network security officials around the world. Reliance on what have become known as “Zoom diplomacy” or “Zoomplomacy,” references to the Zoom video conferencing application that has become popular during the pandemic, has introduced several security problems. Kohara and others believe that videoconferencing can only be a reliable alternative to physical summits and bilateral meetings if the communications infrastructure is secure.
There are those in the digital freedom community who argue that certain plenary international summits and meetings should be available for view by the public. Security specialists, however, caution against widespread access to such conferences, fearing that security loopholes could be penetrated by hackers.
While Zoomplomacy may be a rather easy technical task for the governments of the United States, Britain, Japan, China, Russia, Germany, and France, it becomes a burden for lesser-developed countries lacking required bandwidth to participate in virtual conferences. There are reports that Sudan was unable to participate in a recent United Nations videoconference on climate change because of a lack of required bandwidth in Khartoum. The Bhutan representative, although able to initially connect to the conference from Thimphu, was forced to deal with frozen video connections.
With traditional diplomatic meetings, including the annual plenary session of the UN General Assembly in New York, participation was based on various criteria, including official status as either a member, observer, or special guest of the UN. For the New York venue, the United States has increasingly interfered in the granting of diplomatic visas for certain participants from UN member and non-member nations like Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, Abkhazia, and Palestine.
Virtual General Assembly and other large plenary meetings of UN specialized agencies and other international organizations might become more welcoming to non-members that otherwise comply with the definition of a “state” pursuant to the 1934 Pan-American Conference’s Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States. The convention states that a legally defined state is one that has (1) a permanent population; (2) a defined territory; (3) a government; and (4) a capacity to enter into relations with the other states.
In the era of virtual diplomacy, statehood could be applied to “dependent sovereignties,” including governments-in-exile, quasi-states, or virtual micronations that are supported by permanent, although small, populations; possess either diplomatically-protected or some other physical territory, and are recognized by one or more other states. If the UN can grant physical observer status in New York to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, which maintains small extraterritorial properties in Rome and in Malta, why not comparable virtual status for the Italian enclave of the Principality of Seborga, which has an area of 4.9 square kilometers and a population of 315? A strong case for cyber-representation at virtual international conferences can also be made for the Navajo Nation of the U.S. Southwest, the Nuxalk Nation of British Columbia, and Norfolk Island and the Aboriginals and the Torres Strait Islanders of Australia.
Since participation in virtual diplomatic conferences and meetings would not require diplomatic passport, visas, or other requirements for physical access to venues, could virtual international summits be opened to such “dependent sovereignties” as “cyber-credentialed” observers or guests? Indeed, it is a new and fascinating area of study for diplomacy and international law.
Virtual diplomacy may open the door for dozens of self-proclaimed sovereignties, from Catalonia and Tibet to Somaliland and Ambazonia. With sub-national governments becoming more self-sufficient and distant from central governments during the pandemic – the United States, Brazil, India, and Mexico are prime examples – could regional blocs, such as those created by the governors of New York, Illinois, and California, be represented at virtual international forums? Canada’s First Nations, the U.S. Native American sovereign tribes, and Brazil’s indigenous peoples all have felt short-changed by their respective central governments during the Covid pandemic. Could they seek virtual representation at international conferences, particularly because they possess degrees of sovereignty? And if virtual diplomatic conferences are open to nation-states, what would prevent virtual micronations from also being represented?
Covid-19 has forced nations to develop new methods for diplomacy. Will these new diplomatic methods lead to new definitions of what constitutes a nation-state or a sovereignty? There is also a cautionary note. If world leaders find themselves relying on diplomatic contact only virtually, some diplomats warn that it was the social distancing of leaders in the days prior to fast modes of transportation that helped foster mutual distrust that led to war.