Will Zoomplomacy Last?

As the coronavirus rages on, diplomacy has moved completely online—with mixed reviews.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks with global leaders on the coronavirus response and shares South Korea's strategy during a virtual summit on March 26.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks with global leaders on the coronavirus response and shares South Korea's strategy during a virtual summit on March 26. South Korean Presidential Blue House via Getty Images

During the first week of April, at the peak of the coronavirus outbreak in New York City, the United Nations Security Council spent a week in intensive deliberations over the protocols that demanded official meetings be held only in a special chamber in the U.N. headquarters. Although the Russians finally agreed to videoconferencing, taking debates online has done little to end the broader political impasse that regularly blocks consensus among the council’s five permanent members. Indeed, in the greatest global crisis since World War II, the council in charge of “the maintenance of international peace and security” failed to adopt a single resolution.

The coronavirus has forced new constraints on the diplomatic profession. Diplomats cannot meet in person, make foreign trips, or organize high-level engagements. Missions abroad are unable to fulfill their core advantage—meeting the locals and getting a feel for conditions on the ground. Foreign services worldwide have had to get used to conducting a large part of their work online, through nonsecure networks. Remote bilateral political-level meetings have become common, and multilateral Zoom conferences proliferate.

The prospects that COVID-19 will not be eradicated in the next 12-18 months raises the question of whether this arrangement, call it Zoomplomacy, is the new normal. It could have a lasting effect on the way international relations are conducted, or it may prove to be an ephemeral phenomenon that fades away with the virus.

Zoomplomacy has already yielded some results. In early April, the OPEC energy ministers, meeting with external online support from the G-20, succeeded in reaching a historic decision on a cut in oil production. On the other hand, G-7 and G-20 video summits since the onset of the virus have produced no concrete decisions. These particular failures are likely better explained by the usual differing interests than by the medium. But online conferencing tools are flawed mediums for diplomatic work, and normalizing them will take no small effort.

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In recent weeks, complaints have been piling up about the difficulties and downsides that remote diplomacy poses. We spoke with a dozen serving U.S., European, Israeli, and U.N. diplomats who offered similar grievances. Some note that it is difficult to conduct real negotiations and engage in actual give-and-take without human contact, side conversations, and even the ability to understand body language. The capability to build and maintain significant relationships is undermined. Similarly, day-to-day matters can be decided remotely at lower levels, but bigger decisions are elusive without the personal engagement of leaders. For instance, in a multilateral summit, final details of many agreements are often reached through the personal diplomacy of leaders, which requires informal, private discussions on the sidelines of a summit. Those opportunities are hard to replicate online.

Overall, there is an increased propensity for misperception and misunderstanding and a greater threat that a misrepresentation of facts will pass unnoticed. Without side conversations, body language, or a sense of the other side’s intergroup dynamics, diplomats struggle to reach a deeper understanding. Technical barriers, including connectivity, language, and time zones, make online platforms unreliable for time-sensitive negotiations and affect the ability to reach agreement on substance. And there is no such thing as “off the record” any longer. Diplomats are constantly aware that everything said on an online platform might be easily recorded—discouraging deviations from an official position and thus undercutting the subtlety of diplomatic work.

Lower barriers for organization of high-level meetings, meanwhile, might be tactically exploited by actors favoring brinkmanship. Some diplomats said it is extremely difficult to prepare effective multilateral summits. In contrast to the usual process of in-person pre-negotiations between diplomats of participating countries to prepare the agenda, remote communications impede the ability to reach lower-level agreements while teeing up higher-level decisions for leaders to make when they are finally in the same room or, in the current situation, on the same screen. Summits and leader meetings have traditionally been used as action-forcing events when deliverables are reached so that the leaders can take credit for them and have a stake in their implementation. They usually contain both a public element—such as photo-ops and press conferences—and private talks. Zoom meetings lack the drama, ceremony, and public component that often incentivize leaders to reach decisions.

Lower barriers for organization of high-level meetings, meanwhile, might be tactically exploited by actors favoring brinkmanship. When OPEC agreed on its oil production cut, Mexico refused to go along with the decision, leading to a second extraordinary ministerial-level videoconference days later to reduce Mexico’s obligation.

Lastly, online platforms face legitimate security questions. They might be hacked by spy agencies, private intelligence organizations, or even criminals, all of which risk inhibiting candid exchanges. There is also the intentional disruption of meetings, sometimes called “Zoom-bombing.” Recently, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted a photo of a cabinet meeting that showed a clearly visible Zoom ID—a reminder of the growing danger of impostors’ participation or hackers lurking in the shadows. Paired with the employment of deep-fake video technology, the opportunities for mischief, and worse, are significant.

Criticism aside, some diplomats had positive feedback about online diplomacy, although it was mixed with apprehension that it could be used as a pretext for deep budget cuts and forced downsizing of foreign services. One young diplomat told us that “some elder diplomats fear that Zoom will replace them and their old practices of diplomatic bureaucracy.”

“It’s weird, but it works. … There is no time for niceties, so you get straight to the point.” Nickolay Mladenov, the U.N. Middle East envoy, has been using online diplomacy platforms extensively for the last month. Mladenov said the platforms didn’t work well for confidential issues. But day to day, meetings were more efficient: “It’s weird, but it works. … There is no time for niceties, so you get straight to the point. In that sense, it is more efficient than a meeting that requires travel time, starts with informal discussions, cups of coffee or meals, and only then gets into the substance at hand.”

From discussions with the practitioners, it is possible to identify a number of potential advantages and opportunities of Zoomplomacy. For one, the practical barriers to organizing a high-level bilateral or multilateral meeting are far lower: There is no need to devote time for long-distance travel or to pay for the airline tickets, accommodation, transportation, and catering. With less protocol, fewer logistical requirements, and eased schedule constraints, there may, in fact, be greater opportunities to focus on details and find solutions.

Heads of state and leaders may well be able to speak more frequently. And, when they do, diplomats might find it easier to stop leaders from improvising and taking a well-prepared agenda sideways, as online engagements are scheduled to be short and concrete.

Likewise, with no space constraints, it is easier to bring the best national knowledge and capabilities into a meeting. Many other officials can join the session to listen, understand the essence of the sticking points, and suggest solutions.

The financial savings of having online meetings could enable foreign services to strengthen their headquarters and diplomatic missions. It may also be easier to outsource certain tasks to external talent with skills and expertise not typically found in foreign services, allowing them to focus their human capital on core foreign-policy goals. Lastly, online platforms could enable small, agile countries, giving them tools to make an impact comparable to major powers. (On the other hand, countries and cities used to hosting summits could lose political prestige and income.)

Personal diplomacy will not disappear, but the balance between it and Zoomplomacy will likely change in favor of the latter. But conducting online diplomacy demands a cultural and a mental switch, which is easier for some than for others. Younger diplomats and those with technical skills are more likely to thrive. Similarly, those whose diplomatic work doesn’t center on complex topics or building new relationships are likelier to succeed using online-only platforms. It would be beneficial to study the experience of the European Union, which has used online tools for years, for better and worse. Protocol experts should update the codes of diplomatic conduct online, and diplomats should be trained to work more efficiently in this medium.

One possible general outcome of the pandemic will be an increase in remote and online work in all fields, reinforced by the need to recalibrate professional processes due to dwindling budgets. Foreign services should initiate and lead these revisions, rather than being forced to adapt due to budget cuts imposed by their treasuries. When weighing the pros and cons of streamlining, missions should make sure that core expertise is retained in-house and that their embassies are organized to focus on activities that cannot be done remotely, such as public engagement, building confidential relationships, and providing their capitals with the sound, local perspective derived from having boots on the ground. Finally, strengthening the security and robustness of online diplomatic communication channels—a responsibility shared by governments and platform operators—will be imperative to preventing leaks, embarrassments, and miscommunication that can compromise successful diplomacy.

Mladenov said he doubted that online diplomacy would become the new normal. “When we can return to it, in-person diplomacy will resume. … But I think online diplomacy will continue … and we will learn how to use it better, especially because we are likely to need to rely on it for a longer period than we think.”

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, who was himself recently diagnosed with the coronavirus, predicted in an interview with the Russian newspaper AiF that in-person meetings would someday resume. But we won’t return to the way things were. Online diplomacy “will take root in international affairs and will remain even when all quarantine restrictions have been lifted.”

The advent of Zoomplomacy seems to be accelerating changes in the fusty diplomatic arena. Used effectively, it can enrich the foreign affairs toolbox and allow diplomats more flexibility and connectivity, which are natural to the character of their profession. The pandemic may have coerced us into Zoomplomacy, but this new method of connecting will be with us for a long time to come, so we may as well figure out the best way to squeeze lemonade out of it.

Daniel B. Shapiro is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. He previously served as U.S. ambassador to Israel and on the National Security Council staff during the Obama administration. Twitter: @DanielBShapiro

Daniel Rakov is a retired lieutenant colonel in the Israel Defense Forces and currently an expert on Russian policy in the Middle East at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

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