Digital Diplomacy & Existential Threats

The Covid virus is not likely to kill mankind. The majority of Covid patients survive, youngsters seem more immune to its potency, and scientific and medical collaborations will ultimately yield a vaccine. However, Covid’s side effects, namely anxiety and disorientation, are evident everywhere. In Israel, TV viewers are told that the rate of contamination has slowed. The following day a new lockdown is initiated. On Wednesday one reads that France has beaten the virus, while the following week Paris’s streets are empty.

Under Covid, there is no normal, no routine and no solidarity. There is only the ‘now’.

The Covid virus is existential in that it has affected all realms of daily life including doctor’s appointment, public transportation, schools, universities, travelling, socializing, dating, enjoying culture, going outdoors, meeting with colleagues, managing long distance relationships and more. In many countries, political systems have come to a standstill given public resentment over the handling of Covid. Equally disturbing is the loss of communality among nations. For no nation now resembles another. In country A there is a quarantine, in country B there is lockdown, in country C shops are open while country D is doing nothing all. This lack of comparability, of saying ‘we are like France, or Sweden or Singapore’ impairs people’s sense of a crisis.

The question that should interest diplomats is how should digital diplomacy be practiced at such a time? During the first wave of the Covid virus, many MFA used social media to highlight their consular activities and efforts to repatriate citizens stranded abroad. Next, Embassies sought to engage social media users facing the boredom of lockdowns. The French Embassy to the UK, for instance, offered free access to French theatre shows and movies streamed online.

Mid-way through the first wave, international organizations also went online after facing harsh criticism for doing nothing. NATO depicted its continued readiness and the Alliance’s use of ships and planes to offer Covid-related aid. The EU announced a continent wide search for a vaccine while also promising stimulates packages unseen since World War 2. The message was a clear one- the world order is in order.

Yet during this second Covid wave, Embassies and MFAs seem to have lost their touch with reality. The State Department keeps sharing images of the robust Mike Pompeo spreading democracy and meeting with autocrats. Other MFAs have returned to ‘normal’ offering a daily barrage of policy announcement and denouncements. Some Embassies have taken to sharing images of beautiful landmarks that cannot be visited or policies that cannot implemented as there is no air travel.

American comedian Groucho Marx famously said that ‘marriage is a wonderful institution. But who want to spend his life in an institutions’. Those studying MFAs as institutions know them to be innovative, original and slow when responding to digital and societal changes. And yet, we are at that defining moment when digital and public diplomacy must be re-evaluated and re-invented. The globalized world, that has become so familiar, is gone and national borders are once again national treasures. World leaders are sick, emergency units are flooded with patients, while global Covid numbers alter daily.

In times of uncertainty, certainty is the only cure. Joint public diplomacy campaigns between nations should focus on demonstrating a shared international fate, and a shared international effort to combat Covid. These campaigns should exist at the international level (between MFAs) and the national one (Embassies in a capital). Campaigns should focus on concrete measures that have been taken or that soon will be taken against the virus. Tweeting an image of a virtual G7 meeting achieves little when people cannot go to work or buy milk. The shared Covid fate should also include a shared economic recovery plan- Spain will not recover without aid from Germany while Germany will not recover without the aid of the US. Demonstrating unity across borders is crucial for while Facebook obliterates borders, Covid reinforces them.

Under normal conditions, a super power may be strong enough to offer such a vision and bring it to life. As there are no super powers or super heroes left, it will fall on diplomats to ensure that we the world survives the existential threat of Covid.  

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