Covid’s Diplomatic Legacy

Last month, ‘The Economist’ magazine published an extensive article examining Covid’s impact on the practice of diplomacy. According to the article, the Coronavirus has led to the accelerated digitalization of diplomacy. Once the United Nations Headquarters shut its doors, and as diplomats all over the world found themselves quarantined at home, diplomacy migrated to digital channels. The UN Security Council met via video-conferences; consular departments used social media to repatriate citizens while world leaders discussed the climate crisis through computer screens. Diplomacy, argued ‘The Economist’ has forever changed.

However, in order to understand Covid’s impact on diplomacy one must regard digitalization as a long term process in which digital technologies reshape the norms, values and working routines of diplomats. Scholars agree that diplomacy’s digitalization began when the Swedish foreign ministry launched the world’s first, virtual Embassy on the computer world of Second Life. This was the world’s only global Embassy which was accessible to anyone with a personal computer. Meant to serve as a cultural hub, the Embassy hosted seminars with Swedish authors and artists. In 2011, the US State Department launched its virtual Embassy to Iran. This web-based Embassy was meant to facilitate conversations between American diplomats and Iranians despite the absence of a physical US Embassy in Tehran. Through this virtual Embassy, US diplomats could interact with Iranian citizens, narrate US policies in the region and foster new ties between America and the Muslim World.

The Arab Spring altered the trajectory of Diplomacy’s digitalization as foreign ministries realized that their ability to anticipate future shocks to the international system rested on diplomats’ presence in social media networks. Moreover, diplomats came to believe that through social media, they could communicate with foreign populations and advance their national goals. By 2017, more than 90% of UN member states had established a social media presence.

Then came the 2014 Crimean Crisis during which Russia extensively used fake news sites, and fake social media accounts, to shape public opinion in Ukraine and Crimea. Russian sites alleged that Ukrainian soldiers were raping Russian women in Crimea, and even crucifying Russian children. The solution was simple- Russia used military power to protect the rights of Russian minorities in Crimea. This was a humanitarian mission. Since Crimea, Russia tried to use social media to sway the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US Elections.

Russia’s nefarious digital activities once again altered the trajectory of diplomacy’s digitalization as diplomats regarded social media as tools for foreign interventions. In response, the UK Foreign Office established a Big Data unit tasked with monitoring and disabling foreign social media campaigns. The Israeli foreign ministry created an algorithm unit tasked with automatically removing hateful posts from Facebook, while the Lithuanian ministry created a strategic communications unit responsible for refuting Russian allegations about the country’s past. Other foreign ministries including the US, Germany and the EU have all established departments to contend with foreign, digital interventions.

To summarize, offline events have consistently shaped diplomacy’s digitalization. The same is true of Covid. However, throughout the pandemic, different foreign ministries adopted different digital strategies. The Lithuanian ministry developed a chat bot that could automatically answer consular questions, enabling the rather small ministry to focus on repatriating. The British Foreign Office used Twitter to organize chartered flights for citizens while Embassies used WhatsApp groups to coordinate diplomatic action from home.

The question that follows is which digital strategies will become integral to diplomacy once the pandemic has passed? The answer lies in understanding that one cannot separate diplomacy’s online and offline spheres. Events in the physical world shape diplomacy’s digitalization while diplomats use digital tools to obtain offline goals. Thus, we may expect that Covid’s digital legacy will be confined to those fields that benefit from new, digital capabilities.

First, Covid will facilitate the digitalization of consular aid. Foreign ministries will use software to automate the process of locating citizens stranded abroad. Similarly, ministries may employ big data analysis to prioritize consular aid. For instance, a pandemic in France is likely to spread to Italy and Switzerland before reaching India. Israel’s diplomats have already used big data in shared Covid ‘war-rooms’ run by numerose Israeli ministries and agencies. 

Second, diplomatic institutions will likely develop their own video-conferencing tools which will be secure enough to discuss sensitive topics. Yet video-conferences will accompany physical diplomacy, not replace it. The reason being that diplomats find it hard to ‘read’ a Zoom chat-room and analyze their counterparts’ body language. Diplomats also state that hallway discussions are an important avenue of diplomacy as it is the hallways of international bodies that alliances are built and resolutions are promoted. Thus, negotiations that begin offline may migrate online.

Finally, Covid will facilitate ‘domestic digital diplomacy’ in which diplomats use social media to demonstrate their contributions to national crises management. During the pandemic, many foreign ministries shared consular success stories, while the Israeli ministry shared images of Ambassadors escorting citizens to emergency flights. Through domestic digital diplomacy, foreign ministries may cultivate a domestic constituency that can aid ministries protect their dwindling budgets and narrowing remit within governments.  

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