A farewell to the prime time of digital diplomacy
The prime time of digital diplomacy exclusivity is phasing out. Not because it will disappear, nothing could be less true; but it is certainly starting to “share the screen” and coexist with traditional in-person diplomacy that is slowly back, alive and kicking. Both worlds are blending in what diplomatic jargon has also started calling “hybrid diplomacy”, a phenomenon predicted by scholars and practitioners alike. Consensus, however, appears to be less strong on how the two worlds will coexist, the main challenge remaining to strike the best possible balance of both.
We know for a fact that the Covid pandemic pushed the limits of the digitalization of diplomacy in all its forms and manifestations.
Along that process, Ministries of Foreign Affairs, embassies and diplomats had to go digital to be able to continue doing their work. And they had to do so not only in a rush but comprehensively as during the months when confinement was mandatory and lockdowns strict, there was no visible alternative to virtuality as the only means to communicate and replicate, as much as possible, activities that would have otherwise been held in-person. All of this, besides, without necessarily turning an embassy into a “virtual embassy” in the sense that some countries had developed before.
The process was unique in all senses. Even when digital diplomacy was being practiced before the Covid outbreak, the pace of digitalization was extraordinary. Secondly, digitalization also embraced traditional diplomacy once and for all, a relatively untested field so far for full digitalization (think of last September’s totally virtual UNGA general debate for the first time in history or high-officials’ “online visits abroad” during 2020). Lastly, even within the public diplomacy realm, many activities traditionally held in-person had to be recalibrated to fit virtual formats without losing the power of attraction that they would have had in embassy salons or manicured gardens.
Traditional bilateral diplomacy was relatively easier to replicate online: “WhatsApp diplomacy” was a widespread practice well before the pandemic and most meetings simply migrated to virtual platforms, despite protocol malaise. Pros were mostly associated with the possibility of bringing more people into the conversation, not something everyone was totally happy with as, in some cases, participants connecting from far away capitals may not always be fully equipped with the necessary patience to handle the local sensitivities that resident diplomats are trained to elegantly tackle. Cons were often related to concerns over confidentiality or, in general, cybersecurity, besides the lack of face-to-face interaction and the impossibility to fully “read” the meeting room. Another main drawback was of course to begin a relationship from square one with a counterpart online, as trust is certainly harder to pour from a flat screen with someone you have never seen or talked to before.
Negotiation is a different chapter and all of the above cons are exponentially aggravated by the lack of corridor chatting and instances for chilling out (sometimes cooling off) in between unending rounds. That is why the digitalization of traditional multilateral diplomacy proved to be very much harder for diplomats posted in permanent missions to international organizations or bilateral embassies with multilateral responsibilities since negotiation with multiple peers and other stakeholders is part of their daily life, but in-person. Covid and subsequent confinement snatched the most important element a diplomat can count on for her or his job -face-to-face interaction- and that absence gets even more painful in the multilateral field where diplomats are expected to be multitasking during a same meeting and speak from their national seats while exchanging views with colleague(s) of a certain country/region/like-minded group, talking with the organization’ secretarial staff and, of course, holding parallel informal consultations with key parties in the room next door.
Public diplomacy proved to be a double-edged sword in terms of total digitalization. The challenge was not as much related to strategic communications through digital means but to its increased volume and pace. Attention had to turn suddenly (and for months, almost exclusively) to consular content to keep communities continuously informed and assisted as a result of travel restrictions and health emergencies.
Cultural activities were also challenging as virtual formats do not always serve the purpose of fitting a screen, so to speak. For instance, it was pretty easy to migrate a movie festival online instead of screening your national film industry’s latest gems in your embassy’s screening room, or at a local venue dignified enough for the occasion. At the end of the day, movies are projected on screens but the atmosphere is certainly different if you can have your audience seduced by a face-to-face conversation with the movie director or part of the cast and, why not, end up toasting to a co-production with another country whose representative would have joined the event at your embassy bringing her/his country’s best cuisine samples for promotion purposes.
Obvious as it may sound, virtuality forced virtual formats and, with that, the need to be more creative and original to still attract audiences that were being enticed by others also stepping into the virtual world offering online concerts, art exhibits and student exchanges.
Trade diplomacy was also shaken when “gastrodiplomacy” made its digital debut. Tastings moved to online platforms too and were condemned to be tasteless unless audiences had been previously secured a good provision and variety of wines, cheeses, organic products or beef to try during virtual walk-throughs with sommeliers, chefs or producers connecting from every other corner of the earth.
Promoting investment opportunities, tourism or the internationalization of national companies also found its way through online discussions specially tailored to bring together key private sector stakeholders hosted virtually by ambassadors, trade attachés or high-level officials who connected from their capitals. Conversations kept flowing and digital platforms were generous enough to enable breakout rooms for self-catered “coffee breaks” to recreate one-on-ones, pull-asides, side-by-sides or any meeting on the margins of the sort that diplomats are well trained to choreograph to guarantee that actual interaction takes place.
Prime time of digital diplomacy exclusivity may be off, but its future exclusiveness is out of question
As the post-Covid world slowly emerges with varying intensity, according to geographical latitudes and vaccine geopolitics, so does “hybrid diplomacy”, alternating virtual with socially-distanced in-person activities.
Though not fully fledged yet, thanks to growing immunization and “masks off” policies, world leaders, government officials, diplomats, scholars, businessmen and private sector representatives are slowly but steadily coming back into the public scene. And in person. New normalcy is setting in with innovative socializing codes and hand-sanitizer etiquette, and face-to-face interaction is not only being recovered but, in most cases, worshiped after more than a year of abstinence.
However, this new normalcy should also nourish from the many lessons learned from that forcefully exclusive virtuality, both pros and cons thereof duly considered. And that is precisely what “hybrid” stands for: to have the best of both worlds, in the right proportion.
Interesting discussions will be held again at in-person events and panelists will interact with participants during coffee breaks over actual cups of coffee. They will be able to discuss, besides, the remarks made by that one panelist who was not there physically but connecting from his office in his home country. Exchange students will happily convene again at embassies to meet and greet in person to start their educational journey in the country that is now hosting them but which they all knew well beforehand after previous online introductory conversations with their hosts.
Hybrid formats will certainly suit trade promotion. Best wines will again be tasted at embassies’ salons with sommeliers handing over a glass of the “grape of the year” elixir to you while you mingle with local distributors who are also listening live to the wine producer telling you all about the virtues of her latest wine gem on a screen, directly from her own vineyard in Argentina, walking among the vines and showing the texture of grapes and leaves to an audience gathered in an embassy salon in a far-away country.
Nonetheless, attention, official bilateral meetings will still be at your office or mine, “whatever works better for you”, with the possibility, of course, of having “someone from capital” join the conversation, if the urgency of the matter so deserves. And the same will apply to those rounds of negotiations in which key interests are at stake, regardless of the virtues offered by latest digital or augmented reality platforms for virtual meetings.
Crystal clear in the emerging post pandemic world is the misconception earlier detected by Oxford Digital Diplomacy Research Group Professor Corneliu Bjola in the “Extinction Myth” and according to which digital diplomacy would gradually replace or make redundant traditional forms of diplomacy. Due to Covid, digital diplomacy was actually forced to only temporarily replace those traditional forms of diplomacy to ultimately expose its limitations and reinforce the conviction that “the amount of trust and mutual understanding that makes the wheels of diplomacy turn cannot be built without humans”.
To put “hybrid” simply, digital diplomacy is here to stay but it has lost its exclusivity as prime time undisputed winner during the Covid pandemic. However, it will not lose its exclusiveness as an intelligent and pragmatic tool to enrich conversations not only held by actual people in a same room. Now that diplomats have a larger digital toolkit, time is up for them to become bold and constructive digital disruptors.
Any views or opinions represented in this article are personal and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the writer may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated.