Analysis | UNGA: Trust, caffeine, and in-person diplomacy

Ambassador (ret.) Kathleen Doherty

A large gathering of diplomats sitting in rows in a lecture hall at the UN headquarters.
Delegates from around the world gather at the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, 9 July 2019. (Image: Matthew TenBruggencate on Unsplash)

The United Nations General Assembly meets this week in a hybrid format , with several dozen heads of state or government expected to attend, including President Biden. This is a welcome development after last year’s nearly fully-virtual event, with leaders delivering speeches via pre-recorded videos to a largely empty hall. While the live speeches are important, what makes the General Assembly so critical in the world of diplomacy are the informal gatherings, serendipitous encounters in the corridors, and the brief moments of conversation, which can deepen personal relationships among diplomats and officials from around the world.

As governments look ahead to future gatherings for diplomats and political leaders at all levels, the question will be: Should the meeting be in-person, virtual, or some type of hybrid? Speaking from my experience as a long-serving diplomat, when there is little or no trust between the parties, and stakes are high, in-person meetings are critical because they enable a deeper, longer, and more transparent interaction.

The Biden White House seems to recognize this. Explaining why he met in person with Russian President Putin on June 16, President Biden told reporters: “It’s always better to meet face-to-face, try to determine where we have mutual interest.” Of the same meeting, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said there was “no substitute for face-to-face engagement in any dynamic.”

This also likely explains Biden’s recent invitation to Chinese President Xi Jinping to meet in person. (It remains unclear whether Xi will accept Biden’s invitation, given ongoing concerns about the pandemic and frosty U.S.-China relations.) President Obama called for such a bilateral meeting in 2013, when Xi first took office and U.S.-China relations were becoming more fraught. Xi agreed and after two days of formal meetings, meals, and informal walks around the Sunnylands estate in California, the two leaders emerged with a deeper sense of each other, their respective disagreements, and some potential avenues for cooperation.

Face-to-face meetings allow for spontaneous encounters that change views and outcomes. During a round of negotiations of the Transatlantic Passenger Name Record Agreement, when I was a director of the Office of European Union Affairs at the State Department, I was sitting alongside a German diplomat. While others were reviewing bracketed text, he leaned over to me and emotionally explained why he, whose parents were born and raised in communist East Germany, could trust no government with his personal data. I thought of him whenever I negotiated data privacy issues with Europeans.

On another occasion, during a G8 Summit, I was working on the language of the final communiqué with other delegations. It was the middle of the night. All of us negotiators, bleary-eyed and heavily caffeinated, had been haggling over the text for hours. Someone suggested a walk outside. As we walked, one delegate almost abashedly said, well, “If we put a comma after this one word, I think we solved the problem.” He was right. Thirty minutes later, we finished the communiqué.

Would either example happen in a virtual meeting? Perhaps not. During online discussions, when counterparts are staring at each other on screen, waiting for their turn to speak, they may not make that off-the-cuff remark that leads to a breakthrough or be willing to express emotion in front of others. Online platforms can lack spontaneity and breaks mean leaving the onscreen group, not joining others for coffee or hallway conversation.

Given that the vast majority of communication is non-verbal, reading and understanding body language and facial expressions are essential to building that trust. The face-only element of videoconferences poses a challenge. One senior U.S. diplomat with whom I worked had a poker face in meetings. However, when he disagreed, he would start to tap his foot. A videoconference does not show this. When a meeting is multilingual, body language and visual clues are even more important, especially when the speaker is speaking a language not your own . While Zoom allows for live simultaneous translations, hearing a person through headphones speak in one language, and watching a person speaking in a box on a screen and on silent is like a badly dubbed film.

What works in the world of diplomacy also applies to the business world. The bar should be high for having an in-person meeting. When the goal is to build, strengthen, repair or test out relationships, it is best to meet in person. When the stakes are high, however defined, and when a specific outcome is required, face-to-face is best. When collaboration requires many participants and group discussions, over many hours, engaging only online is likely to be less effective and more exhausting. When it comes to chance encounters, there is no substitute for being in person.

One benefit of going virtual is the ability to meet globally, across time zones. A virtual format can be more convenient, inexpensive, inclusive, and expansive, allowing more people with different levels of authority to participate. Video conferencing software features, such as the livestream chat, serve as an “equalizer,” giving participants similar standing to make comments, share resources, and exchange ideas. For example, during the U.N.-led 2020–21 peace talks in Libya, mediators integrated five virtual “sub-tracks” for different social groups into the process. This built legitimacy among a broader constituency, and helped to include over 1000 young Libyans in the process who tuned in from around the country. When a goal is task-based, such as sharing the outcomes of a report or planning an event, or when it is a panelist discussion, videoconferencing is often the better choice.

For all these reasons, virtual meetings will continue to grow in popularity even in a post-pandemic world. A challenge going ahead is to enable videoconferencing to better replicate some of the experiences of in-person gatherings. However, in the haste to embrace a video future, we should remember what we may lose if we do not have that informal walk, those hours spent together that built trust, that sense of accomplishment after working long hours together, and the brief conversation over coffee that changed minds. That is what the diplomats and officials attending the U.N. General Assembly are so eager to do.

Kathleen Doherty is the chief strategy officer of the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands. She is the former U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Cyprus and former deputy assistant of state for western Europe and European Union Affairs.

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Institute for the Study of Diplomacy

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