The COVID-19 pandemic forces people in all sectors to adopt and adapt to new forms of work such as home office, digital interaction or video conference. The diplomatic world is no exception.
There are at least five ways to continue diplomatic work and remaining diplomatic in a broader sense without physical contact.
- No handshake but other means of expressing courtesy
Shaking hands is an ancient manner of greeting each other invented by the Greeks to demonstrate that no one carried a weapon. It is thus a sign of mutual trust. Unfortunately, in times of viral infection, hands are also vectors of germs and contribute to spreading contamination. This may be why, perhaps unconsciously, many Asian people have resorted quite early to another form of greeting, the Namaste salute, with one’s hands pressed over one’s chest. Recently, British Prince Charles adopted this form of greeting.
In Japan, although handshake has become common as a western import, the tradition relies more on several forms of bowing with a detailed code as to which type or degree of leaning is reserved for which level of hierarchy. Indeed, this practice is derived from the ancient samurai etiquette but is today a symbol of a culture based on respect in particular for social ranks.
In the Muslim culture, as a rule, persons of opposite sex (apart from close relatives) are not permitted to shake hands. Instead, a man would put his right hand to his chest and bow his head or smile to the woman he is greeting. Between Muslim men, the handshake is possible but it is often accompanied with hugging or kissing, also according to codes that vary across nations but, like in Japan, are influenced by social rank. Nowadays, kissing between men or both genders, practiced in Latin cultures, is not recommended for obvious health reasons.
In sum, even in an international environment, it is possible to apply precautionary measures and preserve social distance while remaining courteous by adopting other types of salutes than handshakes. The current crisis boosted imagination by suggesting new forms of greetings such as elbow or foot touching.
- Crisis does not mean the end of civility
Diplomacy was invented to prevent wars and promote friendly relations. Even during tense periods when national interests are at stake and may lead to confrontation or selfish approaches, the diplomatic framework and rules offer ways and means of preserving cooperative attitudes. The 1961 Vienna Convention codifies those rules such as: inviolability (of persons, premises, official correspondence); immunity of arrest and jurisdiction (subject to respect for laws of the host country); exemption (of taxation or customs duties), etc. The main purpose of those rules is to ensure that diplomats, as official representatives of their government posted to another country, can carry out their mission without undue impediments or pressure from the host country. Even in times of bilateral tensions or global crises, official correspondence remains courteous, always starting with “present[ing] compliments” and ending with the “renewal of assurances of [one’s] highest consideration”. In official letters between Ambassadors or Ministers, despite the increasing informality of relationships, especially in western cultures, the use of titles such as “Excellency” remains widespread.
Often this framework does not prevent some diplomats from resorting to harsh language and recriminations, such as in recent months in forums dealing with arms control and disarmament. For instance, in a meeting on the Non-Proliferation Treaty, one American delegate accused the pro-disarmament movement of being supported by “malevolent actors” like in the Cold War. Hence the importance of calls for a return to “civility” even in such a politically sensitive or divisive area.
- Diplomats can go digital too
Although diplomacy is based on human interactions and contacts, which include social life and entertainment, it is also increasingly relying on digital communications that may offer a convenient substitute for physical presence. Like all other professionals, diplomats use the Internet and social media for accessing information, sending targeted or public messages, or holding video or on-line conferences. This is now part of the initial and continued training, in which a growing number of actors such as the GCSP or Diplo Foundation are involved. In the multilateral system, which was initially designed as a form of open diplomacy, more and more organisations like the United Nations offer diplomats but also civil society organisations or the general public a chance to follow meetings on line via video conferencing or podcasting. This can be done live or accessed later, which also increases transparency and accountability of diplomatic work and negotiations vis-à-vis the public.. Moreover, a new form of sometimes less “diplomatic” form of diplomacy has appeared called “twiplomacy”, examplified by the blunt language of President Trump that he used to threaten other countries of “fire and fury” or “obliteration”, or calling other Heads of State names such as “little rocket-man” (Kim Jong-un), “foolish” (Theresa May) or “very dishonest and weak” (Justin Trudeau).
- Preparing for future in-person meetings
Hopefully, the interruption of in-person meetings caused by the coronavirus crisis will be temporary. In the meantime, apart from broader resort to digital diplomacy, this may create opportunities for diplomats to prepare for a return to face-to-face negotiations. As a matter of fact, even in normal times, preparation has always been a major requirement for successful negotiations. For some authors, “pre-negotiations provide parties an opportunity to approach and to be involved in the managing of significant issues, including conflicts, without risk of a formal commitment.”
Indeed, it is often more effective to research the others’ positions, test some ideas for solutions, and “pre-cook” some compromise without waiting for the formal negotiation itself. When we watch a vote or listen to statements at the UN Security Council, this is the end of a process or the visible part of the iceberg. Most of the actual work already took place behind the scenes, particularly in the Consultations Room, which, as Ban Ki-moon said, “is a place where history is made; a place where Member States engage in intense discussions about how to build a better, more peaceful world. This is a small space. But it is a room where big things happen.” Even without in-person meetings, such a pre-negotiation can now take place digitally among the stakeholders.
- Still contributing to friendly relations
One of the recognised missions of the diplomats, according to the Vienna Convention, is “[p]romoting friendly relations between the sending State and the receiving State, and developing their economic, cultural and scientific relations”. In normal times, this includes participating in the host country’s social and cultural life, hosting and attending receptions or events to interact with representatives not only of the government but all sections of society. When in-person contacts are impossible, diplomats can nevertheless take part in “virtual parties”, exchange recipes of dishes or meals that they will eventually share in person, visit on-line exhibitions now generalized by museums, etc. Moreover, especially in situations where people are suffering from crises, conflict, or natural disasters, diplomats can make themselves useful in contributing to humanitarian action, social or charity work. Large organisations such as the Rotary Club or the Lions Club offer many such opportunities, some of which can be carried out by distance or through fundraising. In any case, many diplomatic and consular staff are physically mobilised during the coronavirus pandemic in order to assist their nationals stranded abroad, answer their questions, organise their repatriation, etc.
In sum, diplomacy is now possible thanks to new technologies and does not require permanent physical presence. However, despite the opportunities to remain diplomatic without shaking hands, nothing will replace human contact and interaction in diplomacy like in most other fields of work.