Permanent missions will become increasingly important in the post-COVID-19 era, and their modus operandi will change as they become a key segment of ‘hybrid diplomacy’ (i.e., diplomacy that combines onsite and online diplomatic meetings).
These were the underlying messages of DiploFoundation’s WebDebate entitled ‘Permanent missions at global diplomatic hubs: More or less relevant in 2020?’.
The rich discussion led by Amb. Asoke Mukerji (Former Permanent Representative, UN, New York) and Ms Maricela Muñoz (Minister Counsellor, Permanent Mission of Costa Rica to UN, Geneva) involved a wide range of discussants from diplomatic services and research communities from around the world.
The webinar kicked off with a poll asking whether or not permanent missions to multilateral hubs will become more important in the coming years. Although the majority of participants gave their votes to the increasing relevance of permanent missions in the months to come (as illustrated in the photo below), the discussion took many turns.
To illustrate, a few speakers spoke of the counter-intuitivity of the poll results in an era of online and hybrid diplomacy, given that officials from capitals can now participate virtually in most meetings held by international organisations. To that end, they raised the following question: Why should countries have diplomats in New York, Geneva, or Vienna if they can participate online?
This argument was challenged despite the opportunities offered by technology which do not necessarily translate into diplomatic reality. Several main arguments were marshalled in favor of greater relevance of permanent missions in the time to come.
- Context matters a great deal in multilateral diplomacy. Even in the online era, diplomats on the spot are better placed to understand and decipher nuanced signals in global negotiations.
- Controversial issues and crises are better addressed with people on the spot, even if they have to wear masks and keep physical distance when practicing ‘corridor diplomacy’. Permanent missions need to be ready to deal with crisis situations which are difficult to predict as it has been the case with the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Capitals often do not have the capacity to follow policy processes in specialised agencies. Interestingly enough, online meetings during COVID-19 did not shift this area-specific policy focus to capitals.
- Time differences are an obstacle to participation from capitals. For instance, afternoon meetings in Geneva would require late evening or night participation from capitals in the Pacific, or early morning sessions for representatives for Latin America. While such participation could be arranged under exceptional circumstances, this is not a sustainable solution in the long run.
- Travel restrictions make having diplomats on the spot in main multilateral hubs crucial.
Discussants also provided reflections on some of the emerging aspects of hybrid diplomacy and the new role of permanent missions.
Online meetings are ‘power equalisers’. Namely, it is much more difficult for major actors to project in an online setting. In virtual meetings, these actors do not have their large delegations sitting behind them. Online meetings can therefore contribute towards balanced and inclusive global politics.
- Small countries with limited human and financial resources can develop hybrid diplomacy by combining the work of their permanent missions on the ground with all the available experts back at home. For instance, academics from local universities could remotely cover specific issues that require focused expertise, such as climate change, health, and transportation, to name but a few.
- Capitals may get a more prominent role in co-ordinating activities among permanent missions. Human rights were cited as an example where many countries face co-ordination difficulties between permanent missions in Geneva and New York.
- With the transition to online meetings, the rules of procedure have been and will be subject to broader interpretation in response to the restrictive measures adopted to combat the pandemic. The UN General Assembly’s (UNGA) development of working procedures for online diplomacy was cited as a successful example of the adaptability and responsiveness of the multilateral system to the new circumstances. However, as the hybrid form of diplomacy becomes more widespread, due considerations will need to be given to the revision of the rules of procedure.
Diplomacy is often portrayed as a slow-changing profession, but the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the opposite. Diplomatic services and international organisations adjusted quickly to the new circumstances by shifting most of their work to the online space. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) new modus operandi will be analysed as a case study of the fast and efficient adaptation to dealing with crisis and the many unknowns.
As the UN celebrates its 75th anniversary, the creative and agile dynamics absorbed by multilateral diplomacy should further accelerate. As the old saying goes, ’A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.’
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