The Impact of Covid-19 on Diplomacy

Peter Millett was the British Ambassador to Libya from July 2015 until January 2018. He has served in a number of positions in the British Diplomatic Service since joining in 1974. In this blog, Peter Millett explains how the pandemic has shifted diplomats’ usual activities to consular work, and the impact this has had for Foreign Ministries and Embassies around the world.

What impact has the Covid-19 pandemic had on the work of diplomats?

Foreign Ministries and Embassies have shifted their efforts to consular work, repatriating their citizens stranded in different parts of the world. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office has arranged the return of over 30,000 citizens.

In some posts, all staff were diverted to alerting citizens to available flights, ensuring they had the right documentation and facilitating their passage to the airport. Many of those staff had to learn new skills. Diplomats whose careers had focused on political work or export promotion had to engage with the public in an active way and become the interface with their citizens.

This shift to consular work has highlighted a second factor: the more limited bandwidth in Foreign Ministries for ‘normal’ diplomacy, i.e. the lack of time, expertise, or resources to concentrate on foreign policy. Departments dealing with geographical or sectoral issues such as the Middle East or Climate Change have found staff diverted to consular work and have therefore been unable to handle their usual activities.

Ministers concentrating on their domestic agendas have had less time to reach out to their counterparts in other capitals. This change has reduced the impact of diplomacy on the world’s trouble spots as many major issues have been put on hold. Summits such as the G7, and the UN Climate Change Conference have been postponed.

International efforts to support conflict resolution have also been weakened as diplomats, envoys and peace negotiators have been unable to travel. At the start of the pandemic, the United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, issued an appeal for a global cessation of hostilities. He called for the guns to be silenced to enable countries to deal with the disease. It took the UN Security Council over 3 months to endorse this call.

For some leaders, this lack of attention has presented an opportunity to take controversial steps. The possible annexation of the West Bank by Israel is a good example. Chinese incursions across the border with India is another.

Like most organisations, Foreign Ministries and Embassies have taken to working from home and using Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Skype. In many cases, people have been working in different countries, trying to engage in diplomatic activities online.

Working from home, even in a different country, has worked, but only as a temporary fix. Where a diplomat knows a country well, they can contact their networks and pursue their normal business.

But diplomacy depends on personal contact, building trust, gaining confidence and developing interpersonal skills through face-to-face contact.

In a bilateral job, a key to success for a diplomat is to understand the country where they are working. That means going out, meeting people, exploring the history, the culture, and the language and getting under the skin of the country. It is almost impossible to do this remotely. In many cultures, cold calling someone is unacceptable and often very awkward. Trying to build relationships by Zoom will never build the same depth of understanding as a personal meeting.

In a multilateral job, direct contact is also essential. Online meetings of the UN Security Council and other international organisations tend to be long on speeches but short on conclusions. The corridors and coffee-shop are where small groups do deals and make compromises. That is not possible if all meetings are online.

Diplomatic entertainment has also been curtailed. As in many professions, entertainment is a vital tool of the trade. One-to-one lunches, dinner parties and receptions all provide opportunities to network, get to know people and do business behind the scenes.

Foreign Ministries will need to learn lessons from their experience of the pandemic. Concentration on consular training and crisis planning will be essential in future. But the essentials: personal networks, face-to-face contact, understanding different cultures, and trying to influence decision-takers and opinion-formers will remain core skills.