The COVID-19 pandemic forced many organisations and businesses to move their communications online through videoconferencing software like Zoom, Webex, and Teams. Border closures hit the international relations field especially hard because delegates could not meet their foreign counterparts, as many conferences
were cancelled or postponed. Even as the pandemic winds down, many jobs
remain fully or partially remote, and the diplomatic community is considering
the advantages of keeping part of their operations online. As the world moves towards a new normal, global leaders must fully understand the risks and benefits associated with virtual diplomacy to create an optimal hybrid future.
A significant benefit of virtual meetings is the reduction in travel costs. Attending an in-person meeting requires a substantial amount of time, money, and energy, especially in international diplomacy, where interested parties are often thousands of miles away. Even when participants were spread across multiple time zones
, diplomats found coordinating time differences easier than international travel. Instant connections also made the scheduling process easier—using videoconferencing software, a diplomat could take a meeting in Mexico and Japan on the same day, eliminating the need to travel.
Attending an in-person meeting requires a substantial amount of time, money, and energy, especially in international diplomacy, where interested parties are often thousands of miles away.
Telework platforms are often much greener than traditional alternatives. The 26th
United Nations Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP26), for example, was criticised
for producing over 100,000 tonnes
of carbon dioxide, primarily due to international flights and accommodations for delegates and their staff. In comparison, virtual meetings only produce as much carbon as it takes to run a computer. While large summits often have a symbolic component that cannot be replicated online, diplomatic stakeholders interviewed by the Stockholm Environment Institute agreed
that virtual meetings could replace smaller events like workshops and technical reviews. As the climate crisis intensifies, diplomats must reflect on their carbon footprint as they build solutions for a greener future.
Hybridisation makes international diplomacy more accessible in some ways and less in others. Fewer entry barriers make it easier for underrepresented parties to participate in the diplomatic process—giving 50 interest groups a Zoom link is much easier than accommodating all of them in person. Representatives have also noted that meeting with high-level officials is easier because they are not restricted
by the security protocols necessary for a face-to-face meeting. Through virtual meetings, diplomats can add more voices to the conversation.
Fewer entry barriers make it easier for underrepresented parties to participate in the diplomatic process—giving 50 interest groups a Zoom link is much easier than accommodating all of them in person.
However, these benefits are only available to parties with technological infrastructure and reliable Internet connections. For diplomats in developing countries, a shift towards virtual meetings could limit their ability to participate in important meetings. When the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal working group met virtually in 2020, several countries from the Global South objected
because they believed the lack of domestic infrastructure and experience with videoconferencing software would disadvantage their negotiators. Moving important meetings online also opens non-governmental groups (NGOs) to government interference. Uganda, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe have often restricted internet access
for political purposes. Virtual diplomacy, therefore, only becomes an equitable option for global politics once questions about Internet accessibility and governance are sufficiently resolved.
Impact on interpersonal eelationships
Many diplomats question whether they can cultivate interpersonal relationships through a screen. Building trust is easier when parties have pre-existing relationships, but virtual constraints make forming new relationships extremely difficult. A Washington-based diplomat
who entered his role shortly before the pandemic began felt his work was less effective as he was unable to create a professional network without face-to-face contact. “I may have some contacts, but I have no real relationships and certainly no new friendships,” he said. Reflecting on pandemic-era diplomacy, other diplomats similarly mourned the lack of “corridor conversations
,” the sidebars and small talk in the hallway, elevator, or breaks between meetings.
Other common rituals of trust, like eating, drinking, or smoking together, also cannot be replicated online. These informal conversations are important for building closer and amicable personal relationships, even when the content of the meeting itself is highly contentious. NGO mediators who continued working virtually cited
the lack of trust-building rituals, like drinking tea together, as one of the main limitations of virtual diplomacy. Hospitality is an integral part of the peace process in the Arab world, but similar rituals of hospitality exist in almost every culture and are impossible to complete without face-to-face contact.
NGO mediators who continued working virtually cited the lack of trust-building rituals, like drinking tea together, as one of the main limitations of virtual diplomacy.
The strain on interpersonal relationships is even more consequential in a high-stakes context like peace diplomacy. Just being face-to-face in the same room is a significant first step for demonstrating trust, and videoconferencing often dilutes the meeting’s purpose. In Syria, government representatives refused
to meet delegates from the opposition and civil society virtually because they believed such sensitive negotiations could not be conducted virtually.
Even in virtual meetings which accomplish their immediate objectives, diplomats must pay close attention to long-term goodwill. Diplomatic interactions are critical to complex partnerships that decades and encompass a variety of issues. Important issues relegated to virtual meetings without supplemental in-person engagements to promote personal understanding could weaken these relationships and hinder future diplomatic cooperation.
Perceived security risks also prevent diplomatic actors, especially governments, from hybridising their operations. Unauthorised persons use “Zoom bombing
,” a known security risk, to access closed meetings and broadcast graphic content. Zoom bombers are often internet trolls with little motive beyond causing chaos, but there are documented politically-motivated attacks against events like Holocaust memorials
and International Women’s Day
Although passwords and waiting rooms can mitigate such threats, the secretive nature of diplomacy raises further cybersecurity concerns. In Yemen, some Houthi leaders refused
to use videoconferencing software because they believed it could give away their physical locations. Concerns of being secretly recorded also put participants at unease
in a virtual meeting: “Is he recording, where is he standing, who is listening with him, you know?” Even though most videoconferencing platforms notify participants when the built-in recording feature is used, workarounds like third-party screen recorders
are easy to come by. Such unaddressed security concerns reduce trust in virtual meetings and harm well-intentioned diplomatic efforts.
Zoom bombers are often internet trolls with little motive beyond causing chaos, but there are documented politically-motivated attacks against events like Holocaust memorials and International Women’s Day celebrations.
Attention to security concerns is often proportional to available resources, with governments establishing fairly robust cybersecurity protocols and third-party groups lagging. The United States established the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) to review cloud services for federal use as early as 2011
, and most governments have produced some cybersecurity guidelines in the wake of the pandemic. NGOs, however, often rely on commercially available services. To promote trust in the security of virtual diplomacy, any organisation dealing with classified information should invest in secure videoconferencing software to gain the trust of parties suspicious of virtual meetings.
Taking advantage of teleconferencing without harming diplomatic goals requires discretion when deciding when and how to moderate virtual meetings. Not all meetings are suitable for a virtual setting—meetings involving a large number of people, a symbolic component, or first-time introductions should be held in person whenever possible. Organisers must also consider whether each participant has the necessary infrastructure and equipment to facilitate a virtual meeting to prevent digital discrimination. During virtual meetings, moderation is vital to ensuring a virtual meeting is successful and effective.
Virtual diplomacy has incredible benefits, but it is not a straightforward replacement for traditional in-person meetings, as a virtual setting comes with its own set of considerations and challenges. The diplomatic community needs to think critically about integrating virtual meetings into its existing framework to ensure that the future of hybridisation is equitable, hospitable, and secure.
Jenna Stephenson is an intern at ORF Mumbai.
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