The world as we know it will never be the same. A “new normal”, in many circumstances, will become a reality, unless a vaccine becomes available for all. For now, we have to live with health protocols.
As the pandemic extends throughout the world, healthcare workers, as the first responders, have become essential; so too are the scientists that are collaborating to find solutions, including a potential vaccine. The disruptions resulting from border closures and travel restrictions, which were the immediate responses to the virus, continue to be addressed.
In this context, diplomacy plays an essential role. For example, the evacuation of Indonesian nationals, including students, from the locked down city of Wuhan in Hubei province, China was a delicate process that was well coordinated through diplomatic channels at high and low levels. Likewise, facilitating the safe return of Chinese tourists visiting different countries, including Indonesia, has also been well undertaken. Worldwide, diplomats have effectively facilitated the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of people from many countries.
Thus, despite border closures and restrictions, diplomats have managed to maintain effective channels of communication to coordinate with other nations, negotiate repatriation, amend shortages of essential medical supplies, maintain the flow of supply chains and facilitate cooperation on medication and vaccines. Diplomats have been preparing and organizing emergency meetings, including at the summit level, and have attempted, as much as possible, to marshal international cooperation for a global coordinated response.
Virtual meetings are a significant departure from normal physical meetings. All coordination undertakings, negotiations, preparatory meetings and even courtesy calls are now being conducted in this manner. The Special Summit of the Group of 20, the summits of ASEAN, ASEAN Plus One and ASEAN Plus Three, the Non-Aligned Summit and many other meetings at the regional and global levels have been organized virtually.
As these meetings have produced many agreements on emergency responses, efforts to address the virus’ significant economic impacts have also taken place. The G20, for example, has agreed on a one-year debt standstill for the world’s poorest nations as they struggle to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. G20 members have also pledged to deploy “all available policy tools” to deal with the health and economic crisis.
The ASEAN and ASEAN+3 summits also agreed on various collaborations, such as developing the Reserve of Essential Medical Supplies, which includes a warehouse managed by the ASEAN Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance (AHA Center), developing the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund, strengthening an early warning system and many other initiatives.
Virtual meetings and summits have very effectively contributed to quick decision-making and implementation. Virtual seminars have been effective at raising awareness, as well as providing education and training during the pandemic.
While virtual diplomacy has become an effective new reality, is this going to be the new normal? Will virtual meetings or the use of digital technology be sufficient in dealing with diplomacy’s many concerns, including its most sensitive ones?
First, we have seen effective results in emergency responses despite border restrictions and physical distancing. Meetings at the highest level can be organized to make breakthrough decisions for collective global responses.
Different time zones and distances have not hindered international coordination. Problems have been largely limited to secure communication and technological gaps.
In addition to having successfully brought home thousands of Indonesians from many countries despite restrictions, Indonesian diplomacy has managed to provide emergency supplies to its citizens in different countries, to facilitate more than 100 forms of support and cooperation from governments, international organizations and the private sector, especially in making essential medical supplies available to Indonesia. Indonesian diplomats have also started to facilitate discussions to prepare for economic recovery.
Diplomacy is the art and practice of conducting negotiation between nations, as the MerriamWebster Dictionary defines it. It is an instrument of foreign policy set out by political leaders. Therefore, depending on the gravity or sensitivity of the issues, diplomacy still requires face-to-face meetings because of many factors and considerations.
Trust, confidence-building, developing personal friendships and even body language are key for a negotiation to succeed. Despite the absence of concrete outcomes, a negotiation can be considered successful when chief negotiators and their teams manage to develop mutual trust and confidence to continue their meetings. Interpersonal dynamics in a negotiation are also critical, and negotiators cannot grasp these as accurately online as in physical meetings.
Virtual meetings can, indeed, be very effective to address emergency responses. They can also be effective for preliminary discussions and agenda setting. However, the actual negotiations still require both parties to meet in person, especially when involving very sensitive issues. Virtual meetings can help expedite negotiations and streamline meetings, but physical meetings remain essential and should be continued in the “new normal”, with strict health protocols in place.
The third and final point: to address a disaster of this unprecedented proportion, the ideal response needs strong global leadership and unified strategy. Unfortunately, the pandemic has been exacerbated by the divisive global atmosphere that has been building up over the past years. Geopolitical rivalries caused by trust deficits, coupled with accusations and rhetorical exchanges, have made the situation worse.
Some have said that the pandemic could last even longer, not solely because of the virus itself, but because of lack of global leadership and unity. It may not be as effectively addressed – in as solid and as unified a manner – as the previous global financial crisis. The more complicated current situation requires even more intensive and extensive engagements and coordination through diplomatic channels. Physical meetings may have to resume to address devastating economic impacts, including global security threats.
Diplomacy must continue to support the great work of healthcare workers, scientists and all front liners to salvage humanity.
Lastly, putting humanity and livelihoods at the center of global undertakings is most crucial to overcoming the spread of COVID-19. As we all share one planet Earth, continuous work toward peace and security is essential, whatever the “new normal” in diplomacy will be.
Some have said that the pandemic could last even longer, not solely because of the virus itself, but because of lack of global leadership and unity.
Indonesian diplomat. The views expressed are personal.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.