DIPLOMAT MAYJUNE 2021 WEB READY - Flipbook - Page 27
SUMMIT DIPLOMACY 27
So all this presents some tricky questions for the
British government. It has a diary chocker with summits
and international meetings that in theory are supposed
to be physical and not virtual. There is a gathering of G7
finance ministers in early June that the Treasury, at time
of writing, is still insisting will go ahead in person. Later
that month comes the full G7 summit proper in Cornwall.
A few weeks after that, the UK is expected to hand over
its chairmanship of the Commonwealth to Rwanda at
the long-delayed heads of government meeting in Kigali.
And then, of course, there is the COP26 climate change
summit in Scotland in November.
Perhaps the real challenge
for diplomats is more
fundamental. Some of
their work now can take
place virtually, some of it
physically. The question is
how do they choose?
For diplomats the world over, whether hosts or visitors,
this presents a nightmare of uncertainty and complexity.
It is one thing to keep seven heads of government secure
in a small slice of Cornish coastline. It is quite another to
ensure the safety and health of the many thousands of folk
roaming round Glasgow at COP26. The last such meeting,
COP25, brought more than 26,000 people to Madrid.
But perhaps instead of looking at the challenges, it
might be better to consider the opportunities. Could
pandemic diplomacy become the new norm? Might there
not be advantages to hybrid summits, that are part physical,
part virtual? In February, France’s foreign minister hosted
his British and German counterparts in Paris where they
were joined virtually by the new US Secretary of State,
Anthony Blinken. What is to stop this happening more
often? At the G7 foreign ministers’ meeting, the Indian
minister seamlessly rejoined the talks virtually after he had
to go into isolation. None of this would have been plausible
More generally, key principals can attend virtual
meetings more easily, without having to waste time and
fuel travelling, without having to carve out large chunks
from their diaries. At big summits, semi-virtual meetings
could also potentially allow for a relaxation of usually rigid
protocol rules and make it easier for other participants to
attend, such as business, charity or civic society leaders,
who could just drop in and out.
For all that, the physical meeting will surely continue.
“Diplomacy is back,” declared Dominic Raab at the start
of the G7 foreign ministers meeting, the first time they
had met face to face for two years. The seven ministers and
their half a dozen guests were clearly happy to be liberated
from their screens. As the West German Chancellor, Willy
Brandt, used to say, it was only at summits that leaders
could “get a smell of one another.” Diplomacy is a social
interaction that is hard to reproduce across a screen.
Perhaps the real challenge for diplomats is more
fundamental. Some of their work now can take place
virtually, some of it physically. The question is how do
they choose? When is it worth getting on a plane instead
of dialling up? When is it worth learning a language and
re-locating to another part of the world instead of relying
on local hires? These questions are existential: what does
the presence of a diplomat on the ground add compared
to a colleague behind a screen in the UK? The answer may
not always be as obvious or as comfortable as it once was.
DIPLOMATMAGAZINE.COM } MAY/JUNE 2021