Webster Geneva Hosts 'Virtual Diplomacy in the Age of the Pandemic: Evolution or Revolution?'

The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown our world into chaos and confusion and has created many uncertainties and challenges. The world of international diplomacy has been no exception. Politicians, diplomats and statesmen, like the rest of us, have scrambled to learn the techniques and skills of operating, negotiating and attaining their objectives in a virtual world.

At the heart of diplomacy lie the skills of negotiating, networking and influencing other parties. However, adapting these skills to this new environment has presented many new problems and challenges. In order to address these issues, and shed light on virtual diplomacy, the International Relations Department at Webster University (Geneva, Switzerland campus) organized an online discussion with the participation of several distinguished speakers from International Geneva on Thursday, May 20, to address these questions and discuss potential solutions.

The prominent experts included Ambassador Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger of the Permanent Mission of Austria to the United Nations, who served as Chairperson of the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2020; Nicholas Hawton, a diplomatic adviser on the Near/Middle East in the Policy and Humanitarian Diplomacy Division of the International Committee of the Red Cross; Dr. Jovan Kurbalija, the founder and director of the Diplo Foundation and head of the Geneva Internet Platform; and Dr. Claude Chaudet, who is an associate professor and head of the Mathematics and Computer Science Department at Webster University’s Geneva campus. The event was moderated by Ambassador Michel Veuthey, an ambassador of the Order of Malta and a professor of International Law at Webster University in Geneva.

A recording is available on Webster Geneva's YouTube and embedded below, with a summary of key points following.

The Role of Digital Technology

In her remarks, Ambassador Tichy-Fisslberger traced back the beginning of the political prominence of digital technology to the 2011 Arab Spring when it was utilized to rally people in the struggle for greater freedom, human rights and democracy. She pointed out that social media was also used in the 2014 Crimean Crisis and the 2016 U.S. presidential elections to spread disinformation, and governments have tried to adopt countermeasures in an effort to prevent the misuse of digital technology.

With regard to her experience in the UN Human Rights Council, Ambassador Tichy-Fisslberger stated that some states have tried to use the pandemic as a pretext to prevent the Human Rights Council for carrying out its work. She pointed out that there are limits to the use of virtual diplomacy. For example, drafting and adopting resolutions by the Council members proved to be challenging, as it was difficult to reach a consensus during online meetings.

On the other hand, speakers were more concise and to the point in their statements and less loquacious. Furthermore, since travelling to Geneva to participate in the sessions was not required, all the member states could participate in the online sessions. This simplified matters for small and less developed countries whereby they could make their voices heard. However, it proved difficult to include NGOs in the process and the outcome yielded sub-optimal results. The major deficit, however, was the lack of direct human interaction, which impeded building trust.

The ambassador asserted that trust is the currency of diplomacy and it is difficult to build trust online. It is also difficult to pick up on nuances and subtleties, and assure confidentiality during online sessions. She believed exchanges between representatives who already know one another are more straightforward than those between delegates who have never met each other before in person. In conclusion, she believed that the pandemic has affected how diplomacy is conducted, and in the future, there will be a “smart mix” of personal and virtual diplomacy depending on the circumstances and issues at stake in order to attain optimal results.

Calibrating Personal and Virtual Diplomacy for Maximum Effect

Nicholas Hawton, who had previously worked also as journalist and a European Union representative, drew on his past experience to highlight some facts and reinforce key points that had been made by Ambassador Tichy-Fisslberger. He believed that both personal and virtual diplomacy can be effective, but the main question is how to calibrate them for maximum effect.

Using his experience as an EU representative in Libya in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the chaos that ensued, Hawton underscored the difficulty of using technology to attain results and that substantive progress was often achieved in face-to-face meetings that facilitated building mutual trust and confidence. With the ICRC, engaging directly with actors and gaining their trust and confidence were key in successfully negotiating a prisoner exchange in the Yemen war.

Hawton posited that the pandemic has accelerated the pace of change and we have crossed some sort of “Rubicon” (threshold) in terms of our use of digital technologies to engage with actors and conduct negotiations.

He explained that there is an “empathy deficit” when engaging online. He pointed out that prior to the pandemic, the process of establishing relations and trust between different parties was facilitated by corridor discussions during coffee breaks at meetings and conferences.

Hawton highlighted the danger of diplomatic space narrowing and the major powers making decisions unilaterally at the expense of smaller countries. He emphasized the importance of emotional intelligence and the need to pick up nuances and signals, which are now more important than before with the use of virtual diplomacy. At the end, he posed the question whether a “virtual Switzerland” – a safe and neutral meeting place - can be created online.

The Role of Neutral Spaces for Diplomatic Interaction

In his opening remarks, Jovan Kurbalija following on Nicholas Hawton’s question stated that international meetings should take place in a space that is beyond national jurisdiction to ensure progress and a successful outcome. Illustrating points that had been made by the two previous speakers, Kurbalija explained that the success of the 1815 Congress of Vienna that ended the Napoleonic Wars and established the Concert of Europe could be largely attributed to the fact that the Austrian monarch invested a great deal of energy and effort in arranging for the delegates to meet and interact socially in meals and banquets.

In contrast, at the Paris Peace Conference which led to the Treaty of Versailles, the focus was on determining the amount of financial reparations Germany had to pay and punishing her. This inevitably contributed to the outbreak of another world war twenty years later.

Kurbalija made three key points concerning diplomacy. The first was that protocols and routines are important in certain cultures and the necessary considerations and arrangements should be made to ensure establishing trust and reaching agreement. The second point concerned the importance of filtered negotiations through proximity talks where there is a go-between to mediate and bridge the gap between two conflicting parties. In this regard, he used the Paris Peace Talks that brought to an end American involvement in the Vietnam conflict, and the Dayton negotiations that led to the end of the war in Bosnia. Finally, Kurbalija stressed that new skills are needed to engage in virtual diplomacy. Human diplomacy remains important and relevant, but it is crucial to know when to use human, hybrid or virtual diplomacy in order to attain optimal results. This largely depends on the context and situation at hand.

The Role of Accelerated Communication and AI

In his presentation, Claude Chaudet elucidated that the speed of communication and information transfer has increased markedly in recent years and technology touches all aspects of our daily lives. Communication has become easy, instantaneous and constant, diminishing the need to travel to meet professionally. He pointed out that the internet is inexpensive and very accessible, but is less secure than specific closed networks. Massive amounts of information are available on demand on the internet and they can stay there permanently for better or worse.

Chaudet argued that artificial intelligence cannot replace humans, especially when it comes to diplomacy, but it can be a useful tool to understand underlying causes, analyze data and identify tipping points in discussions. On the other hand, virtual technology permits evasion of accountability and responsibility, enabling participants to blame problems and faults in the software, hardware and equipment for their lack of action, mistakes and oversights. He also mentioned that there are multiple security threats when using technology and virtual diplomacy such as impersonation of other parties, rerouting online traffic, eavesdropping, denial of service, installing ransomware and other features.

Overall, this online event proved to be a success as the presentations complemented one another, and all the participants made very insightful remarks and provided a great deal of food for thought, analysis and facts regarding virtual diplomacy at present and in the future.

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