The 21st century, a century of global crises: What role for (virtual) diplomacy?

Helena Robert

It has become clear by now that the current historical momentum is not only a global public health crisis but also one that sparkles and elucidates further economic, social, and political crises that shed light onto multiple forms of injustice and inequality at all levels and in all spheres of society. In such a context, diplomacy and much bigger effort towards multilevel governance have become more relevant than ever. For the complexity of the issues we are facing and the future challenges we have to deal with are not something that nation-states can tackle individually. Gone are the days where any matter was an internal affair. In an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, every actor -and not only nation-states- is a fundamental piece of the puzzle, without which global challenges cannot be effectively addressed.

In November last year, the members of UNSA Barcelona had the chance to participate in an event concerning protocol and international organisations. Asserting the crucial role of protocol for successful communication among members of international organisations, Alba Merino Rosselló stressed that the recognition of other nation-states by each state member of an organisation is essential in this whole process. Indeed, as she put it, protocol must convey mutual respect among parties engaging in negotiations of any kind[1]. In other words, among the key values in diplomacy is respect for the other.

We know that neither diplomacy nor (global) crises are unique to the 21st century. Within the European context, international relations emerged from the relationships among emperors and monarchs trying to agree on the functioning of their respective power regimes. Although a large range of historical events have occurred since then, thereby transforming the nature of international relations and the framework under which these are conducted, the premise remains the same: enabling communication among actors to effectively negotiate and agree upon different matters which affect them, seeking a mutually beneficial outcome.

Yet, what is new about both diplomacy and crises is the reach and the format they take. Indeed, diplomacy is extremely relevant in times of crisis, and the current pandemic has severely touched upon what has historically been a core element in multilateral negotiations; that is, personal, face-to-face contact. By forcing states to communicate through virtual platforms, the pandemic is not only reshaping the routines of decision-makers but also how decisions are taken. As most activities since the beginning of the pandemic, diplomatic talks and international conferences have moved online. Among many of the difficulties brought about by this new diplomatic paradigm is the need to accommodate multiple time zones, forcing certain countries to discuss highly complex matters in the middle of the night and requiring flexibility from all parties to regularly rotate to do so. But, of course, and as noted by Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of UNFCCC, the main obstacle remains the lack of physical contact, especially because informal meetings are crucial for a fruitful debate in final conferences where agreements are to be reached[2].

Overall, we are witnessing a moment of transformation of diplomacy altogether. We know that the pandemic is not, as it was initially thought, a transitory phase but that it will rather be living with us for some time. Thus, it is time to recognise that the usual diplomatic framework has become outdated, requiring a change in the rules of diplomacy itself. Moreover, diplomacy faces an additional challenge, inherent to times of crisis. Generally, under circumstances of economic and political uncertainty and social unrest, nationalist discourses shifting the attention to each state’s domestic priorities are easily spread, weakening diplomatic ties and cross-country cooperation. The Covid-19 vaccine race -or war- could not be a better example of this. To counterbalance this is what diplomacy should be aiming at.

Let me end on a positive note. As Espinosa said, “never has a generation had the opportunity to change so much in so little time”. And it is, indeed, the current multiple coexisting structural crises that present us with an opportunity to move forward and bring about transformative, positive change for the future. In the current situation, almost everything is uncertain but one thing is clear: increasingly complex global problems require not only global cooperation but, more importantly, political will. And diplomacy is being transformed, and so are the processes through which decisions are being taken, increasingly incorporating the role of the civil society in the process. And in the face of such changes, diplomacy, and diplomats, will have no other choice but to adapt, for there is no way forward without it.

[1] Alba Merino Rosselló at the event organised by Relaciónate y punto, JEF Espanya and JEF Catalunya, in collaboration with UNSA Barcelona: “Protocol and event organisation in international organisations”, 07/11/2020.

[2] Patricia Espinosa at a public lecture held by The London School of Economics and Political Science: “Our Slim Window of Opportunity: What the climate change agenda must achieve in 2021”, 03/02/2021.

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