However long the pandemic lasts, diplomacy has been forever changed. How diplomats respond to the recent step-change in personal interactions and resultant altered statecraft will dictate whether national objectives are met, whether treaties are negotiated, and whether normal operations return – or diplomacy turmoil continues.

ARTICLE BY: Thomas A. Campbell, Andrew Hyde, Geoffrey M. Odlum, Ariel Ahram • Jun 11, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has utterly transformed international diplomacy. Statecraft has long been driven by face-to-face interactions that expand through informal mechanisms, such as body language, spontaneous conversations, and an understanding of the views of other actors beyond rote statements of positions. Such meetings are now difficult if not impossible in the era of social distancing and work from home mandates. Meetings postponed or canceled altogether have slowed a range of negotiations while many important international conferences have also been delayed or gone virtual. Cybersecurity risks have amplified as unsecure networks are leveraged for conversations that would have normally occurred face to face. Diplomats must find new ways to work in this pandemic era, as well as what the current turmoil in operations may mean post-COVID19.

The practice of diplomacy has always been intertwined with state-of-the-art methods of information and communications technology (ICT). For example, telegraphy revolutionized the practices of diplomacy by accelerating the speed of communication between embassies and the metropole. The internet has had similar revolutionary impact on the practices of statecraft and diplomacy. Web-enabled ICT multiplied the number of voices and interests involved in international policymaking; complicated international decision-making; reduced exclusive control of States in the process; accelerated and freed the dissemination of information, accurate or not, about any issue or event; and enabled traditional diplomatic services to be delivered faster and more cost-effectively, both to ones’ own citizens and government, and to those of other countries. Following the development of social media, multiple government agencies are now avid posters on Twitter and other platforms in their attempts to shape public discourse at home and abroad. 
The novel coronavirus has imposed suddenly a full-court-press for diplomats to take to internet ICT, but accompanying this rapid change are new communications stresses and nuances. The functionalities and efficiencies of diplomatic ICT – including phone, email, social media messaging, and virtual meetings – are now routinely in question. The limitations of video-conferencing and other ICT-driven modes of communication have long been documented. U.S. Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) are specifically trained in face-to-face interactions and talking to groups. Exclusive reliance upon teleconference platforms such as Zoom and WebEx affect multiple core capabilities of the FSO. It is difficult to detect and project desired body language, thus introducing challenges in convincing foreign interlocutors to share private thoughts and intentions over a monitor. Negotiations are both enabled and constrained online, thus pushing the dialogue in sometimes unexpected directions. Reduced or no travel, fewer in-person meetings, and overall, limited personal interactions compromise statecraft. Video engagement changes how information and intelligence is collected, thus impacting institutional memory. 
Diplomatic activity and initiatives have slowed considerably as many major meetings and conferences have gone online, with others outright canceled. US Government agencies have suspended many pre-pandemic priorities and pivoted almost entirely to focusing now on coping with the virus. Security in the White House has increased with individuals working near POTUS being given daily coronavirus checks, thus self-limiting the frequency of high-level meetings. Intelligence officers at the CIA are working shifts, such as three days on followed by three days off, to improve social distancing by reducing the given number of people in buildings at any given time. In New York City, itself a pandemic epicenter, all aspects of life have been severely compromised for over a month now, detrimentally affecting United Nations Headquarters operations and activities. For example, COVID-19 has prompted changes in the working methods of the UN General Assembly: “Physical distancing and stay-at-home restrictions mean representatives can no longer meet in person, including to vote on resolutions, which are now circulated under a process known as ‘silence procedure.’ Ambassadors are given a 72-hour window to consult their capitals. If they all agree on a resolution, it is passed. If not, the resolution is not adopted as the ‘silence’ has been broken.”
Webinars and online meetings are the new norm, but they impact the large-scale and often slow-moving collaborative work of drafting and editing of diplomatic agreements and statements. These processes now often involve dozens of people all working remotely using a “track changes” mode of interaction. But direct contact and interaction often undergird these collaborations, as interlocutors know each other and can converse face to face before they move into the web environment. Going straight to the web without initial constructive in-person discussions in the best case merely compromises the speed of production; in the worst case it stymies it entirely.
Cybersecurity risks increase when executing all diplomacy online. A singular reliance on ICT raises new questions about the reliability and vulnerability of networks to disruption or espionage; unpreparedness opens new cyber-attack vectors for hackers, both amateurs and State-sponsored professionals. Governments may not have the requisite cyberinfrastructure and trained employees to seamlessly continue diplomacy operations from home offices. Sharing of sensitive documents either cannot be done at all, or only in a limited manner. Diplomatic online sessions can be recorded and played back with deep analyses of verbatim words and body language – normally hurried notes taking and brief summarizations are what constitute the record for face-to-face conversations. Since different organizations and different countries can adopt disparate and non-interoperable technological approaches, ICT compatibility confusion throws additional barriers at smooth statecraft. Some diplomats may avoid negotiations altogether because of security concerns, thus compromising statecraft progress in general.
State engagements must continue apace regardless of the pandemic. Negotiations of peace, non-virus global health issues, human rights, climate change, nuclear nonproliferation, and trade all must occur, in whatever limited way. Embassies need to find ways to provide emergency consular services to visiting or expatriate citizens in need without putting diplomats at risk of infection. Diplomats face challenges in assessing emerging political, economic, and social trends when prevented from face-to-face meetings or travel around a country. National elections scheduled during this period of social distancing may take place without the confidence-building presence of foreign election observers, increasing potential for corrupt or anti-democratic practices to alter election outcomes. 
Diplomatic professionals will have to consider how the new online reality impacts their ability to advance their national interests, to understand rapidly shifting geopolitical events, and to reach publics overseas. Key is to understand how diplomacy morphs into a new normal in the coming months and years, and to identify means that diplomats and senior policymakers can prepare. Tactical challenges are to identify best ways of doing business and to implement them in real time during the pandemic. Strategic challenges are to consider how diplomacy following the pandemic might inalterably change, what new opportunities are present, and how to position diplomats accordingly.
Advantages and opportunities exist in this new online reality, nevertheless. Frictionless meeting logistics with accompanying financial savings for internet-only engagements; increased opportunities to hear directly from key players; younger diplomats shining with their greater digital skills – all these and more are coming to light in the pandemic era. As stated by the United Nations’ Under-Secretary General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, Rosemary DiCarlo, “Although we recognize that the limitations of the processes in which face-to-face meetings are restricted, the increased use of technology has the potential to create new opportunities [and] enhance the inclusivity of peace processes – for example, including the participation of women and young people.”
Concomitant with this new reality is the increased potential to leverage big data, predictive analytics, and other digital technologies. Investments should be amplified in artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze all data that can be extracted on any given country, region, or topic. Predictive analytics using machine learning (and its subset, deep learning) can then be applied to offer novel insights for meeting preparedness and briefings to senior policymakers; such approaches offer new opportunities in optimized human-machine hybrid decision-making. AI can also be used to automatically assess treaty compliance, as well as to monitor and predict events before they occur. In-situ machine language translations and real-time content assessment for both verbal and written communiques are feasible now. Increased security of voting processes via blockchain holds great potential. Virtual reality avatars can be applied to replicate the feeling of sitting across a table from a counterpart. Ultimately, there is a wide range of technological applications and solutions that await adoption and deployment by forward-leaning diplomatic corps.
However long the pandemic lasts, diplomacy has been forever changed. How diplomats respond to the recent step-change in personal interactions and resultant altered statecraft will dictate whether national objectives are met, whether treaties are negotiated, and whether normal operations return – or diplomacy turmoil continues.
ARTICLE BY: Thomas A. Campbell, Andrew Hyde, Geoffrey M. Odlum, Ariel Ahram • Jun 11, 2020


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The opinions and characterizations in this piece are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. Government.
Thomas A. Campbell, Ph.D. ( is Founder & CEO of FutureGrasp, an advisory group that works with organizations globally to identify policy and business opportunities from emerging and disruptive technologies, especially artificial intelligence. Previously, he was the first National Intelligence Officer for Technology with the National Intelligence Council, Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).
Andrew Hyde ( is a Nonresident Fellow at the Stimson Center, a Washington, D.C. based think tank, with the Transforming Conflict and Governance Program, and a Senior Advisor with FutureGrasp. Previously, he was a Foreign Service Officer at the U.S. Department of State and a Congressional staffer.
Geoffrey Odlum ( served as a Foreign Service Officer at the U.S. Department of State from 1989 to 2017. He is currently the President of Odlum Global Strategies, a national security and technology policy consulting firm, and is a Senior Advisor with FutureGrasp.
Ariel I. Ahram, Ph.D. ( is Associate Professor and Chair of Government and International Affairs (GIA) at the School of Public and International Affairs, Virginia Tech.


Speaker’s Conference Notes

CognitiveVirtual by SwissCognitive
Global Online AI Event Hosted by EPAM
22. June 2020

610 Attendees from 63 Countries

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