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Blog Post | Diplomacy’s Response to the Coronavirus (Part II)

The previous blog post in this series discussed the role of international diplomacy during the coronavirus crisis. This post focuses on diplomacy and its challenges in post-corona times. Specifically, the blog post argues that diplomats will face a range of challenges following the Covid-19 pandemic including the need to strengthen the multilateral system, facilitate collaborations to find a vaccine and resolve diplomatic disputes arising from new travel restrictions.

Diplomacy and Public Health

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, public health will become an important realm of diplomatic activity. For instance, collaborate with public health experts is required to ensure that the international system is better equipped to face future pandemics. This will include    taking a more active role in public health policy making at the global level. At the national level, foreign ministries may develop new working procedures, and digital tools, to contend with consular demands during global health crises. Governments will also modify consular response strategies while diplomatic academies are likely to add public health crises to the curriculum. 

Most importantly, diplomats will take an active part in the search for a vaccine, now dubbed by the media as ‘vaccine diplomacy’. On the one hand, their work is collaborative: to foster international collaborations between governments, health and institutions, scientists, doctors and pharmaceutical companies. These will all aid the creation, testing, production and dissemination of a Covid-19 vaccine. They will also play a role in coordinating the distribution of such a vaccine. Yet there is also competition:  practitioners may be required to secure vaccines for their states. One might reasonably expect a bidding war in which nations vie over this most valuable commodity, and governments will ask their diplomats to leverage foreign relationships to obtain a vaccine ahead of other states.

The Future of the Multilateral System

The Covid-19 pandemic crystalized the need to improve the effectiveness of international organizations and their ability to respond to crises. Diplomats may seek to enhance the World Health Organization’s analytic and interventional capacities; the International Monetary Fund’s and the World Bank’s readiness to assist countries whose economies cannot endure prolonged quarantines, and the World Trade Organization’s ability to facilitate global trade mid-way through a crisis. However, multilateral organizations’ dependence on states and complicated bureaucracies may create difficulties in the development and implementation of timely and effective strategies. The reason being that multilateral settings are political ones in which states find it hard to agree on a single policy. 

In the post Covid-19 environment, one might also expect enhanced diplomatic participation in drafting, and executing national economic strategies.  This is because national policies are dependent on the policies of other states. In Covid-19, no state is an island.  Within the harsh economic environment that will follow Covid-19, governments will draw on the expertise of diplomats to support exports and attract foreign investments. Foreign ministries and diplomatic missions may become more involved in new realms of diplomatic activity including supply chains, quality control and sourcing products.

Open Skies

Different forms of travel restrictions are expected to last some time as states may introduce new medical requirements for issuing entry visas and mandatory quarantines for new arrivals. All these will further complicate international travel. Once air travel finally resumes, states are expected to open their skies selectively, signaling out ‘safe’ and ‘dangerous’ destinations. This may result in diplomatic spouts. For instance, a German decision to grant entry to Swiss citizens, while banning Americans, may summon the wrath of Washington. States may thus find themselves managing diplomatic crises because of public health guidelines. 
Post covid-19, one can expect a prolonged reduction in non-essential diplomatic travels and conferences. Many meetings and conferences have already been cancelled. Instead, videoconferences and other forms of remote communication will increasingly be used. As was the case during the Covid-19 outbreak, foreign ministries will rely on digital solutions to keep the wheels of international diplomacy in motion. In this respect, the issues of privacy and information security in diplomatic communication will become increasingly more relevant. International organizations will invest heavily in new technologies that help prepare them for future crises. Yet such organizations need not ‘invent the wheel’, as they may build on digital expertise and practices gained by national governments over the past decade.

The effectivity of organizations such as the UN will rest on their ability to practice remote diplomacy. Preserving international diplomatic activity in Covid-19’s aftermath is essential, as global challenges have not disappeared.  The rights of refugees, the protection of human rights and the easing of ethnic tensions will become paramount given the expected economic downturn.

Returning to Normal?

It is unclear how Covid-19 will affect the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The pandemic has negatively affected the level of material well-being of people worldwide, and the obtainment of the first SDG – the eradication of poverty – is of especial concern. Ensuring food security will become an important issue for many states suffering from economic stagnation, while negatively influencing poverty reduction and humanitarian food distribution. The question that follows is whether the international system, headed by the UN, can formulate a ‘Marshall Plan’ whereby a global effort is made to enhance food security, on the one hand, while striving for the SDG’s on the others. The current mongering among China and the US, two essential players in any global development project, complicates such a vision.

Covid-19 was a global crisis and a global response may still work. Here, diplomats can play an important role by keeping the future of SDGs on the global agenda, formulating public diplomacy campaigns through the media and social media, mediating rifts between states and reaching out to multiple stakeholders.

The Rebuke of Globalization?

The immediate, post-coronavirus world may be more inward looking and less favorable to globalization. The blame game – blaming foreign countries and immigrants for spreading the Coronavirus-will inevitably create an isolationist’s paradise while hindering international cooperation. Under such conditions, diplomats will be ineffective unless they can restore trust in the international system, and in other states. Most disconcerting is the fact that the rebuke of globalization may transform into a rebuke of democracy, as some nations have already suspended democratic processes in the mist of Covid-19. Yet shared fears, and shared concerns, may give way to a shared vision. Diplomats’ core communication should thus focus on regaining public trust in the institutions and processes of diplomacy. 
The way forward is a collaborative one.  The ability to react to global challenges will be one of the main concerns. Diplomacy can cope with new challenges as far as it can help preserve a spirit of cooperation, demonstrate the continued relevance of multilateral diplomacy and remain open to new technologies and new actors. Global health crises require a multi-stakeholder approach that leverages the capacity, knowledge and experience of non-state organizations.

Alisher Faizullaev, D.Sc., Ph.D., is an Adjunct Professor at Webster University in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. His last book Symbolic Insult in Diplomacy: A Subtle Game of Diplomatic Slap was published in 2018 (Leiden and Boston: Brill).  To find Faizullaev’s click here.

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