Following the tricky logistics of corona diplomacy, James Landale, diplomatic correspondent, BBC News, says the next major role for diplomats is to help the world cooperate as it faces a global recession

Diplomacy is a funny old business.Their excellencies have to be excellent in many trades – they must be strategists, negotiators, policymakers, wordsmiths and so on. And yet for much of the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, many diplomats around the world became glorified travel agents, scooping up their nationals who had been touring the four corners of the world and were now desperate to get home. Here in London most of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was transformed into one large consular machine, cajoling airlines into laying on flights, doing deals with allies to open up airspace, comforting the stranded and the desperate, taking inordinate efforts to track down errant Brits who were all over social media indignant at the inexplicable inability of their government to lay on RAF rescue flights at the drop of a hat. Across the world, there were examples of diplomats from many countries going to great lengths to carry out the first duty of government to protect their people.

Then came the second phase of what I am going to call corona diplomacy. Instead of just repatriating nationals, diplomats were then also tasked with locating and importing medical equipment. The call went up for ventilators to help the sick, personal protective equipment to protect the health workers and then virus testing kits to protect the fit and well. Diplomats have long seen themselves as economic ambassadors for their nations but preparing the ground for a trade deal is not quite the same as calling round medical suppliers to see if they have a spare box of rubber gloves. The squabbling at times became unseemly, with Germanyaccusing the United Statesof ‘modern day piracy’ for confiscating 200,000 masks at Bangkok airport that were destined for Berlin.

But – whisper it quietly – this kind of grubby logistics was not why many of these envoys first joined their foreign services. Oh no, many in the diplomatic classes were ambitious for more highfalutin’ stuff: the chance to shape government policy; to promote the interests of their nations; even, perhaps, to change the world. And that perhaps is where the third phase of corona diplomacy will come. For the pandemic has changed the geopolitics of our world, accelerating many existing trends, and some nifty diplomacy will be needed to stitch it back together.

The crisis appears to have delivered yet another blow to the post-war ideal of multilateral cooperation. Most countries reacted to the crisis by seeking national solutions. Borders were closed and unilateral healthcare strategies adopted. There was little international leadership, such as was evident after the financial crash of 2008, that brought together countries to hammer out a global solution. The pessimists see this as an example of how post-World War II international structures have failed to adapt and modernise and are thus less relevant to resurgent nation states. The optimists see the pandemic as a vitally needed wake-up call for the United Nations, G20, G7, World Trade Organisation and all the other multilateral bodies, one that will spur them into reform and modernisation, necessity being the mother of invention. So this will be one of the first tasks for diplomats around the world – to get their nations talking again, both individually and collectively.

And what a lot there will be to talk about post-Covid. At the very least, the world will have to cooperate with the search for and production of an anti-Covid vaccine. Already there are fears that so-called ‘vaccine nationalism’ might break out, with countries competing over the price and supply of medicines. Some people are going to get the vaccine before others: that will be a political decision about need and priority and it will take some diplomacy to get it right.

But perhaps the biggest job for diplomats will be helping their countries to cooperate and trade as the world faces a global recession. Countries may have chosen to tackle the pandemic by themselves. But it will be much harder to rescue their economies without more collective action. There may be short-term trade deals to be agreed. There may be much needed reforms of the World Trade Organisation to be hammered out. There may be new stimulus packages to be arranged, potentially through the G7 or the G20. And there may be injections of cash and loans needed to help poorer countries pay for their workers to stay at home during their own coronavirus lockdowns. None of this will be easy, not least when there will be many sectors – such as medical supplies – where countries will probably want to reduce the size of their supply chains.

Which brings us neatly to China. At the time of writing, Beijing is mounting a robust – some might say aggressive  – diplomatic campaign to defend its handling of the coronavirus. This is producing some pushback elsewhere in the world where attitudes about China are hardening. In the United States, China has become an election issue with both candidates accusing the other of being ‘soft’ on China. There is talk, once again, of a ‘cold war.’ This perhaps presents the world’s diplomats with their greatest challenge: how to prevent tensions between China and the West escalating to such a position that it makes a post-Covid economic recovery more difficult. China not only also makes lots of stuff, its citizens also consume lots of stuff. There will surely be a diplomatic job to be done to manage these tensions, while lowering barriers to investment and trade.

One thing in the diplomats’ favour is that they – unlike most politicians – have the ability and time to look into the future beyond the pandemic. Many argue that while countries in the west may of course want to improve their strategic independence, they should also find some kind of framework for cooperation with China. Few of the big global issues, such as climate change or trade or pandemics or security, can be tackled without input from China. The test now is whether such reasoning will overcome the current tensions.


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