James Landale, Diplomatic Correspondent, BBC News discusses the return of face to face diplomacy
Diplomacy, like journalism, is an obscure art. Both occupations absorb much time, but their outcomes are hard to quantify. One can count the number of telegrams or articles written. But rarely can one judge the impact made, the opinions swayed, the decisions reversed. This is why diplomats and journalists like numbers. They can give spurious weight to an otherwise weak argument. In a thin mix of anecdote and impression, hard numerals can provide a solid centre around which many a wordy paragraph can hang.
So when the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office informed us that no fewer than 35 litres of sanitising handwash would be stored at Lancaster House to keep the meeting of G7 foreign ministers safe, ears pricked up. Eyebrows were raised. Yes, 35 litres. Not 34, not 36, but a nice, round 35 litres of the stuff would be on site to ensure the visiting diplomats had an excuse to wring their hands without – for once – having to compromise on a fundamental principle first. The precision of that number stuck out like out a sanitised thumb from the promotional social media films the FCDO published to demonstrate the measures it was taking to ensure the safety of delegates.
There would be COVID tests before their flights, after their flights, on arrival and every day. The delegations would be smaller than usual. Masks would be worn, social distancing applied, and there would be transparent panels boxing off each minister as they sat round the table in the Long Gallery. And then, there it was, that suspiciously precise 35 litres of handwash for an international meeting where no one would be shaking hands.
So, when it emerged that two junior members of the Indian delegation had tested positive, there was little surprise. For however tight regulations are, the COVID virus seems able to find a way round them. British officials were keen to emphasise the strict rules had worked. The positive cases were identified by the testing, the two individuals were isolated, the rest of the delegation questioned for close contacts. The Indian diplomats – guests rather than full participants at this particular gathering in May – had not been near Lancaster House itself. But they had held bilateral meetings with some people who subsequently had gone to the venue.
The point is that no amount of handwash is going to make diplomatic conferences risk free of COVID. So the question for governments and officials is whether or how such meetings should go ahead in future.
The G7 foreign ministers, it has to be said, were pretty good at following the rules. They greeted the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, with elbow bumps that became decreasingly less awkward as the days passed. Few seemed to realise that many appeared in the photographs to be raising a clenched fist in the salute of revolutionaries down the ages. But that aside, they sat where they were told, they did not let their masks creep down their faces, and there were no involuntary handshakes. At least in public. For the risks at events like these are what goes on in private, in the corridors, the hallways and the toilets; the margins of a meeting where much of the real diplomacy goes on.
So all this presents some tricky questions for the British government. It has a diary chocker with summits and international meetings that in theory are supposed to be physical and not virtual. There is a gathering of G7 finance ministers in early June that the Treasury, at time of writing, is still insisting will go ahead in person. Later that month comes the full G7 summit proper in Cornwall. A few weeks after that, the UK is expected to hand over its chairmanship of the Commonwealth to Rwanda at the long-delayed heads of government meeting in Kigali. And then, of course, there is the COP26 climate change summit in Scotland in November.
For diplomats the world over, whether hosts or visitors, this presents a nightmare of uncertainty and complexity. It is one thing to keep seven heads of government secure in a small slice of Cornish coastline. It is quite another to ensure the safety and health of the many thousands of folk roaming round Glasgow at COP26. The last such meeting, COP25, brought more than 26,000 people to Madrid.
But perhaps instead of looking at the challenges, it might be better to consider the opportunities. Could pandemic diplomacy become the new norm? Might there not be advantages to hybrid summits, that are part physical, part virtual? In February, France’s foreign minister hosted his British and German counterparts in Paris where they were joined virtually by the new US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken. What is to stop this happening more often? At the G7 foreign ministers’ meeting, the Indian minister seamlessly rejoined the talks virtually after he had to go into isolation. None of this would have been plausible pre-pandemic.
More generally, key principals can attend virtual meetings more easily, without having to waste time and fuel travelling, without having to carve out large chunks from their diaries. At big summits, semi-virtual meetings could also potentially allow for a relaxation of usually rigid protocol rules and make it easier for other participants to attend, such as business, charity or civic society leaders, who could just drop in and out.
For all that, the physical meeting will surely continue. “Diplomacy is back,” declared Dominic Raab at the start of the G7 foreign ministers meeting, the first time they had met face to face for two years. The seven ministers and their half a dozen guests were clearly happy to be liberated from their screens. As the West German Chancellor, Willy Brandt, used to say, it was only at summits that leaders could “get a smell of one another.” Diplomacy is a social interaction that is hard to reproduce across a screen.
Perhaps the real challenge for diplomats is more fundamental. Some of their work now can take place virtually, some of it physically. The question is how do they choose? When is it worth getting on a plane instead of dialling up? When is it worth learning a language and re-locating to another part of the world instead of relying on local hires? These questions are existential: what does the presence of a diplomat on the ground add compared to a colleague behind a screen in the UK? The answer may not always be as obvious or as comfortable as it once was.