German ambassador Thomas Fitschen says diplomacy traditionally lives through one-on-one meetings. Image by Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS

Technology

Online diplomacy becomes the new abnormal

2020-06-23 14:01:29

Pleas to put microphones on mute, abrupt endings to meetings as internet connections drop out, and unexpected interruptions from household members – or pets – have become commonplace for people pushed out of offices amid the coronavirus pandemic.

But they may not be the most conducive conditions for the sensitive work of diplomats.

Just like everyone else, foreign diplomats posted to Australia have had to drastically alter their working methods in response to social distancing measures.

German ambassador Thomas Fitschen says diplomacy traditionally lives through one-on-one meetings where people can build trust and better read non-verbal cues.

“This has come to a grinding halt and this is where online video conferences fall short,” he told AAP.

High-profile diplomatic video conferences in recent months have included meetings of the World Health Assembly and G20 leaders and finance ministers, while the seventh round of EU-Australia trade negotiations in May happened via videolink instead of everyone involved travelling to Brussels or Canberra.

But Dr Fitschen points out that while a lot can be done online, there are limitations.

“One-on-one meetings on the side or ‘in the margins’, as we say, are crucial for overcoming differences,” he says.

“The more complex the issue the harder to solve it online, I guess.

“It is certainly easier to be obstinate in a formal online meeting than in personal face-to-face negotiations; therefore, one-on-one personal meetings possibly remain part-and-parcel for diplomacy.”

Fabio Spadi, deputy head of mission for the European Union’s delegation, says diplomats aren’t immune from technical glitches either.

He thinks there will be a push to return to old-style meetings when wider travel is possible again.

“Will we be 100 per cent back to square one? Maybe not completely,” he told AAP.

“But overall I think that will be our tendency – not just because of confidentiality, because the live interaction is usually much more productive.”

Nevertheless, there had been some upsides to taking everything online, including that it could focus people’s minds better than a meeting. 

“We ask for written comments on maybe certain proposals or ideas and because we don’t have the live meeting we get a written reply that can be a bit more solid and people have to reflect a bit more,” Dr Spadi said.

American diplomats have found themselves drawn closer together through the use of technology during the pandemic.

Staff across US embassy offices in Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth have been able to join social gatherings, bringing the whole mission closer.

“The downside of technology is that we can significantly get isolated – we just become hermits in our own cocoons,” embassy information management officer Murat Koclar told AAP.

“But these events, they just bring us together and people really enjoy and appreciate it.

“The ambassador is very keen on having conversations with everyone, updating, making sure we’re okay, we’re doing well, anything we can do better – that’s always in his mind so he shares those through (virtual) town halls.”