Is Zoom Diplomacy the New Normal? COVID-19 and the End of the Air Kiss

For more than 200 years, crucial diplomacy has been whispered in alcoves and finessed over dinner. Not anymore, at least for now.



Sen. Peter M. Boehm

May 21, 2020


In a recent tweet (a new and debatable form of diplomatic communication), I mused about the “air kiss” being the first victim of post-pandemic realities as they relate to global interpersonal communication, including diplomacy. As in all social interaction today, the norms that have characterized diplomatic ties and friendship for centuries are threatened.

We find ourselves at an unprecedented inflection point in how nations are conducting diplomacy. Our global institutions, indeed relationships around the world, have long relied on the benefits of direct human contact — leader to leader, official to official — in an elaborate network of personal relationships, bricks-and-mortar outposts, and frequent massive gatherings in the form of conferences and summits. The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has produced an almost instantaneous shift in approach to the existing order. It has yet to be seen whether this shift will be permanent.

In the ancient world, diplomacy arose through competing interests to govern hunting, agrarian land use, and trade, serving as a means to exercise influence over more territory and wealth.  Relations were often expanded through inter-tribal marriages and, of course, warfare, which nascent diplomacy was meant to either prevent or encourage. There have been various factors that have changed diplomacy over the centuries, from the first diplomatic “heralds” who formed the Peloponnesian League in 500 BCE, to Roman law establishing the inviolability of contracts, to the first use of the term “ambassador” by the Venetians during the Renaissance and, ultimately, to the decline of diplomacy among sovereigns in favour of government-based diplomacy that really began with the emergence of the United States in 1776. The common thread throughout the ages, however, was always about human contact and networks, in war and in peace.

There have been other inflection points in the long history of diplomatic endeavour. The Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 ended the European religious wars in which over eight million people perished. It also produced the formal recognition of state sovereignty. However, the real rules of modern diplomacy — including forms of diplomatic communication and discourse — were set down at the Congress of Vienna and the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle about two hundred years ago. The note verbale, the démarche, and the bout de papier all entered the diplomatic lexicon. The first modern multilateral organizations, the Universal Telegraph Union and Universal Postal Union, followed before the end of the nineteenth century. World War I resulted in a controversial peace treaty at Versailles as well as the League of Nations — all forged during the Spanish influenza pandemic — but also the International Labour Organization (ILO), an early and enduring specialized agency. The decision of the United States Senate not to ratify the League of Nations treaty in 1919 basically condemned that first attempt at global multilateralism to oblivion. It also spoke to isolationist and nativist elements that are again gaining traction around the globe, including here in Canada.

Coming out of World War II, the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions were established. Canada was not only present at the creation of the UN and its specialized agencies, as well as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, but also played a highly active role in establishing their structure and function from the planning stages in 1943. For the past 75 years, “We the Peoples,” the opening phrase of the UN Charter, has been the watchword for unprecedented global cooperation at the highest political levels and through the variety of agencies and bodies that fall under the UN umbrella. The UN, its specialized agencies, NATO, the World Trade Organization, the Commonwealth, the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, the Organization of American States and others have become the architecture of the “international rules-based order.”

Our multilateral vocation has also served as the counterweight to our often-overwhelming bilateral relationship with our giant neighbour to the south. The 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations further codified modern diplomacy. One could argue that the proliferation of post-war multilateral institutions was the last major inflection point in diplomacy until now.

What some have called the “anarchy of international relations” has increased with this pandemic, and whether or not you appreciate or even like the UN, it is basically all that we have for international discussions among its 193 member states. Take it or leave it, in other words. The World Health Assembly recently met virtually for the first time since the World Health Organization (WHO) was created in 1948. This is not business as usual. International organizations tend to live for their meetings in terms of governance and mandate renewal. On several occasions, I was one of thousands of diplomats who landed in New York for the UN General Assembly’s annual week of “diplomatic speed dating” — quick handshakes, shoulder grabs and, yes, air kissing during multiple brief meetings at close quarters to exchange views, gather support for initiatives, or promote Canada in some way. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP meeting, is an even larger gathering; last year almost 27,000 delegates, staff, journalists and others were on-site. In a pandemic context, this would represent an astonishing number of “super spreaders.” UN Secretary-General António Guterres has already called for a moratorium on tactile, corporeal diplomacy, asking leaders to appear at UN gatherings virtually. The 2020 COP meeting in Glasgow has now been postponed.


“The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP meeting, is an even larger gathering; last year almost 27,000 delegates, staff, journalists and others were on-site. In a pandemic context, this would represent an astonishing number of ‘super spreaders.’”


Governments will need to re-evaluate how they represent themselves abroad. The tradition has been to do this with bricks and mortar: embassies, consulates, and offices, with a premium placed on location, location, location, this country’s most monumental examples being Canada House on London’s Trafalgar Square, the Canadian embassy in Washington at the foot of Capitol Hill and my personal favourite, our supercool modern embassy on Leipzigerplatz in Berlin. Simply put, it is important to have a physical, on-the-ground presence to exercise Canadian influence, promote trade and investment, and provide consular services. The pandemic has put the importance of our work abroad into stark relief. Canada has some 179 missions in 109 countries with properties around the world valued at approximately $3 billion CAD. The other G7 countries maintain even more properties.  Being there, being present, is the price that everyone pays to engage globally, exercise influence, and gain both economic and strategic benefit. Will the old normal be the new normal after the pandemic runs its course? Unlikely. Missions abroad stage events: trade fairs, cultural promotion activities, and the ubiquitous national day receptions with hundreds of invitees. Whom you know and the high-level access you have defines a successful envoy. Like politicians, you have defined constituencies whose flesh must be pressed. In many countries, ambassadors are now presenting their credentials and conducting their meetings virtually. If crucial conversations are no longer held in discreet pull-asides at representational cocktail parties and on the fringes of Canada Day barbecues, what will it mean for diplomacy?

Summitry may require a rethink. While working to get prime ministers, presidents, and chancellors in one room to agree on a set of initiatives and common precepts — approaches that have successfully persevered for many years despite occasional disagreements and the recent toxic shock of Twitter diplomacy — virtual gatherings and consultations might become the norm post-pandemic. When, a century ago, as the Spanish influenza raged, leaders with their delegations gathered at Versailles to hammer out the peace after the end of World War I, delegates arrived by ship and rail and the negotiations took six months. Many became infected, including American President Woodrow Wilson. With the advent of easy and quick air travel, summits and conferences became events that lasted a few days, but they did and still do require preliminary negotiations by ambassadors, “Sherpas,” and other officials. I recall visiting my Sherpa counterparts in all G7 capitals in preparation for the Charlevoix Summit in 2018 and then chairing several sets of negotiating meetings with them in different Canadian locations. Back-and-forth travel — “shuttle diplomacy”— may very well be replaced by “Zooming” back and forth. Perhaps that would not be the worst thing, as virtual meetings would be much healthier, cheaper, leave no carbon footprint and, of course, would mean no jet lag; virtual and virtuous. On the other hand, these conversations have no guarantee of — and therefore no assumption of — privacy, a concern for reasons of both security and frankness.

As economists debate whether the recovery will be shaped like a U, V, or W, so too must diplomats speculate as they frame the diplomatic recovery. They will need to look at the transactional costs of diplomacy in the context of the economic recovery as taxpayers all over the world will expect value for money. To be sure, interaction will not be the same and diplomacy as we have known it for hundreds of years may end up a shadow of what it was pre-pandemic. On the other hand, in adversity, one may find opportunity: redefining the way diplomacy works, refitting and economizing our multilateral organizations for a post-pandemic world while increasing cooperation around the globe. No small task, but nothing worth doing is ever easy.

Peter M Boehm, a former ambassador and deputy minister, is an independent senator from Ontario.