The e-diplomacy experiment
The first India-Australia virtual leaders’ summit on June 4 had a lot on the menu, ranging from military interoperability to jointly tackling COVID-19. The two countries upgraded their relations to a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’. The summit was noteworthy for its novel modus operandi.
- Just as corporations and educational institutions have migrated to online mediums, nation states are left with no choice but to do the same. E-summits are physically safer for leaders and also time-saving and economising events where costly physical journeys with entourages can be avoided.
The Leaders’ Summits
- It has been a maxim in diplomacy that face-to-face interactions at the highest level mark the zenith of foreign relations.
- The British scholar Ernest Satow dubbed summits “a permanent feature of diplomatic topography”.
- The formal negotiations during summits, the closed-door restricted sessions, the fireside chats, the walks in the woods, the photo-ops and the outreach to live audiences in the host and home countries are all part of the package.
Pitfalls of e-diplomacy
- Now (due to COVID19) without all the protocols and structured dialogues in cozy settings, it is doubtful if major breakthroughs or deals requiring direct intervention of leaders can happen.
- There is a danger that ‘e-diplomacy’ will become less productive in terms of deliverables, especially where crucial sticking points need ironing out.
- While the backroom legwork and minutiae of agreements can be hashed out by lower-level bureaucrats communicating remotely, online summits will simply not satisfy the broader political goals and bigger objectives that heads of state carry with them.
The threat of cyber security
- Another threat to virtual summits comes from cyber insecurity. In pre-COVID-19 times, summit venues used to be thoroughly sanitised and debugged to prevent sensitive foreign policy content from being spied upon or leaked.
- E-diplomacy is riskier and could be subject to hacking of classified content, making the leaders warier. This could reduce the spontaneity and candour of their conversations. It is arguable whether new ideas or proposals which entail geo-strategic alignments can emanate out of e-summits.
Should we stop e-diplomacy?
- Having some summit is better than no summit at all. However artificial and unsatisfying the video conferencing medium is, key partners like India and Australia have to get on with it and hold high-level meetings as part of their strategic signalling.
- In-person summits will restart one day. But the online interlude has to go on because diplomacy has to go on.