JOHANNESBURG - Diplomacy can be fraught at the best of times. Serious, high-level events are regularly punctuated with physical gaffes, miscues, awkward handshakes, strained laughter and cultural misunderstandings of varying scope and severity.
Like the time President Donald Trump appeared to shove the prime minister of Montenegro at a NATO summit. Or when President Barack Obama got caught on a hot mic complaining to then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy about the prime minister of Israel, a key U.S. ally. Or when Russia’s foreign minister awkwardly explained to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on live TV, that the “reset” button she handed him actually read, in Russian, “overcharge.”
Or, perhaps most spectacularly — even more so than his performance later that year when he vomited on Japan’s prime minister — the time President George H.W. Bush visited U.S. ally Australia and flashed the crowd what he may have thought was a sign for victory, or peace.
That two-fingered salute does not mean either of those things in Australia.
At the worst of times — like in the middle of a pandemic, when leaders can’t meet in person to hash out important issues — diplomacy can be excruciating. Like the agonizingly long pause during a recent virtual U.S.-led climate summit, when the French president was cut off mid-speech and the screen cut to a silent Russian president as leaders shifted in their chairs and waited for someone to speak.
By now, millions of people around the world have suffered through the awkwardness of virtual meetings and their many technical hazards. Like video glitches, missed cues, hot mics, and — oops — when you accidentally use that one Zoom filter that turns your face into a cat.
But in meetings of global importance, going virtual raises serious concerns.
Before the coronavirus pandemic began, major summits were a hub of human activity, commonly drawing civil society groups and protesters into the same space as major decision-makers.
Now, with everything online, more people can watch the proceedings. And whereas activists may not have been able to travel to major summits because of cost and visa restrictions, now anyone can log on and tune in.
But, says Mandeep Tiwana of CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, the closed nature of virtual summits — in which moderators limit who can speak — means fewer ordinary people and outsiders can actually participate and enjoy freedom of assembly and expression.
“Online, these rights should be as equally available as they are offline,” he told VOA from New York via Google Hangouts. “That's critical. Secondly, we are also urging that when meetings are being organized by intergovernmental institutions and multilateral bodies and so on, that they try to reach a vast swath of people.
"But most importantly," he said, "I think internet should be recognized as a very important human right.”
Virtual diplomacy is likely here to stay, even after the pandemic, says Brooks Spector, a former American diplomat-turned-journalist who has lived in South Africa for decades. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken went fully virtual for his first Africa trip this week, spending a day going electronically between high-level meetings in Kenya and Nigeria.
Blinken adapted quickly to the screen, Spector said. “The extent to which Tony Blinken shows the same kind of ability and warmth through the camera that the president can ... [will] stand him in good stead," he said. "Because this, I suspect, is going to be the way of the world for quite a while.
“There'll be a lot fewer international visits and a whole lot more international consultations by way of the electronics.”
But, Spector warns, don’t conflate the novel format with fresh, new, or even honest, content. One thing remains essential to diplomacy, no matter the medium: preparation. These engagements are just as rehearsed as they ever were, he says, because they have to be.
“Virtual diplomacy, it's like anything else," he said. "It's only as good as the staff work that precedes it. If it's entirely an open-ended discussion in which a dozen or more people are participating, the result is something approaching chaos.”
Or whatever that was last week, when the world watched global leaders sit helplessly for 88 agonizing seconds as President Vladimir Putin stared blankly into the middle distance, fidgeting and gesturing mutely off camera as Blinken mutters under his breath about technical problems.
It could have been worse: So far, the Zoom cat face filter has yet to make its diplomatic debut.