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Geopolitics and e-Diplomacy of Estonia

image source: e-estonia.com
Michael Lambert

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Around 1,500 BC, a group of nine asteroids crashed on the island of Saaremaa in Western Estonia, incinerating all kind of life-form within a radius of six kilometres and the native inhabitants who settled in this cold part of the world in 10,000 BC.

Located on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea in Northern Europe, it is impossible to know who took over the Estonian lands after the crash, but we know for sure the new settlers have been under the rule of foreigners from the Russian Empire, the Teutonic Order, Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union.

Because of the tormented past of the Estonian nation, it is impossible to tell if the contemporary citizens are more Nordic (Denmark, Sweden) and German (Teutonic) than Russian. Estonian identity is probably more of a spectrum with Saaremaa people having more ancestors coming from Sweden and Denmark compared to the people in Tartu who have been influenced by the Holy Roman Empire and the Teutonic Order. By contrast, the citizens in Ida-Viru County (Eastern Estonia) are “Russian with a twist”.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union and the recovered national autonomy, the Government of Estonia had to take political decisions following the geography and aspirations of most of its citizens to integrate the Euro-Atlantic society. Based on the past and the Nordic-Teutonic identity, the Government of Estonia embraced the idea of joining the European Union, NATO, and later on the Eurozone.

Both Germany and Austria (former parts of Holly Roman Empire) have recognized the Germanic background of the Estonian people when the Nordics – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Greenland and the Faroe Islands (Denmark) – have denied the Nordic identity of Estonia because of the Russian minority and various political reasons.

Moscow adopted an ambiguous relationship with Estonia when the Soviet troops became the Russian troops and stayed on the national territory between 1991-1994. As of today, the Estonian society is divided regarding the Soviet past, and some are calling the soviets “invaders” when others prefer to see them as “liberators”. Contrary Georgia (Abkhazia and South-Ossetia), Moldova (Transnistria), and Ukraine (Crimea and the Donbas), the Russian minority in the Ida-Viru County agrees on staying under the Estonian influence while remaining attached to Orthodoxy and Russian language.

From an economic perspective, Estonia is nowadays one of the most developed countries on the European continent with a nominal GDP of €29,800 per capita, HDI 0.87 (30th worldwide), and attractive to international businesses. The Estonian government also settled the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Tallinn and changed the country into one of the most digitalized society in the world with e-Governance and e-Residency.

With the current crisis going on in countries with Russian speaking monitories and the relevance of cyber-diplomacy in our societies, Estonia might be an example to follow when it comes to the good bilateral relationship with Moscow and the future of e-Governance.

Geopolitics of Estonia: Know your opponent (The Art of War, Sun Tzu)

The territory of Estonia consists of a mainland and 1,500 islands in the Baltic Sea covering a total of 45,227 km2 with a humid continental climate and 50 meters average elevation. In such a context, the highest mountain Suur Munamägi (318 meters) is the birthplace of many myths, and the flat land and islands make it easy for invaders to occupy the territory and settle outpost on the islands. Nowadays, Estonian lands are impossible to defend and any fighter jet can fly over the territory in a couple of hours.

Due to the Soviet past and American soft power in the country, the Government of Estonia established strong relationships with NATO during the ’90s and integrated the Alliance in 2004. However, it would be naïve to assume the Estonian Ministry of Defence relies exclusively on NATO’s recommendations to ensure the national safety, the key to Estonia’s successful and peaceful relationship with Russia coming from bilateral foreign relations between Tallinn and Moscow.

From David and Goliath to Baltic brothers: Estonia-Russia relationship after the Cold War

With only 1.3 million inhabitants – 68% Estonians, 24% Russians, 8% others, – the Estonian ethnicity almost disappeared during the Soviet times and still struggles to survive in a globalized world.

Contrary to many countries with an important diaspora, the Estonian identity could disappear in case of a conflict between NATO and Russia. Besides usual national matters, the Riigikogu (State assembly) is responsible for preserving the Estonian language – spoken only in Estonia, – and the History and traditions of the Estonian nation. This responsibility must be underlined because the threat of disappearing partly explains the reluctance to accept Russia as a state language. It also pushes the Riigikogu to pursue good governance and to provide high-level living condition and education to citizens, in order to avoid young Estonians moving and staying abroad. Demographics are the main concern of the Estonian leaders ahead of any hypothetical conflict with Russia.

When it comes to the relationship with Moscow, Tallinn has adopted a mixed strategy combining a pro-NATO/EU diplomacy and pragmatic bilateral relationship with Russia based on mutual understanding and shared interests in the Baltic Sea. Russia is often presented in the Estonian media to be the main threat to national security and NATO partners are afraid to see another Crimea crisis happening in eastern Estonia.

In such a context, the Kaitsevägi (Estonian Ministry of Defence) is welcoming NATO troops on the national territory, developed quality relations with nuclear powers (France, Great Britain, the United-States of America) and with non-NATO countries such as Sweden and Finland.

Should Russia (or anyone else) attack Estonia, the Riigikogu will immediately ask for the application of Article 5 of the Washington Treaty:

“The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith”

However, article 5 does not take into consideration the principle of asymmetric warfare (e.g. support to an eventual separatist movement in eastern Estonia).

Theories and practice are two distinct things and some of the NATO member states might also be reluctant to attack a nuclear power. Finally, such reply will need the approval of all NATO member states and some have quality relationships with Moscow (e.g. Turkey) and not ready to risk the lives of soldiers for a country of 1.3 million inhabitants.

Estonian leaders are aware of NATO weaknesses and in order to avoid such conflict scenario by strengthening Estonian soft power in the eastern part of the country and are relying on bilateral cooperations with Moscow more than NATO infrastructures.

The Estonian education system has been the main asset to establish bilateral relationships with many academic programs related to Russia at the University of Tartu, the University of Tallinn, and the Baltic Defence College (military-oriented institution). Russian students are invited to study in Estonia, and the University of Tartu – a German-speaking university in the Russian Empire – is now welcoming Russian citizens. Last but not least, learning the Russian language is not a taboo like in the late ’90s and Russia is the third language (after Estonian and English) in libraries and considered to be an asset in the public administration.

Besides the academic world, Estonia is welcoming Russian entrepreneurs and tourists with a particular focus on Saint Petersburg. Estonia has changed in the past decade, and Tallinn is nowadays more of a destination like Helsinki with high-prices, hipster and vegan places, attracting high-tech Russian entrepreneurs interested in settling in the European Union. Looking at the past, the Bronze soldier event seems far away both in Estonian and Russian minds.

The Russian speaking minority in eastern Estonia can be considered to be a geopolitical asset nowadays. Contrary to Ukraine, the Estonian government became more tolerant following the integration in the European Union, even if some improvements must be done to recognize the Russian language at least in regional political institutions (e.g. like in Switzerland).

Russian speakers are enjoying higher salaries in Estonia compared to Russia and good infrastructure to visit their relatives on the other side of the border. Riigikogu and Kaitsevägi are divided when it comes to the approach to adopt regarding the Russian minority, despite the fact Kaitsevägi is following the recommendations of the Riigikogu. One the one hand, giving favourable living conditions to the minority in Estonia pushes them to stay in the country and can be a source of tensions with 24% of the population having a specific relationship to Russia. On the other hand, pushing the Russian minority to leave the country might create tensions with Russia and weaken the national economy. Overall, the national policy of Estonia is more of a “wait and see” when it comes to Russian speakers.

The reason why the Russian speaking minority is less often in the public debate is also due to the recent emigration of Ukrainian workers – 1.8% of the inhabitants in Estonia – and Finnish people coming to find a job and leaving Finland because of the Nokia crisis. Having a look at the current ethnic groups in Estonia, the next threat to Estonian identity might be foreigners from Southern Europe and Finland coming to settle in the country more than the Russian speaking minority.

Global warming is also a threat as people and companies from Southern Europe are interested in settling in Estonia to enjoy the almost unlimited water resources required in the agriculture and industrial sectors.

Nordics identity versus Estonian e-Civilization

Estonia is the missing piece in the Nordic history and the concept of Estonia as a Nordic nation was first introduced by Toomas Hendrik Ilves. The Viking Age, the Danish and Swedish Empires have played an important role in the construction of identity and Estonia would like to be recognized to be Nordic-based on the language (Finno-Ougrian), religion (10% Lutheran Christians) and the geographic location close to the Arctic circle. 53% of the Estonian youth consider belonging in the Nordic identity group and the President of Estonia prefers to used the expression of “Nordic Benelux”. At the same time, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Investment Agency are advertising the Nordic identity of Estonia abroad.

The lack of recognition by the Nordics is mostly due to the German past (Teutonic Order) and the Soviet past, the Russian minority – 24% of the citizens, – the number of Orthodox Christians – 17% of the population, – and the lack of cooperation with other Nordic countries during the Cold War.

Due to the quality of High-Tech and Cyber-defence infrastructures in Estonia, the lack of recognition is diminishing the Nordic Defence Cooperation (NORDEFCO) expertise when it comes to cyber-defence.

Moreover, the wish of recognition by the Nordics has pushed Tallinn to adopt a stereotypical policy to be recognized as such. The proposal of a new national cross flag as early as 1918 is still supported in some political spheres, while renewable energies, good governance, e-Governance have developed more than in any other country in the European Union.

The Nordic policy implemented by Tallinn has considerable effects on the “Baltic Tiger” with a GDP increase of around 4% per year and GDP per capita of 12,100 euros in 2010 versus 29,800 euros in 2018. Paradoxically, the Nordic policy of Estonia makes it even more competitive than the Nordics themselves, and Tallinn ranks 3rd in the Business Bribery Risk Index in front of Denmark. The same goes for the energy sector and renewables have grown to over 13% of production whereas they were less than 1% in 2000. As such Estonia is one of the countries to have reached its EU renewable target for 2020 already.

Overall, Nordic countries can emphasis the fact Estonian GDP if lacking behind. Nonetheless, Estonia has an overall unemployment rate of around 4,5% – 7% in Finland and 7.5% in Sweden – and provided job opportunities to Finnish citizens after the Nokia crisis.

Nowadays, 0,6% of the whole Estonian population is coming from Finland, and start-ups from other Nordic countries are settling in Estonia leading to an increasing demand for employees speaking Nordic languages. According to the Centre d’Études Prospectives et d’Informations Internationales projections, the GDP per capita could rise by 2025 to the level of the Finnish economy. Following the same projections, by 2050, Estonia could become the most productive country in the European Union, after Luxembourg, and thus join the top five most productive nations in the world.

The relationship with Nordic countries is a major issue in Tallinn because the national public policy has been based on the Nordic model since the end of the Cold War. In such a context, Estonian identity might have to re-invent itself if the Nordic model is outperformed in the future, which is already the case when it comes to e-Governance and Cyber-diplomacy.

e-Civilisation

Estonia is at the intersection of the Nordic, Russian, and German (Teutonic Order and Baltic Germans) identities. To the Estonian people, the land is not as important as language and culture, which explains why the concept of e-Governance is nowadays widely developed.

Estonian people have embraced the idea Estonia is not the land but the people, and the diaspora in Finland, Canada, and the United-States of America remains to participate in the political and economic life of Estonia. A typical Estonian citizen living abroad for decades can vote online during the election, pay taxes and register a company without coming to Estonia, read the local news online, and graduate from higher education not showing to the university.

e-Governance and e-Identity are not the only aspects of Estonian uniqueness, and besides the Estonian language, the neopaganism (Estonian native faith) plays an increasing role in society. Taaraism was founded in 1928 by members of the intelligentsia to reaffirm traditional Estonian culture and identity. Viewing Christianity as a universal and foreign religion brought by the Germans, they turned to indigenous religion with its many deities. Taaraists hold a monotheistic worldview in which all the gods are aspects of one only pantheistic reality, which they identify with the god Taara (a deity connected to Indo-European deities such as the Germanic Thunor, the Gallic Taranis, and the Hittite Tarhunt).

Based on the Montevideo convention signed in 1993, Estonia does not belong to the Russian, German, or Nordic worlds and could be recognized for its uniqueness. Moreover, if we focus on the definition of civilizations “the stage of human social and cultural development and organization that is considered most advanced” Estonia can be seen like the first e-Society or e-Civilization (according to the contemporary definition of civilization) based on the accomplishments in the field of e-Governance and cyber-diplomacy in the past two decades.

The three slim blue lions and the conquest of cyberspace

The History of e-Diplomacy in Estonia starts in 1965 with the first school computer in the USSR, when Ural-1 was set up in the town of Nõo in Tartu County. Mass usage of computing networks first came with FidoNet, the first Estonian node of which appeared in 1989 and the first internet connections where introduced in 1992 at the University of Tartu and the University of Tallinn. As early as 1996, the Estonian President started a four-year program Tiigrihüpe to computerized the schools.

In 2005, Estonia introduced a digital ID card system and local elections were held with the possibility to vote online, becoming the first country worldwide to offer such an option. In 2008, NATO established a joint cyber-defence centre in Estonia to improve cyber-defence interoperability and provide security support to all NATO member states.

Nowadays, 99% of the services in Estonia are online, 98% of the citizens have a digital ID-card, and 47% are using internet voting. The Estonian government introduced e-Tax (2000), i-Voting (2005), Blockchain (2008), e-Health (2008), e-Residency (2014), increasing the technological gap between Tallin and NATO/EU partners relying on paper and materialized public services. In Estonia, patients own their health data and hospitals have made this available online since 2008.

Today, over 95% of the data generated by hospitals and doctors have been digitized, and blockchain technology is used for assuring the integrity of stored electronic medical records as well as system access. e-Health solutions are allowing Estonia to offer more efficient preventative measures, increasing the awareness of patients and also saving millions of euros. Each person in Estonia that has visited a doctor in medicine has his or her online e-Health record, containing their medical case notes, test results, digital prescriptions, and X-rays, as well as full log-file tracking access to the data. The banking system has already dematerialized with less and less physical banks and cashless society is a reality to many Estonians for almost a decade.

Ongoing projects are the Data embassy which makes it possible to the Estonian administration to continue operating even if local data centres have been stopped or disturbed due to natural disaster, large-scale cyber-attack, power failure or anything else. Cross border data exchanges, healthcare 4.0, digital transformation in education (by 2020, all study materials in Estonia will be digitized and available through an online e-schoolbag) are a few of the current innovations.

In the future, some Estonian embassies should be fully replaced by the online system doing the work of physical embassies, the same for any state institution. State employees will be able to perform the usual work from anywhere in the world.

As of today, Estonia is the country with the lowest GDP debt in the European Union (8.4% in 2019) and with digitalization is the first nation to save a large amount of paper and time in the administration, diplomatic services are provided immediately without any need for people to move, and e-Services are going hand in hand with savings for the government.

However, the concept of e-Society is challenging to Estonian identity. In such a context of digitalization, nobody knows if Estonian identity will be defined by blood, language, religion, passport, or anything else in the future.

From our partner RIAC

Ph.D. in History of Europe & International Relations, Sorbonne University - INSEAD Business School, (Geo)political scientist working on Sino-European/Russian relations and soft power in the 21st century

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Beyond Twiplomacy: Diplomacy and the Digital Fast Forward

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The practice of diplomacy in the virtual space is geared towards amplifying foreign policy drives and messages and forms a vital and dynamic branch of strategic communication. Now, more than ever before, we are faced with the inexorable certainty of a digital future – a future that has already begun. As COVID-19 thrusts the world’s population into their homes and compels multiple operations and processes to move online, diplomatic engagements too must be primed to fit the order and arrangement of altered circumstances. The use of the internet offers real time dissemination and exchanges in a relatively informal setting, at low financial costs and aims at shrinking the space between foreign publics and stakeholders on the one hand and foreign policy practices and practitioners on the other.

Digital diplomacy falls under the broader spectrum of public diplomacy, the roots of which can be traced to the extensive use of radio communications by both the Axis and the Allied powers during WWII. Interestingly, the digitization of diplomacy however is believed to have happened earlier when foreign ministries first began the use of telegraph services in the 19th century. In the contemporary context, digital diplomacy has been practiced primarily through social media since the innovation of an online world, the arrival of new information communication technologies and the rapid popularity of the internet.

Today, diplomats and government representatives routinely engage in both pleasantries as well as repartee on Twitter in what is now popularly known as Twiplomacy or Twitter Diplomacy. Twiplomacy is direct, often unencumbered and enables wider reach of foreign policies than traditional channels. Such online engagement can also be converted to a substantial support for foreign policies and/or agendas. It is at times assumed that Twiplomacy has shaken traditional preferences for confidentiality, hierarchy, instrumentality and top-down decision making of foreign affairs departments favouring instead the use of crisp language, visual storytelling, emotional framing, algorithmic navigation, and so on. This is an incorrect conjecture as the traditional modus operandi of foreign interaction remains equally pertinent today. What Twiplomacy has done is added a supplementary avenue of diplomatic exchange which is in keeping with contemporary circumstances.

As diplomatic exchanges thrive on Twitter and other social media platforms, the question is whether it is merely the diplomatic conversation which has moved online or whether there is more to the scope of diplomatic engagement employing digital tools in the virtual space. While the latter has been deliberated by technology stakeholders and to an extent by policy makers, its practice is yet to see the kind of flurry that is observed on Twitter almost on a daily basis. This is where the use of 5G systems, artificial intelligence, wearable technology and the applications of big data come in. Aggregation of big data can assist in the identification of disinformation campaigns while collating geospatial and sensor data for more objective, fact-based information gathering which in turn would aid the core component of diplomacy – negotiation. While the use of some of these technologies is mired in controversy, all of these will eventually find application across sectors and diplomacy too will not be an outlier.

Greater use of digital tools can assist diplomacy in broad ways. First, it ensures a quick response time. Digital tools facilitate diplomatic engagement to happen in real time and in so doing helps ease communication as well as make way for effective action in times of urgency or crisis. Second, it assists in resource mobilization in terms negotiations and building of alliances, primarily by eliminating constraints of distance and time. Third, it helps pave the way for gaining a wider understanding of public emotions and perceptions which can at times facilitate more updated policy approaches and methods of implementation.

This brings us to the dividing line between policy outreach which is designed to inform, assist, facilitate and where applicable, ameliorate global relations and the utilization of sharp power which is aimed at exerting disproportionate levels of influence to censor, manipulate and falsify information for hostile purposes. The virtual space, like many other forms of technology, faces the dual-use challenge i.e., it can serve both constructive purposes and also disruptive ones. For foreign policy this poses a considerable challenge as governments often find themselves in the middle of misinformation and disinformation campaigns which are difficult to debunk and deflate given the pace and volume of the reach that virtual networks offer. Nonetheless, this is a challenge that governments across the world must learn to tackle because the medium and the technology will not go away but rather diversify and proliferate.

The COVID-19 pandemic has already and will probably continue to suspend or reorganize most activities for the foreseeable future. Simultaneously however, engagements and functioning across the world must persist and diplomatic outreach forms a vital component of pooling in efforts to mitigate the health crisis. This involves the dissemination of information, transfers of key supplies, provisioning for the inevitable uncertainties of challenges post the pandemic and reorganizing institutions to better apprehend future exigencies. Bound by limitations on travel, world leaders are responding by convening on virtual platforms for multilateral summits like the G20 and SAARC. India’s first ever virtual bilateral summit is being planned with Australia. COVID-19 demands a fast forward from deliberations to action and foreign ministries around the world need to harness the advantages of cost and geographical inconsequence to effectively respond to the global crisis at hand and also in the process enable digitisation of diplomatic processes which can continue to be in practice in the post-Covid world.  

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A Dose of Communicative Multilateralism

Elizabeth Deheza

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Authors: Elizabeth Deheza and Srgjan Kerim*

The COVID-19 blame game is underway and it has already severely inhibited the implementation of a co-ordinated, multilateral response to fight the coronavirus. When the need is greatest for international cooperation and collective action to confront the most severe global challenge since the Second World War, world leaders are moving away from globalisation and public trust in international institutions is evaporating. We believe this divisive behaviour has been compounded by the lack of clear communication between the World Health Organization (WHO) and Member States and that ‘communicative multilateralism’ must play the central role in beating the virus.

The WHO, a United Nations (UN) specialised agency, has a mandate from its 193 Member States to provide science-based recommendations to protect human health worldwide. The agency had been calling for better preparedness for epidemics or pandemics long before the current crisis, highlighting the vulnerability of many healthcare systems towards such crises. Unfortunately, when the moment arrived, the absence of a clear and simple communication framework and common understanding between the WHO and the Members States undermined previous work and the goodwill the agency once enjoyed.

When several cases of pneumonia were first reported in Wuhan, China in late December 2019, the WHO noted the new threat and started independent epidemiological investigations to understand the cause. WHO’s communications stayed close to China’s official line and even endorsed a preliminary investigation that the virus might be limited to animal-to-human transmission, despite warnings from Taiwan of the possibility of human-to-human transmission.

Later, on 10th January, the WHO released an interim Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) guidance note for Member States and on 14th January it warned hospitals of the possibility that the virus could spread between humans. On 20th January China confirmed human-to-human transmission and after a further ten days of deliberation, while the virus was already spreading internationally, the WHO declared COVID-19 a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) – one of its highest levels of alert under the International Health Regulations (2005) (IHR), a legally binding agreement between Member States to work together on global health security. At this point, several Member States became anxious, but most did not have a clear idea of what a PHEIC alert actually meant in the context of their response.

On 4th February, WHO’s Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced that the world had a “window of opportunity” to invest in prevention and control as there were a limited number of confirmed cases outside China. By 21st February Dr Ghebreyesus called the international community to action as “the window of opportunity was narrowing”. How did Member States really interpret this message? Was the international community really grasping the idea that we were about to miss the last opportunity to contain the spread of the virus? Was it already too late?

As February rolled into March, the WHO highlighted a huge shortage of equipment for frontline healthcare around the world and finally on 11th March, nearly three months after the first reports, the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

Throughout April, the WHO made desperate calls to global leaders to put aside any differences, step up collaboration and act in unison. However, by this point, some Member States were struggling to stay ahead of the virus and could only think of themselves, instating measures to protect their citizens and borders without the time to consider a concerted multilateral response.

At the time of writing, with over 5.2 million coronavirus cases reported globally, more than 336,000 deaths and many more unreported cases, the pandemic still rages on. While China claimed to have recovered from the virus, its north-eastern city of Shulan is currently in lockdown after a cluster of coronavirus cases emerged, fearing a second wave. Meanwhile, its political adversary on the issue, the United States, has more than 1.6 million confirmed cases with more than 95,000 deaths, the highest in the world. Other regions like Europe are slowly emerging from strict lockdowns but in Latin America the number of confirmed cases has passed half a million and continues to rise, with Brazil the worst affected.

This is the first truly global health crisis that “We the Peoples” have suffered since the foundation of the UN: every citizen of the world is at risk. The pandemic has forced governments to impose draconian restrictions in an attempt to mitigate the collapse of their public health systems while simultaneously injecting unimaginable levels of capital directly into their economies to soften the financial impact. And yet, if all the governments had rapidly coordinated their responses, collaborated at an early stage and acted in unison, the global impact may have been contained and the recovery period shortened. Moreover, if clearer communication had come from the WHO in a more timely fashion, even the most self-interested and ill-prepared Member State would have known what pre-cautions to take as the viral threat grew and their citizens could have held their governments accountable.

The wider UN has also been lacklustre in its response. Who better than the UN to digest WHO’s early warning messages and convey the right message to its Member States? Who better than the UN to orchestrate a coherent global response through its Security Council (UNSC)? “The UN has a huge role to play in bringing together countries and people during these trying times,” says Amir Dossal, President of the Global Partnerships Forum, to ensure that “no one is left behind”.

There are 3 articles of the UN Charter that clearly determine the UN’s role in such emergency situations: Article 13 refers to the UN General Assembly’s role in initiating international cooperation on economic, social and health issues, Article 57 describes the need of engaging specialised agencies, such as the WHO, and eventually under Article 99, the UN Secretary General must bring forward any matter which may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security to the attention of the Security Council. Unfortunately, to date, the UNSC has not produced any meaningful statement to tackle COVID-19 as efforts have been obstructed by political conflicts between the U.S. and China.

While the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres has referred to the pandemic as “the biggest challenge since the Second World War” and has acknowledged that “normal rules no longer apply”, the General Assembly started to address COVID-19 only in mid-March and its response has not passed beyond a non-binding resolution that called for “intensified international cooperation to contain, mitigate and defeat” the coronavirus.

Despite WHO’s leadership through the SARS, MERS, Ebola, Avian Flu outbreaks and its extensive knowledge of past pandemics throughout history, Member States have voiced their frustration at the WHO’s handling of the pandemic. One of the organizations biggest donors, the U.S., has even suspended its funding and has threatened to withdraw its membership if substantial changes are not made. Other countries, such as Australia, have requested more transparency and an independent investigation of the causes of the coronavirus outbreak. A resolution, presented by the European Union (EU), on behalf of 100 Member States, called for an independent inquiry into the WHO’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and was approved at the first virtual annual assembly (WHA) of the WHO’s 194 members on 20th May. The day before, on 19th May, an interim independent review on the WHO’s conduct and response to the virus was released by the Independent Oversight and Advisory Committee (IOAC) for the WHO Health Emergencies Programme.

Communication is the most important tool in any international crisis and ‘communicative multilateralism’ must be at the core of all response strategies. The IOAC report calls for “greater global solidarity and stronger multilateral cooperation” but a close reading of the recommendations underlines the clear need to improve the clarity of the communication framework between the WHO and its Member States.

‘Communicative multilateralism’ has also been at the heart of suggested reforms by the IOAC report to the WHO’s response framework. It has been reported that some Member States do not consider a PHEIC declaration a “sufficiently clear trigger” due to its broad coverage between a small outbreak and a pandemic. Alpo Rusi, a distinguished Finnish diplomat recently told us, “A more effective early warning system needs to be urgently set up at the UN”. There have been other sensible calls for change including, “a stepped level of alerts and galvanization of response measures added to the IHR” and “IHR-nominated focal points in governments to adequately raise the alarm”, that must be heeded.

Additionally, the people must be able to hold their governments to account and how can they do this without clear and simple communication, well defined categories of alert and detailed response measures from the WHO? “Covid-19 is wreaking havoc on the health and economic well-being of our society. As individuals, we have readily conceded life-changing decision-making to our leaders, and we now assume and indeed expect them to do what is in our best interest”, exemplifies Amir Dossal, President of the Global Partnerships Forum.

The IOAC’s recommendations provide the opportunity to explore further the mechanisms already in place and well known by Member States that could “trigger” a much needed sense of urgency that the WHO tried but failed to convey to the international community. Lessons could be learned from other disaster response strategies, for example, there are clear and simple categories of alert to the likely effects of hurricanes and earthquakes that have been tried and tested for over 50 years and are widely understood by governments, scientists and the public alike. There are clear lessons that the WHO and the UN can learn from such natural disaster response systems.

There is a general understanding that this pandemic will have far-reaching political, economic and social implications. Parag Khana, an expert on international relations told us, “If we are lucky, the world will pass ‘peak virus’ within the next six months. But the economy, governments, and social institutions will take years to recover in the best-case scenario. Indeed, rather than even speak of ‘recovery,’ which implies a return to how things were, it would be wise to project what new direction civilization will take. That too will be a bumpy ride. The next 3-5 years will remind us that COVID-19 was the lightning before the thunder”.

There are opportunities to improve following any crisis but before we transform the way society has functioned for hundreds of years, we must determine whether multilateralism and globalization is to blame or if there are other weaknesses in the system that have led us here, such as an alarming weakness of national economic, social and health systems?

We must be careful that rising geopolitical tension is not exploited by some national political elites as an excuse for imposing inward-looking policies and strategies. This may bear fruit on the short- term but will be counterproductive longer-term. A shift to nationalism would disrupt global supply chains of goods and services, doing harm to economies of scale and the provision of aid which will worsen health security. World leaders must step back from knee-jerk reactions to retrench and instead should come together in order to pursue modalities of international cooperation.

Clear communication channels only work if the message is simple and the recipients are educated on the subject. While the IOAC’s recommendations call for “more robust use of WHO collaborating centres around the world, expert networks, such as technical advisory bodies, and public health institutes”, we believe that they should be more ambitious and aim to strengthen the understanding of health systems and pandemics within schools, universities and the public at large. As for the international organizations such as the UN and WHO it must be clear: reforming them and updating them to the requirements of the globalized digital era necessitates ‘communicative multilateralism’ and the launching of ‘Verified’ by the UNSG António Guterres on 21st May, to create a cadre of “digital first responders” to fight misinformation, may be a positive step to adjust.

* Srgjan Kerim, President of the 62nd session of the UN General Assembly, is a seasoned diplomat, scholar and businessman with more than 30 years of international political experience as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Ambassador of the Republic of Macedonia. Mr. Kerim began his academic career as a professor of international economics at the University of Belgrade. In addition, he was a visiting professor at the University of Hamburg (Germany) and at New York University. Mr. Kerim is also a recipient of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals Award and has been decorated with honours by nations such as Italy, Germany, Austria, the U.S. and others.

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Post-corona, we’re going to need new diplomacy

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To say we are living in unprecedented times is becoming both hackneyed and tiring in much the same way as we all are becoming during these times of quarantine and uncertainty. Indeed, COVID-19 continues to change every fabric of what we once knew as normal. Economies are all on the brink and misinformation is spreading more rapidly than the actual virus itself.

In fact, the virus is taking its toll on our lives is various ways – beyond the biological. In my own motherland of Italy, it has rattled our lives as the world watched the images of tankers whisking away bodies in the northern city of Bergamo – bodies of the infected victims who were too numerous to be carried out in emergency vehicles, etching itself into our psyche of the danger of this pandemic. In many in developing countries such as Morocco and South Africa, the lives of their citizens seem to be falling apart around them as forced quarantine means a double death for the rural poor, asking themselves “do I die from corona or do I die from starvation?”

Here in Casablanca, where I find myself oddly quarantined in lieu of my home in London, the virus has been called “The Great Revealer” – as it is quickly revealing deficiencies of the world that our illusions have tried to hide.

This includes the instability of many markets, such as the oil market where prices have been falling to historic lows due to failing demand and the fallacy of American supremacy as many states divided on how to respond to the crisis, bolstered by the lack of federal leadership under President Trump. Most heart-breaking for the global community though is the absence of the United States as the leading authority on how to unite the world and work together to bring us all out of this dark period in our history. It’s the excepted role of a superpower and in its failure to do so – even within its own borders – it has unconsciously lost its leadership role in the eyes of the world.

It is a strange time indeed, but one thing this crisis is revealing is the need to continue to work together. The need for partnerships. And also, the need for diplomacy.

Political Economist Phillippe Legrain argued recently in Foreign Policy that COVID-19 will mark the end of globalisation and Forbes Contributor Kenneth Rapoza foretells the post- corona world ending the “decades old system” of globalisation as we know it, as both countries and businesses revert inwards and travel less due to suspicion of the other. But I argue that to assume that COVID-19 will kill globalisation is not just incorrect – it is completely ignorant of human history and the human need for interaction to assume.

Global exchanges have been occurring in one form or another for thousands of years, from the Indus Valley in today’s India to the Taino and Carib people of pre-Columbus America.

But in these dire times, diplomacy – as the art of partnership building it is – is needed now more than ever in order to navigate this new era in which we are finding ourselves in and to rebuild our economies with a greater understanding of our global connectedness.

Changing paradigm

Let’s start with looking at the concept from a political standpoint, as to refrain from looking at diplomacy from a political lens would be like looking at medicine without considering the patient. COVID-19 is shifting what we understood have been the global leaders over this past century.

The failure of the US leadership in coming up with an appropriate response to the pandemic and both the very apparent and visual display of complete disunity within the United States (which has already been building up even during the era of Obama) has only confirmed one thing for many nations around the world: the power of the United States is gone. Not just because of Trump’s isolation political views and counter effective foreign policy moves (such as the withdrawing of US troops in Northern Syria late last year), but because the US is in too much of a mess in order to help others get out of theirs. Lack of an active health system in addition to heightened political polarity and an unpredictable (as well as unreliable) foreign policy had left many countries to look elsewhere for their diplomatic “northern star” as a guide.

In this uncertain world, a blank canvas is made for the diplomatic world. Now is the time for countries to build alliances more than ever within their own regions and even with new potential partners in order to build both an economy and a presence on the global stage that not only can help them navigate the uncertain waters of the post-corona world, but also began to narrate a new perspective in global dealings.

Governments, especially of developing nations, should take this time to engage collectively with great diplomatic force to build alliances in trade, social impact and regional peace keeping (especially in volatile areas such as the Sahel or Lake Chad region in Sub-Saharan Africa) to begin designing an engagement that works better for them collectively and using a united diplomatic coalition, engaged with potential governments, organisations and stakeholders to take on new strategies

This crisis provides a blank canvas for many countries to work together to bring greater good for their regions and countries in order to continue to interact globally to progress these ambitions. Now, whether there is genuine sincerity in the country and political will is another thing but taking this new paradigm into consideration is a step in the right direction.

Meet the new diplomats

A recent report from Bloomberg projects travel is to be lower in the coming years due to fears of contracting corona, until the development of a vaccine is found. Yet even with the introduction of a vaccine, many organisations will have so much shock from the pandemic that they will have greater reluctance to travel at all.

Refusing to travel is not possible – it has never been possible for humans in our history on this planet, going from the great migrations of homo sapiens from Africa to the exploration of Portuguese Explorer Vasco da Gama.

We need to travel – but for those unwilling to take the initial risk (or looking to reduce the amount of people traveling) creating a diplomatic corps within companies would be the best approach.

Former British Ambassador to Lebanon, Tom Fletcher argued this back in 2016 on the potential for this diplomatic paradigm shift and  Google has been supposedly exploring establishing its own diplomatic corps in order to engage with countries and key stakeholders abroad.

At my own firm, Pax Tecum Global Consultancy, this has been our primary modus operandi

– we are humanitarian diplomats who represent impact investors, social enterprises, NGOs and even developing countries with other international governments in order to progress business, investment and projects that lead to greater social change.

And the role of the diplomat has been carved out with the need to travel and establishing a global presence, but not having everyone go. With the fear of travelling likely to still be embedded in our minds, it makes sense for businesses to establish a dedicated group or department within its company that is devoted to “diplomatic engagement” abroad and travel. Be it with key stakeholders, investors, partners or even governments themselves, establishing such a core will help the transition during this unsettling time and continue to establish global confidence in the importance of partnership (which it itself is part of the UN Sustainable Development Goals number 17).

Dedicated diplomats who can represent the organisation’s interest internationally can help reduce the quantity of travel, but also allow for those with the savvy for negotiation and assessing risk to take lead progress in line with the strategic endeavours of the country. All this, while also demonstrating to global partners and collaborators one strong and key message – we’re open for business.

In these unprecedented times, we need to take unprecedented action, and this means being both creative yet cognisant of both the world around us and the ever-increasing truth that we all belong to each other – and not on individual geopolitical islands.

Now, more than ever, the power of diplomacy can be utilised to not only carve out a new global order that sees greater partnerships at both a regional and functional geopolitical scale, but also adapts new forms for the use of the diplomat, with resident diplomats deployed from both businesses and other organisations looking to maintain and establish their global presence in this travel adverse world post-corona.

And we need to let diplomacy happen to heal this world during and post crisis, because the biggest causality will not only be the countless people who are dying from this pandemic, but also the failure to understand that anything that happens in this world affects us all, and partnership and working together will be the only way to get us through everything else that comes out way. COVID-19 or not.

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