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.
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.