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COVID-19: Health Diplomacy is the way out

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In the current age and time, when the world has turned into a “global village”, this connectedness brings both challenges and opportunities, At the first place this seamless connectivity is a prominent reason for spreading of the Coronavirus far and wide at a lightning speed but at the same time, the cure of the problem also lies in the same connectivity if utilized properly. The challenge is not new, the world has faced pandemics before and coordination between states was crucial in dealing with them. The world already possess a framework to deal with this global crisis, I here look at the previous pandemics that have ravaged the world and how states cooperated during them, also the mechanisms through which various states have tried to forge a path for a world with greater Health Security by the means of Health diplomacy, Medical diplomacy or Disease diplomacy, consequently enhancing the connection between health and Foreign Policy

What has happened before?

The world has witnessed various deathly pandemics before, from Black Death to Spanish Flu from Asian flu to SARS and Ebola. To manage both health and trade together and protect them from the debilitating effects of these diseases, states have come up with many agreements during these pandemics, starting from the practice of Quarantine. 

The modern practice of “Quarantine” originated in 1377, when the seaport of Ragusa, now known as “Croatia” issued ‘Terentina’ and ‘Quaranta’ (which later became quarantine) i.e. thirty and forty days isolation period respectively for ships and travellers from outside, these measures were taken not only for health reasons but also to protect trade networks and economic welfare from the Black Death. But various states adopted different measures for quarantine there was no coordination or uniformity in the practice. Then in 1834, France was the first country to propose standardisation of quarantine practices, and finally in 1851 the first International Sanitary Conference was held. In 1907 “International Office of Public Health was established, which formulated uniform quarantine rules for various types of travellers. As numerous efforts were made to bring in a collective effort to deal with diseases and pandemics,In 1948 the World Health Organisation was established as a successor to International Sanitary Conference and infectious diseases along with other health issues came under International Law preparing a way for more coordinated actions and efforts.

Collectively planned quarantine measures were also witnessed during the SARS pandemic of 2003 when the proactive role played by WHO helped in the exchange of information around the world. Albeit the role of the same WHO is under grave criticism during the current pandemic, the way forward requires a multilateral effort under a global agency, reforms are very much needed but weakening this institution and withdrawing funding at such crucial time as U.S.A did, will do no good. States need to cooperate in numerous ways, from sharing best practices to deal with the pandemic, to mitigating the economic effects on the world economy. There is also a need for a shared and collective plan for the development and decimation of the vaccine around the world and a central body coordinating the worldwide efforts is the need of the hour. 

This pandemic appears to highlight the realist notion of international relations with competition rather than cooperation in the forefront. The states might appear to look inwards but this pandemic has highlighted the inevitable interdependence of the world; no country no matter how hard it tries can protect itself alone, the fate of the world is going to be collective, the world may sail or drown but it will do so as one entity. Hence multilateralism and cooperation is the need of the hour.

The link between Foreign Policy and Health

Numerous multilateral forums and international organisation have been focusing on Global health security for long. The International Health Regulations adopted by the World Health Assembly in 2005 also provide a global legal framework to deal with health issues. United Nations General Assembly has since 2008 passed the “Global health and foreign policy” Resolution in every session. The latest being “Global health and foreign policy: a healthier world through better nutrition: resolution” in the 73rd session of U.N general assembly. The Oslo Ministerial Declaration on Foreign Policy and global health have enhanced many folds the importance of global health in Foreign Policy. The initiative was launched in 2006 in New York by Brazil, France, Indonesia, Norway, Senegal, South Africa, and Thailand. The Declaration stated the importance of global health in Foreign Policy. The declaration can today provide valuable insights into fighting COVID 19. It looked at policy initiatives to deal with health issues and was an earnest effort to make health a central issue in the foreign policy of the aforementioned nations. 

In 1978, Peter Bourne came up with the concept of “medical diplomacy” working as a special assistant under the Carter Administration. According to Bourne humanitarian issues like health can be an important means for bettering relations and establishing strong diplomatic relations. After that, the concept has come a long way with numerous works published and research done on how health can be an important contributing factor in Foreign policy. According to GHS Initiative in Health Diplomacy, UCSF (2008), “Health Diplomacy occupies the interface between international health assistance and international political relations. It may be defined as a political change agent that meets the dual goals of improving global health while helping repair failures in diplomacy, particularly in conflict areas and resource-poor countries.” Hence the health and medical diplomacy can act as both furthering diplomatic national interests of particular countries and also furthering the collective goal of ensuring global health security. 

As we are witnessing the current pandemic and the world is coming in terms with this “New Normal”, it is clear that the old ways need to change; transformation is needed at the structural, functional and organisational level. From Vaccine creation to distribution, economic exchanges, International travel, and transportation all need new rules now, and this new era demands cooperation, not conflict. International Security needs a complete overhaul and the current pandemic provides an important opportunity to have a paradigm shift in the conceptualisation of security by prioritising health as a major security concern; it has for long remained on the back burner of security concerns. The focus of security now must broaden to include the health of the individuals into the priority segment of national security along with the traditional conception of territorial security. At the same time acknowledging the fact that the health security of any nation in today’s globalised world is deeply connected with global health security, and an important means to secure this global health security is Health or Medical diplomacy. 

The author is currently pursuing Masters in International Relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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The Digital Diplomacy Revolution

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The way people communicate with one another has changed dramatically. The term “networked society” is used to describe how society has developed, where data is freely transmitted. Knowledge is obtained, contained, interpreted, controlled, and exchanged in almost entirely different ways than previously done. The use of technology, especially the internet and other ICT-based technologies, in the conduct of diplomacy is referred to as digital diplomacy. Covid-19 has ushered in a new age of digital diplomacy, also known as e-diplomacy. It has evolved as one of the instruments for advancing foreign policy. The days of strict government oversight are long gone. Information has a greater impact in today’s “networked” society because it can spread in a matter of seconds or minutes.

For many people, Twitter has been the go-to platform for modern diplomacy. We’ve seen how social media helped the Arab Spring revolution in countries like Tunisia, Yemen, and Egypt. The word “Twiplomacy” was coined to describe diplomacy conducted through Twitter. There are close to 300 Twitter accounts dedicated to heads of state. More recently, during the populist boom, we’ve seen how leaders like Modi and Trump’s Twitter presence aided their electoral performance. Not only governments but also non-state actors, such as terrorists, have used social media to further their goals.

The Rise of Digital Diplomacy

Between March 2020 and the end of 2020, the United Nations headquarters in Geneva hosted 1,200 important international conferences online. The UN has been able to continue its operations on the ground as a result of this. In terms of digital diplomacy, the United States now leads the way. Since 2003, the US State Department has had an e-diplomacy branch, but it was Hillary Clinton who brought it to a whole new dimension. She introduced “21st Century Statecraft,” in 2009, a program aimed at complementing conventional foreign policy techniques with statecraft technologies that completely harness the network and technologies of an interconnected world. The US State Department employs 150 full-time social media workers in the e-diplomacy office.

India’s Use of Social Media in Public Diplomacy

The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) sent out its first tweet in 2010, managed by Ambassador Navdeep Suri, then joint secretary and head of the public diplomacy section. Many distressed Indians stuck abroad found Twitter to be a helpful crisis management tool, facilitating the safe evacuation of over 18,000 Indian people from Libya during the civil war in 2011. India aspires to be a trailblazer and is working hard to pave the way for itself to become a global leader. For a nation like India, social media allows for constructive communication about the country’s coming of age as a result of scientific progress, technical advancements, and new ideas advanced by initiatives like digital India. The government should take advantage and expand their public diplomacy agenda more engagingly. The government can intensify its initiatives – even on the foreign policy agenda – in a perfect digital diplomacy setting, and the public can have a more direct channel to communicate with their government. In the age of digital diplomacy, it is critical to address policy context relevant to a world where political views are developed based on knowledge from tweets and social media accounts. As, Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher, put it: “The only thing that is constant is change”. Countries must take advantage of the latest digital diplomacy framework to develop the skills needed for the future and to create stable digital channels for future diplomats.

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Ramifications of The Pandemic In International Relations

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Ever since the global spread of the COVID-19 virus, claims have been made of the pandemic causing a massive impact in global politics and international relations. In the pre-pandemic era, international relations were defined by increasing bipolarity, greater isolationism, greater trade protectionism and increasing nationalism. While the West led by the US was gradually adopting a protectionist attitude, the East led by China in particular, was looking towards increasing multilateral cooperation. Alongside this, international organizations were seeing their roles diminishing. Moreover, populist leaders and authoritarian governments were gradually gathering influence globally, in stark contrast to a decline in democracy and neo-liberalism. These trends could be seen most clearly in the US/China conflict that has dominated most international relations rhetoric of the 21st century.

Although China had been hit with the pandemic first, through extreme lockdown measures, quick responses, mass screenings, targeted monitoring and an effective socio-political response, the country quickly reversed course and had flattened its curve by March, depicting the resilience of the country. With a mere 87,000 cases as of December 2020 in a country of 1.4 billion people, China’s effective policies to deal with the pandemic can hardly be sidelined. Nevertheless, as the virus had been identified in China first, this triggered a massive backlash from the West, particularly the US, where President Trump blasted China for covering-up details about the virus. Rumors were spread by the White House itself about the virus originating from a Wuhan lab, and the virus was labeled the Wuhan Virus – a move discouraged by the WHO. This inflammatory language worsened relations between the two countries. Going even further, President Trump terminated US involvement in the World Health Organization, claiming it to be controlled by Chinese authorities.

With this move the influence of the world’s most important health organization was weakened, further showcasing the decline of the liberal international world order, due to a diminishing trust in international organizations. Thus, the pre-Covid trend of a lack of trust in international organizations, continued during the COVID-19 pandemic as well. With Trump advocating for closed borders with his “We need the wall more than ever” expressions  on Twitter, and similar far-right leaders like France’s Le Pen ruing the “religion of borderless-ness” for the pandemic, the West’s protectionist, nationalistic ideas showed no signs of abating even during a global crisis.

In stark contrast, the East led by China continued on its path of greater cooperation and interdependence, through bilateral and multilateral engagements. With the US leaving a void in the global leadership spot for handling the pandemic, China stepped in and offered to assist other countries in handling the outbreaks in their respective countries. China’s foreign ministry’s spokesperson,  Hua Chunying, even stated that they would like to share China’s good practice and experience.

Furthering its charm offensive, China started shipping out masks and ventilators to countries that were very badly hit by the pandemic, like Italy, Spain and Serbia. With the countries of the European Union shutting down their borders and hoarding domestic supplies, despite Italy’s pleas for help, Italy turned to China for aid in fighting the coronavirus pandemic. This “mask diplomacy” along with China’s Health Silk Road has served to strengthen global public health governance, as envisioned by China.

Undeniably, the pandemic’s effects in the short-term have been wide-reaching, especially in the social and technological domain. However, expecting global politics and international relations to undergo a transformational change in the long-term, solely due to the COVID-19 pandemic is relatively far-fetched, especially if current global trends are assessed.

The virus may or may not have taken its toll on international diplomacy in the traditional context, but it has certainly shaken many things if not stirred them completely.

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Diplomatic Fiasco: PTI Government’s Failure on the Climate Diplomacy Front

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“Think about this: terrorism, epidemics, poverty, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction – all challenges that know no borders – the reality is that climate change ranks right up there with every single one of them”.– John F. Kerry

The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and United Nations Security Council (UNSC) have both declared that unrestrained climate change poses a threat to international peace and security. Presently, climate change is the biggest threat facing humanity. We all will witness its impacts, making it a critical foreign policy and diplomatic issue. Climate change will overturn the 21st century world order and characterize how we live and work. Even so, in the midst  of a global pandemic, it is evident that climate change will be the major issue of this century. As countries will move toward rebuilding their economies after COVID-19, recovery plans will shape the 21st century economy in ways that are clean and green, safe and healthy, and more resilient. Over the last decade, foreign policymakers have taken measures to better understand climate risks. To date, foreign policy responses to climate change have primarily centered on the security repercussions of climate change.

To chart a fresh course ahead, in order to initiate a global fight against climate change, President Joe Biden welcomed a diverse set of leaders from around the globe to explicate the connections between climate security, climate change and broader foreign policy objectives. The list of invitee included world leaders like President Xi Jinping of China and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, PM Modi of India, Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh to attend the two-days meeting to mark Washington’s return to the visible lines of the fight against climate risks. Though, Pakistan have its place in the same region, and fifth-most vulnerable country to climate change, it has been disqualified from the summit. Likewise,  Biden dispatched his climate envoy, former secretary of state John Kerry, to prepare the ground for the summit in meetings with global leaders. The U.S. invited the leaders of the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, which includes the 17 countries responsible for about 80-percent of global emissions and GDP, along with, heads of countries that are unambiguously vulnerable to climate impacts or are representing robust climate leadership.

The current global efforts towards mainstreaming of climate change in development policies and programs are getting more traction due to expanding avenues of domestic and international climate diplomacy. For developing countries, climate diplomacy is undoubtedly becoming a key incentive to integrate climate change issues into their foreign policy. Pakistan is also a relatively new player in the climate diplomacy arena with a nascent institutional setup. The climate diplomacy adaption experience of Pakistan is still at the embryonic stage. The main problem is the gradual decline in the aptitude and capacity of institution to develop a clear policy route. The policy decline is much more rapid under the PTI government. Pakistan’s ambassadorial clout has eroded over the years due to political unpredictability and economic timidity. Similarly, the government has failed even to built a national narrative on climate change issue. Imran Khan has been warning the world of catastrophe if the climate problem is not addressed, but has failed to come out with a clear policy direction on the issue.

Among the many challenges fronting the Imran Khan government will be tackling the notoriously dysfunctional U.S. – Pakistan relationship. The Biden presidency has designated climate change as a critical theme of its foreign policy, and indeed aware of Pakistan’s deep climate vulnerability. For the first time since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Pakistan is not a foreign policy priority for U.S. administration. Many high-ranking Biden government officials, including climate change envoy John Kerry, know Pakistan well. When Kerry was Obama’s secretary of state, co-chaired US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue that counted renewable energy. Anybody familiar with how Islamabad and Washington have interacted over the last 74 years will resort to weary metaphors: a roller-coaster ride, the dynamic between an overbearing mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. Biden and his experienced team of ex-Obama administration officials are likely to press Pakistan – for Islamabad, it is a catch-22 situation. In the indigenous context, internal political strife in Pakistan and economic dependency on other countries have raised questions about our ability to effectively fight our case in international arena. The latest diplomatic fiasco speaks very loud and clear about the government’s inability to deal with fast-changing geopolitics. Washington’s broader interests in Asia, including relationships with China and India, will determine its policy at the Leaders’ Summit on Climate. It seems, Pakistan has no friends in the Biden administration. Thus, out-of-the-box thinking is required for Pakistan’s foreign policy decision makers.

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