Technology & Trade

Multilateralism in the Era of COVID-19

The international disarmament community takes first steps into digital diplomacy during the pandemic

As with so many other things, COVID-19 has forced the nature of diplomacy to change — rapidly. The question of whether or not multilateral diplomacy could be conducted online was put to the test last week as Germany attempted to conduct an official international meeting on lethal autonomous weapons. As a participant, it was clear to me that multilateral efforts towards disarmament can progress during this challenging time and it reinforced the value digital diplomacy could have for other issues as social distancing stretches from weeks to months.

Interpersonal communication is the lifeblood of diplomacy, where issues are discussed and debated through informal and in-person communication. Having a good personal relationship with an official from another country lowers barriers and increases trust. COVID-19 has disrupted these dynamics and advocates, governments, and other stakeholders are finding ways to adjust – some more readily than others.

Those of us working outside of government are comfortable with tools like Zoom, Hangouts, Slack – or God forbid Skype – to communicate and organize with colleagues around the world. But for many diplomats and government experts, these virtual tools are truly foreign. Many have not been allowed to use them before, as internal security concerns often block access to open platforms. I saw this first-hand when interviewing export licencing officials on issues related to the Arms Trade Treaty: most of my sessions had been conducted over the telephone, in person, or via government-owned bespoke communications systems. That is, until COVID-19 transformed working life and forced many to work from home. Now, carrying on business as usual requires diplomats to try something new. Germany’s government, which was supposed to host a major international conference in March, responded to this new reality and took an important step towards adapting.

In mid-March, scores of my colleagues and I were supposed to be in Berlin to support the 2020 Group of Governmental Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) – a UN body that considers the impact of new weapons technologies on countries’ treaty obligations. As COVID-19 spread, events were cancelled, and borders closed, many wondered if this kind of international cooperation would be victim to the pandemic.  What would this mean for multilateral cooperation on disarmament, a community which relies on large international meetings and conferences?  Barely a week ago, Project Ploughshares Executive Director Cesar Jaramillo article titled, “Arms control diplomacy a worrying casualty of COVID-19,” worrying that “even though multilateral arms control and disarmament efforts are of critical importance every year, the international security landscape was at a particularly troubling juncture just before the pandemic.” 

The Government of Germany, however, moved swiftly to demonstrate leadership and commitment to the multilateral disarmament process. They moved the LAWS event to a webinar and it worked.  Over 63 states attended the two-day meeting with 450 attendees representing civil society, research institutes, and industry. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas set the tone in his opening remark: “Coronavirus is hitting health systems around the world like a tsunami, and we will not recover from it if we allow it to wipe out international cooperation. While we are fighting against the virus, we must not neglect our work on other pressing issues. Arms control and disarmament are crucial for global peace and security….”

Importantly, the online format was flexible enough to permit participation from the wide range of stakeholders and viewpoints that make these international fora valuable. Attendees heard from countries as different as Brazil and France, organisations like the ICRC and SIPRI.

While organisers allowed for diverging views and tried to balance the varied positions on the issues, it was hard to do a full unpacking of positions and discussion. The time for questions was extremely limited and it was impossible for to get a sense of the “feeling in the room” – the intuitive read of your colleagues that tells an advocate or diplomat how far the group is from agreement. These are important aspects of diplomacy and similar events in the future would benefit from innovative ideas to address the shortcomings of our current tools. This conference, though just one example, demonstrated that international organizations can continue to function effectively during this crisis.

Our individual isolation need not cripple the institutions that bring us together for a common purpose. Other diplomatic and international meetings and organizations should follow Germany’s example and ensure that progress towards a more peaceful future continues – even while we all feel the weight of uncertainty and deep concern about our friends, families and fellow citizens around the world.

Verity Coyle is a non-resident fellow and senior advisor with the Conventional Defense Program and a consultant for the UK Killer Robots Campaign.

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