Not many in Delhi’s political, bureaucratic, and chattering classes will be able to find a nation called Saint Vincent and Grenadines on a large world map. But External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar was on a call last week with the foreign minister of this small nation formed by many islands.
Die-hard cricket fans will object to my proposition on Saint Vincent and Grenadines. They will say it is part of a group called the Windward Islands and that its cricketers play for the West Indies team. Some of them might tell you a former wicket-keeper, Mike Findlay, hailed from Saint Vincent.
Beyond cricket, island nations like Dominica, St Lucia, and Saint Vincent and Grenadines rarely feature on India’s diplomatic radar. They are sovereign states and members of the UN. Some of them are part of institutions like the Commonwealth. All of them are in important regional organisations in the Caribbean and Latin America. Jaishankar was on line with all three last week, as part of a comprehensive global outreach.
When travel across borders came to a grinding halt a few weeks ago, it seemed the foreign offices would be out of business. For much of their work is about engaging other governments. Being in the same room with counterparts in different corners of the world was essential. At least until now.
The South Block is turning this adversity into an opportunity — to conduct a lot of routine diplomatic engagement online. The Foreign Office is merely following other professions that are adapting to restrictions on travel across borders and within them by the corona crisis. Work that was considered deeply inter-personal, like teaching, has now gone virtual as universities moved to cope with the massive disruption in their academic schedules. Diplomacy is another profession that requires facetime for both formal and seemingly informal work.
Negotiations or consultations of any kind required sitting across a table in a chancellery. Diplomats also work in less formal settings — say signalling a nuance in a quiet corridor conversation. They also assess the political mood in the host capital over drinks and dinner with local leaders. Remember the old quip about diplomacy being a mix of protocol and alcohol. Official meetings involve a lot of detailed agreements on form and structure. And it is easier to discuss complicated issues in a pleasant setting.
Delhi took the lead in getting the South Asian leaders to meet through video to explore cooperation in combating the corona crisis. Delhi also pressed for a G-20 video meeting. Since then the UNSC, EU and NATO have all conferred through video. And the NAM summit began on Monday.
Besides the conversations with foreign leaders, senior officials of the South Block are engaging foreign embassies in Delhi through video. Diplomatic missions in Delhi have long complained that they barely get access to the MEA.
The Indian missions abroad have the same problem — of the GoI’s radio silence on responding to queries from foreign governments. Delhi is trying to make amends with the new medium. The EAM has begun regular engagement with ambassadors in various regions and sub-regions in recent days.
PM Modi had set the tone by reaching out to the heads of missions on the questions of safety and security of Indians abroad. Union Minister Piyush Goyal has followed through by interacting with commercial officers at the Indian embassies. Hopefully, other ministers and senior officials will make interaction with the embassies a regular affair.
To be sure, there is some resistance across the world’s foreign offices against virtual diplomacy. There are some real difficulties, technical and substantive, that will have to be overcome. When the first cable reached London in the mid 19th century, the foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston, was supposed to have moaned that telegrams will kill diplomacy.
Foreign offices, however, have learnt to work with new technologies, whether it was the trans-oceanic cable or the internet. As COVID-19 changes the world of diplomacy, South Block is getting ahead of the curve. What about bilateral summits? Could they be done online?
There is speculation that PM Modi could conduct a virtual summit with Prime Minister Scott Morrison. The Australian leader had cancelled his visit to Delhi earlier this year because of forest fires at home. It should not be impossible for Modi and Morrison to sign a joint statement, finalised by officials, at the end of video conversation. We could have the two leaders take a few questions from the press. Morrison could address business leaders in Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai via Zoom. What about the Australian first lady, Jennifer Morrison? It will be good to have Mrs Morrison, a former nurse, interact with Indian health workers on the frontline of the corona crisis.
Much of MEA’s energy goes into organising visits, but the follow-up has always been hard. Virtual diplomacy makes high-level engagement less burdensome. Involving the whole government should make the implementation of summit-level decisions a bit easier. An India that reboots after the lockdown could do with all the diplomatic efficiencies it can generate.
This article was published in the Indian Express Print by the title “Diplomacy in a virtual world”. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express