Video conference instead of government aircraft: diplomacy in the time of coronavirus

Background briefing via video

Background briefing via video, © Thomas Koehler/photothek.de

08.04.2020 - Article

Traditional forms of diplomacy are barely possible at the moment as a result of restrictions on travel and public contact. Foreign policy is striving to find new digital approaches to facilitate close international coordination.

“This is how people work nowadays. So far, everything has gone pretty well,” Foreign Minister Maas commented after a virtual background briefing with nearly 30 journalists. Home office, video formats and virtual press work have now become par for the course and a daily routine for the Federal Foreign Office. The intimacy of personal interaction, the valuable chat in the corridor, has been lost and cannot be replaced even with high-resolution images. Yet in foreign policy, a great deal is possible via digital means.

Empty corridors, busy data highway

In order to minimise the risk of infection, many members of staff at the Federal Foreign Office Headquarters and the missions abroad are working from home. There are clear guidelines and many in-house protective and precautionary measures in place to quell the spread of the Covid-19 virus. At the same time, close international coordination is more important than ever in view of the global crisis. Whether coordinating the repatriation of stranded tourists from Germany and Europe, finding a joint international response to the health and economic crisis or conducting talks with journalists – intensive communication is vital to ensure that foreign policy retains its capability to act and the trust of the People.

Virtual trips, digital tours

Diplomacy thrives on travel and impressions on the ground. However, in the time of coronavirus, this is only possible through slimmed down and virtual means. Since the start of the crisis three and a half weeks ago, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has met his counterparts in the EU and the foreign ministers of the G7 and NATO states via video conference and undertaken “virtual trips” to his Ukrainian and his South African opposite numbers. An initial meeting with artist Olafur Eliasson, who will create the work of art for the German EU Council Presidency from July 2020, also took place on screen. At least Eliasson was able to use his laptop to take the Foreign Minister on a little tour of his studio in Prenzlauer Berg, where big snowflakes could be seen falling on Berlin through the windows. This was probably the only digital meeting in three weeks that was not focused directly on fighting Covid-19.

“I have a stream” – digital press work

How can you keep the media and the general public informed in a serious crisis when journalists can no longer enter the ministry and there is no opportunity to travel with the Foreign Minister? In press work, too, the Federal Foreign Office is forging new paths. Often just a camera team comes into the building and then shares its pictures with other media. Live streams of press statements and press conferences can be followed by everyone on the Federal Foreign Office’s twitter and Facebook channels. The obligatory “doorstep” – a brief statement by Heiko Maas before the Meeting of the EU foreign ministers in Brussels, now takes place in the press briefing room at Werderscher Markt. The journalists agree on questions in advance to which the Foreign Minister then responds. A background briefing has also been possible via video.

To sum up: foreign policy continues to run at full throttle via digital means. Yet although the new digital options for meeting are quick and flexible, the financial and travel savings do not outweigh the lack of personal interaction with other ministers, partners and journalists. Travel and personal encounters are an integral part of diplomacy.


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