Rabat – The practice of diplomacy will no longer be the same in the post-pandemic world, Morocco’s ambassador in South Africa said on Tuesday.
Appearing on Al Jazeera’s “Inside Story” program, Ambassador Youssef Amrani argued that COVID-19 has been a major paradigm shift for diplomats and the practice of diplomacy in a post-pandemic world with new, unprecedented challenges.
Discussing the theme “Is digital diplomacy a future alternative?”, Amrani and other illustrious panelists – Tom Fletcher, the principal of Hertford College at Oxford University, and Theresa Fallon, the president of the Center for Russia, Europe, Asia Studies – argued that the pandemic has been a formidable challenge for governments and the global order.
But, they agreed, the virus has also been a much-needed reminder that the time has long passed to update some of the long-standing tools and certainties that have governed relations between nations for much of the past decades.
“The global COVID-19 pandemic has imposed a new reality to which we all have to adapt. And diplomats and ambassadors make no exception,” he said. “The pandemic has challenged the way we do and perform our job, has challenged also the way we interact with one another, and the way also the world conceives cooperation skills and diplomacy.”
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Chief in Amrani’s argumentation is the assumption that the pandemic has compellingly put forth the notion that many of the traditional tools of diplomacy are no longer adapted to the needs of the current, fast-moving global order. As times and priorities change across the world, diplomacy needs to adapt, he argued. The pandemic he explained, “has led us to question what we used to take for granted.”
For Amrani, however, because diplomacy is all about “impact and influence,” digital diplomacy should not be embraced as the replacement of the old-fashioned way.
“Nothing replaces direct contact, meeting rooms in New York, Vienna or Geneva, where you can find the best possible compromise through negotiation. Digital tools cannot replace humans. It must be a vector of rapprochement and not a replacement,” he said.
This means that, unlike the multilateralism-bashing commentators who have taken the view that COVID-19 has fundamentally exposed the obsolescence of global diplomacy, the Moroccan ambassador thinks that some aspects of the old order need to be salvaged.
Halfway through the panel, Tom Fletcher described diplomacy as “Darwinian.” He explained that cooperation between nations has never been static and has always evolved and improved by embracing the social dynamics and integrating the latest technological advances.
Amrani agreed. While the COVID-19 crisis has forced diplomats to “come out of our bubbles” to directly engage society, it has also highlighted the importance of person-to-person meetings when it comes to dealing with extremely sensitive diplomatic issues.
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As he sees it, the challenge for diplomats in the coming months and years is to adapt, update some of their tools. The point is not to radically repudiate the founding pillars of pre-pandemic diplomacy; the point is to rethink them, he explained.
“Today, we have to move fast, think fast, and communicate in the moment. But the risk is to lose track too quickly. Diplomacy is a long process, [it’s about] deep and long-term action,” the Ambassador declared.
“So digital diplomacy must not be an instrument that favors the moment over the future. We must use digital diplomacy, but with control and caution. Otherwise, we risk losing relevance in trying to get efficiency.”
But Amrani’s participation in the Al Jazeera panel is not the first time that the Moroccan ambassador has called for diplomats to reinvent diplomacy to rise to the multifaceted challenges of the post-pandemic world.
In an op-ed in April 2020, Amrani wrote that the increasingly fragile and apparently out of sync international system needs serious rethinking and re-adaptation to be able to survive the challenges ahead as countries race to get to the COVID-19 finishing line.
“Africa is the continent where this paradigm shift in the exercise of diplomatic action will be most eloquently observed,” he wrote. “The challenge for African countries is real and the continent’s ability to take charge of its destiny is now under scrutiny. Africa post-COVID-19 will be substantially different.”