French diplomat Pierre Vimont

Q&A: Pierre Vimont on the Impact of COVID-19 on International Diplomacy

As with most other professions, the Covid-19 pandemic has affected the work of diplomats whose face-to-face meetings and in-person gatherings are fundamental to their jobs. In this interview, John Bell, Director of The Conciliators Guild speaks with veteran French diplomat, Pierre Vimont, a Senior Fellow at the the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, about the impact of the global pandemic on world diplomacy.

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Covid-19 has affected our lives and has affected the field of diplomacy. There’s been a proliferation of webinars. ‘Zoom’ has become a common word now among diplomats. What have you noticed about how the pandemic has affected the way we work? What else has struck you about this new era?

What I’ve noticed from my experiences, and from discussing this with my French and European colleagues, is that many diplomats are partly positive about their experiences with the pandemic. It has given them more time to do their work. They’re travelling less. The virtual meetings they attend are well-focused and not too time consuming. Those online discussions allow them to go straight to the kinds of discussions they want to have.

But on the negative side they all admit that something is missing. It’s not only the lack of human physical contact in and of itself. It’s also the inability to properly negotiate because of a lack of physical presence. You no longer have the ability to reach out to the other person and have a conversation where you can go back-and-forth and try to move forward and make progress.

In other words, the current situation allows for the exchange and updating of information and for exchanging views, but it doesn’t allow you to go to the core of what negotiation is all about.

What I find interesting is that in this pandemic you are forced go back to try and understand what diplomacy, and the craft of diplomacy, are all about. What is missing at the moment tells you a lot about those things. They are not always tangible and easy to understand, but they’re necessary in order to move forward.

Let me give you another example. I’ve been struck by the fact that the foreign ministers of the 27 European member states have been able to have twice as many Foreign Affairs Council meetings as they’ve had in the past. Right now they meet nearly every week, or every other week, when normally they would meet just once a month. That’s a good thing.  

Yet, what’s come out of those meetings is to some extent not very significant. There is no real meat. Those meetings are virtual and therefore there is a great difficulty to negotiate. It’s mostly been about exchanging views: an intertwined monologue from each of the foreign ministers. But the question of how to move forward—how to move into action—for them is much more difficult.

I actually share your view that this screen through which you and I are speaking right now is a window for information exchange. But at the same time it’s almost as if it is a barrier for developing anything further. That’s something we don’t consider enough. But I think we’re all finding that out as we try to make any progress in international relations.

You mentioned that crises (as they tend to do) fling you back onto the basics: in this case causing you to question the very craft. Can you share some of the lessons that you’ve gained about diplomacy? What is diplomacy all about?

You have a lot of definitions and nice words about diplomacy that are totally useless. Questions like: ‘What are diplomats made for?’ It seems to me that if you go back to basics, diplomacy is about trying to reach out and promote security and stability for your own country through peaceful means. Diplomacy, to some extent, is the other arm of military action—it’s trying to reach the same goals through peaceful and other means apart from force and violence. That’s really the core.

Beyond that, there are two ways of looking at diplomacy: the long term goal and the long-term means. For the first you need a vision, strategy and a toolbox. And then there is the second-level; the one that is more ground-based and more operational, in my opinion, where you need to learn all the tricks of the game. Those are about listening to the other and understanding what is going on. It’s about looking for what we call compromises which means a settlement, and then going back-and-forth with your authorities in order to make them adapt instructions according to how those negotiations are going.

To some extent this distinction between the visionary objective and the operational part relates to your last question about the pandemic: this COVID-19 period allows us to continue with the vision and strategy, but it prevents us from executing the operational side. You don’t go very far if you don’t have that ground-based way of doing things and the ability to negotiate in a very direct, tête-à-tête way that is always needed at some point, whether bilaterally or multi-laterally.

What you’re saying is very fascinating. I can attest to that from my own work. Through Zoom calls with many colleagues I have managed to come up with great visions and concepts, but moving it forward is proving to be very difficult. This really speaks to the importance of direct human contact and the ability for people to enter the same space by having to meet physically. Do you think that’s the right way to put it?

I think so. I think it also goes back to one of the other important dimensions of diplomacy which is time management. There has always been this idea that diplomacy takes time. It was a slow process where you could, as a former French president once said, “give time to time.” Donner du temps au temps. Diplomacy was seen as very patient work where you could just wait and see. You had physical presence that at some point ended—and then you would wait.

In the modern era this idea of allowing time to elapse—that minds will change and you will reach an agreement at the end of the day—is changing. Time management today is much more about agility, the ability to move quickly and to always be on the ball. This is not just about trying to succeed. If you lose sight of the ball then things move very quickly in a totally different direction from the one you’re looking in.

It seems to me that the pandemic is increasing the need for proper time management according to the complexities of the world today. Take for instance the Middle East crises in Syria and Libya. Both crises began at roughly the same time in 2011—during the uprising in Syria and the military intervention in Libya, after which difficulties appeared. For average diplomats of my generation who once allowed ample time to reach a decision, what we have seen is the exact contrary. As time has elapsed, the situations have become more complex—not only in these two countries, but in many others. Rather than finding some sort of compromise and solution, we’ve found ourselves in a situation that has become more intricate and complicated involving proxy wars with many actors stepping in. With hindsight a lot of us regret not having been more active, or proactive, right from the start rather than allowing time to find a solution.

One of our colleagues who you know well, Nabil Fahmy, in one of our other interviews said that he has seen complexity and information go way up, but reaction time go way down. On the face of it, that’s not a very good combination.

Your description is of a virtual world, where calculations about international moves are being made faster and faster with more and more information. But what is the relation of that to the actual situation on the ground in any country, or in any conflict? There may, in fact, be a gap between the way we are now managing the world through information and the actual pace of change on the ground. Or am I making a false differentiation?

I think you’re right. The growing and accelerated amount of information we’re getting everyday is making it much more complicated; all the more so as other factors have to be taken into account. Call it a multipolar world. The fact that you have more actors who want to play a role and be more active in an international situation—local or regional—makes it precisely more complex. And to some extent we are losing our hold on these things.

As we’re facing greater complexity, the real challenge is to try and find more simple processes. To some extent we are doing the reverse: we are adding complexity to complexity. We are allowing too many people intervene. We are trying to invent new approaches and processes. On the contrary if we have to invent anything, it should be more simple procedures, more simple methods, to simplify the reality of the diplomatic craft at the moment.

I agree with you very much. In fact, at The Conciliators Guild one of our efforts is a kind of simplification involved with trying to bring things back to the human being and the how humans operate, which is the most simple building block of politics—international or domestic.

Interestingly, this morning I was talking to somebody in the Middle East who said the exact same thing as you about a certain domestic situation. He said we need to simplify responses at the domestic level in order to be more inclusive. In other words: the over-complication of situations makes them close to irresolvable.

What is your recommendation to dealing with this, beyond just trying to simplify things?

You have two other main features in our international world today. As I was saying, more and more actors are becoming involved. Not only the usual suspects like the big powers, but civil society players as well. Big cities, local governments and NGOs that are getting more and more involved in climate change, for instance. The need to get those partners on board and finding ways to make them part of our discussions, negotiations and conversations are very important. I think the foreign policy community is constantly growing—even to the point where domestic politics, which is usually left out of foreign policymaking, is becoming involved. The professional diplomats don’t like that, but they have to live with it. The days when we thought we could make foreign policy without them is gone.

For instance, today in the European Union you can’t anymore negotiate and get a free trade agreement at the level of professional diplomats and technocrats and get it easily ratified. It becomes a domestic, internal political issue because of climate change, inequalities, and the feeling among a lot of people that globalization has gone against their own individual interest. So you can’t just go along and say to the average citizen of your own country: “The diplomats have looked after this. Don’t worry, they were very careful. They looked after everything that needed to be done. We can go ahead and ratify this.” It doesn’t work like that anymore. I think we really need to adapt our processes to this new reality.

Apart from new actors we have new fields of activity that have grown as time has gone by: things like climate change and the digital economy, among others. Those are now totally intertwined with geopolitics. You can’t try to separate foreign policy from the other issues. This is something where I think the European Union was very useful. The European Union has the ability and necessity of bringing all of these different fields together because these are all part of the same playing ground for them. We discuss agriculture one day, trade the next day, car pollution after that—and then suddenly Syria and Libya. So we have to mix these all together and get used to having this kind of comprehensive diplomacy of covering all the ground of human activity.

I’m sure we’re going to move-on to discussing geopolitics and the US-China rivalry in a moment. This is what it’s all about right now between the Americans and Chinese—it’s about trade, new technology, digital economy, 5G, and about direct investment and the Belt and Road Initiative. So when people talk about a new cold war, it’s one of a very different sort from the one we knew about 30 or 40 years ago, which was mostly about ideology and security. Today it is much more global and comprehensive. The diplomats have to live up to this new challenge.

It would be interesting to take a case where all the complexities are there but we attempt to simplify it. To meet all those actors and sectors and at the same time try to maintain a degree of manageable simplicity is an interesting task, and is not easy.

At the same time as simplifying we also have to be careful not to oversimplify and go for bumper stickers. This is where one will have difficulty. And I think at the end of the day, it’s what our elders taught us. When you go back to the memoirs of Churchill, De Gaulle and others, you understand that behind their thinking was a clear vision of where they wanted to go. They had clear goals and clear objectives.

I wonder whether the real problem isn’t that we don’t know how to handle the complexity, but rather is that we’re unable to decide on the one or two main features which we need to focus-on in order to move forward. We have lost that ability to unfold the complexity of the world in order to get to the real issues at stake.

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Pierre Vimont is a Senior Fellow at The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is a former French Ambassador to Washington and former Executive Secretary General of the European External Action Service.