Diplomacy during the coronavirus pandemic

Now, however, we face not a political enemy but a viral one ― COVID-19 ― that must be totally defeated.

Netanyahu discusses lifting COVID-19 restrictions with world leaders (photo credit: PMO)
Netanyahu discusses lifting COVID-19 restrictions with world leaders
(photo credit: PMO)
Is diplomacy dead in the times of the coronavirus? No, it’s just staying at home, like the rest of us.
In my book Jerusalem and Washington ― a Life in Politics and Diplomacy, I quote Henry Kissinger, that diplomacy is the art of instituting relations between nations based on agreements rather than on violence, provided that the agreements consider all sides’ interests. (There is also what could be called “anti-diplomacy,” i.e. “Twitter diplomacy, which because of its brevity and usual bluntness goes against the grain of Kissingerian diplomacy.)
At a time which definitely called for a meaningful global response, the opposite happened, and as Richard Haass points out in his Foreign Affairs article, “the principal responses to the pandemic have been national... not international.” The EU, for instance, has been a complete failure. The only exceptions to this have been steps by various countries, including Israel, to obtain from other countries items of medical equipment and medicines.
Now, however, we face not a political enemy but a viral one ― COVID-19 ― that must be totally defeated.
Obviously, many of the issues that preoccupied regular diplomacy are now in abeyance, but not all. For example, will the US respond to Tehran’s demand, backed by various international and US voices, including that of The New York Times, to lift the sanctions because of humanitarian reasons ― or, on the contrary, does the current situation actually justify a tough policy in order to wrest necessary concessions from the ayatollahs on nuclear weapons, long-range missiles, terrorism, etc., or even measures conducive to regime change?
One regime that is currently unhesitatingly exploiting the crisis to promote its geopolitical goals is China, which, despite its internal weaknesses, is moving quickly to take advantage of the opening created by the failure of the US to assert world leadership, to position itself as the global leader in the battle against the pandemic ― and beyond.
Pursuing this strategy, Beijing lost no time in launching a comprehensive public diplomacy campaign, which included furnishing medical equipment at no cost to various countries around the world, while also renewing all sorts of investment initiatives.
In the rest of the world, nations are mostly making narrow, hasty decisions, without considering their long-term implications.
Supposedly mothballed political borders in Europe have come back to life with a vengeance, while international economic, financial, and political institutions have been sidelined or outright silenced, and so far, no agreement has been achieved on emergency aid to countries such as Spain and Italy, to enable them to keep their heads above the water. On the contrary, the response of Europe’s leading countries, such as France and Germany, has been to look inward, ignoring the reality that the coronavirus does not recognize national borders.
In retrospect, Israel acted wisely when it expanded political relations with various European nations instead of relying exclusively on Strasbourg.
Even some economic matters about which one imagined there were agreements proved hardly foolproof, since the global marketplace, based on a global supply chain of goods, including medicines and various foodstuffs, has hit unexpected snags.
In this respect, Israel is relatively better off, thanks to its emergency food stores (even though some of them weren’t completely filled).
As the saying goes, “When the guns roar, the muses are silent,” and now faced with the aggression of COVID-19, it is normal diplomacy which is silent. Will it rebound after the crisis?
Probably not right away ― not only as the world will be a different place, and because the crisis will leave a raft of economic and other problems in its wake, but also because it will be difficult to immediately rehabilitate previous relationships and mend the rifts that the crises created, which have led to increased sovereign, national and separatist tendencies.
All this will also impact, at least temporarily, international diplomacy.
When the late US congressman Tip O’Neill famously said that “all politics is local,” he meant that when he or his colleagues had to vote on a certain issue, they would never lose sight of how their vote would affect their constituencies ―  but it also means that at least in a democracy, foreign policy and diplomacy are often a reflection of domestic politics and vice versa.
Thus the establishment of a unity government in Israel, among other things, is important in order to prevent its diplomats from being overly enmeshed in controversial issues, including the Palestinian problem, in connection with which at this time Israel’s interests would be best served by not putting it back on the front burner.
ABOUT HOW the world will look once the coronavirus crisis is over (let alone when it will be over), there are different and widely contradictory opinions.
There are those, again quoting Haass in Foreign Affairs, who believe that the world will be totally different from what existed before, while others predict that the world “is unlikely to be radically different from the one that preceded it.”
I tend to believe in the second option ― among other reasons, because basic human nature doesn’t change, nor do basic national interests. There could perhaps be some concerted efforts (though at present this doesn’t look very encouraging either) to stem the worst of what the crisis has caused to economically and socially weaker countries, but a full-scale return to globalization (which had already shown signs of ideological and political infections before the pandemic) looks doubtful.
While there may be some important geopolitical shifts, such as the above-mentioned growth of the political stature of China, or a weakening of Iran or, on the contrary, a further radicalization in its activities, both China’s ascent and Iran’s actions are largely conditional on America’s role with regard to world leadership, not to mention their own severe domestic weaknesses.
Major tectonic changes such as the final breakup of the Roman Empire leading to the spread of Islam all over the Middle East in the wake of the Justinian plague in the sixth century CE probably will not occur, though the crisis and the apparent failure of most regimes to deal with it efficiently could lead to new upheavals in the Arab world, a factor that could affect the world as a whole and Israel in particular.
As to Israel, while during the pandemic diplomatic activity was by necessity mostly computer- and telephone-bound, the end of it will see a revival of personal diplomacy.
While professional policy organs must also be reenergized, Netanyau’s continued involvement ― which generated an unprecedented expansion of Israel’s international ties, and particularly balancing the all-important alliance with the US with its pragmatic interest-based relationship with Russia, successfully hampering at least part of Iran’s own and proxy terrorist activities in Syria and elsewhere ― will now be able to resume full force.
The writer is a former ambassador of Israel to the United States.