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'Cocktail receptions on Zoom are sad.' United Nations diplomacy in the age of Covid-19

Nothing says diplomacy more than a hearty handshake. Touching, embraces, and cheek-to-cheek kisses represented daily life in the corridors and at receptions in the world arena of diplomacy: the United Nations in New York.

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Richard Roth
CNN — Nothing says diplomacy more than a hearty handshake. Touching, embraces, and cheek-to-cheek kisses represented daily life in the corridors and at receptions in the world arena of diplomacy: the United Nations in New York.

Now, Covid-19 is striking at the heart of the United Nations itself. And many diplomats, some speaking to CNN on condition of anonymity, believe that the old ways of doing business may be changed forever by the pandemic.

It's been a struggle on the world's highest diplomatic stage. How do you practice the fine arts of diplomacy when the conference rooms sit empty, meetings are via Zoom, and the entire staff is working from home?

"Obviously diplomacy needs contact. it needs presence," said Secretary General António Guterres. We are doing our best through these virtual mechanisms."

"Of course, I miss intimacy ... hugging my dear colleagues or smiling with them together," Hungary's UN Ambassador Katalin Bogyay told CNN.

The pandemic has meant the UN-based diplomatic corps has had to function like uh, common civilians.

The 15 countries on the United Nations Security Council -- the UN's loftiest decision-making body -- hold public meetings that look like a Hollywood Squares show on steroids.

Gone are the face-to-face conversations that diplomats say can mean the difference in how a nation might vote or a resolution is written.

Typically, the 193 UN Ambassadors and deputies attend hundreds of receptions at each other's homes or offices annually, a tradition that has been upended.

The goal isn't to partake in fine food and drinks, said Belgium's UN Ambassador Marc Pecsteen de Buytswerve, but to meet a lot of people at the same time. "That is really useful as part of daily work," he said.

Now everything is virtual. "Cocktail receptions on Zoom are boring and sad," another diplomat conceded.

Listening while folding laundry

The Security Council's lack of unity on important issues, from Syria to Myanmar, has not improved in the pandemic era.

It took three months to even approve a resolution about the virus itself. And the recent vote on continuing the flow of humanitarian aid to Syria required five secret remote votes and concluded with many recriminations.

The diplomats do seem to have a coping mechanism that sometimes defies norms. After all they have to sit through numbing marathon hours of speeches during an average year.

French Ambassador Nicolas de Rivière said "as long as there is no vaccine we have to adjust to these realities."

Diplomats shelter inside their homes. and must adjust like all of us.

"You appreciate your own company," said Hungary's Bogyay. "I create every day as if it was a musical piece. I have etude, sonata or symphony days with some nocturnes depending on the topics we are covering."

Another diplomat confided that she and senior diplomats have shared tales of addressing the Security Council, the world's most significant international forum, in shorts and flip flops but with more formal attire on top.

This diplomat admitted "folding laundry" while listening to some conference calls. And, yes, diplomats, like many of us had to get up to speed on muting, unmuting and camera backgrounds.

Clearly, the stiff trappings of formal international behavior have slipped in the sudden work from home age.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric, after 4 months taking questions from home, began one daily press briefing with "reminder, I'm in a really lousy mood today."

Covid-19 hits home at UN

Russia initially opposed online meetings but eventually went along as the coronavirus cases mounted in New York. Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said early that the online experience was "more intense than normal life."

Other diplomats lamented the inability to read the body language of a colleague during face-to-face negotiations. "It's not the same as having a VTC conference," said Belgium's Pecsteen de Buytswerve. "You lack flexibility and nuance."

Hungary's Bogyay said it was a new type of diplomacy with everything now out in the open. "Lacking meta communication, you have to really have to concentrate on the screen and it is even more demanding physically and mentally than a normal day."

The United Nations could not escape the virus as it reported that 2 staffers died from coronavirus symptoms and more than 100 tested positive over the past six months

The organization told hundreds of staffers to work from home. A Security Council meeting on March 12 was marked by the technical jams that have afflicted many companies who have suddenly shifted to online gatherings. At one point, the panel heard its President at the time, José Singer from the Dominican Republic, pleading with ambassadors to shut off their microphones.

US Ambassador Kelly Craft took working from home to heart and retreated to her residence in Kentucky. A deputy had to finish her speech once when the picture failed. Still, dozens of Council meetings have occurred since and the current Council President, Germany's Heusgen, said "it was something very special for these last four months."

For all those who criticize the UN's performance, several diplomats thought the output has been improved. One diplomat not on the Security Council said "people are cutting to the chase more" and countries are finding new ways to work together.

Another diplomat noted: "UN people have been extremely productive with fewer meetings and without traveling. They are just working. They have no other choice."

UN spokesman Dujarric said that "despite all working from home, the business of the UN has continued full throttle."

Farewell to hugs and kisses?

The Security Council members did recently leave their residences to actually meet in person.

The Russians invited countries to their longtime compound in Glen Cove in Long Island, NY, where social distancing was observed on spacious outdoor grounds. Belgium's Ambassador said "everyone was very happy to see each other." There was barbeque and ambassadors discussed the upcoming goals.

But nowadays, simply calling a meeting has proved harder, diplomats said.

The UN General Assembly, with all 193 countries represented, can't meet in person because of social distancing. There needs to be pre-agreement that everyone is happy with a resolution for countries to say yes remotely by consensus.

At the Security Council, it takes more countries to find accord on the need to have a formal session, which is why some disputed issues end up being cast aside. "It's not great now dealing with substantive issues," a Security Council diplomat said.

Any in-person Council session also means hauling in interpreters and other UN staff who may count as essential services, but who do not live nearby in luxury apartments and would have to take riskier public transportation.

Still, Germany has joined with Russia in pressing for a return to UN headquarters as the virus toll dropped in New York. "You can do a lot virtually but nothing replaces person-to-person meetings," said Germany's Heusgen.

Four months after leaving the iconic Security Council chamber, diplomats returned to the UN building for a meeting on Colombia on July 14 -- but not to the Council chamber. To guard against the spread of the virus, the Council used a different, larger UN conference room, with far fewer aides and delegates allowed to watch in person.

The Security Council plans for a second meeting inside the UN on Tuesday to discuss Yemen. Not every country is enthusiastic.

British acting Ambassador to the UN Jonathan Allen said "while diplomacy works best in person, returning to meeting in the UN building involves an element of risk, including for the UN staff, so I think we have to try to find a balance."

France's De Rivière advised extreme caution, with the added guidance to all -- "Come with masks or stay away."

Regardless of the current concerns, some diplomats believe the UN, now in its 75th year, may actually change its ways because of the pandemic.

Virtual meetings have shown a new system can save on travel costs and help deal quickly with urgent matters, according to Security Council President Heusgen. "We will never be able to go back to the old norms," he said.

Hungary's Bogyay doesn't think hugs and kisses are returning anytime soon. "Actually I do not believe we will go back to where we left our life."

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