Diplomacy: Theory and Practice, 5th ed.  –  Online updating pages

Chapter 7: Telecommunications

p. 104: published ‘read-outs’ of telephone conversations. There is a good example of this practice on the website of the Japanese foreign ministry (see Further reading below), on which they are described as ‘overviews’. The website page I cite lists the ‘telephone talks’ held from 6 to 7 January 2016 (chiefly at foreign minister level but at the ‘summit’ with Washington) between Japan and its more powerful friends immediately following confirmation of North Korea’s latest nuclear test. The time of each call is logged, together with its duration and the main points fit for publication that emerged.

p. 105, circumstances in which phone calls are valuable: when an apology needs urgently to be made at a high – even the highest – level. This came home to me when reading Hillary Clinton’s account of how she coped with the fall-out of the Wikileaks release of all of those sensitive US diplomatic cables in 2010, some of which were highly embarrassing: ‘It would be a long Thanksgiving holiday,’ she wrote, ‘working the phones and offering apologies. Over the coming days I spoke with many Foreign Ministers, one Prime Minister, and one President. These calls covered other issues as well, but in every conversation I explained the impending release of the secret  cables and asked for their understanding … most were gracious … The in-person conversations were harder …’ (see Clinton, Hard Choices, p. 554). You will also have noticed how quickly the Russian and Turkish leaders get on the phone to each other in order to apologise; for example, for a Russian ambassador assassinated by a Turkish policeman, Turkish soldiers killed by Russian ‘friendly fire’ in Syria.

pp. 106-7, phone calls between friends and allies: I didn’t allow for someone like Donald (‘alternative facts’) Trump becoming US president (sigh) and using the telephone to try bullying the prime minister of Australia, one of America’s firmest allies, only days after assuming office. It’s also instructive to compare the Washington Post‘s well-sourced account of this call with the official ‘readout‘. See also the Post‘s follow-up article here and NYT article in Further reading below.

p. 108: Video-conferencing. I forgot to make the obvious point that another advantage of video-conferencing is that it avoids the often difficult arguments in prenegotiations over choice of a venue for (physical) face-to-face talks, as discussed on pp. 36-40.
The global health crisis of 2020 is causing states to look more seriously at video-conferencing as well as other forms of teleconferencing in urgent, serious negotiations. At the time of writing (14 March 2020), the talks between Brussels and London over the new relationship between the EU and the UK are a striking case in point; see my blog on this.

p. 110: Another reason why video-conferencing is likely to continue to stutter is that its limitations compared to (physical) face-to-face conferences are also being emphasized by the powerful commercial aviation industry lobby, fronted globally by the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG). See, for example, the page of Enviro.Aero (a website it funds) commenting on the UN Climate Summit 2014 (Further reading below): ‘While video-conferencing meet[s] many of the vital day-to-day communications links[,] the growing complexity and the sheer number of today’s global challenges require collaborative, high-level solutions which can only be achieved through face-to-face meetings. … It is aviation that brings people of the world together – and makes possible the vital work of the UN.’

p. 112: WhatsApp, Facebook’s instant messaging service must be added to this catalogue of multiplying ‘other means’. For at least two years, this has been popular as a valuable means of rapid, secret communication inside as well as in the immediate vicinity of rooms where negotiations are taking place. This is in large part because of its reliable end-to-end encryption and its use of Wi-Fi in places where texting is impossible because mobile phone signals are weak or non-existent. 

Further reading: additions and links

Barigazzi, Jacopo, ‘How ambassadors took over the EU’, Politico Europe, 24 June 2021

Berridge, G. R., ‘Pandemic boost for video-conferencing?’ 14 March 2020

Bramsen, Isabel and Anine Hagemann, ‘The missing sense of peace: diplomatic approachment and virtualization during the COVID-19 lockdown’, International Affairs, vol. 97(2), March 2021

Center for Responsive Politics, ‘Air Transport’

Clinton, Hillary Rodham, Hard Choices (Simon and Schuster, 2014)

Ebner, Noam, ‘Videodiplomacy in the Brexit talks and beyond’, UK in a Changing Europe, 1 June 2020. Argues that videoconferencing can be used for serious negotiations.

Enviro.Aero [ATAG-funded], United Nations Climate Summit 2014/International Diplomacy Made Possible

The Guardian, ‘The rise and rise of international diplomacy by WhatsApp’, 4 November 2016

The Guardian, 3 August 2017: Full transcript of Trump’s phone call with Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, 28 January 2017. As first published by The Washington Post.

Heath, Ryan, ‘For global diplomats, Zoom is not like being in the room’, Politico, 17 April 2020

Holmes, Marcus, Face-to-face diplomacy: social neuroscience and international relations (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2018)

Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ‘Nuclear Test by North Korea/Cooperation with the Countries Concerned

Naylor, Tristen, ‘All that’s lost: the hollowing of summit diplomacy in a socially distanced
world’, Hague Journal of Diplomacy, vol. 15(4), 2020

New York Times, ‘U.S.-Australia Rift Is Possible After Trump Ends Call With Prime Minister’, 2 February 2017

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