Image: World leaders appear on screen during a virtual Climate Summit, seen from the East Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 22, 2021. Source: Reuters/Tom Brenner.

LAST WEEK, the G7’s foreign ministers met in London for what observers dubbed “Covid-secure” talks. Their last meeting, in 2019, seemed like a distant reality. Handshakes were replaced by elbow-bumps, and social distancing was upheld – at least, for the emblematic group photos.

For almost two years, Zoom’s now-familiar grid layout has become the new face of diplomacy. And not just for the photographers. In practice, too. As strict lockdown measures were set up across the globe in early-2020, international workers had a choice: to go home or to stay in their host country. Either way, work had to get done virtually from then on. Everyone was on the same boat.

The notion of zoomplomacy, or online diplomacy, caught on fast. Journalists, academics, and – most crucially – the diplomats themselves debated and struggled to determine the advantages and disadvantages offered by videoconferencing. From an outsider’s perspective, everyone involved in international relations was not only adopting, and adapting to, these new tools (such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams), but also exploring the implications carried by their new reality.

Stakes were high, after all. 2020’s coronavirus pandemic did not give pause to the world’s preexisting hardships. Syria was still engulfed in a terrible war. Iran had the West’s attention, and the world’s greater powers were still struggling to find new balance on the shifting grounds of our century’s world order. Diplomats could not meet, but the work could not stop either.

The limits of zoomplomacy were quickly evident. Among other things, informal, “off-the-grid,” meetings were gone. For many, and especially when dealing with delicate matters, a coffee break is where the real talk can take place. What Lynda Dematteo calls the “obscure half” of the World Trade Organization, for instance, ceased to function.

And informal, real-world interaction is “what being human is all about,” too, says Paola Deda, Director at the UN’s Economic Commission for Europe. In a way, zoomplomacy changed the job before it changed the world. Body language, physical contact, and one’s sense of substance were replaced by impersonal videoconferences where technical glitches became a common source of stress and deadlock.

All things considered, the way zoomplomacy disrupted the profession provides a textbook case of how real-world practices shape international relations. Because at the end of the day, “what animates the world and makes it hold together” is practice, as claimed by scholars Christian Bueger and Frank Gadinger. Only through practice do actors make sense of their environment. Strictly speaking, international organization is a game of practices.

To see videoconferencing as one competing practice among many (such as traditional negotiation) enables us to paint a decent picture of what has been going on in the world of diplomacy since the pandemic struck. Some say it is temporary. Others say it is the future. Most agree it has changed diplomacy for good.

As an emerging practice, zoomplomacy is itself an object of negotiation, contestation, and communication, as noted by scholars Frédéric Mérand and Vincent Pouliot. Among its adepts, online diplomacy is thus judged according to its past, present, and future implications for what gets done and how. It is legitimized, or not, according to what we perceive to be the current, strategic needs of international cooperation.

At its heart, traditional diplomacy – that of green rooms, handshakes, and coffee breaks – is seen as threatened by its online match because both are competing for the same function. That is unsurprising. But sooner or later, international relations will conform to these new circumstances, which consist mostly of organizational obstacles. Discussing zoomplomacy’s role and status in the old regime is part of that process. Ultimately, a great deal of adaptation involves “an interplay of rationality and foolishness,” as sociologist James G. March famously stated.

International actors already know what online diplomacy fails at – informality, yes, but also ritual and symbolism. Today, an in-person meeting has never carried a stronger message. Still, zoomplomacy beats its traditional opponent in other areas. It is more inclusive; it reduces logistical costs. Crucially, it saves carbon. Most recently, Stephanie Williams, Deputy head for the UN’s Support Mission in Libya, described how much online inclusiveness has reinforced the whole peace-making process in the region.

In the end, the play of zoomplomacy has shown how much the profession of diplomacy is much like any other – albeit with transcontinental implications. It evolves. Long-established practices must wrangle with innovation and disruption. It must respond to present needs, just as it is changed by present circumstances. It sets the old guard up against the new. And it sheds light upon the real, methodical workings of international cooperation.


  • Murillo Salvador is chief editor at International-Organization.Com. In the past, he has worked at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and at the Mission of Brazil to the World Trade Organization. He currently lives in Geneva.

    View all posts