The Foreign Service Journal, April 2021

26 APRIL 2021 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL FOCUS I f you reacted like most of us, the news early last year of a novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China, sounded a bit like another SARS or bird flu event at first—a problem far away that would probably be successfully contained or else fizzle out before threatening us all in earnest. Then came Italy, Spain, Iran, the cruise ship crisis, the Seattle nursing home and all the rest. Whether COVID-19 was more gray swan than black, an event that public health experts knew could come and that we should have been better prepared to confront when it did, we soon found ourselves enmeshed in a new and unexpected reality: obliged to observe social distancing; unable to go to the office or almost anywhere else; required to work from home. By late March 2020, the State Department, like the rest of Two Foreign Service officers explore the question through the lens of personal experience. Their answer: in some ways yes, but mostly no. BY J ESS I CA HUARACAYO AND AL EX I S LUDWI G Jessie Huaracayo is deputy political counselor in Madrid. A political officer, she joined the Foreign Service in 2003 and has served in Copenhagen, Tijuana, Lima, Havana and Washington, D.C. Alexis Ludwig is currently on the faculty of the National War College. From 2018 to 2020 he served as deputy permanent representative at the U.S. Mission to the Organization of American States. He joined the Foreign Service in 1994 and has spent most of his career in overseas missions in the Western Hemisphere and East Asia. The views in this article are the authors’ and do not necessarily represent those of the Department of State or U.S. government. DIPLOMACY IN AN AGE OF DISRUPTION the federal government and most missions abroad, had gone to mandatory telework for the majority of employees. By the time you read this, many colleagues will have reached the one-year mark of partial or continuous telework, and there’s no clear end in sight. Given that there has not been a wholesale collapse of diplomacy, some are entertaining the idea that perhaps this is the new normal, that we don’t need to send dip- lomats and their families all over the world, that we don’t need to maintain diplomatic facilities in almost every country—that diplomacy can and should be done online. In the following, we take a hard look at that proposition through the lens of our own experience. Although some diplo- matic work can certainly be conducted virtually, we find that the core elements of diplomacy absolutely require in-person engagement, and that whatever our current technological capabilities or future advances, we’ll never really be able to rely on long-distance or virtual diplomacy. Building relationships of trust—the coin of the diplomatic realm—depends on actual human contact. Getting Things Done Are we able to get our diplomatic work done in the midst of a pandemic that has radically altered the conduct of daily life? At an initial level of analysis, the answer must be: “Yes, we are.” Following the move to virtual work, internal bureau and office meetings in the State Department were conducted on the Cisco Webex or the Microsoft Teams platforms. The transition was not quite seamless, but almost. Those colleagues who had CAN DIPLOMACY BE