Going Digital in Global Politics: Conducting International Relations in the Digital Space

In late March, theG20 Leaders held an extraordinary virtual meeting commencing the era of organizing high level meetings and summits in the digital world. Certain conferences and summits such as the Fourth session of the Intergovernmental Conference on Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction and the Climate Change Conference CoP 26 were postponed due to the pandemic. Yet many other high level meetings decided to move online. ThePetersburg Dialogue and G 20 Working Group meetingsare some of the few that moved into the digital place. The upcoming High Level Political Forum of the UN is seeking ways to engage countries virtually. Web based meetings were considered as an auxiliary form of communication rather than a major tool to conduct discussions and meetings, but the pandemic has forced all to move into the digital space and global politics is not far behind.

Diplomatic negotiations and global politics that was largely conducted behind closed doors with least amount of digital interventions has now shiftedto virtual meeting rooms.Virtual meetings are practical and faster to convene, in addition to their lower cost implication for governments. Yet the ‘new normal’ raises concerns about the fluidity of discussions and negotiations, technical hindrances to maintaining structure of physical conferences and maintaining privacy and security of such discussions. The complexities of conducting discussions on legal agreements in the digital space and their acceptability could also become a point of discussion.

High Level Meetings- Going Virtual
Online format appears uncomplicated yet the process of conducting state level and ministerial meetings in the short to medium term may become cumbersome with multiple layers of meetings to be held at each level leading to various streams of information. Assimilation and interpretation of these discussions would be challenging and time consuming.

The one positive of virtual meetings is ease of accessibility for countries that could afford to bring handful of delegates due to cost implications. However, current virtual platforms lack the capacity to host meetings at a large scale. Physical meetings or summits are conducted primarily in extensive stretches lasting for a few days to couple of weeks, this format is not suitable for digital meetings affecting continuity in negotiations- which is essential to arriving at mutual solutions.

Cyber Security Challenges
The sudden and massive movement towards digitization of economic activities has led to increased cyber security concerns. Hacking, misinformation on the pandemic and extraction of private information through digital communication platforms has become regularfeature especially since COVID 19. The G20 digital economy ministers’ virtual meeting was held this month recognizing the need to undertake “measures to strengthen communication infrastructure and network connectivity, non-personal data exchange in a secured manner, use of digital solutions for healthcare, cyber secured world and measures to strengthen resilience of business”. There is a good example of emphasis on securing virtual communication channels.

Many webinars and meetings have been hacked into with miscreants posting malicious content. The Canadian government decided to shift the House of Commons meeting to a virtual platform called Zoom. A revised version of the platformwas in operation and the meeting proceedings were public; however they also noted that Canadian Cabinet is not using the platform as the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security had not yet examined and approved the platform for government discussions requiring confidentiality.There are also concerns how meetings involving few hundred officials will take place with discussions becoming chaotic and unmanageable.

Zoom as a virtual platform has gained popularity as a useful tool for conducting virtual meetings; however concerns around safety of its usage have been raised by cyber security firms and reconfirmed by security agencies. On 16 April 2020, the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India issued an Advisory stating that it is not a safe platform and that it is not for use by government officials or officers for official purposes.The platform is not being utilized by Indian government agencies and many other countries have requested their citizens to exercise caution and utilize it with appropriate safety measures.

Virtual platforms are necessary during social distancing norms, however they may not be appropriate for extremely large gathering usually witnessed in physical summits and seminars. Due to the lack of physical presence, it would be challenging to reduce communication chaos in the virtual meeting room.

Physical Summits- Integral to Art of Negotiation
Diplomatic negotiations and high level government meetings are an excellent way to understand culture, protocols and traditions followed by each country. The view into the cultural sphere of negotiation has been a critical way to gauge directions of negotiations, nuances of country positions and strategize accordingly. In addition, the diplomatic and State level protocols that were followed during such gathering and summits need to be rethought for the digital space.

The other aspect is the opportunity to develop inter-personal relationship among delegates and participants. These are essential linkages that prove beneficial to form long-term relationships that are integral to establishing strategic partnerships and strong communication channels.

What’s Next for Global Politics?
Digitization of local, national and global politics has become a necessity in the short to medium term. International relations has to be steered within digital restrictions anticipating that,agreements, negotiations and global initiatives to address critical issues like climate change, poverty, food security, sustainable development and ensuring universal access to health services will remain a priority. The world is hopeful of a change in circumstances moving from the ‘new normal’ to ‘back to normal’ but for now, people and politics both are dependent on the digital space for connect and communication.

Ms Swati Ganeshan, Fellow, Centre for Resource Efficiency and Governance, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), New Delhi. Views expressed by the author are personal and not of TERI.

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