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Coronavirus: Global diplomacy strained amid COVID-19 pandemic

Entire countries are on lockdown, state visits cancelled, travel curtailed, key meetings postponed or moved online.

The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically altered international diplomacy. While the interruptions may seem to many like trivial inconveniences for a well-heeled jet set, they may have significant implications for matters of war and peace, arms control and human rights.

Already the United States has cancelled at least two leaders’ summits it planned to host this year and moved a Group of Seven foreign ministers online. As the global crisis threatens to alter the world balance of power, NATO‘s top diplomats abandoned plans to meet in person this past week, the European Union has scaled back its schedule, a major international conference on climate change in Scotland was called off, and many lower-level U.N. gatherings have been scrapped entirely.

If the pandemic isn’t brought under control by summer, it could jeopardize the diplomatic granddaddy of the post-World War II era, the annual high-level U.N. General Assembly meeting in virus-stricken New York, which this year is set to commemorate the organization’s 75th anniversary. The General Assembly may have only a fraction of the audience as an global sporting event like the already postponed Summer Olympics in Japan, but it is the diplomatic equivalent of the games.

The president of the General Assembly said Friday the 193-member world body will make a decision “in the coming month” on whether to delay the gathering, set to begin on Sept. 22.

If there is a global centre of diplomacy, it’s the sprawling U.N. headquarters complex in New York, considered to be a top diplomatic post, if not the top, for almost all countries. It hosts many formal and informal meetings but much of the business of diplomacy takes place over coffee and drinks in the Delegates Lounge, and at lunches, dinners and the numerous nightly receptions.

The arrival of COVID-19, which has turned New York into the U.S. epicenter of the pandemic, suddenly ended this diplomatic lifestyle that has existed for decades. As the world fights what U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calls “a war against a virus,” many diplomats are wondering if that life will return when the “war” is over.

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Diplomacy at the United Nations and elsewhere has now moved to phones, emails and virtual meetings, including of the U.N. Security Council. With face-to-face meetings increasingly rare, diplomacy by teleconference and secure video has become the norm, offering easy outs for those unwilling or unable to engage in delicate or controversial negotiations.

In the absence or severe cutback of in-person diplomatic discussions, some fear countries such as Russia and China may seek to exploit the crisis to further weaken international institutions already stressed by the Trump administration’s hostility to them.

Some fear the virus crisis could fuel diplomatic atrophy.

READ MORE: Coronavirus — Trump asks medical supply firm 3M to stop selling N95 respirators to Canada

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