The Internet has probably been the biggest game-changer for diplomacy since Lord Palmerston heralded the first telegram as the death of diplomacy back in the 1850s.
With the Internet came new genres of diplomacy including public diplomacy, digital diplomacy, and even Twitter diplomacy. Back in 2013, when Italian diplomat Stefano Baldi published his book Twitter for Diplomats, I wonder if he envisaged a situation where, just seven years later, some leaders in the free world would conduct the majority of their diplomacy on that channel. The mind boggles.
Embassies now have a direct relationship with their country’s citizens through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and their ilk. Ambassadors are more accessible. Embassies are seen as more than simply where you go to get your passport renewed or your visa sorted.
With the onset of the COVID pandemic, multilateral diplomacy struggled initially to adjust to the online sphere. Gone was the corridor diplomacy leveraged at multilateral forums where countries at odds with each other could meet under the guise of attending a global meeting. New entrants to the Diplomatic Corps were short-changed. There were no national day celebrations, no events, no functions, no invitations to attend in person so that the groundwork for a fruitful relationship could be laid. But with most multilateral forums now engaging online, although far from ideal, the system is still working.
I was curious about bilateral diplomacy though – and how COVID has affected bilateral relations.
I had the opportunity recently to talk to His Excellency Ronan Gargan, Ambassador of Ireland to Hungary, who has been in residence since December 2019. By far the youngest of the Irish diplomatic cohort to have been posted to Budapest in my time here, he brought with him a digital savviness that has changed the face of the Irish Embassy in Hungary for the better.
COVID has made the push to use social media even more acute, perhaps putting smaller embassies at a disadvantage. Diplomatic behemoths like the UK, the USA, and Germany, have the resources and the infrastructure to transition seamlessly into the online world. Whole departments provide the logistics needed for webinars, podcasts, and online forums. Still, smaller embassies have to step up to the mark or be left behind. This is particularly true in the bilateral space. According to Ambassador Gargan:
“We have to be even more present online, on Facebook and Twitter, because we don’t have the advantage of having the usual events.[…] We have to realise that this is the way the world is going now. Even before COVID, but especially with COVID. Even if we get a vaccine, the reality is that we’re still going to have much more emphasis on having an online presence. Even if you’re doing physical events, people will still expect to see it online or live through Facebook, for example.”
As the rest of the world moved online with relative ease, diplomacy has taken something of a beating. That it still functions is testament to the dedication of the players and their commitment to their mandates. Yes, you can get an overview of people’s positions via a Zoom meeting. You can get a sense of what they want and where they’re heading, but actual deals are still made in person. Bilateral ambassadors were particularly hard hit.
“For three or four months we couldn’t meet anyone. The bread and butter of any bilateral ambassador is networking. Meeting people. Having friendly conversations. You just can’t get that same sense of friendship or relationship-building through a phone call or a zoom call.[…] It is difficult to build a relationship through a screen but […] it always boils down to people and relationships.”
On the flip side, for public diplomacy, the COVID-driven mass transfer to cyberspace is an advantage because more people can listen in and see what’s happening. Engaging with people through social media guarantees a wider audience. And, as Ambassador Gargan pointed out, if the message is on point, even better.
“It’s not necessarily the technology or how much we’re doing it or how much we’re pushing it; it’s what our message is. If our message is different than that of other countries, it can break through and get more attention. In Ireland’s case, it’s not the big power message, it’s the value-based message. It’s the what-we-believe-in message and why we believe it. Those messages get through better and sometimes can have more of an impact.”
I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be the face of a country abroad. Constantly under scrutiny. Never being able to relax. Always wondering how what you’re doing, however innocent, could be framed out of context and aired to the masses. Young diplomats I know have told me that after the first hour of an event there’s an honour-bound agreement that phones (and cameras) are put away. The potential to be misrepresented is always there.
“The reality of being a bilateral ambassador is that you’re never really off duty” said Ambassador Gargan. “You’re always thinking when you’re out and about what this would look like in terms of your reputation and the reputation of the embassy. You have to lead by example.”
Ireland has had her fair share of social debacles where public representatives didn’t walk the COVID talk. Here in Hungary, the measures seem to be less stringent, less restrictive. But Ambassador Gargan has to keep step with both, to always show an example by, say, wearing a mask in public spaces and keeping the required social distance.
COVID aside, though, what do bilateral ambassadors actually do?
First among the Ambassador’s four mandates is to provide consular services to Irish citizens in Hungary (and Kosovo and Montenegro). There are about 1000 Irish resident in Hungary compared to the 3500-4000 Hungarians resident in Ireland. It doesn’t seem like a lot, though. But the conversation the Embassy has on Twitter and Facebook and its general outreach is not just with the Irish in Hungary, it’s also with the returned diaspora, Hungarians who have lived and worked in Ireland and are now back home. Three immediately come to mind: Attila and Kinga Pécsi of the fab Áran Bakery, and Eliza Baranyi of the equally fab Celtic Barbers. The recent 8-page spread in HVG marking 25 years of the Irish Embassy in Budapest and 30 years of Enterprise Ireland working in Hungary, is another way the Irish embassy is reaching out to its audience.
“[It] gives not just Irish people but Hungarian people, an insight into who you are and what you stand for. That can then pull them towards wanting to know more about Ireland and the bilateral relationship between the two countries.”
Second is to maintain and develop political relations in a bilateral space within the framework of Ireland and Hungary’s shared membership of the EU. Ireland’s foreign policy is very much values-based. Hungary’s is more transactional-based. I wondered how difficult it must be coming from two very different spaces and what Ireland can do within Hungary to further both her values and those of the EU. Ambassador Gargan explained:
“Working with like-minded embassies, like the Swedes, and the Danes, and the Dutch, the Belgians, and reaching out to talk to civil society, to talk to the judiciary, as well as with the Hungarian government and local government, ensures that we get a rounded, well informed and balanced picture and getting that back to our capital to feed into the various discussions at the EU and international level. But it is also a way of showing that we are interested in these areas, that we’re interested in what’s going on. It gives us an opportunity to discuss with groups, like human rights defenders, the LGBTQ community, NGOs, how they are working to support equality and respect for diversity and how we might be able to support this message, these core Irish and EU values.”
Third is economic/trade diplomacy – to promote Irish businesses in Hungary and to encourage Hungarian businesses to operate in Ireland and to trade with Irish businesses. It’s about promoting Irish products and services. But given the competition for the Hungarian spend, how can one small country increase its economic/trade presence, especially given that we’re not exactly close neighbours. One of the doors to economics and trade, according to Ambassador Gargan, is through the fourth part of his remit, cultural diplomacy.
“Through cultural diplomacy, whether it’s having an exhibition on Ferenc Martyn or doing something about Seamus Heaney, it builds that understanding and interest between Hungary and Ireland. And if you have that understanding, if you have people interested, that opens the doors for business or for policy, or for economics. Without that cultural diplomacy, you can’t build that understanding. Even though we’re members of the European Union, there are still a lot of people in Ireland who don’t know much about Hungary and a lot of people in Hungary don’t know much about Ireland. […] Part of my remit is to highlight more about what Ireland is about our values, what we trade, why we’re good for business, why culture is important to us. That helps getting people interested in wanting to visit Ireland, to eat Irish food, to consume Irish products – that’s the cultural part of economic diplomacy.”
In the world of diplomacy, it makes a difference when you make an effort to have a bilateral presence in a country. As lots of multinationals are looking at what their post-COVID world will look like and talking in terms of downsizing their physical presence and virtualising their footprint, the Global Ireland 2025 initiative, marked Ireland’s determination to double her global influence by 2025. In the foreword to the report launching the initiative in 2018, then Taoiseach Leo Varadker said something I’d not heard before:
“Before his death in 1922, Michael Collins declared that our national aim was to find a path to freedom based on our country becoming ‘a shining light in a dark world’.”
I’m not often given to bouts of homesickness or patriotism. I’ve been used to (and privileged to be able to) go home to Ireland at least once a month for a few years now. Being confined to quarters, no matter how lovely they are, is doing my head in. As for many of the global diaspora, there’s a sense of unrealness about this COVID-ridden world of ours, a sort of suspended animation. Add to the mix the language difficulties and the reliability of available information here in Hungary, and it adds up to a major headache. More than ever before, I’ve come to appreciate the work Ambassador Gargan and everyone at the Embassy of Ireland is doing to make sure we stay informed and stay connected. Right now, they are a light in what can at times seem to a very dark world indeed.