Foreign Embassies in Washington See Silver Lining in a Tough Year

Covid-19 forced clumsy bureaucracies to bring diplomacy into the digital age after decades of resistance.


Pjer Šimunović (left), Croatian ambassador to the United States, and European Union Ambassador Stavros Lambrinidis addressed the 2020 State International Development Organizations Washington Forum. Photo by EU.

Foreign embassies in Washington are used to U.S. elections and transfers of power. Every four years, those rituals provide fodder for diplomatic cables to nearly 200 capitals around the world, with reporting, analysis and recommendations for each country’s relationship with the United States. But for diplomats, the past year has been like no other. As they struggled to understand the likely impact of the 2020 election’s chaotic aftermath and the January 6 insurrection on American democracy, they also had to fight Covid-19. The pandemic has upended their profession more than most, in ways that may not all be bad.

After decades of tentative and laggard attempts to usher diplomacy into the digital age, that transition is finally complete in much of the world. Large government bureaucracies ignored or resisted the trend for years, arguing that diplomacy must be done face to face. Until the pandemic forced them to fully adopt digital tools, most of their high-level interactions with foreign counterparts and outreach to key audiences took place in person. In interviews, diplomats from different continents posted to Washington lamented the loss of direct human contact. But they also saw a silver lining in the added opportunities that technology provides to get things done without having to fly thousands of miles to attend a meeting or give a speech.

Covid-19 “has affected the very substance and modality of how we function,” said Pjer Šimunović, the Croatian ambassador to the United States. “As a good friend of mine says, ‘Diplomacy is a contact sport.’ One of the main functions of a diplomat is to establish contact and nurture relationships, know each other and establish personal credibility. And in a very practical sense, a lot of important contacts you establish by chance — not necessarily by organized meetings, but by meeting someone during a reception, dinner, lunch, an event, a conference. If you do not have that happening in person, you are severely limited.”

At the same time, certain meetings and other gatherings could have been held virtually years ago, diplomats said. Embassies are now able to “access more people than” they did in person before the pandemic, said a senior diplomat from a southern African country. That has “allowed us to cover more ground, to communicate with stakeholders at home and everywhere else,” the diplomat added.

A senior diplomat from a South American country criticized governments for being “very slow to provide [digital] tools” and “react to reality,” even when Covid-19 struck, resulting in weeks of lost productivity last year. “We weren’t ready,” the diplomat said. “We had high-tech computers in the office, but we were not able to take them home, or we didn’t have a [secure] connection at home. Instead, we used very old, heavy laptops with security encryption.” Now that has all changed, and the changes are here to stay, she noted.

Both the South American and southern African diplomats asked that their names not be used, because they weren’t authorized to speak on behalf of their governments.

One of the main functions of an embassy is providing consular services to fellow citizens visiting or residing in the host-country, as well as maintaining outreach to the home-country’s diaspora. Šimunović said that, by his embassy’s estimate, about 1.5 million Croatians live in the United States. His team made it a top priority “at the beginning of the pandemic, when everything was most chaotic, to be at the disposal of citizens in dealing with the full onslaught” of Covid-19, he said. “We had lots of exchange students wishing to go back to Croatia, but their flights were getting cancelled.” The only way to communicate with them and help them was virtually, he added.

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Like people everywhere, the Croatian public back home follows events in the United States, because what happens here is of “immense importance… not just for U.S. citizens, but for everyone else,” Šimunović said. “We have seen trends of democracy being undermined, limited or compromised in many parts of the world. There are a lot of people around the world who look to the United States for examples to follow,” and the Capitol Hill attack was a wakeup call, he noted.

The mob’s actions on January 6 sent shockwaves in many countries, but ultimately people were impressed that the U.S. democratic institutions prevailed, diplomats said. Some thought that such events were “only possible in Latin America or the Middle East,” said the senior South American diplomat. “Seeing that gives you a sense that everything is possible. But American democracy is still respected.”

After President Biden took office, global attitudes toward the United States improved significantly, following four years of low approval ratings, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted months before the final withdrawal from Afghanistan began. Some of the day-to-day diplomacy has been affected positively as well, with better high-level access to the administration and closer policy positions on key global issues, diplomats said.

Although they had access to mid-level career staff during the Trump years, morale among those officials is now much higher, the South American diplomat said. “I see a lot of very happy mid-level staff at the State Department and the National Security Council,” and “very good coordination between” the two, she added. That said, when it comes to Latin America, the region “is not a priority for either administration, unless there is a crisis” she noted, though Biden’s “focus on the root causes of migration” is a positive sign.

Diana Tan, spokesperson for the Embassy of Canada, said “it was very clear early on that the Biden administration was prioritizing its relationship with Canada. Beginning on Inauguration Day, the embassy began receiving calls from senior members of the administration seeking to establish contact with Ambassador Kirsten Hillman, Canadian ministers and other senior officials. It marked a strong, substantive start to the relationship,” Tan said. She added that the embassy’s interactions are “not just limited to the White House and the State Department” and include various agencies, such as the Departments of Homeland Security and the Interior.

Biden’s first meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau yielded “an ambitious roadmap for our partnership, which outlines a number of concrete actions for Canada and the United States in the coming years,” including on the pandemic and defense, Tan said.

Valdet Sadiku, chargé d’affaires at the Embassy of Kosovo, said that his young country, over which the United States and NATO fought a war with Serbia in 1999, is “blessed with support from both Democrats and Republicans” and has a positive relationship with Washington under any administration. The diplomat from southern Africa also said that the United States has assisted his country through crises, such as the AIDS epidemic, under presidents from both parties.

Still, diplomats acknowledged that Trump’s worldview diverged from the collaborative internationalist approach to global affairs they espouse. The most prominent and frequent example of a Biden policy they welcomed was the response to climate change. “It was frustrating with the previous administration,” which “was denying climate change,” the South American diplomat said. Now “it’s a topic present in every single conversation,” she noted.

“On very important topics for us Europeans, like climate change and a multilateral approach to global issues,” the Biden administration has taken “concrete steps,” Šimunović said. “That is more in line with how we see the world.”