'Cocktail receptions on Zoom are sad.' United Nations diplomacy in the age of Covid-19

The Security Council members hold an open video conference on sexual violence in conflict on July 17 in New York.

United Nations (CNN)Nothing says diplomacy more than a hearty handshake. Touching, embraces, and cheek-to-cheek kisses represented daily life in the corridors and at receptions in the world arena of diplomacy: the United Nations in New York.

Now, Covid-19 is striking at the heart of the United Nations itself. And many diplomats, some speaking to CNN on condition of anonymity, believe that the old ways of doing business may be changed forever by the pandemic.
It's been a struggle on the world's highest diplomatic stage. How do you practice the fine arts of diplomacy when the conference rooms sit empty, meetings are via Zoom, and the entire staff is working from home?
    "Obviously diplomacy needs contact. it needs presence," said Secretary General António Guterres. We are doing our best through these virtual mechanisms."
      "Of course, I miss intimacy ... hugging my dear colleagues or smiling with them together," Hungary's UN Ambassador Katalin Bogyay told CNN.
        The pandemic has meant the UN-based diplomatic corps has had to function like uh, common civilians.
        The 15 countries on the United Nations Security Council -- the UN's loftiest decision-making body -- hold public meetings that look like a Hollywood Squares show on steroids.
          Gone are the face-to-face conversations that diplomats say can mean the difference in how a nation might vote or a resolution is written.
          Typically, the 193 UN Ambassadors and deputies attend hundreds of receptions at each other's homes or offices annually, a tradition that has been upended.
          The goal isn't to partake in fine food and drinks, said Belgium's UN Ambassador Marc Pecsteen de Buytswerve, but to meet a lot of people at the same time. "That is really useful as part of daily work," he said.
          Now everything is virtual. "Cocktail receptions on Zoom are boring and sad," another diplomat conceded.
          Ambassador Katalin Annamaria Bogyay FRSA, FWAAS, Permanent Representative of Hungary to the United Nations

          Listening while folding laundry

          The Security Council's lack of unity on important issues, from Syria to Myanmar, has not improved in the pandemic era.
          It took three months to even approve a resolution about the virus itself. And the recent vote on continuing the flow of humanitarian aid to Syria required five secret remote votes and concluded with many recriminations.
          The diplomats do seem to have a coping mechanism that sometimes defies norms. After all they have to sit through numbing marathon hours of speeches during an average year.
          French Ambassador Nicolas de Rivière said "as long as there is no vaccine we have to adjust to these realities."
          Diplomats shelter inside their homes. and must adjust like all of us.
          "You appreciate your own company," said Hungary's Bogyay. "I create every day as if it was a musical piece. I have etude, sonata or symphony days with some nocturnes depending on the topics we are covering."
          Another diplomat confided that she and senior diplomats have shared tales of addressing the Security Council, the world's most significant international forum, in shorts and flip flops but with more formal attire on top.
          This diplomat admitted "folding laundry" while listening to some conference calls. And, yes, diplomats, like many of us had to get up to speed on muting, unmuting and camera backgrounds.
          Clearly, the stiff trappings of formal international behavior have slipped in the sudden work from home age.
          UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric, after 4 months taking questions from home, began one daily press briefing with "reminder, I'm in a really lousy mood today."

          Covid-19 hits home at UN

          Russia initially opposed online meetings but eventually went along as the coronavirus cases mounted in New York. Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said early that the online experience was "more intense than normal life."
          Other diplomats lamented the inability to read the body language of a colleague during face-to-face negotiations. "It's not the same as having a VTC conference," said Belgium's Pecsteen de Buytswerve. "You lack flexibility and nuance."
          Hungary's Bogyay said it was a new type of diplomacy with everything now out in the open. "Lacking meta communication, you have to really have to concentrate on the screen and it is even more demanding physically and mentally than a normal day."