COVID-19, diplomacy and disruptive leaders: What can they teach us?

COVID-19, diplomacy and disruptive leaders: What can they teach us?
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The coronavirus pandemic has threatened not only lives and livelihoods in countries around the world, but also has had a disruptive effect upon many industries, especially traditional “brick and mortar” industries such as education, law, medicine, business, hotel/hospitality and retail. So, there should be no surprise that traditional, embassy-based diplomacy has been equally disrupted.  

Because some of the major disruptions have been furthered by adversarial leaders such as Xi Jinping, Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnNorth Korea bans leather coats after Kim starts new fashion trend Belarus and Russia must resolve the migrant crisis on their own North Korea's Kim makes first public appearance in month MORE, Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinUkraine rejects claims that it violated Belarus air space Ernst on Russian buildup on Ukraine border: 'We must prepare for the worst' Biden cannot allow his domestic fumbles to transfer to the world stage MORE — and, according to some, even President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package Trump calls Milley a 'f---ing idiot' over Afghanistan withdrawal First rally for far-right French candidate Zemmour prompts protests, violence MORE — questions about the long-term, downstream effects of such leadership and diplomacy have tended to focus more upon these leaders and their strategic views and personalities, and less upon structural changes in diplomacy which have, de facto, already occurred.  

Of course, a key and notable difference is that President Trump is democratically elected, in a country with rich democratic traditions and institutions, whereas Xi, Kim and Putin wield dictatorial, or near-dictatorial, powers and lead countries where free, fair and democratic elections are a fiction. But this still begs the question: Are there lessons to be learned from such disruptive diplomacy, and what does this mean for the future of the discipline and the training, skills and talents required of a new generation of diplomats?


Xi, Kim, Putin and Trump all have developed a personalized, transactional style of diplomacy.  This has proven to be disruptive, because Kim, Xi and Putin at times have marginalized the roles of their foreign ministries and traditional national security apparatuses. They have accomplished this by dint of sheer power, personality and, in Trump’s case, a seemingly 24-7 Twitter presence. While Kim, Putin and Xi do not use social media, their leading foreign policy spokespersons and media personnel, controlled in their cases entirely by the state, certainly do. And they do so aggressively — especially China’s new generation of “wolf warrior” diplomats — and confidently.  

There also are generational changes at play here. The rise and stature of young, talented, telegenic and highly-visible spokespersons such as Russia’s Maria Zakharova, China’s Zhao Lijian and North Korea’s Kim Yo Jong speaks volumes.

With the rise of virtual meeting capabilities, COVID-19 has challenged traditional precepts of face-to-face diplomacy. Earlier this year, Xi held a virtual meeting with 175,000 Chinese Communist Party cadres. The G-20 ministerial events were held virtually. These successes have led some to question — especially during the ongoing pandemic, which has significantly limited international travel — the role of traditional embassies as “brick and mortar” platforms for diplomacy, intelligence, trade and foreign aid. 

In a time of economic woes and increased budget constraints, such platforms can be very large and very costly. As more diplomacy happens virtually and becomes the “new normal,” traditional embassy platforms may become smaller, regional and, in some cases, a thing of the past. Even in the Americas, some critics have suggested that much of American diplomats’ work product, such as diplomatic reporting, can be acquired from the media and other open sources.  

Interestingly, certain countries such as North Korea always have operated with severe budget constraints, with each North Korean embassy required to fund its operations, salaries, employee benefits and rents, and current economic and public health pressures — as well as the 2019 attack upon its Madrid embassy and several recent high-level defections — additionally forcing the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to radically evaluate its current diplomatic footprint.

COVID-19 has proven even more of a disruptor to diplomacy than have Xi, Putin and Kim. But these already disruptive, adversarial leaders may feel more emboldened by the pandemic, to further their respective countries’ strategic and national interests by encompassing a virtual style of diplomacy.

The developing cold war between China and America, as well as ongoing conflicts between Russia and America, will be fought in the domains of information, influence and economic gain, as these powers contend for leadership in a multipolar world. But this cold war will be fought not only politically and economically; it will additionally involve deception, disinformation, nontraditional (e.g., track II diplomacy), cyber, intelligence and hybrid/gray zone tactics — areas in which our adversaries such as China, Russia, North Korea and Iran excel.  

Indeed, President Trump and his supporters might even make the point that his disruptive, unconventional and nontraditional style of diplomacy is critical to his successes in countering the disruptive, aggressive diplomacy of our adversaries.

It would be convenient — especially during a U.S. presidential election where Trump’s transactional, personal style of diplomacy has come under question by some observers — to dismiss legitimate questions about the future of traditional, embassy-based diplomacy and intelligence gathering. But with COVID-19 and the anticipation of future pandemics, even a Joe BidenJoe BidenChina eyes military base on Africa's Atlantic coast: report Biden orders flags be flown at half-staff through Dec. 9 to honor Dole Biden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package MORE presidency would have to address such challenges. Disruptive leaders have challenged conventional wisdom and decades of traditional approaches to post-war challenges.  

Yet there may be some valuable lessons, as the world evolves in response to COVID-19, and virtual diplomacy increasingly becomes the new coin of the realm. To pretend otherwise, and to assume that diplomacy is somehow immune from the industry-wide effects of the virus, is to rest upon a mountain of false assumptions. Few industries or disciplines welcome disruptors, or their effects. But over time, Silicon Valley has adapted and thrived on disruption. Modern business schools now teach it in their curricula and publish articles about it, even inviting such leaders from industry and government to teach and give lectures.  

They might do likewise in analytically examining the leadership styles of authoritarian leaders.  But academia, war colleges and diplomatic training academies also would be remiss in not doing likewise, because a new generation of diplomatic challenges and disruptors awaits our next generation of diplomatic practitioners. Pandemics eventually run their course and end. But disruptive diplomacy is likely here to stay.

Kenneth B. Dekleva, M.D., served as a regional medical officer/psychiatrist with the State Department from 2002 to 2016, and currently is associate professor of psychiatry and director of Psychiatry-Medicine Integration at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent the official views of the U.S. government, Department of State or UT Southwestern Medical Center. Follow him on Twitter @KennethDekleva.