One diplomat couldn’t find his shoes. Another had forgotten how to tie a tie. But there was no question about the direction of travel: the masks have come off in Washington’s diplomatic whirl.
The reprise of garden parties, lunches, dinners and ever more sizeable in-person events for Washington insiders marks the revival of traditional diplomacy in the superpower capital. I’ve now attended three meetings with diplomats in the space of a week — almost as many as I racked up in more than a year spent social distancing.
That comes thanks to an increase in vaccinations and loosening Covid-19 guidelines. Nearly 40 per cent of Washington’s residents have received at least one dose, and the capital will return to normal life from May 21, when restaurants reopen at full capacity.
Jon Alterman, a foreign policy expert setting off for his first lunch with a foreign minister in more than a year, says the return of regular face-to-face meetings is essential to the work of the capital, not least because it is still adjusting to the new administration of Joe Biden.
“Diplomacy is a game of inches,” he says, adding that players often want to snatch only three minutes on the sidelines of larger events to trade morsels of information. “People just don’t want to have essentially private conversations over Zoom.”
That speaks to the approach of George Shultz, secretary of state during the Reagan administration and late stalwart of Washington, who likened diplomacy to gardening, arguing that only regular tending saw relationships flourish.
“If you plant a garden and go away for six months, what have you got when you come back? Weeds,” he once said.
Alterman says Washington is more than ready to clear out those weeds, especially because much of the city is “still trying to figure out the Biden administration”. That offers opportunities to canny operators: “I think there’s going to be a euphoria of people connecting and embassies that seize on that can get an outsize benefit,” says Alterman.
One western diplomat mused that prolonged lockdown even gave the Biden administration a pretext to work beyond prying eyes. “They’re really hard to pin down,” they complained.
As the practice of diplomacy has atrophied, some of its most skilled practitioners fear that its return could be clunky — even for those whose job it is to master social niceties.
“People are going to be rusty,” says one European diplomat who forgot to give out a single business card at an event and admits to having drunk one glass too many. Conversations now start and end with unusually intimate health discussions, and some fear a lack of clarity around new rules of social interaction. Alterman panicked when offered an unexpected handshake between fist bumps and elbow touches: “I missed two fingers,” he says.
Although DC’s diplomatic rank and file yearn to see the capital’s must-meet people, ambassadors have been able to hold elite gatherings at grand residences that include outdoor space.
Paula Dobriansky, former under secretary of state for global affairs, says the resumption of vigorous diplomatic life will “give hope that a broad range of foreign policy issues can be well managed”. She singled out UK ambassador Dame Karen Pierce for “her terrific diplomatic activism” during the pandemic, adding she had attended outdoor events at the British residence in line with CDC and DC health protocols during lockdown. “Despite Covid, she has been on top of her diplomatic game,” she says.
Stuart Holliday, chief executive of Meridian International Center, a Washington-based diplomacy venue, says embassies stand to benefit most from DC’s reopening, arguing they will be “more important” to diplomacy before the return of regular long-distance travel to foreign capitals.
Not everybody is expecting life to return entirely to normal. Eric Rubin, president of the American Foreign Service Association, has spent part of the pandemic teleworking from Colorado. Last month he held meetings at the state department without a suit and tie for the first time in his life. “I can tell you right now, I will not be wearing a suit and tie again going forwards,” he says.