Back in November, the Caribbean nation of Barbados announced that they would be opening its first embassy in the metaverse, Decentraland. The island nation’s decision to build a digital diplomatic compound comes at a time there’s still a lot of skepticism about the whole concept of a digital world.
Sure, Dior and Gucci are already making a killing in various digital worlds by selling luxury pieces for avatars but is it time for governments to really embrace a whole new way of diplomacy? One that is not limited by time difference and physical distance?
Barbados, with a population a little shy of 300 thousand people, sees its move as a way to expand their diplomatic presence without the costs. Currently, they have 18 diplomatic posts abroad and with over 190 countries in the world, getting a little creative with the help of technology seems a good way to go.
In an interview with Bloomberg, Barbados’ ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Gabriel Abed, said it was truly about diplomatic parity. “We simply cannot support 197 diplomatic missions around the world,” he said. “We recognize that we’re a 166-square-mile island—we’re tiny—but in the metaverse we’re as large as America or Germany.”
The cost of building the virtual embassy is estimated between $5,000 and $50,000. Some funding will be provided by Decentraland as a grant but Abed says that cost of building online is definitely much cheaper than building an embassy in the real world. It’s also safe to assume that operational costs would also be much less since there won’t be a need to uproot diplomats and their families to live in a new country for their posting.
Aside from the UAE, Abed is also spearheading Barbados’ diplomatic efforts in the metaverse. He admitted to technology news site Coin Desk that they “intend to expand aggressively beyond this initial effort to build structures and purchase digital land in a variety of virtual worlds.”
But what does this mean for diplomacy as we know today?
‘We recognize that we’re a 166-square-mile island—we’re tiny—but in the Metaverse we’re as large as America or Germany.’
For quite some time now, consular services provided by embassies have been accessible online. Making an appointment to get a visa is normally done online now and while personal appearances are still required to prove one’s identity, are we that far from letting go of that too? I applied for a digital bank account while living in Europe without having to put on makeup and leaving the comforts of our living room. All I had to do was get on a video call with a representative of the bank, hold up my passport and show her its security features to prove that it’s not fake. If this is being done now, how far are we from never needing to set foot in an embassy ever again?
But embassies are so much more than providers of visas and passports. Embassies exist to facilitate the relationship between countries. Diplomats represent countries to enhance political, cultural, and economic links. If I learned anything from covering diplomats it’s this: Much of diplomacy is done at the sidelines of official meetings. The pandemic has given a lot of diplomats a taste of what it’s
like to fully rely on technology. While some meetings can definitely be emails, a lot of them—it seems—just can’t.
Most diplomats I’ve met during the pandemic found technology to be a great tool to keep going. But it’s still a stop-gap solution at best. Much of the relationship between two countries can either be made better or worse based on the rapport of the people on the ground. Building up a national image may be done through social media but the people-to-people aspect remains to be a tool that cannot be completely overlooked.
Ambassador Steven J. Robinson who represents Australia in the Philippines sees the importance of technology and how it paved the way for flexibility during this pandemic. There are certain things, however, that we can easily dismiss. When asked about working in a more digital environment, the ambassador says, “The downside of all of that is that we’re human, right? We like interaction. Filipinos, in particular, like interaction with other Filipinos but Australians are similar. If I was talking to you, virtually, I wouldn’t be able to read your body language or your eyes as readily as I can. Because that’s what we do, right? You read all the signals that I make, and you know whether I’m telling you something that isn’t right.”
The pandemic did accelerate the commercialization of the metaverse. Zoom and WebEx were merely a way to dip everyone’s feet in the water. While they do provide breakout rooms and the option to chat up someone privately in the meeting, it does seem weird compared to coming up to someone during a coffee break in real life. Reading people and building rapport can really be difficult when done via avatars. There is hope that diplomats won’t be obsolete for quite some time.
But for how long? We’ll just have to wait and see.