Australia lacks the diplomacy to make friends and influence

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Foreign policy is that part of statecraft that deals with the differences between states and helps create space in the international system so that our country always has options and choices. Foreign policy is our endeavor to shape the world in which we want to live.

That, in turn, requires a thorough understanding of the countries a nation is trying to influence. This is a particular challenge for Australia. As a western democracy with mainly Anglo-Celtic backgrounds and neighbors from different ethnic and historical backgrounds, we are in a different position than most other western countries. We have to try harder than they do.

We have to understand the interests of the regional countries and know who is holding the levers of power and how we can convince them alone or in partnership with others. The best source for such advice is first class overseas service.

The expansion of the Australian Defense Forces announced in the 2020 Defense Update was greater than that of the entire Australian diplomatic service.

Unfortunately, Australian foreign policy has few friends to rally around. Its voice in the national discourse is not reinforced by the interests of arms manufacturers and lobbyists. And the term is often used interchangeably with “diplomacy”, which sounds soft and not very assertive to Australian ears.

But foreign policy and diplomacy are different. Diplomacy is the method by which we achieve the strategic goals of foreign policy by convincing (or, if necessary, pressuring) others to work towards a common goal. It’s certainly not just nice to people. And although foreign policy has particular diplomatic forms and language, the practice itself is known in every human interaction from the classroom to the boardroom.

One consequence of the marginalization of Australian foreign policy, as the Lowy Institute has consistently found, is that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Commerce (DFAT) budget is shrinking. It will be smaller in 2022 than 15 years earlier. Australia ranks thirteenth in the world in terms of defense spending, but has only the twenty-seventh diplomatic network. The expansion of the Australian Defense Forces announced in the 2020 Defense Update was greater than that of the entire Australian diplomatic service.

Former politicians may bring important attributes to diplomatic positions, but the current record number of such appointments can only be interpreted as a signal that the government does not believe in the skills of its DFAT staff or does not believe that special skills or training are required for the Foreign policy job is necessary or sees ambassador appointments as a gratuitous benefit that can be shared with friends.

For much of the time since World War II, Australian politicians and diplomats have worked skillfully to combine the instruments of statecraft in a way that served us well. Australia helped build the global trading system, created institutions such as APEC and the East Asia Summit, codified the law of the sea and established international rules to protect Antarctica.

It helped secure the independence and stability of East Timor in the Solomon Islands and Bougainville. Most importantly, she worked with the region rather than relying on older, lighter friendships (of which the expansion of the Five Eyes intelligence group’s mandate is a recent example in practice).

This month marks the 30th anniversary of one of the great achievements of Australian foreign policy, the Paris Peace Agreement, which ended the civil war in Cambodia. It closed the last chapter of the Indochina Wars, which had caused such deep rifts in the region since the 1950s.

With the expertise of a wide variety of DFAT officials, working closely with regional partners such as Indonesia and Thailand, and ADF leaders such as General John Sanderson, Gareth Evans was able to help solve a persistent problem.

The relative lack of tension between great powers in the 1990s made constructive international work easier. Nonetheless, the Australian leadership and the Cambodia settlement showed – with the knowledge of DFAT, supplemented by the expertise of the Australian army on the ground – what a strong foreign policy can do.

This is not meant to look back nostalgically into a golden age. The solutions to today’s problems are not those of the past. The world is constantly changing.

But if foreign policy and diplomacy are gone, if Australia believes that military might alone is the answer to our needs, if we retreat to the comfort of our oldest friendships, if foreign policy is not at the center of our goals and skillful diplomacy is not in their service, then Scott Morrison’s vision of a post-COVID world that is “poorer … more dangerous and … more disordered” will be all that is offered.


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