Saturday 18 Aug 2018 | 19:56 | SYDNEY
Saturday 18 Aug 2018 | 19:56 | SYDNEY

Is diplomacy necessary?


Sam Roggeveen


11 January 2011 14:41

The ambassadors, by Hans Holbein. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Strange column in today's Punch from freelance writer Brendan Brown, who writes off diplomacy as 'the most overrated profession since travel agents'. Here's a taste:

...the leaked account of Rudd’s meeting with Clinton had no impact on Australia’s relationship with China. If diplomacy mattered, China would have respond furiously to Australia’s chief foreign representative portraying it as an international threat that must be countered.

But it didn't. China and Australia have a codependent economic relationship, even if one is more dependent on the other. China is Australia’s largest export market and its capital funds our fledgling mining projects. And on China’s part, Australia is a secure source of raw materials. If both countries weren’t making money from the other then a diplomatic faux pas might have been worth responding to.

Well, the nations of Europe were making money off each other in 1914 too, but it didn't stop them engaging in wholesale slaughter for four years.

That's because governments and leaders tend to miscalculate and misunderstand their position relative to their neighbours. They do stupid and self-defeating things. They can also act impulsively or try to rescue their 'pride' or 'honour' (terms you won't find on a balance sheet). We maintain military forces to protect ourselves against these possibilities, but to reduce the chances of miscalculation and improve relations, it's also considered a good idea for governments to talk with their neighbours occasionally. Often it works; sometimes (as in WW1) it spectacularly fails.

Brown says 'Australia's influence is extremely limited because power determines outcomes in international relations and Australia, as an isolated country with a small population, has little of it.' That's the reductio ad absurdum of foreign policy realism: international relations based purely on military and economic power. There's no room for human agency in this model; no sense that international relations is conducted by people who can be convinced, cajoled, threatened, flattered or even bribed.

It's puzzling why this should be such a convincing idea when it is so divorced from how anyone lives their life. When we come into contact with someone richer or physically stronger than ourselves, do those factors alone determine the outcome of the interaction' Of course not. We all recognise that cooperation and, yes, diplomacy, is essential to how we function in our daily lives.

So what makes international politics any different' Yes, the international environment is anarchical, but that only makes the job of diplomacy that much more essential, since there's no cop around to sort out our disputes if we don't resolve them ourselves.

And BTW, Australia is the world's 13th (or 17th, depending on your measure) largest economy. If that makes us an 'international lightweight' for whom diplomacy is inessential, then who should conduct diplomacy' Is it just the top eight' Top four, maybe'