Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 08:06 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 08:06 | SYDNEY

Foreign policy: From practice to theory


Graeme Dobell

10 January 2011 13:43

Modern democratic politicians often produce memoirs about their time on the international stage. Few perform the harder task of offering a practitioner's guide for how to do foreign policy.

The former leader or foreign minister gambols happily through his or her anecdotage. Some broader points are observed in passing. But the practical lesson or the enduring truths don't pop on to the page as often as you might expect from personalities who tend to the decisive and the didactic. Whatever elected politicians can tell us about the nature of power tends to arrive through the specific issue and the personal experience. The memoirs that flow from the former diplomats also tend the same way.

For some reason, ex-generals often do try to reach for bigger thoughts. Perhaps it is the hard test of war. Or maybe it is all those staff courses and being forced to read Clausewitz and Thucydides.

I've been pondering the paucity of practitioner guidance on foreign policy following my reading of Douglas Hurd's survey of 200 years through the eyes of British Foreign Secretaries, discussed here. While cautioning about the limits of historical analogies, Hurd does a good job of drawing out some recurring elements of history.

The lessons he draws are about the virtues of modesty and restraint in strutting, dancing or stumbling across the international stage. The extended quote I gave at the end of my earlier piece on Hurd I dubbed his creed for Foreign Ministers, and it's worth another run:

We should do good where we can, but not pretend that we can do good everywhere. Rhetoric, however sincere, which disregards the facts is a corrupter of policy. Method remains important, and the rules of method have hardly altered. To listen as carefully as you speak; to speak from a background of knowledge; to study the character, the background and motives of those with whom you deal; to form your own judgement of your interlocutor rather than accept automatically the judgement of others; to practise courtesy and patience unless you decide that harsh words and impatience will help you to your objective; to store clearly in your mind your understanding, agreed when necessary with your colleagues, what that objective is; to calculate how much of what in that objective you can abandon in discussion in order to achieve what is essential; to explain clearly and truthfully before and after your discussion what you have done and why – these are the rules of diplomacy.

The cautions emphasised by the former British Foreign Secretary hint at why practitioners seldom attempt a general theory of how-to-do international affairs. The experience of actually trying to do the stuff teaches the uniqueness of each issue. And the slippery nature of getting even a temporary fix, much less a solution.

Academics thinkers are drawn to create a theory of everything. Labouring in the parliament or the politburo doesn't encourage such bravery; if for no other reason that the Loyal Opposition delights in finding the holes and obfuscations lurking in the broad brush of the big picture. Rather than offer the all-encompassing how-to-do theory, the ex-pollies give some practical tips, hard examples and reflections on the disasters.