Saturday 02 Jul 2022 | 09:24 | SYDNEY
Saturday 02 Jul 2022 | 09:24 | SYDNEY

A new age of diplomacy?


Martine Letts

4 June 2012 15:06

As media reports foreshadow more cuts in our already hollowed-out Australian diplomatic service, I can highly recommend a thought-provoking speech recently delivered to the Australian Institute of International Affairs in Canberra by the Director-General of ONA and inaugural Executive Director of the Lowy Institute, Allan Gyngell.  

In 'What happened to diplomacy?', Allan calls the post-9/11 decade the 'national security decade', during which policymakers 'spoke about the world in ways which emphasised values rather than interests'. While diplomacy was practiced during this time, the role of diplomacy 'is greater in a world in which interests can be weighed than one in which values are judged'. 

This is all now going to change, according to Allan, as we enter a period in which diplomacy will matter more than it has since the beginning of the Cold War. The diplomacy we are returning to is 'the work nation-states do to advance their purposes in the world'.

However, the new diplomacy will look different to its 20th century predecessor, with a couple of modern (or is it 'post-modern'?) characteristics shaped by the information revolution and a much larger, more diverse number of players in the international system as a consequence of great changes to the global power balance. In the 21st century, Allan says, 'an additional dimension of public diplomacy is needed to address the publics that increasingly shape state behaviour'. 

Extrapolating what all this means for Australian diplomacy, Allan cites a series of successful examples of our diplomacy from both sides of politics: the Cambodia Peace Plan, the East Timor intervention, APEC and the G-20. He concludes that Australian diplomacy is most successful when it:

  • Is backed by careful and detailed support work, open to ideas drawn from outside government. In each of these examples, academics and think tanks had important contributions to make
  • Is driven by the active engagement of ministers
  • Uses our alliance relationships constructively
  • Makes effective use of our long record of participation in multilateral organisations
  • Builds external coalitions, especially with the region. The Indonesia relationship was important in each of these cases; South Korea was a key to success with the G20
  • ...draws on all the dimensions of state power: political, military and economic

An example which does not pass this test is former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's 'Asia Pacific community', which Allan describes as 'a victim of immediate expectations' and losing sight of the time it takes to effect change in the international system. In this context (and for self-serving reasons, as I was personally involved), Allan could also have mentioned Australia's successful effort to bring to a conclusion the negotiations of an international Chemical Weapons Convention in 1992, banning an entire category of weapons of mass destruction. This took more than 20 years of negotiation in the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament.  

Allan was careful not to get into the discussion about DFAT resourcing. But you can read the definitive Lowy reports on Australia's ever-shrinking diplomatic service here (Australia's Diplomatic DeficitDiplomatic Disrepair). And our ground-breaking work on e-diplomacy (the role of social media in public diplomacy and in prosecuting national interests) has, thanks to the use of social media, gone viral. 

Allan concludes that 'we were marginal to the diplomacy of the Cold War' but that 'we are far more central to the diplomacy of the emerging world — as the locus of power moves closer to Australia'. To succeed, we will need to be able to use all the old as well as the new tools at our disposal.  Allan's speech is a great introduction to the 'why' and 'how'.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.