Tuesday 14 Aug 2018 | 19:04 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 14 Aug 2018 | 19:04 | SYDNEY

Strategic friend or strategic enemy?


Graeme Dobell

12 November 2008 12:57

As the Godfather advised, keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Perhaps this advice should be used to frame the proliferation of  'strategic partnerships' and 'strategic relationships'.

In my post on the expected summit between India and Australia, I quoted India’s High Commissioner to Canberra on New Delhi’s wish to create a strategic relationship with Australia. One interesting aspect of this aim is that India considers that it already has strategic relations with Britain, France, Germany, the EU, China, Japan, Russia and the US.

This looks like a club with the broadest of memberships. In the list you can find India’s old close friend/ally, Russia, along with its new close friend/potential ally, the US. But China must have an ambivalent Godfather-style status as friend/competitor/potential enemy.

India is following diplomatic fashion in its wish to create strategic relationships or strategic partnerships. China was an early leader in forming strategic partnerships. The prospect of an Australia-China strategic partnership had a rather dazzling effect on Alexander Downer during one visit to Beijing. He emerged from a series of meetings with the Chinese leadership where the strategic partnership idea had been raised and got himself in a tangle at a press conference. No, the Foreign Minister advised the Australian media, the ANZUS alliance did not necessarily apply to Taiwan.

The problem arises because strategy and the strategic realm come from the military world. The three levels of battle descend from the strategic (encompassing the whole conflict) to the theatre and then to the tactical (the level of the individual soldier). Much more impressive to have a strategic than a tactical relationship.

The strategic realm was long ago adopted by business. The diffusion of meaning and use provide a wonderful ambiguity for the diplomats. The term is useful because it seems to be a nod in the direction of alliance. Yet the beauty of a 'strategic relationship' is that you can have one with your potential enemies as easily as with your potential allies.

It is as important to understand your friends as it is to know your enemies. With both, you have a strategic relationship. It might even be a partnership, in the sense that two swordsmen conducting a duel are partnering each other in a deadly dance. The ambiguity of having partnerships with both friends and potential enemies is most useful. Beyond the motto that 'words are bullets' is a more subtle diplomatic insight: 'If you re-name it you can re-frame it.'

Photo by Flickr user mueredecine, used under a Creative Commons license.