Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 10:04 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 10:04 | SYDNEY

Why DFAT matters


Sam Roggeveen


17 September 2008 14:14

To my eternal frustration, the Australian Financial Review maintains a firewall that deters bloggers like me from commenting regularly on their frequently excellent opinion writing. Perhaps the Fin is making money from this arrangement, though that would make it a rare exception in the newspaper world.

Anyway, on Monday Geoffrey Barker wrote a tough piece on the decline of Australia's foreign service (DFAT). It's here, and you can read it if you're a subscriber or willing to sign up for a free trial. It's a little dodgy for me to boost the piece, since it contains some implicit praise for Lowy Institute staff (Barker says a lot of talented people have left DFAT to join intelligence agencies, private industry and think tanks). But I do think Barker is on the right track, and I would only reinforce one argument he makes near the top of the article. Barker says:

Changing global circumstances confronting Australia with the rise of China and India, and the relative decline of the United States, place a premium on creative diplomacy as well as solid strategic intelligence and credible military power.  But while the Howard and Rudd governments have focused on intelligence and military issues, they have made fewer efforts to improve the Australian foreign service.

Australia finds itself in a unique historical moment. Thoughout the twentieth century, our major economic partner has also been our major strategic partner (first the UK, then the US). That is changing, and in China, we now have a major economic partner with a number of interests that are directly opposed to those of our major strategic partner. The priority for Australia will be to avoid having to choose between these two gaints; to keep them both happy in their different ways, and to defer disagreements.

Needless to say, that task will require a great deal of diplomatic deftness and finesse. If Barker is right that diplomats come third in importance behind the military and the intelligence agencies in our foreign policy and national security pecking order, then now is the time to change that hierarchy.

(My thanks to reader Jane for pointing me to the article.)