Diplomacy: Is it a Sign of Weakness?


David Purnell, Canberra and Region Quakers

This article is based on a talk given at the QPLC webinar on 30 April, 2022

There was a news headline in The Canberra Times on 27 March 2022 saying:

“Diplomacy – a message of weakness”. This referred to the Prime Minister’s refusal to meet the new Chinese Ambassador because of ongoing tension in the Australia-China relationship.  This shows a very limited view, but what is diplomacy and how relevant is it today? The Macquarie Dictionary says that diplomacy is “the conduct by government officials of negotiations and other relations between states” and “skill in managing any negotiations”. Note in particular the use of the word “skill”, and keep it in mind.

There have been some outstanding examples of diplomatic work. One is Giandomenico Picci, an Italian diplomat who worked as a UN Under Secretary-General for Political Affairs in the 1980s and 1990s. He travelled the world determined to address all sides in conflicts, and was successful in liberating many hostages, western and otherwise, including those well known to us (e.g. Terry Waite, Terry Anderson). He was also instrumental in the Soviet departure from Afghanistan and the settling of the Iran-Iraq war. He was called by the UN Secretary General (Perez de Cueller) “an unarmed soldier for diplomacy”.

Many years earlier, at the end of WW2, a Swedish diplomat called Raoul Nordling is credited with having saved Paris from burning, after arguing successfully with the German military governor of occupied France to ignore Hitler’s instructions to destroy the city as the Nazis withdrew in the face of the Allied advance. There is a film about this called Diplomacy (2014).

Quakers have had as longstanding commitment to diplomacy. The Quaker United Nations Office, with branches in New York and Geneva, describes its role as (a) working with people in the UN, multilateral organisations, government delegations and NGOs, to achieve changes in international standards and practice, (b) putting into practice the Quaker testimonies of peace, truth, justice, equality and simplicity in relation to social political and economic relationships, (c) providing a place where diplomats, staff and NGOs can work on difficult issues in a quiet, off-the-record atmosphere away from the public eye, (d) hosting seminars, workshops and meetings, and (e) publishing reports by experts on areas of interest and UN-related concerns. Areas where Quakers have helped influence the international agenda include – child soldiers, conscientious objection, sustainable development, disarmament, peacebuilding, reconciliation and dialogue.

Article 99 of the United Nations Charter gives the Secretary-General power to anticipate possible crises, gather relevant information, and initiate preventive diplomacy, such as talks with states involved on how to head off armed conflict. The UN now has a number of regional conflict prevention centres around the world, and commissions special rapporteurs and advisers to help prevent war. Regrettably, the UN’s diplomatic role is compromised by the Security Council rules that allow a veto for each of the five permanent members – US, UK, China, Russia and France. Although on some occasions those five have adopted an abstention rather than a veto, the structure needs reforming.

Looking at Australian diplomacy, it has been very active in the past but seems to have lost its shine in recent years. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has many committed and skilled staff, and has undertaken valuable work in supporting the United Nations conventions and principles and peacekeeping in such areas as Cambodia, Bougainville, the Solomons and East Timor. It has also helped develop the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the Law of the Sea. But in recent years, as GDP has tripled and defence spending likewise, aid has been cut by a third, and DFAT’s budget in 2022 is smaller than 15 years ago.

However Bruce Haigh, a former diplomat and now a political commentator, wrote an article in Pearls and Irritations blog (12 January 2022) giving his assessment of Australian diplomacy over the years. He sees 1972 until 1996 as the time when Australia displayed “diplomatic creativity and originality”. In summary, it was a time when Australia moved away from dependence on Britain, opposed apartheid, built bridges with its Asian neighbours, and worked hard on the law of the sea, disarmament, and human rights. DFAT strengthened its range of overseas posts, language training and management skills, and enhanced its analysis and information capabilities. However since 1996 the leadership from government has emphasised traditional western values, prioritised the US Alliance, adopted cruel refugee policies, and redefined foreign policy in terms of trade, war and defence. As a result, DFAT has struggled to adapt. He says: “Under the Morrison government foreign policy has become increasingly militarised”. Hence AUKUS and more defence spending.

Frances Adamson, who retired as Secretary of DFAT in 2021, spoke in an interview with Michael Fullilove of the Lowy Institute (March 2021) about her life in diplomacy. She served for over 35 years and held posts in London, Hong Kong, Taipei, and Beijing, as well as working for Foreign Minister Stephen Smith (Labor) and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (Lib) in Parliament House. She spoke of serving as a diplomat in a time when Australia had a diplomatic service actively engaged in multilateral diplomacy and making an impact.  By contrast, the new Secretary of DFAT, Kathryn Campbell, has a different background. She was Secretary of several other departments immediately before moving to DFAT – notably Human Services and Social Services. Earlier she worked in the Departments of Finance, Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. She was also an Army Reserve Officer from 1989 until July 2021. Her academic background is in accountancy, applied mathematics, business administration and information science. The transition to heading Australia’s diplomacy agency will indeed be something of a challenge.

Where do the political parties stand? Penny Wong, the shadow foreign minister, in an interview with Katharine Murphy (The Guardian podcast, 11 March 2022) affirmed that foreign policy must not be determined by domestic political interests, and must have a stronger role in strategic planning, and more resources accordingly. DFAT needs to have experienced and skilled people to shape our engagement with the world. There are too many overseas diplomatic posts occupied by political appointees. The Greens have a series of detailed policies around international relations. They say that Australia must (a) use diplomacy to promote peace, democracy, ecological sustainability, equity and justice (b) contribute through aid to a just and equitable world, (c) seek nonviolent means to resolve conflict, insist on UN mandates for any military action, (d) accept refugees and reunite families, and (e) respect universal human rights for all. The Liberal Party has an overall focus on keeping Australians safe and protecting our way of life, freedom and values through (a) a stronger defence force and border protection, (b) counter-terrorism and boosting security agencies, (c) joining the AUKUS partnership, (d) tackling foreign interference, (e) tackling illegal drugs, and (f) fighting crime. There is no separate foreign policy statement.

John Langmore, former ACT federal MP and now at Melbourne University, wrote a book called Security through Sustainable Peace (2020) in which he advocated the revival of Australia’s potential for diplomacy to achieve political rather than military solutions to crises. He identified several steps that would support this – (a) creating a Ministry of Peace, allowing the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade to do more analytical work, and moving the Civil-Military Centre (which coordinates civil and military/police aid) to DFAT. Hugh Piper, a former diplomat, has also made a creative suggestion to strengthen Australian diplomacy – (a) Coordinate a national security strategy, (b) make DFAT a central agency (like Treasury and Finance), (c) commit to more flexible staffing of DFAT, and (d) ‘blow up the cable system’ and invent new ways to share information between head office and posts.  (The Interpreter, journal of Lowy Institute, 13 April 2022).

Diplomacy has much to commend it as a nonviolent way of dealing with crises. DFAT has a Diplomatic Academy which trains staff in “international engagement craft” including advocacy, negotiation, forecasting and strategic planning. We need to use these people in ways that contribute to building peace rather than exacerbating the tendency to think of military approaches first. For example, why has the government moved to such an aggressive stance towards China instead of seeking common ground and cooperative action? And why has the government given so little weight to encouraging negotiation and mediation in the Ukraine crisis?

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