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Australian diplomacy in 2012: the potential and the reality

Chess pieces
Chess pieces

Recent media reports foreshadow more cuts in our already hollowed-out Australian diplomatic service at a time when the need for creative, energetic and engaged diplomacy has become even more important.  We may have been marginal to the diplomacy of the Cold War, as noted recently in a speech given by former LIIP Executive Director and current Director-General of the ONA Allan Gyngell, but we are now ‘far more central to the diplomacy of the emerging world – as the locus of power moves closer to Australia’ .   The full spectrum of our national interests – economic and social, strategic and environmental – are increasingly affected by external events and by a more diverse set of players with the capacity to exert influence on our future wellbeing.  The number of influential countries within the global system is growing and the role of non-government players, including a more influential public, is also growing.  These developments call for more international engagement and public diplomacy. 

Perversely, Australian policy responses seem to be going in the opposite direction, as successive Australian governments progressively shrink the resources devoted to diplomatic engagement.  Despite some positive developments since 2009, Australia remains one of the lowest-performing OECD nations in terms of the extent of its diplomatic network abroad, and has the smallest overseas network of all G-20 nations. It's worth reading the definitive Lowy reports on Australia's ever-shrinking diplomatic service(Australia's Diplomatic DeficitDiplomatic Disrepair), as well as our contribution to the Parliamentary Inquiry on Australia's diplomatic service. 

To succeed in the 21st century, we will need to use effectively the old as well as the new tools of international engagement and suasion.   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 and has already generated some spirited responses  It shows that here too, Australia has considerable, if somewhat untapped, potential. 

You can find these reports and more on Australian diplomacy by going to our Diplomacy Issue page.