Australia's 'diplomatic deficit' harms our global presence

Australia's 'diplomatic deficit' harms our global presence

Originally posted in The Canberra Times


There's an overused cliché that Australia "punches above its weight" on the world stage. At least by one measure, that's far from the reality.

Australia - the world's 14th largest economy - placed just 26th on the Lowy Institute's 2024 Global Diplomacy Index, a ranking of the most significant diplomatic networks in the world, released recently. China tops the Index by the narrowest of margins with a heavier diplomatic presence than the United States in geopolitically contested Asia, Africa and the Pacific.

But Australia lags much of the developed world, despite opening several posts over the past decade.

Among G20 grouping of major economies, Australia places second to last. Only South Africa, which closed nine posts in the past two years citing fiscal pressures, has a smaller global diplomatic presence. Turkey, Argentina, Hungary and Greece are among the countries that have smaller economies but larger diplomatic footprints than Australia.

Australia's overseas underrepresentation is not new. The Lowy Institute first uncovered this "diplomatic deficit" in a landmark report in 2009, which also laid bare the underfunding and understaffing of Australia's diplomatic service.

Then, the authors grasped Australia was a highly globalised trading nation, with our prosperity and security intimately tied to the world around us. They argued while robust defence capabilities were necessary, "for Australian taxpayers, diplomacy is by far the most cost-effective way to shape the behaviour of other international actors in ways which support our international policy goals".

The challenges confronting Australia have only grown more wicked in the past 15 years. Consider the complexity and sensitivity of the balancing act we ask of our diplomats in China, who handle our trade, consular, human rights and security interests.

Think of the hard-headed skills, networks and cultural literacy our overseas representatives must deploy to build Australia's influence in a contested South-East Asia. Or of the critical role our Washington embassy will play, should Donald Trump return to the White House, to ensure our key security ally continues to attend to our interests.

Yet, despite the professionalism and effectiveness of Australian diplomats, we continue to do diplomacy on the cheap. The Albanese government increased the number of its diplomats posted overseas by 40 people between 2022 and 2023 which, while certainly welcome, amounts to a modest 1.6 per cent increase in the 2469 DFAT personnel serving overseas.

When analysing the bricks and mortar of Australian diplomacy, it's clear Canberra has opted for depth rather than breadth. Its overseas network is most concentrated in Asia (38 posts), with a particular focus on South-East Asia (17), followed by Europe (30). After scaling up in its immediate region over the last decade, Australia also has the largest diplomatic presence of any power in the Pacific Islands, with at least one post in every Pacific Islands Forum member country.

By contrast, we have fewer posts across all of Africa, South America and the Caribbean (16), than we do in the 10 ASEAN countries, and none at all in Central Asia.

To be sure, Australia must prioritise where it invests its finite diplomatic resources. The country's economic and strategic interests gravitate to our own region. There's also a strong case for working through multilateral institutions in Europe and America to uphold the global rules we rely on.

This logic falls short, however, when global events or crises outside our immediate region demand Australia's attention. Two examples stand out.

The Israel-Gaza war was a wake-up call on the enduring risks and interests for Australia in more distant theatres. The conflict, humanitarian crisis and regional turmoil has shaken world politics, impacted our trade routes and even domestic cohesion - demanding swift political, diplomatic and consular responses from our Middle East posts. This capability needs to be built systematically, not just retrofitted in times of crisis.

Similarly, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia's global diplomatic network was pushed to the brink. Our foreign service performed admirably, managing to repatriate thousands of stranded Australians in some of the most challenging circumstances. But our reliance on the diplomatic services of other countries and the immense consular workload of that crisis on our own service drove home the value of a network that doesn't just focus on our immediate region.

There are other reasons why we must widen the aperture of our diplomacy and can't settle for a version of Indo-Pacific parochialism - not least for our ability to find alternative markets and diversify economically from China.

Global politics is also changing with the rise of the disparate but increasingly salient Global South. We no longer have the luxury of prosecuting our foreign policy simply through the prism of bipolar power politics.

To remain relevant, Australia must invest in broadening its partnerships, presence and acumen beyond our comfort zones, including in the emerging centres in Africa and Latin America - not just Asia.

Canberra is bidding for a coveted seat on the UN Security Council in 2029-30. It is in Australia's interests to have a seat at the top table and to make it as effective as it can be; the council has immense impact on the global rules we rely on. But to be elected and serve our term credibly, we will need stronger relationships and experience in the developing world.

Diplomatic posts aren't the only way to achieve these ends. But as platforms for building relationships and understanding countries, an on-the-ground presence makes it much easier to predict and influence key actors.

Other nations recognise this and are adapting their diplomacy to a world that is if not Sino-centric, certainly increasingly post-American. Turkey and India have the world's fastest growing diplomatic networks. Each is firmly ensconced in their immediate regions, while also investing in their broader reach.

Australia, too, must ensure our strategic focus on our region is complemented by the peripheral vision we need to shape a more fragmented and contested world.

Punching our weight means investing in the breadth, as well as depth, of our diplomacy.


Areas of expertise: Australian foreign policy and public opinion, climate change and sustainability, multilateral diplomacy, China and Hong Kong.
Areas of expertise: Strategy and geopolitics; global governance; Australian foreign policy; Southeast Asia; Data analysis