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Debates

Do embassies still matter?

17 Mar 2016 08:21

In conjunction with this week's launch of the Lowy Institute's Global Diplomacy Index, we present a series of pieces on the role and continued relevance of embassies.

Embassies — and their derivatives, high commissions and consulates — are significant instruments of government, and as for all such instruments the ways they are used have changed over time and continue to change.

In some areas their roles have changed, even diminished: the historically important role as the vehicle of communication between governments, for instance, has been overtaken by the many appurtenances of the communications revolution. But in other ways embassies remain as important as ever, including in the role traditionally and coyly described as 'reporting'. Today's intelligence is derived from more sources than ever, but there is still no source as consistently valued as eyes and ears of those on the ground.

Nor has the advocacy role changed. Indeed, as governments and other decision makers become exposed to a widening range of advice and opinion, face-to-face advocacy may have become more important. And of course with ever more people travelling (and governments hyper-sensitive to what they see as their responsibilities not only for ordinary citizens in trouble but for even the most adventuresome of their nationals), demand for consular services has boomed.

Embassies also remain invaluable in advising on and organising visits overseas visits by heads of government and state, parliamentarians and officials, and often business delegations. While embassy staff complain about their growing 'Thomas Cook' role, the smart ones know the importance of their role in the planning, choreography and tactics of a successful visit. Who should the PM see — not just counterparts, but emerging leaders? How should the objectives be expressed to ensure the best impact? Local knowledge matters in all this.

But there is another role for embassies which is often under-appreciated, even within governments: contributing to policy advice. This happens in a number of ways. [fold]

First, it is commonly the case that the embassy, and the ambassador in particular, has the government's most complete picture of a state's interests, political and otherwise, in the country of accreditation. 'Geographic branches' and their 'desk officers' in foreign ministries and 'central agencies' can be expected to have a pretty good grasp of the whole, but it will never be complete — not only for reasons of resources but because not everything gets to their attention. This has ever been the case, but is increasingly so in a world in which interactions between people extend so much beyond governments, and in which, with more government agencies represented in embassies, the foreign ministry itself is unlikely to have the full picture of what they are all doing.

Good ambassadors, in short, will have a much more comprehensive picture of the whole and of how the parts fit together — and will thus be best placed to advise their government of the implications for one part of the national interest of an action being contemplated in another part, or indeed of the consequences for the whole of action on any of the parts. Presumably, for instance, our embassy in Jakarta was telling the government of the day that to cut off our cattle exports to Indonesia would have ramifications much beyond the cattle trade itself. It's then of course for the government to accept this advice or not.

Second, policy development in home-based ministries, even in the best 'whole-of-government' and open processes, is likely to be shaped by orthodoxy, even 'group-think', and expressed in lowest common denominator terms. But the embassy has a contestability role — to think 'outside the box' and offer different and even lateral lines of thought. This may be a relatively small matter like recasting standard talking points to ensure they will work better in a particular country or circumstance. Foreign ministries often send out 'round-robin' type enquiries or messages to a range of governments: a good ambassador will look at them carefully and ask 'is that the best way to get the response we want from the government I am accredited to?' (The Australian Government would not expect, for instance, to have an American request for more support in Iraq to be addressed to it in exactly the same terms as the request was being put to other governments not already contributing substantially).

To take another example, those writing major speeches for prime ministers or foreign ministers will frequently canvas key embassies abroad for fresh ideas. A good ambassador will be alive to these opportunities when they arise, and might even anticipate them with a well-timed and targeted message to headquarters which reaches beyond the standard home-based thinking.

Both these examples are about the use of language, and few things are more important in international policy. But beyond that, embassies can and should be alert to possibilities for new policy objectives or interests, or for re-shaping strategies for the pursuit of existing ones. They can say 'look, we've been trying this course for a long time now and haven't got what we want. So here's another possible approach'. Of course, home-based ministries should be thinking this way too, but they often don't.

So, embassies today should be at least as valuable as ever, and in some ways arguably more so, in stimulating and driving policy and in shaping messages — in other words, as their government's internal contestability source.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user John Llanos

COMMENTS

22 Mar 2016 11:57

In conjunction with this month's launch of the Lowy Institute's Global Diplomacy Index, we present a series of pieces on the role and continued relevance of embassies.

Like so many generals, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) is busy fighting the last war.

Our oldest post is in London — Australia House. A staid, curlicued building planned when sailing to London took five to six weeks, the DFAT flagship symbolises a bygone era. As the Lowy Institute's Global Diplomacy Index shows, the 21st century has already eroded a network of posts that had its greatest reach some time ago. Clinging to the last few lifeboats of the sinking ship is not a recipe for success.

Carefully arranging staff in predetermined locations made sense once. But global issues no longer work like that. Mostly, when Australia is bedeviled by global concerns, they are not traceable to the intended actions of Westphalian states. Instead, the increased intensity of global interactions in trade, finance, environment and migration has created issues that transcend the old order.

Global issues are increasingly the result of accumulated unintended consequences. One Syrian refugee is not a global issue but a flow of one million is. Likewise, one exhaust pipe emitting carbon or one tuna fishing vessel. These tragedies of the commons and other game-theoretic failings can't be solved one bilateral relationship at a time, especially when the states in question are each powerless and/or unmotivated to take action.

To properly respond to global issues, Australia must have relationships with decision-makers. But the idea that this is achieved by stashing mostly quite junior bureaucrats in each country is past its use-by date. We might perhaps benefit from regular missions to Google, to ISIS, to Toyota, or OPEC. But leaving staff in foreign capitals is a superfluity. And these restless hands do pointless work.

Former Foreign Minister Bob Carr writes of a meeting with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that has 'no obvious or specific or urgent mission'. This is diplomacy out of habit, and it is not an exception to the rule. It can be observed across the vast, rote-learned world of DFAT, in its pointless cables, limp public diplomacy, repetitive meetings and so-called 'intelligence'. [fold]

Taking Australia's best and brightest and setting them to work on these inert tasks represents a tragic waste. Institutional rigidities are eating up careers and producing too little public benefit. An alternative system would see diplomats based in Canberra and deployed to foreign nations as needed on a shorter-term basis. Diplomats would become issue specialists rather than country specialists, and could have far more carriage of the grist and grind of negotiations instead of deferring to officials from Climate Change, Treasury or Agriculture.

Archaic and irrelevant patterns of work make up far too much of what DFAT does, and eliminating those patterns will require eliminating permanent bilateral posts. Without them, the Department can be more influential, more focused on multilateral issues, and can attract and retain better staff.

A certain lack of influence

Let's talk about costs, without even mentioning upkeep nor the potential realisable value of foreign assets. I mean opportunity costs.

Australia needs the kind of knowledge and understanding of the world that DFAT officials have. Policy-making more than ever demands experts that grasp the external environment. But we can't get that if we strew our top experts to the four winds and never ask them to contribute. A 2013 strategic review of the Department revealed other agencies were shocked at how little influence DFAT wields in Canberra.

Rather than only promoting Australia to the world, DFAT's role must be to promote the world to Australia. It must have responsibility for making sure policy decisions take into account the world outside our borders. So long as DFAT remains mostly a broadcast mechanism, focused on influencing foreign governments, it will not sufficiently shape Australian decisions.

The problem of bilateralism

Most DFAT effort is focused on bilateral relationships. This outdated approach produces outdated results.

The finest example is the proliferation of free-trade agreements. Scorned by economists and rarely subjected to cost-benefit analysis, these are a by-product of an international relations system (not just in Australia) scrambling for relevance. FTAs are low priority work that would not exist if diplomats had better things to do. Moreover, DFAT's focus on bilateralism diminishes its influence in some multilateral forums. Australia's approach to the G20, for example, is largely driven by Treasury.

Staff

DFAT staff are some of the brightest and best public servants I have ever known. The same superlatives cannot be bestowed on the systems they work in.

Postings are amazingly out-dated as career options. The peripatetic lifestyle of the career diplomat is better suited to the patriarchal era of trailing spouses than the contemporary era of negotiated living arrangements. While the Department has taken steps to make itself more contemporary, the ultimate step is to give up on a rigid system of posts and postings. That staff willingly remain is testament to the Department's legacy reputation. But that can only erode if it continues to forces employees to choose between, say, a normal job in Australia and a hardship location that makes them leave children in boarding school. No institution can overlook the need to make itself an attractive workplace.

Ending the DFAT love affair with posts will be hard. These ideas will be scorned right up until the moment they are adopted. But when it loses those archaic patterns, and preposterous career paths, it will suddenly find itself with a far more valuable asset — influence. And that is something from which the whole nation would benefit.

COMMENTS

24 Mar 2016 14:09

In conjunction with this month's launch of the Lowy Institute's Global Diplomacy Index, we present a series of pieces on the role and continued relevance of embassies.

 

 

Foreign minister Julie Bishop on Monday opened Australia's biggest, most expensive embassy — in Jakarta, Indonesia.

The $415-million complex set on five hectares of land in central Jakarta is designed to host around 500 staff members from 14 agencies, a five-storey chancery, staff accommodation, recreation facilities and a medical centre. For those who argue that ambassadorial diplomacy is dead, DFAT is clearly not listening.

Our ambassador to Indonesia, Paul Grigson, says the size of the embassy reflects the growing size of Australia's 'diplomatic footprint' in Indonesia. A day after the opening, Grigson followed Bishop from Java to Sulawesi, where the foreign minister opened a new consulate-general, Australia's third diplomatic post in Indonesia besides the embassy in Jakarta and a consulate-general in Bali.

Initially, plans for the new Jakarta embassy did not reflect a growing friendship, but heightened security concerns for embassy staff. A 2004 car bombing, which killed nine people and injured more than 150, sparked discussions on how to improve security at the embassy, which then fronted a major road in central Jakarta. The new embassy is set back from the roadside, with intensified security measures.

Nonetheless, unlike the bunker-style embassies of trouble spots in other parts of the world, the new Jakarta embassy in its planning stage was hailed as 'stylish'. Melbourne architecture practice Denton Corker Marshall aimed to produce 'a reflection of an expression of Australia' with earthy and metallic tones recalling Australia's natural landscapes and mineral wealth. Construction was carried out by Indonesian company Total Bangun Persada, which has previously worked on malls, hotels, and apartment complexes, in partnership with Hong Kong-based company Leighton Asia, which specialises in renewable energy infrastructure.

Beyond its stone-clad security walls, the embassy aims for environmental and social integration with the surrounding area. Government-funded infrastructure upgrades are being carried out in nearby neighbourhoods, and resource consumption is minimised by use of technologies for rainwater collection and recycling, as well as solar heating for water.

Some remarkable landscaping was carried out to uproot and replant four banyan trees from the original construction site. The four trees, estimated to be around 100 years old, were carefully relocated on the embassy grounds in an effort that found a place in the Indonesian World Records Museum (MURI). The museum located in the city of Semarang in central Java is the home of the Indonesian version of the Guinness World Records, with other recent achievements including feats such as 'Longest Non-Stop Ironing Session', and 'Greatest Number of People Blowing Bubble Gum' (one that neighbouring Singapore is unlikely to beat anytime soon).

Relocation of the banyan trees was important not only for landscaping reasons, but also to respect local beliefs. Many Javanese believe that banyan trees are home to sacred spirits, and old trees in particular may be awarded heritage status by the city government. The British embassy in 2003 received a letter of complaint from the Jakarta governor after trimming back a banyan tree that was blocking the view of security cameras.

At the embassy opening on Monday, Grigson tweeted that Indonesia's State Secretary, Pratikno, said Indonesians were proud to see Australia's biggest embassy in their capital. But for all the resources poured into the new embassy and consulate-general, it's difficult at this stage to know what the actual diplomatic impacts might be. 

Australia is still reflexively referred to in local media reports as the 'Kangaroo Nation', and general knowledge of our country is limited. Australian media shows a similarly limited general knowledge of Indonesia. Reports on the new consulate-general in Sulawesi this week gave the capital Makassar the exaggerated label of being a 'radical hotbed'. Bishop said the city was chosen for its importance as a commercial hub for Australians doing business in eastern Indonesia.

COMMENTS

25 Mar 2016 10:00

In conjunction with the recent launch of the Lowy Institute's Global Diplomacy Index, we present a series of pieces on embassies and embassy experiences.

There’s nothing like seeing what life is like without a fully functioning embassy to make you realise that embassies still matter. 

They matter first and foremost because of the unique channel of communication between governments that they represent. Second, because embassies provide a vantage point for the sending country’s own skilled nationals to observe events in the host country on a long-term basis, and interpret them from the perspective of the national interests of the sending country, something that no other institution can do. Diplomats are regularly rotated to prevent 'localitis' setting in. Their first priority is the national interest of their home country.

These roles were completely stymied in Malaysia for almost a year in 1991. At the time, I was coming to the end of my posting at the Australian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur, as head of the political and economic section, when Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed simply turned off the diplomatic tap. 

The Australian mission was one of the largest and most well-informed of the foreign embassies based in Kuala Lumpur, commensurate with our wide range of interests and regional weight. I’d served there for three years, together with my husband Denis, also a diplomat, who was deputy head of mission at the time. When the freeze took place, we were asked to stay on for another year. I learned more about diplomacy in that 12 months than in the previous three years combined.

Overnight, the mission’s senior Malaysian contacts dried up. We went from having virtually immediate access to ministers and senior civil service, defence, aid and immigration functionaries to finding doors suddenly shut and phonecalls not returned.

Mahathir, who had long had issues with Australia, had decided to turn his back on this country. As we discovered rather quickly, he had instructed his senior advisors to have nothing to do with Australia or its most senior representatives, and not to divulge the reason why.

In due course we discovered through local contacts that, somewhat incredibly, the immediate trigger had been Mahathir’s dissatisfaction with an ABC television series, Embassy. [fold] It was set in a fictional Australian embassy overseas. While situated in a fictional host country, it was apparent on a fictional map displayed prominenlty during the show that this was a Muslim country south of Thailand and north of Singapore. The subject matter included Muslim fundamentalism, stonings, violence, hanging of drug offenders, even a love affair between an embassy staff member and the fictional Prime Minister. Mahathir saw it as a government-backed insult to his country.

For months, as the Embassy soapie ran its course, our programs and interests — ranging from defence cooperation, trade issues, aid delivery, education, consular and immigration matters — all ground to a halt. Certain lower-level operational matters proceeded, but the critical high-level contact froze.

At the time, there was a frenzy of media attention and speculation. In the end, it was a meeting between Hawke and Mahathir in October 1991, backed by patient, careful work on the ground, using the long-term valued local contacts who had continued, quietly, to talk to us, that eventually led to greater understanding, and ultimately the re-establishment of normal relations.

Today, 20 years later, the role of embassies is even more important. With the constant chatter, not only of the traditional media, but of the various kinds of social media, instantly conveyed over the net, and where all views are equal, the need for a direct, inter-governmental link, along with the analysis and interpretation of developments by informed long-term resident diplomats who understand Australian interests, is more important than ever.

Just to finish, when Sam Roggeveen initially asked me about this subject, I kept thinking of the words of the first ambassador I worked for, as a young junior diplomat in Nairobi in 1977, when I was railing about having to go to boring cocktail parties. 'Denise,' he said, 'always remember that a 90-minute cocktail party means 30 three minute records of conversation'. Overstatement, sure. But relationships are what it is all about.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user jurek d.

COMMENTS

28 Mar 2016 14:08

In conjunction with the recent launch of the Lowy Institute's Global Diplomacy Index, we present a series of pieces on embassies and embassy experiences.

'So what did you do to deserve this?'

Australia’s then Foreign Minister, Senator Gareth Evans, put this uncharitable question to me the first time we met at my Ambassador’s residence in Belgrade in September 1989. I was the new third secretary, and frankly I had no idea why I had been sent there. Someone later told me it was because I was deemed ‘self–sufficient’, which goes to show the inadequacy of the DFAT screening process in those days. My mother had already flown in from Sydney to give me moral support.

Streetscape in Belgrade, capital of Yugoslavia, a nation that dissolved in the 1990s (Photo by Flickr user Nikos Koutoulas)

I would have liked to demonstrate to the sceptical foreign minister the profound foreign policy significance, if not the unexpected glamour, of Belgrade, but even on my early acquaintance with the city that didn’t seem very likely. I should have read Lawrence Durrell’s letters rather than his fiction in advance of my posting. 

Durrell went to Belgrade in 1947 with the British Council and developed an instant loathing for the place. It wasn’t just Tito’s communism which was 'so much more horrible than you can imagine'. As his biographer Ian MacNiven recorded, Durrell loathed the situation of the city at the junction of the Sava and Danube Rivers; 'two damnably dirty and moist rivers'. He loathed the ailments you got in Belgrade; 'a sort of flu which makes one angoissie — subnormal temp — aching limbs and head buzzing'. He developed no fondness for Slavic culture, 'The character of these Middle Europeans is dull, self-pitying and Slav — like the Poles; heavy as gunmetal'. He even disliked his own colleagues, complaining that his Chancery was 'full of little socialist vipers accusing me of misreporting and blimping'.

Forty or so years later Belgrade was still a desperate place. I’d had an almost perpetual Durrellesque chest infection since my arrival the winter before due to the poisonous haze of brown coal that cloaked the city most days. Hyperinflation had shocked and impoverished the once relatively prosperous Yugoslavs, and there were signs of the new economic stress in the queues of would-be migrants lined up outside the Australian Embassy. A firebrand politician called Slobodan Milosevic was rousing dormant Serbian feelings of persecution. Meanwhile the northern parts of the country were getting ready to declare their independence, even at the real risk of war.

The country was changing fast and radically, but those of us in the Western embassies were still on an old-fashioned Cold War footing. Life at the Australian Embassy consisted of wrangling innumerable locked doors and safes, and dashing to the ‘secure’ room for conversations of no particular significance. 

Even the Communist party spies on the local embassy staff had become dispirited: one made a perfunctory pass at me, but he was getting on in years and all the fun had gone out of compromising lonely diplomats. Either that or I wasn’t his type.

The Minister was in town on a curious mission: to attend the Non-Aligned Summit and lobby its Commonwealth members on behalf of Malcolm Fraser, who wanted to become the next Commonwealth Secretary General.

During that week, Belgrade was awash with unsavoury military leaders from all over the world, most of whom needed extreme protection, particularly from their own citizens. Libya’s Colonel Gadaffi had his famed women bodyguards to protect him and was rumoured to be sleeping in a large tent in the Libyan Embassy garden. 

The Non-Aligned Summit was to be held in the newly built, terribly glamorous Intercontinental Hotel. Unfortunately but predictably, construction was behind schedule so they just stopped building upwards when it was time for the conference. A thin layer of concrete was smoothed over the top of the edifice and everyone pretended it was meant to be just nine stories high all along. 

We dutifully took the Minister out on the town. [fold]

This meant a dusty old restaurant in the old town which served large slabs of meat and no vegetables. Luckily the wine was drinkable. The Minister had quite a party with him and I had my mum with me. He was keen on conversation, but was visibly annoyed by the noise of the colorful and energetic gypsy band. 'Make it stop,' he said. I went over to the band and politely but with some embarrassment offered money. They stopped alright, but 15 minutes later they started up again. I went back and paid again. And again. These people would do well when capitalism fully kicked in. My mum had a hangover the next morning.

The big day came and we all trooped into the Intercontinental. Security was very tight, and looking around at the array of thuggish national leaders I was not surprised. The Minister strode on ahead in his usual manic way. I ran along behind him. Coming up in the rear was my gentle Ambassador Frank Milne, who was carrying the wrapped gift the Australian foreign minister would present to the Yugoslav foreign minister.

Unfortunately that gift had been selected by someone in Canberra who felt the Yugoslav foreign minister would enjoy a silver letter opener, and presumably find it useful. Our minister strode onto the escalator and turned to look for his ambassador. 'Frank?' he said. 'Frank?’ 

'Where the FUCK is FRANK?' shouted Senator Evans as his escalator sailed out of view, just as I turned to witness the Australian ambassador being crash tackled by security guards who saw a knife on the scanner.

It was the start of a tough day. And in the end Malcolm Fraser never got to be Commonwealth Secretary General. Mum drew pretty much the same conclusions about Belgrade as Lawrence Durrell. I bought a one way ticket home at Christmas. And Yugoslavia was about to enter the end of its days. 

Photo by Flickr user Nikos Koutoulas

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COMMENTS

30 Mar 2016 11:30

In conjunction with the recent launch of the Lowy Institute's Global Diplomacy Index, we present a series of pieces on embassies and embassy experiences.

Australian High Commissioner Margret Twomey and Fijians affected by Cyclone Winston, 25 February 2016

Globalisation — and the communication revolution which has both driven it and been encompassed by it — has meant that the world is smaller. 

It is argued we don't need embassies to know what is happening abroad and we can have experts travel almost anywhere in 24 hours to solve problems. So why bother? 

But the other side of that coin is that globalisation and the developments associated with it have meant that nations and their populations have much more to do with each other than hitherto.

This view reflects, for example, the growth of international trade and investment, of transnational crime, in international climate issues and above all in the movement of people, for tourism, business or education. 

This means countries still need systems — and arguably better ones — to deal with each other. 

The sceptic might agree with this last proposition, but say embassies are of decreasing relevance in those systems. 

Not so. Embassies, like post offices or armies, will be necessary for generations to come, but aspects of their raison d'etre will change as will their methodology. 

Some things don't change. [fold]

International relations rely partly on guarantees and coercion. But like personal relations, they also rely on trust .

Trust can be forged between leaders. But it also requires contact of the sort only people living in a country can develop. There is nothing arcane about this. It's just life 

Countries need to understand each other. This can be achieved partly by education, by taking advantage of the plethora of sources of information currently available, and travel.

Effective embassies can also do much to run programs in a host country which help convey an articulate national view, e..g by cultivating future leaders in a systematic way, by work with media, by use of social media, etc . 

And in dealing with another country, you need to know what drives its policies. Experts in, say, trade in beef or maritime strategy will be better equipped than an embassy as negotiators, but someone needs to understand the vicissitudes of the local beef industry or popular security concerns. It is usually the embassy. 

And while you don't need an embassy to duplicate the media in reporting on many broad developments, you do need people to be watching closely how these developments affect us. Again this usually means intelligent engagement — and being on the ground. 

It is hard to see these constants in international dealings changing much.

Other things do change and we have to adapt.

First, foreign travel has increased exponentially and when citizens get into trouble, most governments have to do something about it.

In the past 20 years, the number of Australians travelling abroad has increased almost fivefold .The number of consular cases has increased by almost the same ratio, not counting enquiries. Cases have become increasingly complex, in particular with drug related crimes and mental health issues.

Having been in a number of consular crises, including the 1985 Mexico earthquake, the 1992 Bangkok riots, the 1998 Jakarta riots, the 1999 Timor crisis, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami (as it affected India), and the 2008 Mumbai attacks, I would never underestimate the pressures put on an embassy to perform in these circumstances. Specialists can fly in to help — and they do. But the local mission is the agency with the necessary propinquity and local knowledge to carry much of the burden — and it does.

And more people want to come to us. A strong case can be made that our immigration system is too cumbersome, but few would dispute the need for some sort of sensible system, which has to be administered in the sending country by an agency of the receiving country. 

Second, globalisation has brought new issues to the forefront of international attention. 

International issues no longer simply fall into political, economic, defense, consular and immigration categories. The international agenda now includes many areas: quarantine, crime, financial issues, the environment, education and science to name only some. This tends to mean more experts in an embassy. It also requires heads of mission with the capacity to reconcile conflicting priorities of agencies in a mission. 

Third, the information revolution has meant that more people in any given country are aware of international issues. This in turn influences the process of making foreign policy in that country — whether the matter relates to a quota or tariff issue, prisoners on death row. or border security issues.

It is therefore more important than before for an embassy to extend its contacts and voice beyond the policy-making elite to the institutions and the general public of the country to which it is accredited. Elites take more notice of what is absorbing the public at large via the media than they do of the private urgings of foreign envoys.

This set of developments suggests two broad sets of tasks for an embassy.

One is, over a long period, to help generate a positive perception in one country of another. A central approach should be a well funded public diplomacy program which avoids an emphasis on narrow cultural interests and which gets through to the general public. The Australian Government and its embassies have generally handled this aspect of diplomacy with neither commitment nor sophistication.

The second approach is for an embassy to be unabashed in taking advantage of television and social media opportunities to counter adverse perceptions in a crisis. Our High Commission sought to do this in India during the student crisis in 2009/2010. We probably did not make much of a dent on adverse perceptions with the public at large at the time, but through what we said on television, we made some difference with the elite and arguably made it possible for the relationship to recover more quickly than had seemed likely.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

COMMENTS

31 Mar 2016 10:13

In conjunction with the launch of the Lowy Institute's Global Diplomacy Index, we present a series of pieces on the role and continued relevance of embassies.

In his first post in this series, Ric Smith emphasised the crucial role Ambassadors and diplomats play in adding that extra layer of analytical rigour and depth to Canberra's grasp of what is happening overseas ('Embassies can shape policy').

That issue of diplomatic reporting was one just of the factors at play in an obscure yet intriguing episode in the history of Australian diplomatic representation abroad: the transfer of responsibility for the administration of Australia House in London from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, which had controlled the post since its opening in 1910, to the Department of Foreign Affairs. Lest readers think this is some kind of wistful waltz down memory lane, a dusty missive from the archival coal face, the move was freighted with a great deal of significance and meaning for Australia's place in the world in that era.


Detail from Australia House, The Strand, London. (Flickr/shirokazan.)

On the face of it, as Stuart Ward and I showed in The Unknown Nation: Australia After Empire, the move represented little more than an administrative convenience, with few if any direct complications. But it also formed part of a far deeper conceptual change in the way Australia's relations with the UK were conceived and conducted.

The story begins in the late 1960s and 70s, in the wake of two seismic shocks to the national strategic imagination: Britain's impending entry into the EEC and its decision to draw down its military presence in Southeast Asia.

Accordingly, Australian politicians and policymakers began the process of putting the relationship with Britain on a 'foreign' footing. As Prime Minister John Gorton had bluntly told the then High Commissioner to the UK, Sir Alexander Downer, on his arrival in London in January 1969 for a Commonwealth Prime Ministers conference, Britain 'had become for Australians a foreign country'. The 'old links were breaking', Gorton told Downer in the car en route from Heathrow to the Savoy Hotel, and 'sentiment alone could not sustain our association'.

For Downer, himself known around the traps of Whitehall as 'violently Anglophile', the Prime Minister's assessment amounted to a kind of heresy. Later, he recounted how, at hearing Gorton's words, he had simply slumped back into his seat, finding solace in a world outside he saw as his own: 'though the light was grey, the trees bare, Kensington Road and Hyde Park did not look like a foreign country to me'. [fold]

Clearly, to acknowledge that Britain was simply one of a number of 'foreign' countries with which Australia did business was akin to relinquishing cherished ideas about Australia's place in the world as a 'British' country. But in the late 1960s, that kind of language, and that kind of worldview, was already becoming a serious liability: out of step with a changing Australia.

Although the Prime Minister's department vigorously resisted any suggestion that it cede control of Australia House — they saw the Australia-UK relationship as the special preserve of the PM and his British counterpart — nevertheless Foreign Affairs officials continued to make the case to their political masters that the transfer of responsibility should take place.

In 1971, for example, Foreign Affairs Secretary Keith Waller believed that the case for a transfer was simple: he observed that 'a factor in the past was that Australians thought of themselves primarily as "British". Most now think of themselves as "Australians"'. The need, therefore, to 'mark our relations with Britain as something special...no longer exists'.

As Stuart Ward has pointed out, no other country in the Commonwealth had a separate department of state to deal with Britain, and 'with the merger of the Commonwealth and Foreign Offices in Britain in 1968, it seemed natural and normal that Australia should adjust its own administrative practices accordingly'.

Waller's insistence on making the change also unleashed some internal departmental frustrations about the kind of reporting on British politics that it had been receiving from High Commissioner Downer at that time. Nigel Bowen told Prime Minister McMahon that as Foreign Minister he had 'less information as to what is the thinking of the UK government on various issues than from the other capitals in which we have the higher representation from Foreign Affairs'. In the Prime Minister's Department, those comments were taken as a 'vote of total no confidence in the present High Commissioner'.

Downer's trenchant views on many of the key issues facing the two countries at this time — not least Britain's EEC ambitions — were being interpreted as out of step with opinion back home in Australia, and his judgment was being called into question. Even the British Defence Secretary, Denis Healey, confided to Australia's High Commissioner in Singapore that 'poor old Alex...doesn't really understand us and we find there is not much point in talking to him...how much longer does he have to serve?'.

Downer was vehemently against the idea of a transfer of responsibility for running Australia House, but had been effectively shut out of the negotiations. He was, however, supported initially by McMahon, who reminded Bowen that for many Australians, 'Britain has a special place not occupied by any other country in the world'.

A bitter debate then ensued between the Prime Minister's Department and the Department of Foreign Affairs. In the resulting compromise, McMahon retained responsibility for ties to the Crown, Commonwealth Prime Ministers conferences and the right to appoint the High Commissioner. Foreign Affairs acquired the right to appoint their own career officers to the crucial deputy high commissioner post, thereby securing effective responsibility for the mission.

When Prime Minister McMahon announced the decision in 1972, however, he said that it took place 'against the background of Britain's entry into Europe'. Far from representing a simply bureaucratic switch, the decision indicated that in the wider atmosphere of Australia's shifting policies and priorities following the demise of the British race idea, the old hearth at the heart of empire was to be treated just like any other Australian mission abroad.

COMMENTS

4 Apr 2016 16:01

In conjunction with the launch of the Lowy Institute's Global Diplomacy Index, we present a series of pieces on the role and continued relevance of embassies.

Embassies do not need to be big to have impact. A lot can be achieved with a small team and limited resources. I worked in several small embassies during my career: Mongolia, Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo, Croatia and North Korea. For me the appeal was the variety of the work involved when a small team has to deliver on a range of issues.

Although I enjoyed them all, Pyongyang is perhaps inevitably the one that generates the most attention and interest. The British embassy was opened in the early 2000s amid optimism that North Korea might be about to open up to the international community. Germany too opened an embassy at this time to join, as part of the EU family, Sweden who had already had a mission there for many years. Alas, the optimism about opening up soon faded and the embassies' eventual role was less about engagement and more about firm messaging.

During my term as the UK Ambassador from 2002 to 2006, our embassy was small (only four UK staff), the accommodation far from luxurious (the residence a conversion from four flats in a block on the old East German compound) and the work environment tough.

It focused on fighting back against the control the North Koreans tried to impose on us. You want a meeting with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs? Send a diplomatic note. You want to invite people to dinner at the residence? A note, please. Everything was done on the basis of the note. 

This was partly a tried and tested tactic to control and limit our interactions, and part necessity since few local institutions then had telephones, or at least not telephones for which embassies had the number. And of course everything had to be channelled through our local employees whose first loyalty inevitably was not to us. The system worked well. It was designed to frustrate. It succeeded! [fold]

Overcoming that frustration was the biggest professional challenge. With persistence and creativity, it was possible to deliver results. With time, it was possible to engage with North Koreans, it was possible to build relationships that facilitated business, it was possible to form a picture of society and the economy.

I visited some of the then still well-hidden local markets. I saw that crime existed (I was also a victim: my car was broken into in front of one of the main hotels one evening). Locals told me about examples of corruption. I was told that some North Koreans listened to foreign radio broadcasts and I regularly got to talk to young North Koreans learning English at a school in Pyongyang. It was low-level, tactical engagement, but it all helped to build the socio-economic picture, a job made easier by the regular comparing of notes with the other EU embassies, which during my posting came to include Poland, Czech Republic and Romania.

Political engagement was not easy. Meetings were always formal and often tense. The North Koreans did not like hearing our messages on human rights or nuclear issues. They got to hear firsthand that it was not just the US that had problems with their policies and positions. 'Am I talking to a British diplomat or a US one?', one frustrated North Korean official exclaimed as his fist came into noisy contact with the table in front of him. Their apparent hope of using the EU as a wedge against the US evaporated. 

Provincial trips offered a good chance for conversations with local level officials. For them, it was likely the first time they had ever heard Kim Jong Il criticised. Although those trips were heavily choreographed, it was still possible to gauge just how tough life was outside Pyongyang. 'We haven't received any drugs from Pyongyang for 5 years', lamented the director of one provincial hospital. And these were the places we were allowed to see, a lot of the country remained totally off limits for foreigners. 

Engagement with North Korea remains a much-debated concept. Strategic-level engagement will always be susceptible to political developments, and North Korea has hardly done much in recent years to justify its continuation. 

But lower-level engagement, such as that through a pro-active embassy, is worthwhile and in relative terms costs very little. You see things, you hear things, you see trends and developments, even in a place like North Korea. With North Korea struggling to adapt to the challenges of both its post-socialist era and globalisation, the ability to monitor what is going on at ground level is crucial. It will become even more important if, as seems likely, the for now still hairline cracks in North Korean society open wider.

Nobody knows how North Korea will evolve. But whatever happens those embassies on the ground will be in a good position to act as the international community's eyes and ears in a potentially volatile situation. Cold War experience in Eastern Europe also suggests that they could become the focal point for those in society seeking change. Those roles can only be played by having a physical presence on the ground. 

A good example of a small embassy delivering on a big task!

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tormod Sandtorv.

COMMENTS

6 Apr 2016 16:07

In conjunction with the launch of the Lowy Institute's Global Diplomacy Index, we present a series of pieces on the role and continued relevance of embassies.

Do countries still need to maintain expensive, permanent official establishments in foreign capitals? Or have advances in communication overtaken embassies? Like a hardy perennial, this question comes around every few years. Contrary to those who believe embassies have had their day, in my view they are in renaissance, performing a role for which there is no substitute. If embassies did not exist, they would have to be invented.

There are several reasons for this.

Firstly, bilateral relations are increasingly complex and volatile. Their propensity to sprawl across a range of subjects and involve multiple state and non-state actors means the field team — the embassy — is the only home entity with a holistic, real-time view of the relationship with the assignment country. Foreign ministries that understand this have actually thinned out staff in their territorial departments, so as not to duplicate the work done by embassies. That is the experience of Canada, Germany and the UK, among others.

This leads us to the second reason for a strengthened raison d'etre: embassies are now more engaged in the day-to-day management of bilateral relationship. Of course, this role will always be subordinate to the MFA, but advice offered by embassies is crucial. This role carries risk. It requires embassies to shift out of narrow field vision (‘I know my parish, but policy is determined at home’); they must comprehend the larger context of that bilateral relationship, and offer policy advice based on a total. national perspective.

And while a few would argue modern communications obviate the need for embassies, I would respond they have only enhanced their role. In- house networks allow the embassy abroad to be ‘nested’ into an MFA, as if located in the next room. Proposals and ideas are bounced back and forth, and policy execution deployed in a seamless process that was inconceivable even 15 or 20 years back. Secure video conversations are also quotidian, again enhancing MFA-embassy integration.

But some communication is an illusion. Home officials and leaders today can, and do, deal directly with foreign counterparts, via their smartphones and the many apps that permit instant, conversations bereft of protocol or intermediaries. To outsiders, it seems heads of governments and ministers run such exchanges independently, unmindful of what their officials think. Mostly, though not always, that is an illusion. Exchanges are still scripted and it is the resident embassy that remains the permanent, reliable communications channel, especially in the phases that precede and follow direct encounters between leaders at bilateral summits or larger conclaves.

At its core diplomacy is still about trust-based communication between authorised state actors, and that trust is a product of relationships constructed and nurtured with foreign interlocutors. As Paschke observed in his 1999 report for the German government, interchanges between ministers and high home officials that meet continually at conferences produces an ‘illusion of familiarity’. The craft of relationship building rests on trust, predictability and integrity and embassies ground those relationships.

Finally, in a world where news is always breaking and instantly available, embassies provide analysis that is predicated on the interests and objectives of the home country that draws on information from many authoritative sources in the assignment country. News media, in contrast, tend only to report in times of crisis and with newsroom budgets shrinking all over the globe, there are fewer correspondents able to invest time in cultivating such sources.

While it may appear the embassy reporting role is diminishing in value, they singly and jointly furnish continual analysis that remains pertinent, particularly in places where bilateral relations are fraught or hostile.

Of course embassies have to be empowered to do all of the above. When countries recycle politicians or other non-professionals as ambassadors, these appointees often lack motivation or craft skills. [fold] Some perform well, but they tend to be the exceptions. That is the situation in much of Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, where half, perhaps even more, of embassies are led by those who have been selected from outside the career track; non-professional ambassadors are less prevalent in Asia, and virtually unknown in Europe.

None of this detracts from the need for countries to periodically undertake ‘zero base’ evaluation of their diplomatic networks and consider different representation options. With public funds in short supply, recourse to new forms is likely to spread, including closing embassies of marginal importance, shifting envoys out of expensive and ostentatious residences and chanceries, or opting for low-expense methods, such as ‘non-resident ambassadors’, a form of part-time representation, where ambassadors visit the assignment country a few times per year. It's practised by Malta and Singapore and used selectively by some other countries. Another option is to share embassy premises and service facilities. Scandinavian nations, central European countries, Baltic states and others do this. Joint embassies in the full sense have been tried by East Caribbean states, but one should not be surprised if some EU states and others also move in that direction.

In sum, embassies remain as the key element in bilateral diplomacy, very much front and central to the promotion of external relations. While the physical form they take may be evolving, their role is critical in our world of globalised diplomacy.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user: Olivier Finlay Beaton

COMMENTS

8 Apr 2016 08:37

Jason Murphy comes to some breathtakingly wrong conclusions in his 22 March post demanding the closure of Australian missions abroad ('DFAT Come Home! Why Foreign Posts no Longer Make Sense'), with 'diplomats based in Canberra and deployed to foreign nations as needed on a shorter-term basis'.

As John McCarthy and especially Ric Smith amply demonstrate, a foreign ministry and its outposts abroad are one and indivisible. A hypothetical ministry charged with foreign affairs without its own antennae, pipelines and human observers abroad cannot exist. Nor does it make the least sense to staff a foreign outpost exclusively with experts from treasury, trade, attorney-generals and other departments of state, each reporting back to (and feeling responsible for) a particular branch of government and aspect of national interest.

Let me outline the role the role of a modern ambassador, the person heading an official outpost composed of generalists and specialists. An ambassador, along with his or her team, has three core tasks, the first being facilitator, a term which takes in:

  • The classical role of the governmental envoy including the facilitation, preparing, following and summing up of government-to-government contacts.
  • The embassy as 'city hall' for compatriots abroad.
  • Network coordinator for business contacts.
  • Initiator and patron of cultural events.
  • Pathfinder for educational, scientific and other academic relations.

Second, the ambassador is a reporter and analyst. Ambassadors have unique access to sources not available to others, thus their honest analysis of events, opinions, media reactions and so on must include points not necessarily welcome within their own government or ministry. This includes making specific proposals for courses of action, wording of major speeches and so on.

Thirdly, but nowadays often first, the ambassador is a brand manager. The key term here is 'public diplomacy': the presentation of your nation, its policies and activities in the media and in the public scene of the host country. In particular, the ambassador corrects stereotypes through speech, example and events. Brand-managing a country is ideally the intelligent display of soft power. [fold]

It is of course true that 'His Excellency' the diplomatic envoy, moving in the rarified atmosphere of high politics, carrying top secret messages while denying doing so, insisting on never taking sides or positions, saying nothing while talking in elaborate phrases, is dead. This figure was killed by instant worldwide communication (and the leaking thereof), by the incessant spotlight of the media and citizen reporters, and by the multiplication of non-state actors in international relations: business and finance representatives, media moguls, non-government organisations and many more.

However, the Ambassador as the extended arm of one government, one country, and one culture to another (bilateral diplomacy) or to an international body (multilateral diplomacy), or to a problem/region (special envoy), is still indispensable for the orderly conduct of international relations and their impact on the individual.

The second-oldest profession in the world — the person in between two parties, two countries, two armies, two interests — has been with humanity since the dawn of time and will continue to be so. And this is not despite but because our world is getting flatter. The ambassador is more necessary than ever as an interpreter, scout and guide in the ever increasing interaction of individuals, institutions and ideologies brought along by globalisation.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user giao911.

COMMENTS

5 May 2016 11:32
By

By Dr Greta Nabbs-Keller & Dr Hadianto Wirajuda

In the debate over the relevance of diplomatic missions in a globalised and networked world that's been sparked by the Lowy Institute's Global Diplomacy Index, it is important to consider how diplomacy is both perceived and conducted by non-Western states.

Consider Indonesia as a case study. For Indonesians literate in their country’s political history it would be quite unthinkable to question the contribution of diplomats and diplomatic missions in advancing Indonesia’s national objectives. Moreover, the stakes of diplomacy historically have been much higher for Indonesia, and the political imperatives more compelling, than in a Western democracy like Australia.

Indonesian diplomats were midwives to the birth of the independent nation-state. And although the role of armed struggle against repeated Dutch police (military) actions in 1947 and 1948 is rightly acknowledged in Indonesian history, the work of Indonesia's nascent diplomatic corps and the influence of individual ambassadors and emissaries kept Indonesia's nationalist struggle on the international agenda resulting in eventual Dutch capitulation.

The battle for Dutch West Papua New Guinea

But the vital role of diplomacy in achieving statehood was not moribund upon the formal transfer of sovereignty from the Netherlands in 1949. For Indonesia, the Republic remained incomplete without the incorporation of Dutch West New Guinea. Through a combination of US pressure on the Dutch and Indonesia’s intense diplomatic lobbying at the UN and through the Non-Aligned Movement, the UN instituted an interim administration arrangement in 1962 prior to handing administration to Indonesia. Leveraging off geopolitical tensions and a large Soviet arms build-up in Indonesia, Indonesian politicians and diplomats played on America’s Cold War anxieties about monolithic communism and Soviet influence in Asia. The protracted decolonisation process in West New Guinea had served only to empower Indonesia’s Communist Party (PKI); a fact made increasingly obvious to Washington.

During the same period, President Soekarno’s revolutionary politics were impacting on Indonesia's foreign ministry and the country’s regional diplomatic posts, revealing the high stakes game in Jakarta. Soekarno's political embrace of the PKI and the feverish discourse around NEKOLIM (Neo-colonial) and OLDEFOS (Old Established Forces) fuelled the politicisation of both the foreign ministry and Indonesia’s overseas diplomatic missions. Diplomats who served during this period, for example, recall the preferential treatment reserved for members of Deplu's leftist Youth Movement in First and Second Secretary appointments. Scholarships and study experience gained in the West increasingly became a career liability.

As a result of the Konfrontasi campaign (1963-66) against the new Malaysian Federation, Indonesia’s regional relations deteriorated markedly. Indonesia closed its diplomatic missions in Singapore, Penang and Jessselton (Kota Kinabalu) in protest against not being consulted on such an important regional development and suspicions the Federation was a neo-imperialist plot designed to contain Indonesia.

The apex of Indonesia's revisionist foreign policy was manifested in the closure of Indonesia’s permanent mission to the UN in January 1965 and subsequent announcement of a political axis with Peking. To date Indonesia remains the only state to have withdrawn from the supra-national body.

The turbulent times for Indonesian diplomats did not cease with the political demise of President Soekarno, however. As the military consolidated its power, Indonesia's foreign policy apparatus was 'cleansed' and 'purged' by Army authorities. In 1966, foreign minister Dr Subandrio and departmental Secretary-General Garis Harsono were both arrested and sentenced to death. The Suharto-led New Order government later commuted the death sentence against Subandrio (a former ambassador to London and Moscow) following British intervention.

At Indonesia’s missions, meanwhile, military officers known as 'Special Executives for Foreign Affairs' (Laksus) were installed to oversee the 'mental development' (pembinanaan mental) of Indonesia's overseas students and screen staff to 'remove extremist and subversive elements'. [fold]

Reflecting the military’s broader dual socio-political role (dwifungsi) and its institutionalisation across Indonesia's bureaucracy, the Suharto-led New Order regime increasingly appointed senior Army officers as ambassadors to Indonesia's strategic missions then classified as 'D1' posts. As the end of the Cold War led to an increased focus on human rights by Western states, Indonesia's choice of diplomatic appointments on occasion fuelled bilateral spats. In 1995, for example, Jakarta's choice of General Herman Mantiri as ambassador to Canberra was rejected by the Keating Government, exacerbating differences over civil and political rights.

Following Suharto’s political downfall in 1998 and with Indonesia subsequently eager to project a new, democratic identity, career diplomats, entrepreneurs and former politicians increasingly replaced military officers as Heads of Mission at key posts. This trend coincided with important shifts in Indonesia’s civil-military relations, enhancing civilian authority over foreign policy and providing the space for renewal within Indonesia’s foreign policy bureaucracy and at Indonesia’s missions.

The reforms instituted by foreign minister Hassan Wirajuda [2001-2009] required greater accountability of Indonesia's ambassadors, consul-generals and consuls, and greater efficiencies in the management of personnel and resources at post. The democratic state's duty of care to it citizens overseas, meanwhile, comprised mainly of young female domestic workers, was reflected in institutional changes in Jakarta and enhanced consular services for Indonesian expatriates.

Today former military and police officers are installed at ambassadorial posts where there is a key security dimension or hardship component. Retired Marine General Safzen Noerdin, for example, served as Indonesia's ambassador to Iraq from 2012-2015. Whilst, former Police Commissioner General and Head of Indonesia's Criminal Investigations Agency (Bareskrim), Ito Sumardi, heads Indonesia's mission in Myanmar.

Whilst the political influences shaping the work of Indonesian diplomats are now driven less by radical politics, internal stability concerns or democratic norms, Indonesian diplomats now work within the ideational context of President Jokowi’s revolusi mental and Nawacita. A continuum of early Soekarnoist ideology, revolusi mental aims to improve both the integrity and productivity of the Indonesian people, whilst Nawacita articulates nine aspirational goals or principles of state.

These ideational influences combine with the practical imperatives for Indonesian diplomats to facilitate trade and investment critical to Indonesia’s infrastructure priorities. The need to finalise land and maritime boundaries, moreover, is made more urgent by China’s increasing assertiveness in Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

Although the protection of Indonesian citizens and legal entities abroad has remained a core foreign policy priority in the post-authoritarian era, diplomats now express this through the conceptual terms of revolusi mental and Nawacita.

In summary, Indonesia’s diplomats and overseas diplomatic missions remain indispensable, as they stand at the intersection of Indonesia’s nation building project with the broader international community. The nuances of this project may have shifted over time, but the fundamentals remain similar: diplomacy for the development of a cohesive national identity, diplomacy for economic growth and prosperity; diplomacy for defence of Indonesia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Yes, embassies still matter; for Indonesia at least.

Photo: Flamini/Express/Getty Images

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