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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.

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.

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.

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. 

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.

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. 

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.

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.

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.

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:

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.

COMMENTS