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'.

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.


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.