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Dispatches on Diplomacy – Sowing the Seeds for Strong Relations

21 Jan 2015
Geoff Miller
Image Credit: Gareth Cuddy  (labelled for reuse).

Thorough background knowledge and the ability to empathise are essential components to conducting successful state-to-state relations. 

Henry Kissinger once said that diplomacy isn’t like engineering – solving problems as they present themselves, moving on to the next one – but more like gardening: cultivating relationships (not for their own sake, as critics of diplomacy claim) but so they can be called on when you need them.

While diplomacy applies only to state-to state relations, and not to the promotion or protection of individuals’ or firms’ concerns (which are the province of consular relations) this does not mean that diplomacy is always carried out bilaterally, through embassies in respective capitals. There is a whole other dimension to diplomacy, namely multilateral or conference diplomacy, which is typically conducted through institutions like the UN and specialised agencies and institutions such as the World Trade Organisation and the G20.

Some of the results of multi-lateral diplomacy are clearly of great importance, for example in the fields of international trade and arms control, though sometimes it can seem like a frustrating and never-ending talkfest – some diplomats make it their life-time specialty. But others don’t, and I’m one of those, despite one posting at the UN in New York. So in what follows I’ll concentrate on bilateral diplomacy.

If diplomacy means government officials carrying out state-to-state “negotiations and other relations”, who are these officials and what does one need to carry them out well?

As to who does them, clearly DFAT officials play a major role. But it is worth noting that now, more so than in the past, many functions of government have an important international aspect and therefore many departments and agencies contain what are in effect “foreign affairs cells”, from which personnel may be posted to relevant embassies and high commissions. Indeed, very large overseas missions such as Washington, Tokyo, Jakarta and London are more like “the whole of government writ small” than a more typical, smaller, diplomatic post.

As to carrying out state-to-state relations well, I think the first thing is a thorough knowledge of your own country’s interests, priorities and policies – what it, through you, is trying to achieve in a particular country or situation.

The second is sound knowledge of the country in which you are posted, to be gained initially by reading and study (probably books rather than briefs or articles), and later from experience and observation. Sound historical and geographical knowledge can be a great help to understanding and interpretation, and isn’t always in the forefront of people’s minds. And sometimes one realises, late in a posting, the effect that a particular past event or turning point had, and still has, on influential people’s stances and attitudes towards each other.

For example, one of the most dramatic events of my diplomatic career was the 1965 coup in Indonesia, when the Communist Party was behind the murder of leading army generals and the abortive takeover of government by the Revolutionary Council. I don’t think any embassy in Jakarta at the time, including ours, fully appreciated the extent to which the events of 1965 were a sequel to the events of 1948 in Madiun in Central Java, when the Indonesian Army, under then Colonel Nasution, put down a seizure of power by pro-Communist forces. In 1965 Nasution, by then a general, was minister of defence and the only one of the targets for assassination to survive. The secretary-general of the Communist Party in 1965, DN Aidit, had been a very young member of its Central Committee in 1948.

My third prerequisite is empathy: understanding what makes another country tick is not the only task of a diplomat or diplomacy, but it’s a very important part of it. You need to be able to see why a country is doing what it is, taking the stances it is, thinks as it does. That doesn’t mean you support those things, or agree with them. But without that understanding it’s very difficult to engage effectively.

That understanding, as I have said, can be given a sound start from reading and study, but also of course depends on a mission building up a sound and varied range of local contacts, at various levels, and hopefully representing different interests and points of view. A diplomat can get access partly because of his or her position, and the standing of the country he or she represents. But personal qualities, and the amount of interest shown, can also make a difference.

And of course access depends on the nature of the society in which one is serving. I never served in a totalitarian country, but I did serve in one then quite authoritarian one. I came to realise that my movements and those of my wife were monitored, and that when I entertained political dissidents reports were made to the authorities.

Speaking the local language is obviously desirable and a help, but no diplomat can hope to speak the language of all the countries in which he or she serves. A Foreign Service can however plan to see that missions, rather than all individuals in them, do have that capacity.

Generally speaking, people everywhere respond to an interest being taken in what they are doing; an argument supporting Kissinger’s assertion that diplomats should cultivate relationships in order to see the fruits of collaboration in the future.

Geoff Miller is a former Australian Ambassador to Japan (1986-89) and former Director-General of the Office of National Assessments (1989-95). He has served as National Vice President and NSW President of the AIIA.  

This is the first in a series of two articles publishing an edited version of the address by Geoff Miller at the AIIA National Conference Diplomacy Masterclass, October 2014. This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence.