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Keith Waller: Portrait of a Working Diplomat

23 Feb 2018
Reviewed by Alan Fewster

How well did former diplomat Sir Keith Waller measure up against the three duties of the diplomat outlined by Arthur Balfour and the dictum of Talleyrand? An extract from his biography explains.

There are three duties of a diplomatist: one is to make himself persona grata to the government of the country to which he is accredited; the second is to interpret to his own government the policy of the country to which he is accredited; the third is to interpret to the government to which he is accredited the policy of his own government. This was Arthur James Balfour’s advice to Robert Bruce Lockhart in 1918.

‘Surtout, pas trop de zele’—’Above all, not too much zeal’—is Talleyrand’s dictum.

To what extent did Keith Waller meet the terms of the Balfour/Talleyrand conceptions? Both Waller and his wife, Alison, saw the task of making himself persona grata as one of “getting to know the people who count”. Alison would categorise people she met according to how “useful” they could be to her husband’s career.

As a junior diplomat, the people who counted most to Waller were not his foreign interlocutors, it was his Australian bosses. As he had shown during his time with the irascible Billy Hughes, and the semi-invalid Frederick Eggleston, Waller had a talent for making himself indispensable to them; even when—as had been the case in Chunking—his actions caused a deal of embarrassment.

As secretary of the Australian delegation in San Francisco, Waller kept himself onside with Evatt, one of the few men to whom he was develop a personal antipathy; maintaining the peace in what was a fractious delegation. Later, in Manila, Waller managed to hide his disdain for the Filipino people well enough to maintain good relations with official contacts, despite the bilateral turbulence caused by the Gamboa Affair.

How did Keith Waller measure up against the second of Balfour’s three characteristics of an effective envoy, an ability to interpret the policy of the government to which he is accredited? Before Waller could explain a policy, he found it essential to have a clear understanding of what that policy was; and this was impossible without a good grasp of the history of one’s host country. “People will assure you that old enmities are forgotten”, he said; “this can never be more than partially true. Equally, old glories are still remembered. Countries which have been dismembered do not forget. The ‘lost province syndrome’ is a very real part of a nation’s motivation.” It was also important to learn the coded language of diplomacy. For example, if a Moscow communiqué said that a bilateral discussion had been frank, this meant that the two sides had failed to agree.

The most valuable source of a diplomatist’s information, was however, personal contact. For Waller, information equalled statistics: In Washington, or any big post, the Ambassador had at his disposal fifteen or twenty politically oriented officers from a variety of departments. In any given day, each of the 15 might have either official or social contact with five Americans. In a five-day week, this amounted to 375 contacts. “When one considers that professional pollsters consider 2,000 interviews suffice to read the public mind, the ambassador has at his disposal facilities for an almost constant poll of opinion in the capital.” No capital mirrored exactly what the nation thought—indeed, sometimes the reverse was true— “but it can tell you a great deal about the policy of the Government that rules there”, said Waller. “If an Ambassador and the staff of his Embassy are liked and trusted, people will and do talk to them freely.”

If a diplomat was persona grata then his access should be easy; but above all, “he must be trusted.” A reputation for integrity was far more important than charm, a knowledge of foreign languages, agreeable address or lavish hospitality. For Waller, once a diplomat had been caught in a lie, the bond of trust was destroyed irreparably. Waller enjoyed a reputation for integrity, for full and accurate reporting of the views put to him, therefore, doors were open to him. Neither, once he had obtained an interview, was Waller a table thumper. Rather, he was a subtle and nuanced negotiator, able to read between the lines and sense from his experience the stage reached in the development of a policy, whether it was merely germinating, whether it had reached maturity but still required formal endorsement; or whether the decision to endorse it had been taken, but the time was not yet ripe to announce it.

As far as Waller was concerned, no ambassador should seek an interview with a minister unless he had something to say that demanded to be said at that level. Waller suggested “a good rule for all diplomats dealing with busy people is to say what you have to say then get out.” Like all rules, this one had to be adjusted to the tempo of one’s host country. As he had learned in China, it was important to develop a delicate sense of timing that combined a businesslike approach, and the preservation of local custom and norms. Neither should the diplomatist amend the record retrospectively, for any reason, but especially not to make himself or his argument look better. ‘The temptation to improve the record just a little can be strong. It must be resisted.’

Waller found the diplomatist’s third duty, that of explaining his government’s policy to the government to which he is accredited; the most taxing. He believed that if an ambassador and his staff were to be effective in representing the Australian government’s views overseas, they needed to be well informed about those views, both officially by cable and by traditional means, such as newspapers. Under Waller, both when he was in corporate management and later, as Secretary; the department made successful efforts to address posts’ feelings of isolation. Australian newspapers and journals were sent by diplomatic bag more frequently and Waller wrote regular demi-official letters to HoMs – both innovations that were widely welcomed.

In all but a few cases (he instanced those of Spender and Casey before October 19418 in Washington); Waller believed that the prosecution of Australian views overseas was best left to the professionals who were less likely to become emotionally or personally involved in the business of policy formulation than ex-minister might be. It was expecting a lot of a former minister, who in cabinet may have fought passionately against a given policy line; later to argue powerfully in favour of that which his successor had decided subsequently to adopt.

As evidenced by his support for Wilfred Burchett’s attempts to regain his passport, Waller was also prepared to take unpopular positions on issues of principle. But he was also a realist. He knew when to back off, too. As he put it: “People with passionate feelings make great national leaders. They make very poor diplomats. Talleyrand’s dictum … holds good.”

Alan Fewster joined the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 1989 and served in Port Morsby and Harare. He is a former journalist with the Fairfax and Murdoch Press. 

This article is an extract from Alan Fewster’s latest book, Three Duties & Talleyrand’s Dictum: Keith Waller: Portrait of a Working Diplomat. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.