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What Makes Successful Diplomacy

20 Nov 2016
By Geoffrey Miller AO FAIIA
Diplomacy. Photo Credit: Bundesministerium für Europa, Integration und Äusseres - Iran Talks (Wikipedia) Creative Commons

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.

We commonly think of state-to-state relations as being carried out bilaterally, through embassies in respective capitals. There is a whole other dimension to diplomacy, namely multilateral or conference diplomacy. This is typically conducted through institutions like the United Nations—the UN General Assembly is currently in session, and Australia was recently a member of the UN Security Council—and specialised agencies and institutions such as the World Trade Organization, and the G20, of which Australia was a recent chair.

Some of the results of multilateral 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. And some diplomats make it their lifetime 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—which can of course also involve many subject areas, as the recent emphasis on bilateral free trade agreements shows. As the 12th largest economy in the world, and one deeply involved in international trade, it is no wonder that, as Julie Bishop has said, economic diplomacy is very important to Australia.

The term diplomacy, like most terms, is sometimes used loosely. For example, I was recently at one of the ANU’s annual Japan Updates, where there was a lot of bemoaning the state of China-Japan relations. Many expert speakers said there should be more diplomacy between the two. I think they meant that each government should take a more positive and accommodating attitude towards the other—something considerably more basic, and more to do with policy orientation, than diplomacy.

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. When I left the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, in 2000, there were various mechanisms in operation to promote this, including Post Reports and Reviews. There may be more now.

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 applied, or 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 to 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 a 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, D.N. 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 government is doing what it is, taking the stances it is, and 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.

I should note in regard to strategic and political matters that it’s not just the sending of reports from diplomatic posts that’s important.  The next question is who reads them, and what they do with them. Of course every ambassador would like his reporting and advice to be read by the foreign minister and even the prime minister. And sometimes it is. A good example can be seen in the volume Australia and the Formation of Malaysia, published by DFAT’s Historical Section, which shows the lively interaction between ministers and some very talented Australian heads of mission—Bruce Critchley in Kuala Lumpur, Bill Pritchett in Singapore and Sir Keith Shann in Jakarta. Shann’s reporting on Indonesia’s confrontation with Malaysia and on the 1965 communist coup attempt was much read and commented on at the highest governmental levels in Canberra.

Reporting is of course one of the things diplomats do, but it’s far from the only one. Sometimes they have to put very tough positions to host governments. An example that comes to mind involved my former colleague and head of DFAT, Philip Flood, in regard to the Sandline affair of 1997, involving the Papua New Guinea government’s attempt to use foreign mercenaries to re-take control of the island of Bougainville, after a long insurgency. The introduction of foreign mercenaries into the South Pacific was an absolute anathema to the Australian government; Philip, as head of a delegation of three officials representing Prime Minister John Howard, had to tell the PNG Prime Minster, Julius Chan, that if he went ahead it would mean the end of Australian defence support and development aid for PNG.

Chan took a tough line at first but conceded the next day, so Philip’s mission was successful. But it was a close thing, and illustrates the sort of face-off that diplomacy can involve.

It can of course involve almost the opposite kind of thing as well. My last diplomatic post was as high commissioner in Wellington, and of course Australia-New Zealand relations are very close. But I was flabbergasted one day to receive a letter from then New Zealand prime minister, Jenny Shipley, asking me to give her a report “as part of the regular assessment process”, on the way the head of the New Zealand prime minister’s department was doing his job! After consideration I did as I was asked.

In these circumstances Australian diplomacy has some achievements to its credit, including the passage by the Security Council of the resolution on MH17, Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop’s negotiations in the Ukraine with Putin, and access for the SAS to Iraq. But in terms of policy, Australian diplomacy will have to be based on the most realistic assessments possible, not only of adversaries but also of our prime ally and our most important trading partners.

And that won’t be easy, for political prediction is not easy. I recently came across a striking reminder of how difficult it is in an issue of Foreign Affairs. The prime article on American dysfunction was written by Francis Fukuyama, a prominent American academic. He’s still prominent, obviously, but the prediction that made him famous hasn’t stood up too well. About 20 years ago he wrote The End of History in which his thesis was that history had ended because the Western model of democracy and free market economics had attained universal acceptance. Tell that to Putin, Xi Jinping and the leaders of ISIS! In fact, given how enormously wrong Fukuyama was, it should be encouraging to Americans that he was the one asked to write about American dysfunction!

Geoffrey Miller is a former Australian diplomat and government official. He was posted to Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, New York (United Nations) and New Delhi. From 1978 to 1980, he served as the Australian Ambassador to the Republic of Korea and was Ambassador to Japan up to 1989. 

He was one of the AIIA Fellows who presented masterclasses at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as part of the AIIA 2016 National Conference. This is an edited version of his remarks. This extract is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.