The Future of the Australian Foreign Service

Commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the Establishment of the Modern Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Speech, check against delivery, EO&E


18 November 2010

Anniversaries are important events.

Institutional anniversaries are also important.

They provide us with an occasion to reflect, to commemorate, to celebrate and to recommit.

On this, the 75th anniversary of the modern Australian foreign service, it’s therefore an appropriate time

  • to remind ourselves of this Department’s continuing mission in the national interest;
  • to reflect with pride on our Department’s achievements across our nation’s history; and
  • to embrace with absolute confidence our Department’s mission for the future.

Ours is a department of humble beginnings. Begun with the federation; Absorbed after the first war; And then reborn in the lead up to the second.

At that time, its regal place of abode in the nation’s capital consisted of two adjoining rooms in West Block – one for the Secretary, a second for the other seven officers of the entire Australian diplomatic corps and a tethering rail outside because the secretary at the time preferred to ride to work.

These were indeed modest beginnings for the modern Australian Foreign Service

Three quarters of a century later, we now have

  • Nearly four thousand staff at home and abroad;
  • A budget of $5.5bn including the aid budget; and
  • Operate nearly 100 missions abroad.

But what has continued across the decades for this great Department of state have been the core national interests which we are required to discharge.

To foreign service professionals gathered here, the recitation of these national interests may seem unremarkable.

They are what you do each day. They lie at the core of your professional ethos. They are the national interests that brought professionals like yourselves to join this department in the first place.

So what are these national interests:

  • To defend our territorial integrity;
  • To maintain our political sovereignty;
  • To advance the national economic well-being of all Australians by advancing our international economic interests;
  • To act as a good international citizen, maintaining a stable and just international order; and
  • To defend the physical well-being of Australians abroad – now more than a million strong.

Expressed in different forms over the decades, these interests have been our fundamental guiding principles throughout our institutional history.

Our skillcraft, our tradecraft, as a diplomatic service, has been to apply these continuing national interests to the changing strategic and economic circumstances of the times.

Ours is a history of which we should be proud.

Imagine our intrepid and fledgling delegation to the League of Nations in the 1930s as the storm clouds gathered over Europe.

The despatch of our first missions abroad to Washington, Tokyo and Chongqing in the earliest years of the war;

The incarceration of our diplomatic staff in Tokyo, led by our Charge d’Affaires, Keith Officer;

Repeated attacks on Chongqing in the early 1940s while Fred Eggleston ran the mission;

The arrest and execution of our representative in Singapore, Vivian Bowden;

Casey, as Evatt’s representative, arguing to both the British and Americans in Washington, that we now spoke with our own voice, reflecting our own interests, in a war which went to the core of our national survival;

Evatt’s delegation to San Francisco to shape the post-war order, co-drafting the UN Charter;

Evatt and his delegation on the UN Commission on Palestine which recommended the establishment of the modern State of Israel;

Critchley’s role in the birth of the Indonesian Republic;

The redrawing of the strategic environment with the onset of the Cold War and Australia’s role in a global doctrine of containment;

The negotiation of the ANZUS Treaty;

The diplomatic and military engagement with the UN, the US and the Republic of Korea over the Korean War and the Armistice;

The negotiation of the Nara Treaty with post-war Japan;

The recognition of China;

The diplomacy, the strategy and then the defeat meted out in Vietnam;

The rise of ASEAN;

The birth of APEC;

Our leadership in the Cambodian Peace settlement;

Our leadership in the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty;

The independence of East Timor including the courage of Australian diplomatic, military and other personnel on the ground;

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War;

Fukayama’s end of history – except of course it wasn’t, either for us or any other country on the planet;

The Age of Terrorism: September 11; the continuing war in Afghanistan; including the scourge of terrorism in our region;

The war in Iraq, our soldiers in the field, our diplomats in Baghdad, still one of the most violent states in the world;

The rise and rise of China;

Our comprehensive engagement with China – well before many others recognised the significance of what was unfolding before us;

The rise of India, the world’s most populous democracy, and the next global economic dynasty;

The Global Financial Crisis;

The birth of the G20 and Australia’s role within it;

The concept of an Asia Pacific community and its reflection in the new composition of the East Asian Summit;

This Australian diplomatic service of ours has been active in all these great events of the region and the world.

Always with our sleeves rolled up;

Always doing the work in the field, often difficult, sometimes bloody;

Always applying our enduring national interests to the changing international environment of the time.

From the days of Wilson’s League, through the War, the UN, the Cold War, and now the uncertain terrain of the post-Cold War era.

Where possible seeking to anticipate.

Where possible seeking to lead.

This is what I have long described as our tradition of creative middle power diplomacy.

And given our unique geo-strategic circumstances, the only course for Australia:

  • Some 22 million people occupying a vast continent of 7.7 million square kilometres;
  • A maritime zone of 8.1 million square kilometres (the third largest in the world); and
  • Defending 37,000 kilometres of coastline on the mainland.

Australia is a middle power with global interests.

But the agency uniquely charged with giving effect to these interests is this Australian Foreign Service.

All foreign policy doctrines in the world, however elegant they may be, are rendered null and void in the absence of a professional foreign service to give effect to our foreign policy in the field.

This institution should therefore be proud of its history; proud of its professionalism; proud of its achievements.

This institution should equally be confident of its future.

The Australian Foreign Service is central to the future national security interests of Australia.

The Australian Foreign Service is central to the future global and regional economic interests of Australia.

The Australian Foreign Service is central to future global environmental interests of Australia.

And of course it will continue to be fundamental to the support of Australians abroad.

Our foreign service remains Australia’s official face to the world.

And my message today, to the current members of the foreign service, is that in an increasingly multipolar world, a world in which coalitions of willing parties will be important across the international policy spectrum this Australian foreign service will become more important to the prosecution of our national interests, not less.

My message today, is that in an increasingly globalised order, on what might be called the age of globalisation of everything, this Australian foreign service will become more important to the prosecution of our national interests, not less.

This, of course, will create new challenges to the tradecraft of Australian diplomacy.

But we have risen to such challenges in the past.

And we will continue to do so in the future.

First, we will have to be even better at looking beyond the horizon to identify new threats and new opportunities as early as we can.

Why? Because the pace of change, often turbocharged by technology, is unprecedented.

Our challenge is to be ahead of the curve, not behind the curve.

Not for our intellectual delectation.

But to give us time to prepare, to engage wherever possible in preventative diplomacy, to defuse problems before they acquire critical mass, and where opportunities present, to be the first to seize them, not last, to steal a march.

Second, we will have to be increasingly nimble, flexible and imaginative in our policy response.

We will need increasingly to think outside the traditional foreign policy square.

Many of the challenges we face are unprecedented in their nature, their scale and their complexity.

Cyber security;

Food security;

Existential threats to vulnerable states in the Pacific and Indian Ocean;

Global population movements;

The adequacy of global and regional institutions to deal with the other agendas and with new and emerging power realities in the world.

We must therefore cultivate an institutional culture that embraces new ideas, that engages with the nation’s and the world’s best think tanks, with our leading universities and with both the business and NGO community.

We must be in the business of sucking in the best ideas from around the world.

And we must fully embrace divergence of views in our internal debates on the best way forward.

We must never content ourselves with being the world’s best describers of unfolding challenges.

We are at our best when we go to the next and necessary step of debating and determining what we must then do in anticipation of the challenges.

This is the essence of creative middle power diplomacy – and if done well helps consolidate Australian soft power in the global and regional diplomatic space.

That is a capacity to analyse unfolding trends and a capacity to find a way through – not just for ourselves, but for others too.

Ideas count in foreign policy.

And therefore we should aim to become the originator and a disseminator of ideas, policies and programs that deal with core problems facing the international community.

And if we do this well, it will be recognised as one of our “value-addeds” in the competitive business of global diplomacy.

Third, and as an extension of the second, we also need to be in the business of “ideas brokerage” around the world.

Generating new policy approaches is one thing.

Building constituency support for those ideas around the world is another.

Building coalitions of support around ideas is also a core task of our future diplomacy.

This is precisely what we did with the formation of the G20 when there were many other competing ideas in the field.

This is also what we did with our proposal to reform our region’s political, strategic and economic architecture.

And in our new multipolar world, innovative coalitions of support which work across rather than simply within the traditional global groupings will become increasingly important.

Our new Cross Regional Group, chaired by Australia and Japan, but drawn from across the world, on Non Proliferation, Arms Control and Disarmament is one such example.

We propose to explore many more.

This is what middle powers with global interests must do.

Fourth, in future the Department both at home and abroad must also fully engage in the great policy debates at home where the global dimension to these debates is both clear and critical.

The very nature of globalisation means that there is no longer a clear and clean delineation between the foreign and the domestic, the national and the international, the internal and the external.

These were effective taxonomies for the 20th century.

That is no longer the case for the 21st century.

We find ourselves operating in an increasingly seamless policy space which no longer respects an artificial divide.

The international relations theorists have been on to this for two decades.

Institutionally, foreign ministries around the world are struggling to catch up.

This is hard. It’s not easy.

It challenges so many of the traditional bureaucratic silos both within and between departments that we have inherited from the past.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the counter-terrorism space where traditional delineations of external and internal threats now merge.

Institutionally, we are creatively responding to this.

We will need increasingly to do so across the traditional policy domains.

Properly “joined-up” policy is now more imperative than ever, placing an absolute premium on synthesised advice, integrated advice, and coordinated advice.

I am confident that this institution will continue to rise to that challenge.

Finally there is the challenge of resourcing.

The truth is, DFAT was starved for a decade.

Some improvement has occurred as a result of Mr Smith’s leadership.

But I am acutely conscious of a core fact: we now have 18% fewer staff abroad than we did in 1996 while, in the rest of the APS, there are now 12% more staff.

I am also conscious of the fact that of all G20 countries, Australia has the smallest diplomatic footprint of all, with posts in less than half the capitals of the world.

It will take time to change the underinvestment of a decade.

And at a time when total government budget disciplines are paramount.

But the fact remains we must properly resource this great Australian foreign service for the great demands that will be placed on it for the future.

As my great predecessor Gareth Evans said in his dedication in his mighty tome on Australian foreign policy in the 1990’s:

‘to the men and women of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – a very fine career service and an under-appreciated national resource.’

Gareth was right.

Today is a day to honour the contribution of diplomats past.

And for the Australian Diplomatic Corps of today, to be encouraged for its mission for the future.

And always in pursuit of the enduring national interests of this Commonwealth.


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