Is the art of diplomacy disappearing?

Keeping the art of diplomacy alive could be Australia’s substantive contribution to Asia’s geo-strategic landscape.

Keeping the art of diplomacy alive could be Australia’s substantive contribution to Asia’s geo-strategic landscape. Growing economic interdependence is not enough to guarantee stability in Asia. A range of dangerous social and political tendencies, from resurgent nationalism to soaring income inequality, threaten to destabilise the domestic and international political contexts in the region. Now more than ever, the elegance of diplomacy should take its rightful place at the front line of international relations, not carry the stretcher for the consequences of failed deterrence, military belligerence and misguided economic sanctions. Diplomacy does not sit comfortably with some of the characteristics of modern society. Governments in many modern states represent a citizenry that is often anxious, demanding and impatient. Successful diplomacy requires national self-confidence, calm and persistence. Critically, it also requires a clear understanding of realistic objectives that reflect true national interests. In a piece entitled ‘Diplomacy is Dead’, award-winning International Herald Tribune journalist Roger Cohen recently lamented that ‘diplomacy’ has become an unfashionable instrument in American politics. This attitude is not unique to America. I recently compared Whitlam’s decision to normalise relations with China in 1972 with Australia’s extremely cautious, conservative approach to the complex regional situation that exists on the Korean Peninsula. The DPRK is a totalitarian, Stalinist, single-party state, but as Cohen noted in his article, “breakthrough diplomacy is not conducted with friends”. Whitlam was not the only Australian author of successful middle-power diplomacy to positively influence regional affairs. Bill Hayden and Gareth Evans achieved a settlement in Cambodia in spite of a complicated regional and international context and resistance on the part of several key participants in the process, including countries Australia enjoyed strong ties with. Hayden imbued a sense of urgency into the process whilst Evans helped cultivate a regional consensus over the key aspects of the Cambodian settlement. There have been many other examples of effective, independent Australian diplomacy. Unfortunately, the light of creative, independent, middle-power diplomacy evident in the past has faded in recent years. By encouraging the European Union to lift its sanctions against Myanmar, however, Foreign Minister Carr seems to have signalled a change in Australian foreign policy towards authoritarian regimes. Does this have implications for our stance towards North Korea? The story of the North Wind and the Sun, one of the many fables of the ancient Greek slave and storyteller, Aesop, is often raised in discussions about North Korea but is also more generally useful to explain the merits of diplomacy as an instrument of foreign policy. In the fable, the glacial north wind attempted to remove a man’s coat by blowing strongly, but the man simply clutched his coat more tightly. When sun shone, however, the man voluntarily took off his coat to enjoy the warmth. Although South Korea’s ‘Sunshine Policy’ towards North Korea was ultimately unsuccessful, in part due to the impact of abrupt policy changes in Washington, significant steps were taken during the period. The wind has blown unceasingly ever since, and the belt around the DPRK’s coat has been further tightened as a result. Maintaining a sound military balance in Northeast Asia while diplomacy is allowed to work is essential. However, there is no evidence that the coordinated international sanctions regime, political and cultural exclusion, and scarcely veiled threats of military action against North Korea have had anything but negative results. Whitlam claimed that his China visit would help bring about “diplomatic sanity in the Pacific”. Gradual steps towards the normalisation of relations with North Korea could also help restore a rational, considered and diplomatic approach to international relations in Asia. The current Labor Government has committed Australia to sanctions that are harsher than those put in place by almost any other Western power. An example of the sanctions the Labor Government has imposed in addition to those supported by the United Nations, is the blanket ban on granting visas to North Koreans. This negates all possibility of educational or cultural exchange between the citizens of Australia and the DPRK, and closes yet another window that Pyongyang had on the outside world. There is great potential for Australia to resume its role as an independent middle power. We have several advantages that could be diplomatically leveraged. Australia is resource rich and food secure. It is the only country in Asia that produces more food than it consumes. We also have a superior level of technical knowledge that could be used to build capacity in countries such as North Korea, where a reported 10,000 people died of starvation last year. A famine in the mid-1990s is said to have claimed the lives of over one million. Many of the developing nations of Asia are also resource insecure. Australia can take advantage of its enviable position to exert a positive influence on Asia. Whitlam favoured a realignment of Australia’s foreign policy, away from unconditional reliance on “great and powerful friends” towards a more internationalist approach that favoured closer relations with the nations of Asia. To act upon this conviction when paranoia about the Chinese threat was at its height required enormous political skill and courage. As a middle power, Australia has more flexibility than most in its international relations. It is surely time for Australia to resurrect a vision splendid for its role in Asia. Is independent, creative diplomacy no longer something to which Australia aspires?

Adelaide In-depth

Get the latest stories, insights and exclusive giveaways delivered straight to your inbox every week.