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Australian Diplomacy Today Symposium

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Speaker: Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Peter Varghese AO


People don't generally read books by Henry Kissinger for the pictures.

But if you do flick through the 912 pages of his 1994 work, Diplomacy, the pictures will give you a particular sense of one side of international relations.

On page 78, there's a painting depicting the scene at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the conference of ambassadors and leaders that reshaped Europe after the Napoleonic Wars.

Opposite the title page, he's got a sketch of an ornate state room in Versailles, showing Woodrow Wilson addressing the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919.

And later on, there's that historic picture of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at Yalta in February 1945.

All up, there's a lot of pictures and photos of grand old men at the major international conferences that have reshaped the contours of our world over the past few centuries.

Typically, the photos Dr Kissinger selected for publication punctuate major shifts in the global order.

Most follow major wars.

Looking at the pictures, you see diplomacy as something undertaken a long way away. You see a very select group of men – and yes, it's nearly always been men, at least as far as the history of diplomacy up to really quite recent times has been concerned – at some distance, making the profound decisions that have given us the world in which we live today.

The vast bulk of diplomatic practice is far more mundane than that. It consists of long, patient work by many, many practitioners from all over the world, all representing, in one way or another, the national interests of their state, or reflecting the values they hold dear.

Outside of major peace conferences that drew national leaders into direct negotiations, through the history of diplomacy your archetypal ambassador was the primary means of communication between his home state and his state of residence. As far as the sending country was concerned, he had a near-monopoly as a source of insight into the country in which he was working. He was his country's sole representative, authorised to speak and negotiate on his country's behalf. Those were days when Ambassadors actually had plenipotentiary powers.

So what has changed?

It is the conceit of every generation that they live in unique times. Yet the case for ours being a distinctive era is quite strong.

In 2015, as Dr Kissinger reflected in his more recent work, World Order, we are living through another one of those inflexion points in the history of the global order.

New powers are reshaping the global economy. On the back of perhaps the most profound changes in global economics since the Second World War, they are flexing other types of power too – political, diplomatic, institutional and ideological.

But unlike all those major transformative moments of the past – Westphalia, Vienna, Versailles, Yalta, Bretton-Woods – the shift in the global order through which we are living has not proven, to date at least, to be something that can be pinned down to a single image capable of being stuck in one of Dr Kissinger's books.

It's bigger than that, both more profound, and potentially more challenging.

As well, technology and the democratisation of information also define our era. In a way that would have been almost unimaginable in earlier centuries, the instantaneous spread of information that we see today has brought diplomacy home.

Today, the ambassador is only one source of information on the countries to which he – or she – is accredited – and only one means of communicating with national leaders.

These days, the global media is everywhere and always on, fundamentally changing the information dynamic between ambassador and the capital.

Political leaders, defence forces, intelligence agencies, finance ministries, business and community groups – all sorts of organisations and people have their own sources of information, and their own means of communication with counterparts in other countries.

The private sector, in particular, is one group that plays a very significant role in representing countries overseas, because of the myriad of trade and investment links that sit behind the global economy. That is why our portfolio ministers have put economic diplomacy front and centre of our entire international agenda.

These days, empowered by mobile phones and the internet, foreign ministers and political leaders often communicate with each other directly – by text, by email, or phone call, as the need arises. And leaders are, in many ways, more active in peacetime diplomacy than they have ever been in the past.

So today I'd like to talk about the challenges of diplomacy facing a foreign ministry. To answer the question: in the 21st Century, why do we need a foreign ministry, if we can keep up to date with global developments with a simple subscription to The Economist?

The challenges of modern diplomacy in a multipolar world

The first thing to say about the challenges of modern diplomacy, of course, is that the field of operation is more contested than ever before.

Ours is a globalised, multipolar world.

When Kissinger wrote Diplomacy, the Cold War was over. The United States had entered its unipolar moment.

Speaking about the first President Bush, Kissinger wrote: "[He] bestrode a world which was receding by the time [he] came to power, though that fact was not obvious to [him]. . . Bush's view of the world was shaped by the Cold War, in which he had risen to prominence and over whose end he was obliged to preside while at the pinnacle of his career."

Now, of course, two decades have passed and we have entered a world in which there are multiple poles of power.

The same can be said of Australia's region, the Indo-Pacific.

As I said at the Lowy Institute last week, Asia is moving towards a more crowded strategic environment. The Asian growth story has been underpinned by a strategic stability underwritten by US strategic dominance. Now, we are seeing other major powers rising in strategic weight, and the trend line is towards a multipolar Asian strategic system.

The diffusion of power

But the complexity of modern diplomacy is not just about the growing number of major states able to flex economic, political, ideological or military power.

We are also living through a time in which power has diffused much more broadly than used to be the case.

At those previous points of inflexion in global history, power was concentrated far more than it is today in the hands of just one type of actor – governments. Whether empire or nation-state, the locus of power through the past several centuries has unquestionably been with governments – it was at the level of government that economic, political, ideological and military power came together.

Nation-states are still very powerful. Geopolitics still matters. But, for a whole range of reasons, not the least of which is globalisation, the internet and social media, other focal points have emerged. The rise of non-state actors ranging from terrorist groups through to multinational companies and NGOs, is a marker of our time.

Terrorist groups thrive in non-governed spaces. They engage in psychological warfare with nations all around the world, seeking, for example, to goad nations into physical conflict. They also use ideological power to draw in recruits, using the powerful tools of the digital age to project their narratives. To them, the nation-state is an irrelevance.

At the other end of the spectrum entrepreneurs – like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – now have philanthropy budgets so large that they are helping to reshape the global aid paradigm. And multinational corporations play a large role in opening up economic growth around the world.

So our world is multipolar, not just in geo-strategic terms. Many other poles of power are now more diffusely spread.

The challenges of multilateralism

A world in which power is much less concentrated in the hands of the old men that Dr Kissinger likes to put in his books is a world which will find it harder to reach consensus on critical issues.

We are all very much aware that many of the issues we face these days are primarily global:

  • maintaining security and peace as many countries undergo dramatic systemic change
  • keeping the global economy healthy in a period of troubled economies
  • tackling climate change in a concerted, effective way
  • holding the line on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Yet finding global multilateral solutions is harder than ever.

The multilateral system we have today is largely a post-war creation. It has many achievements to its credit and has very much worked to Australia's benefit. Our international economy has undergone significant reform. Trade has been liberalised, globalisation and more open markets have delivered more prosperity and wealth around the world than ever before. Democracy and the rule of law are much more widespread than they were in the ashes of 1945.

But today multilateralism is under intense pressure.

There is a basic tension at the heart of global multilateralism: the mismatch between national power and global democracy.

Global multilateralism rests on the equality of states. But power resides with the handful of states with the strategic and economic reach to shape events.

The current multilateral system is largely an invention of the United States and a clutch of western countries. It reflects a post-war US view that the creation of global public goods was squarely in its national interest.

But today emerging powers are no longer willing to accept rules they did not write or outcomes which they consider do not take their interests into account. Some do not share the core values and interests of Western countries. Others place a higher priority on state sovereignty over individual rights, and so are wary of interventions in national affairs. They see the new emphasis on humanitarian considerations in international affairs as undermining the post-1945 order, not as a desirable evolution of it. Some favour a greater role for the state, and have shown little interest in taking a leadership role on the global stage.

The challenges facing a diplomatic service – adapting to technological change

These systemic changes to our world are changes to which modern foreign services are having to adapt.

Habit and rusted-on thinking are human traits that inhabit our institutions every bit as much as they inhabit us.

All around the world, foreign services are trying to tackle the changing landscape – to sort out what needs to change to stay relevant, to work out how we must adapt for the 21st Century.

How do we make ourselves more nimble? How do we build our capacity for change?

There are many answers to those questions, of course – let me touch on just five.

Embracing technological change

First, technology is today reshaping the practice of diplomacy.

DFAT has made a good start with social media. Along with our central accounts, the majority of Australian missions now use social media platforms suited to their local audiences, whether on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or, for example in China, Weibo and Wechat. At one level social media is a combination of the banal and the narcissistic. But social media can also help inform people about Australia's interests. It has a reach we ignore to our disadvantage.

Others with whom we compete for influence have gone much further than we have in using social media as a platform for influence. That's why, in our information-rich age, we have to conduct a type of domestic diplomacy along with the more familiar overseas type.

Our audience is different. Drenched as we are with information, our efforts to project a positive image of Australia, and our efforts to act in Australia's national interest, require us to find smart new ways of engaging people within Australia. We also have to listen to domestic perspectives on what we're doing, and we have to be persuasive in reaching out to domestic constituencies. That has always been a key part of our trade advocacy work, but today, this is a core part of our broader public diplomacy work. And our engagement with the AIIA is one important element of that.

The Australian Government is firmly committed to using new technology, including social media, to realise a more open, transparent and consultative form of government in which we engage directly with foreign and domestic audiences. That's why Australian heads of mission and diplomats are encouraged to think creatively about pursuing social media opportunities to shape debate and manage potentially negative issues, in the same way they do for other forms of communication.

The technological and information challenges of the 21st Century aren't of course just about what we do in the social media space. They touch on almost every single aspect of our operations.

Institutional reform

My second issue is institutional reform.

I read a critique of the US State Department in Foreign Policy recently that laid a string of charges against that storied institution:

  • That State has an obsession with clearance processes that poisons and stymies the flow of ideas and fresh thinking
  • That it is a bastion of micromanagement
  • That it has lost ground, in terms of strategic policymaking, to other sources of government policy advice
  • That it is too siloed, both in terms of staff moving within different parts of the organisation, and in terms of people moving in and out of State during the course of a career.

Now I know that some of you will be unkindly thinking that this was a pen picture of DFAT and you would of course be way off the mark. But I think we can all recognise a common set of bureaucratic challenges in that analysis. Foreign ministries are part of any country's bureaucracy, and in an age of greater and greater information and policy-contestability, I think it would be clearly wrong for any leader of any large public-sector institution not to worry about whether these sorts of rigidities are downgrading our skills and capacity to influence others.

Driving innovation and renewal

There is no question that all foreign ministries face reform challenges which brings me to my third issue: innovation.

In the last two years, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has put innovation and new ideas at the forefront of her approach to aid policy. She has driven major institutional change in this portfolio, most obviously through the decision to integrate AusAID with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

There have been several main drivers for that change, but one of Ms Bishop's particular convictions has been an absolute desire to drive more effectiveness and efficiency into Australia's aid program. And one of her signature initiatives has been to set up, within the department, the InnovationXchange – an important step that seeks to drive fresh thinking and world's-best practice innovation into our development agenda.

The Foreign Minister has rightly been concerned with driving innovation into the way we spend our aid dollars. And now we have picked up the innovation theme and applied it to the broader cultural agenda in the department.

This year we launched an "Ideas Challenge" in which we invited departmental officers to submit ideas on how we can improve our performance across the board. There were 400 ideas submitted and we put them to a vote. The winners were given the opportunity to implement the idea and I was enormously impressed with both the quality of the ideas and the enthusiasm it generated.

I have also sought to encourage a culture of innovation in policy development, including what I call the "falsifying" of policy. This is an idea shamelessly stolen from Karl Popper who famously argued that knowledge is advanced when we can falsify a prevailing paradigm. What this means for DFAT is that we should always be privately testing our policy assumptions: are our starting points correct; does the rhetoric stand up to reality; is the policy working; can it be improved?

Issues of gender equality

The Foreign Minister has also put a particular focus, in our aid program, on development programs that help to address entrenched discrimination against women. She sees the clear economic incentive in empowering women and addressing gender equality through our aid program.

Likewise, in an institutional sense, questions of gender equality are a very live question for the department – which takes me to my fourth issue.

It's been decades since DFAT was exclusively a men's club. Women have run many of our important posts – including Beijing and our mission to the United Nations in New York.

Nevertheless, staffing analysis that we have conducted clearly shows that despite gender parity in our graduate recruitment processes for decades, the representation of women into the higher levels of DFAT management is not what it should be.

There are, without doubt, all sorts of reasons for that disparity.

But the economic framework that tells us gender disequilibrium in developing economies acts as a drag on their growth applies just as much inside this building.

If there are institutional barriers that prevent our best and brightest women reaching the top levels of foreign service, you have to ask the question: are gender barriers holding us back?

Are we getting the best out of our best and brightest women, holding back our own potential for innovation and new thinking? Productivity and capability are critical assets, and we have to ensure we maximise both.

With that in mind, I commissioned a Women in Leadership review of DFAT. That review pointed to many constraints which deter women from applying for senior positions. We have since released a discussion paper which canvasses what we can do about these barriers and the next step will be to put in place a strategy which can effectively overcome as many of these barriers as we can.

A greater direct role for national leaders

And finally, in this far from exhaustive list of the challenges facing the modern diplomatic service, there's the increased involvement of leaders in diplomacy: a topical issue as we gear up for the summit season which covers the last quarter of every year.

As Dr Kissinger reminds us, Woodrow Wilson was at the Paris Peace Conference for six months. However, outside of the major peace conferences that have built and reshaped the world order over the centuries, leaders haven't usually been that closely involved in direct negotiations.

That's what we have officials, ambassadors and embassies for.

These days, though, the cycle of annual leaders' meetings – like the G20, UNGA Leaders Week, the East Asia Summit, APEC and so on – puts a huge amount of pressure on national leaders to be part of the work of finding global solutions.

The involvement of Leaders bring unique diplomatic challenges.

As Dr Kissinger wryly wrote in Diplomacy:

"It is almost always a mistake for heads of state to undertake the details of a negotiation. They are then obliged to master specifics normally handled by their foreign offices and are deflected onto subjects more appropriate to their subordinates, while being kept from issues only heads of state can resolve. Since no one without a well-developed ego reaches the highest office, compromise is difficult and deadlocks are dangerous."

That said, there's no doubt that leaders bring a unique ability to cut through the sorts of issues that have stopped lower-level negotiators from reaching a deal. In diplomacy you cannot solve a problem at the level at which it has been created. So leaders can be a circuit breaker on the big issues.

For a diplomatic service like DFAT, summit season highlights the modern challenge of bringing a whole of government perspective to diplomacy. Even at home, we don't have a monopoly on advising ministers – there are many agencies now involved in that work. And at posts, while DFAT acts as the lead agency, we have to draw together the skills and expertise of a whole range of government departments and business contacts. In a globalised world, domestic policy decisions interact with international consequences. So a modern foreign service is not only a diplomatic agency in its own right – it also needs to be adept in working in close consultation with the rest of government, and the private sector, if it's going to be as effective as we need it to be.


Ladies and gentlemen, diplomacy today is a profession both the same and very different to what it has been throughout the centuries. Its core task – to advance our security and prosperity –has not changed.

Australia needs to make its way in a world which is highly competitive, strategically uncertain and in which no one owes us a living. More than most, we have to live by our wits. We can neither buy nor bully our way in the world. We have to pursue our interests by persuasion which is the currency of diplomacy.

Australia is not a member of a large block like the EU. Yes, we have friends and allies. But we also have to chart our own course and diplomacy is our compass in that journey.

A subscription to The Economist is no substitute for Australian eyes on the ground. The telephone and text messages cannot substitute for the relationships that embassies build with the power brokers in other countries. A professional diplomatic service matters because we need eyes that can judge events through the prism of Australia's national interests; which can recognise threats and opportunities; which can make a case for Australian interests that is sensitive to the nuances of culture and history; which can cultivate the networks and relationships without which we simply could not pursue our core interests.

In short diplomacy exists because it is not just needed but essential. A country without an effective diplomatic service is a country doomed to be a price taker and destined to be both poorer and less secure.

Last Updated: 28 August 2015
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