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Launch of Keith Waller: Portrait of a Working Diplomat, by Alan Fewster

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Speaker: Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Frances Adamson

[Check against delivery]

Thank you Andrew.

I too acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to their Elders past and present. I extend that respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with us today.

Let me acknowledge and welcome representatives from the diplomatic community with us today – all from countries where Keith Waller served as Head of Mission.

  • HE Mrs Minda Calaguian-Cruz, Ambassador Philippines
  • Mr James Carouso, Charge d'Affaires US Embassy
  • Mr Maxim Raku, 2nd Secretary, Russian Embassy

I am also pleased to warmly welcome DFAT colleagues, past and present. I note, in particular:

  • Mr Philip Flood AO, former DFAT Secretary;
  • Mr Bob Furlonger CB, Mr Geoff Miller AO and Mr Kim Jones AM – all former heads of the Office of National Assessments and senior DFAT staff members;
  • Mr Jim Ingram AO, former senior DFAT Officer and former Executive Director of the World Food Program.
  • And finally, Ms Elizabeth Warren, who worked with Keith Waller in Manila – in a few weeks it will be the 70th anniversary of Elizabeth's induction into the department as a cadet;

I also want to take this moment to acknowledge DFAT's historian, Dr David Lee. David has just completed twenty years of service as our historian and will, on Thursday, received a Secretary's Australia Day Award. .

I found "Keith Waller: Three Duties and Talleyrand's Dictum" fascinating, and am delighted to have this opportunity to reflect on it amongst my fellow 'working diplomats'.

Congratulations Alan, on a thoroughly researched piece of work, written in a lively style. Congratulations, too, to Australian Scholarly publishing. Together you have made a significant contribution to the historical record of Australian diplomacy.

This is very much Alan's book: it is not an official biography. Nor is it a Departmental publication. The judgements it contains and choice of content are Alan's.

I thank him for it, as this book that will interest the whole Australian diplomatic community.

Waller's career

Keith Waller's career from 1936 to 1974 spanned Prime Ministers from Joseph Lyons to Gough Whitlam and 18 foreign ministers.

He was head of mission in Manila, Bangkok and Moscow, and he was the first career officer appointed Ambassador to the United States.

At these posts and in senior positions in Canberra, Keith Waller helped to build our modern Department, and was closely involved at the critical junctures of Australian foreign policy in the 1960s in particular.

Clearly, there's a lot we can learn from a career of this scope.

Our frame: a DFAT officer's "duties"

Alan has suggested that we assess Waller's work against the three duties for diplomats that British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour set out 100 years ago.

As Balfour saw it in 1918, a diplomat's first duty is to become 'persona grata', a known and trusted contact, in the government to which one is accredited.

Secondly, a diplomat should interpret to one's own government the policies of the government to which one is accredited.

Balfour's third diplomatic duty was the obvious obverse, to interpret to the government to which one is accredited the policies of one's own government.

Incidentally, Balfour also said that biography should be written by an acute enemy.

I'm not sure that applies in this case, but Alan was certainly prepared to paint his subject warts and all.

Balfour was a great ironist, and the reference fits nicely with Alan's style – one feels in reading the book that Alan's eyebrow is often raised.

However, a century on from Balfour, in our highly interconnected world, and with the White Paper and DFAT's strategic framework firmly in mind, as always, this book prompted me to think about a different and broader list of duties.

Five duties, in fact, for diplomats and DFAT officers in general, inspired by Alan's Portrait of Keith Waller.

So that is what I will talk about today.

A first duty for diplomats is to cultivate an interest in power and in the constraints on power.

We know we must develop a world view, and I'll get to that, but in our everyday work we also must all influence people constantly, in a professional and effective way.

The young and highly ambitious Keith Waller occasionally crossed the line.

Posted in southern China during the war, Waller believed the Department was failing to keep posts informed.

He blamed the Secretary, Lieutenant Colonel W. R. Hodgson, and agitated amongst his peers for his removal from office.

This is not something I would condone.

It is a big step and I would caution anyone thinking of agitating for the removal of DFAT's Secretary to think long and hard.

Clearly, the young Waller lacked an appreciation of the conventions that should have constrained his ambition.

An appreciation for power and the constraints and courtesies through which it is mediated is important when we facilitate affairs of state, and in our own careers.

My second duty for diplomats is to become adept at engaging the Australian public on the issues that really matter.

Sometimes this requires a long-term perspective.

Waller agreed with former DFAT secretary, Sir Arthur Tange, that two categories obtained in Australia's foreign policy: those that were politically feasible, for vigorous implementation; and those that were less amenable politically, and required a conscious long-term policy of educating public opinion.

For Waller, gradual reform of the White Australia Policy was an example of the second category. His reports from Manila firmly conveyed the long-term damage to Australia's reputation from the inflexible application of a deeply resented policy.

A third duty that Alan's book brought to mind is to understand and support all our agencies of foreign policy: starting with our ministers, the Department's coordinating role in Canberra, and Posts.

Waller understood the demands on ministers, having worked as private secretary to two foreign ministers, Billy Hughes and H.V. Evatt.

In addition, Waller became Secretary of External Affairs after having served in a number of major-power capitals, as well as several regional posts.

Waller was in his twenties when he opened a post in Chongqing. Recurring dysentery reduced him to the weight he had been aged 14.

One of his colleagues had to return to Canberra, suffering dysentery, typhus and jaundice.

These conditions go some way to explaining Waller's intense frustration with what he saw as Canberra's failure to keep posts informed.

From those early days, Waller worked to build a Department that kept its posted officers informed and provided adequate pastoral support.

In Canberra, he initiated information digests for posts, and the practice of Post Liaison visits, which remain a high priority today.

This work, along with his reforms to graduate recruitment and training, made External Affairs a more attractive place to work.

The fourth duty for diplomats I would suggest is to provide big-picture advice.

Alan tells how in Moscow in 1961, Waller and team assessed, accurately, that the falling-out between the Soviet Union and Communist China was in fact an enduring split.

That was not a common view at the time. The domino theory was in the ascendency, and communism was seen as a hegemonic threat.

Waller saw through this, and he was right.

In a similar vein, in 1962, as the senior policy officer in Canberra responsible for Southeast Asia, Waller questioned the assumption that China was an expansionist power.

During the McMahon Government, Waller initiated a policy paper on the question of recognising Communist China.

While that did not lead to a change in policy at that time, Waller was well prepared when the incoming Whitlam Government moved to do so.

As the world scene is always changing, diplomats must renew the conceptual frameworks that best fit the complexity of international relations.

In recognition of this fact, Waller rejuvenated the Department's policy planning capacity and, characteristically, housed it in a branch that was responsible for ensuring Posts were well informed and looked after.

The fifth duty I would suggest follows from this: the point of revising our assumptions is then also to test policy.

The outstanding example of this in Waller's career concerned Indonesia's policy of confrontation towards the newly formed federation of Malaysia.

In line with prior commitments, Australia supported Malaysia and Britain against Indonesia's military incursions into Malaysia in 1963.

Yet Waller and his colleagues advised their Foreign Minister, Garfield Barwick, to urge the British to show restraint, and ensured that Australia retained excellent lines of communication with the Indonesians.

This policy protected our relations with Indonesia, and positioned Australia to play a supporting role during the establishment of ASEAN in the following years.

Waller and his colleagues knew that no one understood the confluence of Australian, Malaysian, Indonesian and British interests better then they themselves.

More difficult is the art of adjusting strongly held policy positions in the absence of crucial information.

When the Government cannot determine the best policy course based on verifiable information, and must instead weigh factors such as a leader's resolve and credibility, critical assessments may be required from our senior diplomat on the ground.

In 1965, Waller was our Ambassador in Washington, charged with pressing upon the United States the importance of strong action to halt the Communist advance southwards through Indo China.

The established policy was that Australia had more at stake in Vietnam than the United States; if the U.S sent troops there, Australia would too.

However, as Waller reported, the Johnson Administration would not include Australia in its strategic planning for Vietnam. The U.S. Congress was also becoming increasingly uneasy with the Administration's lack of direction.

Australia's Foreign Minister, Paul Hasluck, became concerned by President Johnson's ambivalence, as the President talked about committing U.S. troops in Vietnam, while also expressing an interest in negotiations with the North.

Hasluck asked Waller whether this was the right time for Australia to commit troops.

Waller advised that Australia should do so as soon as possible, and that is what transpired.

My point is that the book shows us diplomats helping to develop foreign policy, and helping to implement it.

It shows Keith Waller developing insights into Southeast Asia, international communism, the alliance with the United States.

It shows how well he understood the pressures on politicians and the harsh realities of power in international relations.

It shows Waller in a position of great influence at a critical moment of uncertainty, uniquely positioned to test and adapt policy.

It is our duty as diplomats to prepare ourselves to see in uncertainty both opportunity and challenge, and to give the best possible advice.

The White Paper

One last point.

Alan's subtitle refers to a dictum of that remarkable diplomat, Talleyrand, who survived Napoleon and pulled off one of history's great diplomatic master-strokes for a weakened France at the Congress of Vienna.

Talleyrand boasted that the diplomats he had trained were intelligent, accurate – and not overzealous.

Alan is making the point that a diplomat must keep their critical distance on policy even as they implement it.

One of the central assessments of our Foreign Policy White Paper is that our five fundamental objectives 'are bound by a common thread: each seeks to respond to the opportunities and uncertainties of a contested world'.

Uncertainty brings with it opportunity as well as challenge.

In our age of change, which as the Prime Minister describes unprecedented in scale and pace, we must constantly refresh our assumptions, and test policy.

I think Alan's book can help us do that.

I would like to thank Alan and Scholarly Publishing once more for a most stimulating book, one that I recommend to all of you.

Last Updated: 6 March 2018
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