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Speech to the ASPI Defence and Security Luncheon - Diplomacy and National Security

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Speaker: Mr Michael L'Estrange, Secretary - Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

I am delighted to accept ASPI's invitation to address this occasion today and I am very grateful for the warmth of the welcome that you have extended when the Prime Minister made a significant foreign policy address to ASPI in June 2004, he noted that "with a certain youthful precocity, ASPI has injected new ideas and vigour into our national security debate" in my view, that significant contribution by ASPI has continued to grow and diversify in the intervening period.

I congratulate ASPI on what it has achieved to date and I wish it well in its high aspirations for the future.

The focus of my comments today is on the practice of diplomacy, the concept of national security and the links between the two.

Both diplomacy and national security have changed significantly over recent times in terms of their focus and their implications.

The art of diplomacy has often been misunderstood. One American writer saw a diplomat as someone who could tell others to go to hell in such a way that they believed they would enjoy the trip.

What is true is that the practice of diplomacy has changed many have seen those changes as positive and overdue
but some have argued that the pace of change has significantly marginalised official diplomacy
and they contend that direct regular contact between Heads of Government, Ministers and senior officials has diminished the relevance of traditional diplomatic exchanges, or that technological change and the instant information flows to which it has given rise have made the traditional role of diplomacy outmoded.

I see these critiques of modern diplomacy as deeply flawed
the more direct contact between Heads of Government, Ministers and senior officials has enhanced the role of resident diplomats, not diminished it
and the state of modern communications has had the same effect.

There are those who make a different claim: not that diplomacy has become marginalised but that it has become less effective some support such a claim with a tired stereotype of diplomacy as avoiding necessary hard choices, as dodging uncomfortable truths, as involved in interminable debates over arcane and irrelevant issues, as more preoccupied with form than with substance, and as preferring tact and subtlety to a single-minded, practical pursuit of national interests.

Others who make the same argument employ a different but equally tired stereotype of diplomacy as a practice more suited to reinforcing differences between governments and communities than to resolving them.

I see this line of argument as equally flawed and the characteristics of diplomacy that it seeks to portray as not indicative of reality in any general sense
they are certainly not indicative of Australian diplomacy in any sense.

I have expounded these various critiques of modern diplomacy in some detail not because I believe that any of them is valid but because I believe the opposite to be true.

Far from becoming marginalised or increasingly ineffective, I see diplomacy in its positive modern sense as more important and more relevant in current international circumstances rather than less so and what do I mean by the 'positive modern sense' of diplomacy?

  • I mean diplomacy that is intensely practical, down-to-earth and outcomes-oriented;
  • I mean diplomacy that matches words with actions;
  • and I mean diplomacy that deals with new possibilities for enhanced security and development rather than with further entrenching old hatreds and divisions or inciting new ones.

Modern Australian diplomacy is very much focused on these priorities
our diplomacy is certainly not the preserve of our Diplomatic Service alone
diplomacy is a whole-of-government priority
it is led and directed by the Prime Minister, and our portfolio Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries
it involves other Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries as circumstances require on specific issues
at officials' level, modern Australian diplomacy is not the preserve of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade alone.

It is a focus not only for all agencies directly involved in the promotion of Australian international interests (including strategic, trade, investment, aid and law enforcement issues) but also for those focused on domestic policy priorities which increasingly have international implications.

Modern Australian diplomacy has an ongoing and indispensable role in the two-way flow of information, in explanation, in minimising misunderstandings and in building regional and wider support on particular issues including through the development of functional coalitions of countries with like-minded approaches on specific matters.

Nothing in the communications revolution has diminished that role and, in fact, that particular revolution, with its highly effective capacity to disseminate misinformation, has actually enhanced the significance of diplomacy's corrective role
there is no substitute for on-the-ground perceptions based on the particular interests of particular states.

And there is no substitute for on-the-ground reaction to misinformation.

The role of diplomacy in communication has changed but it remains critically important.

The focus of diplomacy is now not exclusively on the communication itself (as it once was) but is increasingly on the context of communications, the wider implications of specific negotiations and the nuances of international dialogue.

It is true that the sources of modern information gathering by states have changed
- they are now much more diverse and contestable. But diplomacy continues to provide an irreplaceable conduit for information and informed analysis about the values and priorities of particular governments, the trends in the economic and social development of particular communities, and the objectives of the international engagements of particular states or regions.

Modern diplomacy also retains its relevance by continuing to symbolise the existence of an international system of sovereign states based on common rules, conventions, immunities and practices.

And at a time when there are those who seek to erode that system, the continuing functioning of international diplomacy is an important reaffirmation of the framework for official interaction which states, irrespective of their policies on particular issues, almost universally continue to share.

I see modern Australian diplomacy fulfilling these important ongoing roles in a practical way that is focused on the advocacy, negotiation and advancement of Australian interests as identified by the national government of the day.

Our emphasis on the importance of proactive advocacy in Australian diplomacy is highly significant: it reflects the importance we attach to practicality, initiative and outcomes in our diplomacy; and it signifies a qualitatively different approach to one that emphasises networking and reporting in a far narrower context.

I have no illusions that stereotypes tend to linger longer than realities. Stereotypes reinforce images to which some prefer to cling and into which they are reluctant to allow reality to intrude.

I referred earlier to the tired and outdated stereotypes of international diplomacy that still linger in some quarters. I often think of how divorced from reality those stereotypes are as I interact with Australian diplomats at work in Australia and around the world.

That sense of unreality is stark when I see our consular emergency teams moving into action at any hour of the day or night to support Australians injured or in trouble overseas, or when I see our diplomats moving among sites of horrific devastation or terrorist outrage where Australians are bereaved or desperately in need of assistance.

I think how far some stereotypes of diplomacy are from reality as I see Australian diplomats working innovatively to advance Australian interests in very difficult locations where the dangers of violence or terrorism are very high, where the pressures on them and their families are very real and where the demands on their judgment can often involve very high stakes.

And I think of the unreality of the old stereotypes of diplomacy when I see Australian diplomats focused on highly practical and down-to-earth objectives, adapting their skills to the particular demands they face in various parts of the world, and all the time focusing on advancing the interests of Australia, protecting the welfare of Australians, supporting the export ambitions of Australian businesses, and working to develop Australia's international relationships through more extensive political dialogue, or expanded trade and investment, or enhanced development assistance to alleviate poverty and promote sustainable development or, as is often the case, a combination of such initiatives.

The priorities and practices of modern Australian diplomacy are broad-minded but they are also hard-headed

  • they are pursued by Australian diplomats in circumstances that are often confronting and difficult in both personal and professional terms
  • they demand special skills, commitment, innovation and persistence
  • they are priorities and practices that could not be more removed from some of the tired and outdated caricatures of diplomacy that stubbornly endure.

Modern Australian diplomacy is directed first and foremost at enhancing Australia's national security and just as the purposes and practice of diplomacy have changed over recent times, so too has the concept of 'national security'.

National security was perceived for a long time as a concept focused on geopolitical rivalries, defined threats to territory, known military adversaries, contingency planning and informally accepted rules of engagement today, national security is a concept that is more complex, more multifaceted and less amenable to narrow definition

National security encompasses traditional issues - including diplomatic, military, strategic, economic and legal issues - that impact on the security of Australia and Australians in the broad sense of that term it also encompasses non-traditional and asymmetric threats to the security of Australia and Australians, including very directly the threat posed by terrorism that reaches across borders and across regions.

My central theme today is that Australian diplomacy, in the broad sense that I have identified, is contributing to Australian national security in a number of key ways.

First, Australian diplomacy is focused intensively on the Government's wide-ranging agenda of action to meet the challenges of global terrorism. Despite many arrests, successful prosecutions and an unprecedented level of international co-operation, the threat of transnational terrorism remains a real and present danger in our region, and beyond.

The focus of our diplomatic activism is directed multilaterally, regionally and bilaterally

It is directly supportive of the involvement of Australia's Defence Force in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the purposes and priorities of the Iraqi and Afghan governments and the international coalition of countries who are providing practical support to them.

Our diplomacy strongly supports the work of the United Nations in combating terrorism through the stricter international standards and controls it has set on financing and on chemical, biological and nuclear weapons-related materials, equipment and technology.

Our diplomacy is designed to build political will in countering the threat of terrorism, and it is aimed at enhancing counter-terrorist capacities through practical co-operation in a common cause.

In our own region, the Australian Government has committed more than $250 million since 2004 on offshore counter-terrorism co-operation with a focus on key sectors such as border and transport security, intelligence, law enforcement and transnational crime.

Our regional diplomacy is strongly supportive in these areas of practical co-operation.

We have negotiated 11 Memoranda of Understanding with regional countries to facilitate interaction between Australian agencies and regional counterparts
and we are increasingly looking at ways in which we can work with regional governments and communities to counter the divisive messages of hatred, intolerance and violence propagated by extremists.

Our Ambassador for Counter-Terrorism has provided a focal point for co-ordinating, promoting and intensifying the Government's international counter-terrorist strategies and in directing the practical focus and objectives of our diplomatic activism in this area.

Second, Australian diplomacy plays a critical role in supporting the Government's priorities to counter the proliferation of weapons, and particularly materials and technologies related to weapons of mass destruction.

Australian diplomacy is highly active in its support for the strategies of the international community in responding to the nuclear brinkmanship of North Korea and Iran.

Our diplomatic resources are also deployed in full support, and often leadership, of international organisations focused on strengthening export controls and safeguards, and on ensuring that WMD-related materials and technologies do not fall into terrorists' hands.

Our diplomacy has also been at the forefront of initiatives to encourage international co-operation among like-minded countries on counter-proliferation issues.

And, in that context, the Proliferation Security Initiative to disrupt illicit WMD-related trade and to do so within international and domestic laws is a vital priority for Australian diplomacy.

A third major focus for Australian diplomacy in advancing Australia's national security interests relates to the changing interaction among the great and emerging powers in the Asia-Pacific region - and among the United States, China, Japan and India, in particular - and the implications of those changes for Australia's national interests.

This focus relates particularly to ways in which Australia's alliance relationship with the United States can be further strengthened,
and it is also concerned with our broadening security and economic co-operation with Japan and with the dynamic new opportunities that are opening up in Australia's relations with China and India.

A fourth area of activism for Australian diplomacy in advancing our national security interests relates to the new frontiers of interaction that are developing in terms of Australia's engagement in South East Asia and the South Pacific.

New areas of practical co-operation are expanding, particularly with Indonesia and Malaysia.

Established linkages with other ASEAN States are being further consolidated
and the traditionally strong associations with the Pacific Island States are being further developed, including through new forms of regional co-operation, through a focus on good governance, economic development and security issues, and through Australia's leadership role in the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands.

Fifth, Australia's national security interests encompass developments in relation to international trade.

This is the case partly because of the dynamics within the international system that global trade negotiations generate, partly because of the scale of Australian interests that are directly involved, and partly because of the importance of trade liberalisation in alleviating global poverty.

Australian trade diplomacy has as its primary focus the multilateral trading system, and in particular at the present time a successful outcome of the WTO Doha Round built on a broad-based reduction in trade barriers.

Our diplomacy is also directed in a complementary way at regional trade facilitation measures and at a range of bilateral liberalising initiatives - which include implementing the Free Trade Agreements that have been entered into with Singapore, Thailand and the United States, negotiating FTAs with China, ASEAN, Malaysia and the UAE, working on a feasibility study with Japan into an FTA, and pursuing liberalising arrangements with a range of other countries.

Our trade diplomacy also involves coalition-building (as reflected in the Cairns Group and other fora); it encompasses analyses of issues in great technical depth; it includes involvement in complex bilateral and multilateral negotiations; and it embraces prosecution and defence of our interests through international legal and arbitration systems.

A sixth area of priority for Australian diplomacy in support of our national security interests relates to our active involvement in the institutional architecture of the Asia-Pacific region:

  • we have been active participants in the APEC process since its inception
  • we have continued that role over recent days at the APEC Leaders meeting in South Korea
  • and we will continue to do so in the lead-up to Australia's hosting of APEC in 2007, and in the period beyond it

APEC brings regional economies together in a unique way; it is the key institutional forum through which the United States engages with the region at the Leaders level; and we believe that it has a special capacity to enhance regional co-operation.

We are also extensively involved in the work of the ASEAN Regional Forum, and the particularly important opportunity that it affords for a regional security dialogue with regional states.

We look forward to attending the inaugural meeting of the East Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur in December
and we greatly value the exchanges we have with regional governments through a wide range of other regional associations and groups.

Australian diplomacy has a particular and intensive focus on the Asia-Pacific region which reflects the priorities of our national interests as a country of that region but we are also a country with global interests that impact on our security, our economy and the people-to-people links that Australians value

And our diplomatic activism reflects that reality.

Our global interests are wide-ranging:

  • they reflect the character of our historical evolution as a nation
  • they include our fundamentally important alliance relationship with the United States
  • they reflect the nature of many of the challenges we face, including terrorism and arms proliferation as well as economic and technological globalisation
  • they encompass our role in multilateral diplomacy and international financial institutions
  • they include the particular and longstanding Australian interests involved in policy developments within the European Union and in the prospects for the peace process in the Middle East;
  • and they also embrace the significant new commercial opportunities opening up for Australian interests around the world.

A final example I wish to refer to today in terms of Australian diplomacy working in support of our national security interests relates to the security of our nationals overseas. This is a critically important and expanding area of responsibility for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Australians now make over four and a half million overseas trips every year, well over a million more than three years ago. Almost 900,000 Australians live overseas and more than 160,000 are in East Asia on any one day. In the past year, the Department assisted over 25,000 Australians in difficulty in over 152 countries.

Consular cases which require extensive handling have increased by forty per cent in the past three years. Some of these cases involve high profile tragedies and emergencies; many involve individual difficulties that can be more quickly resolved; a few cannot, unfortunately, be resolved;
and all of them require active diplomatic involvement and significant commitment.

Australian diplomacy also works in support of the security of Australians abroad by playing an active and positive role in international, and particularly regional, contingency planning in relation to disaster management generally and a possible avian flu pandemic in particular.

This role includes the provision of information and advice to Australians as well as practical co-operation with regional countries to which the APEC Leaders meeting this week added important new dimensions.

The practice of diplomacy and the concept of national security will continue to evolve.

For Australia, they will evolve in a way that reflects our particular circumstances and our national interests in responding to them.

The priorities for our diplomacy will, however, have important elements of continuity. Our diplomacy will continue to be focused, practical and in seamless support of the priorities of the government of the day. It will continue to value outcomes over processes, and substance over form. Above all, it will continue to have at its core and in all its dimensions a clear-eyed commitment to the advancement of Australia's interests in the world.

Last Updated: 19 September 2014
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