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CPL ROBERT WHITMORE/AUSTRALIAN DEFENCE FORCE HANDOUT/EPA

Penny Wong said this week national power comes from ‘our people’. Are we ignoring this most vital resource?

During her speech at the National Press Club this week, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong argued that the “unprecedented” circumstances our region faces “require a response of unprecedented coordination and ambition in our statecraft”.

Wong identified many key tools of Australia’s statecraft:

  • development assistance
  • infrastructure investment
  • security cooperation
  • multilateral diplomacy, and
  • military capability.

She also singled out Australia’s much-debated plan to spend A$368 billion to acquire and develop nuclear-powered submarines under the AUKUS security partnership as a key way Australia will “play our part in collective deterrence of aggression”.

Importantly, Wong also also observed that “our national power, more than anything else, comes from our people”. Yet, she noted, the number of Australian diplomats working in the Pacific had actually shrunk under the previous government.

It’s worth reflecting on this in light of the government’s massive spending on submarines – will it have enough left to invest in the people it entrusts to practice its statecraft?

Foreign Minister Penny Wong spoke of the importance of investing in our diplomatic power at the National Press Club. Lukas Coch/AAP

What is statecraft?

Statecraft is a word increasingly used by leaders, officials and commentators to describe the actions that states take to try to influence:

  • the global political or economic environment
  • the policies or behaviours of other countries, or
  • the beliefs, attitudes or opinions of other countries.
Cyclone damage in Vanuatu in March. UNICEF/PR handout

The concept of statecraft is having its moment as the Australian foreign and strategic policy community contemplates how to counter China’s increasingly activist role in the Indo-Pacific region.

Many believe that, to earn the most influence, Australia’s tools of statecraft should come with big price tags and flashy announcements. In the Pacific, for instance, the government is fond of announcing big pledges of developmental aid, infrastructure projects and military assistance. There’s a reason Australian officials spruik fervently on social media every time dollars are promised or spent.

But who are these Australian officials on the coalface of implementing Australia’s statecraft?

Diplomats are not all the same

If you look at their social media accounts, Australian officials are treated as interchangeable: an incoming ambassador or high commissioner takes over the account of their predecessor and assumes their persona.

The old pronouncements of their predecessor become their pronouncements. The past openings of Australian-funded facilities become their announcements, even though the person in the social media thumbnail is not same as the one in the commemorative photos.

Officially, foreign policy is as emotionless and cut-and-paste as these official Twitter accounts. Heads of mission should simply take the baton from their predecessor and run with the responsibility of implementing the government of the day’s foreign policy for a while before handing it over to someone else.

There is no mention of the differences between these individuals. It is as if Australian foreign policy officials are grown from pods in the basement of the R.G. Casey Building, the home of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra.

This is of course nonsense. Australian officials are – just like the rest of us – human beings. Each has their own foibles, habits, strengths and weaknesses. Their individual personalities are adjudicated and assessed intensely in the capital cities where they work, as are those of the Australian police officers, military officials and assorted contractors implementing their programs.

But this reality attracts surprisingly little attention in much of the analysis that is done on the effectiveness of Australia’s statecraft.


Read more: Can Australia recapture the spirit of middle power diplomacy?


Why kindness and empathy matter

This is why we’re studying the role individuals play in implementing Australian statecraft in the Pacific Islands and Timor-Leste.

Through our work on the first season of our Statecraftiness podcast, we’ve found it is individuals, not policies, that are the most important determinants of whether Australia’s statecraft succeeds.

Two examples from our first episode illustrate our point. One senior minister in the Timor-Leste government, Fidelis Leite Magalhães, told us that when a Timor-Leste minister comes back from a meeting with their partners, the first thing they say is not what line the officials peddled or how much money was pledged, but instead what they were like.

It’s the same story in Papua New Guinea. Bridi Rice, the CEO of the Development Intelligence Lab in Canberra, reflected on research that analysed the style and approach of expatriate advisers in PNG. For PNG officials, it wasn’t the technical acumen of the advisers that stuck in their memory. It was the emotional intelligence (or otherwise) these individuals brought to the job.

We’ve heard again and again during our project that the diplomats, aid workers, governance advisers, defence officials and police officers who implement Australia’s programs overseas are not clones that can be so easily substituted. It matters if they are kind, thoughtful and empathetic.

The converse is also true. It is the kiss of death to a project if an individual is arrogant or patronising or somehow offends their hosts.


Read more: Despite its Pacific 'step-up', Australia is still not listening to the region, new research shows


Roads and mobile networks only go so far

This points to an uncomfortable truth. Australia can build roads, train police, buy telcos and build submarines, but if the people representing the country and implementing its policies aren’t polite, respectful and trustworthy, then it might as well not bother.

As Angus Campbell, the chief of the Australian Defence Force, observed last month in India, “If we find ourselves in a setting in which more and more of national wealth is expended more narrowly in the military space […] statecraft is weakened.”

Our project is a reminder that Australia’s security depends on how well the people implementing its statecraft perform. Whether or not the government’s investments in submarines and other expensive tools of statecraft are wise, they shouldn’t come at the expense of investments in people power.

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