It has been an excellent week for Australian diplomacy. Prime Minister Julia Gillard established a strong new beginning for Australia's sometimes-troubled ties with a rising India. And the crowning moment was of course the country's victory in its bid for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (pictured is Foreign Minister Bob Carr at the press conference following the vote).
Taken together, these accomplishments suggest that a substantial nation like Australia does not need to make artificial choices between bilateralism and multilateralism, between America and Asia, or between its region and the world stage. Clearly Australia has not harmed its credibility as a good international citizen by such moves as enhancing its alliance with the United States or building relations with India through willingness to discuss uranium exports.
Of course the big test now will be what Australia does with its UN Security Council membership, and how the responsibilities of that role affect wider diplomatic priorities in the next few years. There is no question that – unless the Government eases its extreme constraints on the nation's diplomatic budget – servicing the UN role will divert staff and resources from other duties, and sometimes this new work will be on issues peripheral to Australia's interests. After all, suddenly Australia – with one of the smallest diplomatic networks among developed countries – will be required to have a position on basically every delicate international issue.
On the other hand, this could have positive side-effects for cultivating our long-term diplomatic capacity, especially if the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) can demonstrate new kinds of agility in making better use of its talented and highly educated staff. Incoming Secretary Peter Varghese will shortly inherit a stretched organisation that has proven itself big on campaigning (and much credit is due to the drive and dedication of our diplomats for the UN win) but which has often put little premium on knowledge and generating new ideas.
Too often DFAT, with its restrictive 20th century protocols and hierarchies, has failed systematically to tap and hone the skills and knowledge of its junior and mid-ranking staff, limiting much of their intellectual input to the scripting of talking points that senior officials and ministers may not even use.
With the UN role, there is going to be a demand for something else – a more continuous stream of policy responses, outputs, ideas and knowledge than the Department has been called upon to produce since at least the early 1990s, when Gareth Evans was foreign minister. It is time for the government to trust DFAT and for DFAT to trust its new generations.
Photo UNPhoto/Devra Berkowitz.