Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard's Q&A session with Anne Summers has made news around the country. From 3:40 in the video above, you can see the short foreign policy exchange of the event, during which Gillard nominates the annual Australia-China strategic dialogue as the hardest thing she did as PM, and 'very significant' for Australia.
Why? Because for Gillard, diplomacy is ultimately a personal business:
For all of its difficulties...and for all of the machinery that goes on around it — the Department of Foreign Affairs and everything else that supports a prime minister — it actually comes down to, you know, two people, in a moment, often across cultures. Can you find a way of relating to each other in a meaningful way as human beings, or are you going to sit there and read through the talking points that an official has given you? And so, for a lot of it, it is, you know, find a way to have a joke, find a way to create a connection, so that you can, you know, move beyond 'Gee, you're my twentieth meeting today' to 'Actually, this is a human being that I'm going to respond to'.
Foreign policy realists will wince at this kind of language, because it seems to imply that the personal touch is more important in international affairs than power and national interests. But politicians are persuaders by trade, so Gillard's emphasis should not come as much of a surprise.
Then again, sometimes even persuasive political leaders meet their match, in which case the emphasis on personal diplomacy can be a handicap. I've always suspected that Gillard was a little too star-struck by Barack Obama, an impression reinforced by the anecdote which starts at 6:58. I wince a little to hear the former prime minister of a proud independent nation refer in such awe-struck terms to 'the leader of the free world'.