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Is the Key Resource of National Power Being Overlooked? Penny Wong Stresses on the Significance of ‘Our People’.


During her speech at the National Press Club this weekAustralian Foreign Minister Penny Wong argued that the “unprecedented” circumstances facing our region “require a response of unprecedented coordination and ambition in our statesmanship”.

Wong identified many important tools of Australia’s statecraft:

  • development aid
  • investments in infrastructure
  • security cooperation
  • multilateral diplomacy, and
  • military capability.

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

Importantly, Wong also noted 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 shrunk under the previous administration.

It’s worth thinking about this in light of the government’s massive spending on submarines – will it have enough left over to invest in the people it entrusts to exercise its statesmanship?

Secretary of State Penny Wong spoke about the importance of investing in our diplomatic power at the National Press Club.
Luke Coch/AAP

What is Statesmanship?

Statesmanship is a word that is increasingly used by leadersofficials and commentators to describe the actions states are taking to try to influence:

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

The concept of statesmanship is have his moment as the Australian foreign and strategic policy community ponders how to respond China’s increasingly activist role in the Indo-Pacific region.

Many believe that to earn the most clout, the tools of Australia’s statesmanship must come with big price tags and flashy announcements. In the Pacific OceanFor example, the government likes to announce major commitments for development aid, infrastructure projects and military aid. There’s a reason Australian officials spout fervently on social media every time dollars are promised or spent.

But who are these Australian officials about to implement Australia’s statesmanship?

Diplomats are not all the same

If you look at them social media billsAustralian officials are treated as interchangeable: an incoming ambassador or high commissioner takes over their predecessor’s account and assumes their persona.

The old sayings of their predecessor become their sayings. The earlier openings of Australian-funded facilities become their announcements, even though the person in the social media thumbnail is not the 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 missions should simply take over from their predecessors and bear the responsibility of running the current government of foreign policy for a while before handing it over to someone else.

There is no mention of the differences between these individuals. It’s as if Australian foreign policy officials grew out of pods in the basement of the RG Casey Building, home to the Canberra Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

This is of course nonsense. Australian officials – like the rest of us – are human beings. Each has its own weaknesses, habits, strengths and weaknesses. Their individual personalities are intensely tried and judged in the capital cities where they work, as are those of the Australian police officers, military officials and various contractors who run their programs.

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

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

Why kindness and empathy matter

This is why were studying the role individuals play in implementing Australian statesmanship in the Pacific Islands and East Timor.

Through our work on the first season of our Statesmanship podcastwe have found that individuals, not policies, are the key determinants of the success of Australia’s statesmanship.

Two examples from our first episode illustrate our point. A senior minister in the government of East Timor, Fidelis Leite Magalhaestold us that when an East Timor minister comes back from a meeting with their partners, the first thing they say is not what line the officials took or how much money was pledged, but instead how they were.

In Papua New Guinea it is the same story. Bride Rice, the CEO of the Development Intelligence Lab in Canberra, reflected on research that analyzed the style and approach of expatriate advisors in PNG. For PNG officials, it was not the technical acumen of the advisers that stuck in their memory. It was emotional intelligence (or otherwise) that brought these individuals to the job.

Throughout our project we have heard time and time again that the diplomats, aid workers, administration consultants, defense officials and police officers who run Australia’s programs abroad are not clones that can be so easily replaced. It matters if they are kind, considerate and empathetic.

The reverse is also true. It is the death knell for a project if an individual is arrogant or patronizing or insults their hosts in any way.

Read more: Despite 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 inconvenient truth. Australia can building roads, train police, buy telcos and build submarines, but if the people who represent the country and implement the policies aren’t polite, respectful and trustworthy, then it might as well be no effort.

As Angus Campbell, the head of the Australian Defense Force, noticed last month in India: “If we are in an environment where more and more of the national wealth is spent more narrowly in the military space (…), statesmanship is weakened.”

Our project reminds us that Australia’s security depends on how well the people who practice statesmanship perform. Whether or not government investments in submarines and other expensive state instruments are wise, they should not be at the expense of investment in people’s power.

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