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Making Australian Foreign Policy: Role of the Minister

Guest Online Lecture to International Policymaking in Practice Program, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, 17 August 2020

A Demanding Role. Let me begin by trying to give you a sense of what the job of Foreign Minister physically involves, day in and day out. All ministerial roles are demanding and gruelling, none more so than that of the prime minister, but that of a foreign minister is more than most, both because of the immense physical burden of travel commitments (at least when a pandemic is not raging), and the sheer volume, variability and complexity of the issues with which you have to deal.

As to travel, over the course of the 7 1/2 years I was Foreign Minister, from late 1988 to early 1996, I made 89 separate overseas trips – more than one a month - to 101 different countries, involving (taking into account multiple return visits to many of them, like the US) a total of 280 country visits. All of which took me out of the country for an average of nearly four months a year. Add to that all the Parliamentary sitting weeks and many other non-sitting weeks still spent away in Canberra for Cabinet and other meetings and work with my department, that doesn't leave much time at home.

As to the matters with which you have to deal, whether on the road or not, the paper never stops flowing. In any given year I had to sign nearly 2000 items of more or less routine correspondence; read and digest, over 700 'information' submissions, some of considerable length and complexity; and deal with over 1200 other submissions requiring substantive consideration and decision of some kind -- whether it be a new policy strategy, a voting position in the United Nations, the appointment of an ambassador, the terms of a reply to a ministerial counterpart, the text of a statement or whatever.

In addition there are a myriad matters, not in the shape of formal submissions, originated by the Department or by other ministers or parliamentary colleagues or whoever, which nonetheless require ministerial attention. There are speeches to prepare - a major one perhaps every two weeks, and a number of minor ones in between. There are briefing notes for all those endless meetings. And there are -- or were in my day at least - the daily cables to and from our diplomatic posts around the world which I felt compelled to read, seven days a week: culled of the trivial and pre-sorted by the minister's staff, but still amounting to an average for reading by me of 150 each day, and rather more than that when a major crisis was running.

On top of all that I also had my additional role, in my last years in government, as Leader of the Government in the Senate, which meant being on top of issues across the whole spread of government every parliamentary question time, negotiating on legislation and other issues with the Opposition and minor parties, and leading on major debates like the implementation of the Mabo native title legislation, when I was on my feet for most of the 50 hour debate.

For me, that all added up to a workload of some sixteen hours a day, at least six days a week and often all seven. It's a great life if you don't weaken!

I’m not suggesting that every Foreign Minister approaches the role in the way that I did. Personal and political styles are different and not everything that worked for me would work for others. Kevin Rudd, as Foreign Minister as in all his other role, was famously workaholic, and probably – since he slept less than anyone – spent even more hours at his desk than I did. Bob Carr, by contrast, as I noted in launching his wonderfully entertaining Diary of a Foreign Minister in 2014, had a much more free-wheeling, ad hoc, big picture rather than small detail oriented, and certainly much more media-cycle-focused approach to the job than I could ever find comfortable.

I’m not sure that with the huge demands these days of social media and the 24/7 media cycle anyone could now put in the amount of reading time that I did: I know that no minister since me, from Alexander Downer onwards, any longer reads the daily departmental cables (to the extent they are still being written – that’s another story) with anything like the attention to detail I did, if they read them at all.

But whatever differences in style, or time allocation priorities there may be, I think if any foreign minister is to be judged as being even half-way successful in the role, there are five common ingredients that can be identified: having a coherent sense of what you are trying to achieve; managing effectively the politics of foreign policy; having an effective working relationship with your departmental and ministerial office advisers; and having certain personal skills and characteristics.

One: having a coherent sense of what you are trying to achieve, and what it is realistically possible. Bearing in mind that you at least have to begin with the world as it is rather than as you would like it to be. I found it enormously helpful, to begin with a clearly thought-through sense of the nature of our national interests, the national capabilities available and real-world constraints likely to be applicable in advancing them, and to set priorities accordingly – while also recognising the need to regularly review that framework to keep it up to date as circumstances changed.

I had, and retain to this day, a particular view of the nature of national interests, as consisting of not just the traditional duo of geostrategic security interests and economic prosperity interests, but a third category as well: our national interest in being and being seen to be a good international citizen, taking seriously our responsibility to contribute cooperatively to the solution of global and regional public goods (including environmental, human rights and arms control issues) even if there is no direct or immediate security or economic return.

Moreover, I found the priority-setting approach I have described helpful not only in determining proactive strategies, like our contributions to the Cambodia peace process or regional architecture building, when there was time to think and plan ahead, but also in dealing reactively with the day’s events, many of them unexpected. There was always a larger context in which you could frame your response, rather than just winging it by instinct. And anything that makes for greater consistency in the conduct of foreign policy tends to make for greater credibility.

What may seriously disappoint, and indeed shock, some of the more academically-minded among you is that I did not find at all helpful any of the apparatus of international relations theory – Realism, Idealism, Constructivism and all their multiple variation – which so consumes university international relations courses. Let me explain that in a bit more detail.

Over the years I have adopted positions that might be characterised as everything from liberal idealism (my idiosyncratic passion, for example, for trying to make the UN and regional architecture work better) to very hard-nosed realism (for example in my negotiation of Timor Sea boundaries or peace deals with the Khmer Rouge), to a constructivist enthusiasm for trying to change international behaviour by starting with the way in which policymakers conceptualise or think about tough issues – for example, by rearticulating the appropriate response to genocide and mass atrocity crimes in terms of the “responsibility to protect” rather than the “right to intervene”.

The reality is that just about every successful foreign policy practitioner I know is probably best described as belonging, if they belong anywhere at all, to what I was delighted to discover in the literature a few years ago described as the school of “Analytical Eclecticism” – basically a home for the intellectually sluggish and disreputable who are too ill-disciplined and ignorant to fit in anywhere else. The trouble is that none of the more familiar labels, in my experience, even get close to describing the way in which those of us in this business actually behave, year in and year out, in all those situations where some kind of policy choices are open to us.

Even the most adventurous of us, and most passionately committed to human rights and universal values and norms, know that in the real world that crowds in upon us, good ideas and values sometimes carry the day but often they don’t; realities constantly intrude, and compromises constantly have to be made. We’re Idealists, Realists or Constructivists as occasion demands.

If there is any mindset which helps explain why different foreign policymakers behave as they do in practice, I suspect that what matters more than anything else is whether they are instinctively optimists or pessimists. My own position, as you will have gathered from the title of my recently published political memoir, is that I am instinctively an optimist – not because I am some kind of Pollyanna who has never been mugged by harsh experience, but because I have been, throughout my public life, strongly committed to getting stuff done in making the world safer and saner, and strongly believe that achieving almost anything of lasting value in public life, domestically or internationally, is impossible without believing that what seems to be out of reach really is achievable.

Optimism is not self-fulfilling, but it is self-reinforcing in the same way that pessimism is self-defeating. Why even begin to explore the possibilities for peace in Cambodia, or the abolition of chemical weapons, or an end to genocide if you think the odds are so stacked against you that you are bound to fail?

Two: understanding how to manage the politics of foreign policy. For an Australian foreign minister the crucial factors are his or her relationships with the prime minister, cabinet and party room, parliament, wider community interest groups, and the media.

With the prime minister, the critical ingredient is no surprises on either side, and having no more than paper-tissue distance between them publicly on key policy issues. If that means yielding to a prime ministerial enthusiasm on some issue – as I did to Hawke on Antarctica – then so be it, so long as one’s conscience or intellect is not compromised: there is so much else on every prime ministerial plate that there will still be plenty of space in which to range.

I had the good fortune of working to two prime ministers who, each in their different ways – Hawke more grounded in his previous experience at the International Labor Organization (ILO) and long interest in international relations generally; Keating more instinctive, and realpolitik rather than institution-focused – well understood the nature of the relationship which must exist between prime minister and foreign minister if things are not to end in tears. It has to be mutually respectful, highly communicative and interactive, and always willing to find common ground on sensitive issues and not to resolve them simply by the prime minister pulling rank.

Bob Carr, by contrast, had much more difficulty in all these respects with Julia Gillard as prime minister, not least in their differences over Middle East policy; and, given Kevin Rudd’s relationship as foreign minister with the leader who replaced him, it is a miracle that anything productive was achieved at all.

With other colleagues, with a foreign minister having fewer policy issues coming to cabinet, party room, parliament or even parliamentary committees for discussion than would be the case for almost any domestic portfolio, he or she is less obviously dependant for political survival on those relationships than is the case for most of his or her peers. But given the character and performance analysis to which everyone is subject in the Canberra gossip mill, one would be most unwise to neglect those relationships, and I didn't.

The ministerial working relationships that matter most are with those sharing one’s own portfolio – in my case the Trade and Overseas Development ministers – and I was blessed to have an extraordinarily capable team throughout with Michael Duffy, Neal Blewett, John Kerin, Peter Cook, Bob McMullan and Gordon Bilney variously playing those roles. The key to harmony here was that we respected each other’s competence, space and, when it came to doing joint battle with the finance ministry, budgetary needs.

The foreign minister-defence minister relationship also needs to be, ideally, lips-and-teeth – to employ an old Chinese metaphor, familiar in diplomatic parlance, and with no salacious connotations. Again I was lucky enough here to work with two really outstanding colleagues, Kim Beazley and Robert Ray – although in the case of Robert he and I did occasionally have our differences, on issues like a global land mines ban, peacekeeping in Rwanda and, not that it was my professional business, gays in the military.

Community interest groups are again less salient for most foreign policy issues than they are for domestic ones, but the professional aid organisations are and should be influential. I found my annual discussions with a broad range of activist NGOs, which I formalised as the National Consultative Committee on Peace and Disarmament, a useful substantive as well as political box-ticking exercise.

As to the media, I had overall a pretty fair run – punctuated by some horror periods, notably on East Timor and French nuclear tests – on the basis of being willing to speak at length on or off the record to senior political journalists and the serious foreign correspondents (of whom then, unlike now, there was a significant number) to ensure they understood the issues, rather than chasing coverage for its own sake.

I saw set-piece speeches, which I probably spent an inordinate amount of time preparing, as really important tools of advocacy, record and instruction – crucial vehicles for articulating ideas about Australia’s place in the world, and getting other opinion leaders at home and abroad to understand and wrestle with its complexity, including the serious media (which did in those days give reasonable coverage to serious speeches).

Some of my successor foreign ministers have taken the view that, in the current 24/7, less serious-print oriented, social media-focused, shorter attention-span communications environment, there is not much point in trying to feed the beast with anything more than a few well-chosen grabs. I can see their point, but while not exactly, in my prime, a media recluse when it came to doorstop sound-bites, cannot help but regard today’s environment as closely approximating Dante’s ninth circle of hell.

Three: having a strong working relationship with department and personal advisers. This can only be built on genuine mutual respect. Membership of any bureaucracy tends to encourage backside-covering caution, but once my officials discovered that I really did want them to display a spirit of intellectual adventure, that I did not in the slightest mind push-back if they felt strongly, and that I was interested only in their professionalism, not their personal ideologies, the department came alive and served me brilliantly, as I hope I have regularly publicly acknowledged. Similarly with my own personal staff, far too many of them over the years to try to acknowledge here by name, who were incredibly competent, hard-working and loyal.

I certainly had a reputation for being demanding, and on occasion more cantankerous than decorum demanded. And it is certainly true that, in this portfolio as in others I occupied, I did demand high-quality performance of others, as I did of myself, and could be a bit volatile if I didn't get it. But some of the stories, including those going back to my earlier ministerial incarnations, have grown majestically in the telling as stereotypes go about their daily business of feeding on themselves.

One story that would certainly have fed the stereotype, that I managed to cut off at the pass concerned a submission from a relatively junior officer which I had annotated and sent back to the department, only to receive a call shortly thereafter from the Secretary: ‘Minister, we always appreciate the clarity of the direction we get from you, but don't you think it might perhaps have been going a little far to write on this paper “Get stuffed”?’. Knowing that there were certain limits even to my own volatility, I was nonplussed by this, and asked him to bring over the offending document. There was relief all round when my handwriting was properly deciphered. What I had in fact written was ‘Good stuff’.

Four: having the right skills and other personal characteristics. We are all, for the most part, hopelessly unreliable judges of our own personal qualities, and I will leave it to others to make their own assessments – as all too many of them have done – of how many of the relevant boxes I tick. But, having closely observed scores of my counterparts at work over the years, I have a rather clear idea at least of what that core check-list comprises. It is not very different from the qualities required of a good professional diplomat, with the only difference perhaps being that public presentational skills, while desirable in a senior diplomat, are absolutely indispensable for a foreign minister.

My top five criteria, in bald summary, are these:

  • A capacity to listen – which means empathy (putting yourself in the other person’s shoes), but not necessarily sympathy (feeling compassion or pity for the other’s position): far more diplomatic cooperation has been secured through the course of history by good listening than good talking.
  • A capacity to connect at a personal level: all the good ideas and analysis in the world will count for little in trying to win cooperation if you can’t engage the interest of your interlocutor.
  • A capacity to communicate with precision and accuracy, both in speech and writing: barely comprehensible fudge gets a remarkable number of foreign ministers through a remarkable number of meetings, but rarely if ever delivers tangible results.
  • A willingness to be creative and adventurous – in diplomacy, as in life itself, reward rarely comes without risk. It’s here, to make an earlier point again, that a sense of optimism is crucial, because congenital pessimists will rarely believe that anything new can make a useful difference.
  • And, last but not least (to end where I began) stamina. With – at least in normal times – the endless gruelling travel involved, particularly for an Australian minister; the mass of daily reading necessary to keep abreast of new developments in scores of different subject areas; the amount of time needed to master many quite technical briefs; the emotional wear and tear involved in often dealing with life and death situations; and the sheer resilience needed to cope with and overcome resistance, particularly in multilateral negotiations, being foreign minister is not a job for the faint of heart or flesh.

Funny how, as with the position of prime minister, there never seems to be any shortage of candidates.