The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs -what’s wrong with our diplomats?
THE AUSTRALIAN QUARTERLY June 1975
Gregory Clark is a former officer of the Department of External Affairs (now Foreign Affairs). After postings to Hong Kong andMoscow he resigned from the Department in 1965 and has since done research at the ANU and worked in Tokyo as a correspondent and commentator. It is in this last capacity that he has written this article.
At last count, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs was employing 4,871 people and spending almost $100 million per year for the conduct of our relations with other countries. Another approximately 600 souls and $350 million were allocated to our aid policies (ADAA). In all, it is a fairly sizeable commitment of resources to the handling of our foreign dealings. It is not unreasonable to ask how much value we get for it.
The Business of Foreign Affairs
The business of foreign affairs combines two widely different functions.There is the bread and butter work of representing Australia abroad-manning embassies, attending conferences, giving receptions, negotiatingand administering agreements, handling business on behalf of other depart-ments. This work has grown enormously in recent years in direct pro-portion to the enormous increase in Australia’s contacts with the outsideworld. It is a major reason for much of the recent increase in ForeignAffairs staff and spending.
Dollar for dollar and man for man there is little evidence that we handle our representation any worse than most others. Some may argue that the traditional forms of representation-embassies and consulates, ambassadors and Australia Day receptions-are less than efficient. But everyone else operates this way and it may be too much for us to take the lead in devising new forms. Some might also ask whether we should be scattering embassies across the globe at the rate we do: 76 overseas missions staffedby 4,413 people are a heavy strain on the department’s resources. Wemight get more value representationally, quite apart from any fallout inthe form of better-informed policies, from an extra three to four diplomatsat our Tokyo or Jakarta embassies than from, say a new embassy in WestAfrica. But once again, in a world where other nations are busy settingup their embassies wherever they can we are at least following an example.The professional heart of the department, however, is not representation. It is the giving of foreign policy advice to the government of the day, starting from information/ intelligence gathering and analysis and ending with the final policy submissions to ministers. It is an elite area-the goal of every young diplomat. Yet for all the elitism the results in this area have been less than spectacular. On the nine major issues in Asia in the past fifteen years Foreign Affairs has been badly wrong on at least eight.
During the Singapore elections in 1959 it recommended that Australia should oppose a young politician called Lee Kwan Yew and support the pro-British candidate, Lim Yew Hock. It warned that Lee’s election could be the first step in a communist takeover. (The strong man whomit thought could resist the communist takeover, Lim Yew Hock, was later posted to Australia as High Commissioner. He abandoned his position and disappeared in Sydney, reportedly at the instigation of a night club lady called Sandra Nelson.)
In the sixties it argued that Australia should stand firmly on the anti-communist side in Laos and Vietnam. (It is now recognised that policies requiring compromise between the pro-communist and anti-communistsides were needed.) In post-Sihanouk Cambodia it urged recognition andcontacts be restricted to the anti-communist side. (Wiser counsels would have suggested contacts with both sides.)1
On the Sino-Indian dispute-a highly significant event since it providedthe rationale for a decade of disastrous anti-China policies-Foreign Affairs endorsed without question claims of Chinese aggression. (The evidence both then and subsequently suggested that if any side was at fault it was India.) On the Sino-Soviet dispute Australia at one stage occupied the unique position of being the only non-Soviet bloc country to endorse the Soviet position.2 Finally on the question of China, ForeignAffairs for most of the period advocated policies of refusing recognitionand banning most contacts. The Department’s one relative success hasbeen on policy to Indonesia, though even here criticisms are possible.
One out of seven is not a good record in any line of business. In foreign policy, one misjudgement alone can cost a nation dearly. Concerned foreign policy amateurs could do and did do a lot better. A private enterprise organisation dependent on fee-paying clients seeking its advice could not remain in business on that basis.
Selection and Training Procedure
The men who help to make our foreign policies are not amateurs; they are selected and trained from the many graduate applicants anxious to join Foreign Affairs. With the possible exception of the Treasury no other department can boast entrants of such quality. Some have criticised the selection system as biased in favour of conservatives; there was a period in the fifties when a Geelong Grammar or Oxford education seemed more of an asset that it should have been. But in more recent years the Depart-ment has been willing to accept some who would call themselves progressiveor left-wing. Most of its recruits could have enjoyed far more lucrative careers in other areas of government or even in private enterprise, though the recent proliferation of ambassadorships has made this less true thanin the past. Again, the training provided may be skimpy in comparison with other foreign services. But it is well ahead of anything provided byany other Australian Government department. It is followed by a deliberate rotation of postings and desk work designed to give our future policy-makers maximum exposure to their profession.
And yet the net result is a record not only worse than amateurs; it is one which the department has been reluctant to acknowledge and which so far has not inspired any radical review of operations for the future.
The Origins of Generalism
Clearly there has been some major breakdown somewhere. In the forties,when Foreign Affairs was a much smaller department, Australia played a recognised role in the founding of the United Nations and in Indonesian independence. In the fifties Australia had the good sense to try to restrain Duljesjan excesses in Indochina and the Taiwan Straits. Yet by the sixtieswe were encouraging the Americans to excesses which made Dulles look moderate.3
Nor is this a criticism of the department for failing to side with the ideological approach which today happens to be fashionable. Twenty years ago our diplomats negotiated a series of major agreements to backup the policies of the then government -ANZUS, SEATO, the Columbo Plan. Some of these pacts today may seem less than important, but the relevant fact is that once the government of the day had decided it wanted the pacts the diplomats went out and got them. This decisiveness contrasts with the cumbersome way the department has gone about its duties in more recent years.
That the department should get less efficient as it gets larger isexplainable largely in Parkinson’s Law terms. The early department, despite its Heath Robinson structures, had an impressive ability to concentrate on the job at hand. Since then it has become a monster organisation so enmeshed in its own administration, co-ordination and refinements that it sometimes gives the impression of being unable even to focus onthe major issues let alone decide what to do about them.
The early department also had the advantage of freshness. Its first generation of diplomats had to be recruited from outside. They had done other things and had outside contacts. Free of pseudo-professional hang-ups they could see diplomacy for what it is-as an exercise in politicsrequiring sensitivity and the ability to relate to others. Since then manyof our diplomats have tended to see diplomacy as some sort of bureau-cratic game. Recruited at an early age and brought up in the self-containedincubus of the Department they come to see it largely as a matter ofcirculating bits of paper to the right people and getting them approvedby the right committees and delivered to the right addresses. In thiscomfortable paper world there is little need to go out and deal directlywith other peoples, even our “friends”. Towards “enemies” there is a naivebelief that if we ignore them and write rude things about them they mightsomehow disappear.4 Lack of outside interests and contacts produces a narrowness (some might say immaturity) that sets the present generation of Australian diplomats apart even from other Canberra public servants.I speak here as someone who suffered that experience. Only after leaving the department did I begin to realise how divorced from real life one can become inside that closed world.
Ironically it was the earlier generation of diplomats which set the fou-dations for this later distortion in our foreign service. In the forties and early fifties the number directly involved in policy was extremely limited,while the areas to be covered were almost as extensive as today. There was an understandable pressure to favour the man with generalist experience, who could turn his hand from Indonesian policy problems to United Nations resolutions, Japanese reparations and European politics with equalfacility. Specialisation was an impossible luxury, though there was at leastsome appreciation of the need for specialist advice-more perhaps thantoday.
The politics of that era also favoured the generalists. Cold-War world issues could be decided largely on their ideological rights and wrongs.We supported Sukarno and the Indonesian independence forces under a Labor government; we supported anti-Sukarno forces ten years later under an LCP government. We might have needed specialists to tell us who was fighting for which side, but that was all. Policy to China, Indochina, and even something as complicated as Japan, could all bedetermined according to where we and they stood at any time in theCold War. We needed generalists free of specialist “hangups” who couldtake the “broad view” of foreign policy.
In the circumstances of the time the approach may have made some sense. But for the past fifteen years it has been the source of most foreign policy mistakes. From the moment of the Sino-Soviet split back in 1959 the simple black-and-white approach of the previous years lost its validity. We have been living in a more complex world where policy,quite apart from morality, has had to be decided in terms of what isactually happening in the various countries and not according to theideological views of the policy makers.
Even more than in the past we have needed specialists to know whatis happening and to decide what to do about it. Yet it was precisely atthis time that the Department was moving to enshrine the previous prag-matic policy of generalism into a cult whose virtue could not be doubted. Even the limited language training programmes of the previous years werecut back. The minimal requirement of school-boy French was dropped.The few would-be area specialists were usually posted away from theirarea of interest before they got “too involved”. There is a Department story of the specialist in nuclear non-proliferation with international recognition, (acquired before he joined the Department) who was deliberately excluded from a departmental committee to decide Australia’s reactionto India’s nuclear test explosion. It was said that he was too close to his subject.
There are other instances. Indochina, for example, should have been a focus of our foreign policy interest for over twenty years. Yet the department still does not have a single specialist officer fluent in any Indo-chinese language. On the basis of what are now seen as completely wrongjudgements about Vietnam the Department was willing to recommend thespending of several hundreds of millions of dollars and several thousand lives-Australian and Vietnamese–for a worthless and futile cause. Since then it has constantly been in the position of having to react to rather than foresee developments there. It would have cost us only a minute fraction of this expense and waste to acquire a team of competent specialists on Vietnam.
Like all biases, the generalist bias has set up its own vicious circle. As the Department emphasises generalism the few specialists it has acquired or trained have increasingly been forced into isolation. They can do little to counter the superficiality or black-and-white dogmatism of the generalists; some have decided it is better to resign than work for change from the inside. The Department then seizes on this disillusion as proof that it was right all along to concentrate on generalists.(The reductio adabsurdum is the argument now used to justify the policy of restricting lateral recruitment (the recruitment of outside specialists). The Department claims that on past experience these people rarely manage to “fit in”.7 It goes on to assume this as proof of the advanced and demanding standards it sets for its officers. In fact the generalist bias of an immature department could well be the main reason why mature entrants with specialist interests in foreign affairs find it had to adjust.
This is not to suggest the Department should now be made up of hundreds of specialists all remaining in their little specialist boxes fortheir entire career. Apart from anything else someone has to do therepresentational work. The ideal is officers who have acquired a specialisation early in their career and then blended their skills with general experience. Ideally, also, the areas for specialisation should cover all aspects of foreign affairs, including international economics, international law, international organisations and the theory of international relations. But for Australia at the moment the first priority is area specialists-experts in Indonesian, Indochinese, Japanese and Chinese affairs, forexample, who can help us avoid the mistakes of the past.
Such specialisation is more than the accumulation of facts and languages. The process of learning in-depth about another country iscrucial to removing the biases even educated Australians tend to have towards foreign countries. It improves the ability to realise that there isusually more than one side to a dispute and one solution to a problem,that ultimately issues resolve down to people and that failure to communi-cate is the cardinal sin of diplomacy. The effort of learning difficult languages also makes people much more humble about the language problems of others; they may come to realise that it is not just English or French speaking officials in foreign countries whose views need to be reported and considered. They might even be persuaded to go out andtalk to non-officials like opposition elements forced into hiding or seclusion by non-democratic governments. In the process a vital humanisation maybe injected into their future advice on policy; one tends to think twice before approving the napalming of people one has met before.
It could also happen that in-depth specialist exposure to Asia will lead some of our diplomats to emerge as convinced supporters of the non-democratic governments. Well and good. The department needs informed critics of the currently fashionable trend to endorse all revolutionaries and dissidents, or at least the pro-communist ones. But it is unlikely that all will emerge with that view. The situation where our diplomats, inconsidering anti-communist, non-democratic Asian countries, blandlyaccepted the superficial characterisation of pro-government goodies andanti-government baddies suggests a failure even to comprehend the rightof opposition movements to exist (a failure, incidentally, that would neverbe tolerated at home). A specialist, conservative or radical, at least realises that a government is not a country. He is unlikely to repeat the childish mistake foisted on us for years by many of our diplomatic and academic experts whereby the fate of an anti-communist non-democratic government is automatically equated with the fate of the country in which it happens to reside. They might even accept the theoretical possibility that the fate of a country could be improved by the fall of its government.
Most Foreign Ministries in the non-Anglosaxon Western nations, and in Japan, accept the need for diplomatic trainees to be forced into area specialisations. Even the British realise that not all the world wants to speak English; they send a good share of their trainee diplomats out to learn difficult languages. The reason is not hard to find. Their diplomatic service grew up well before the simple black-and-white days of the ColdWar. Diplomacy then was a much more complex business, requiring closecontacts with and study of foreigners. Australia with its close interest inthe highly complex Asian area should at least be prepared to match the British. Our diplomatic trainees should automatically be sent off tocountries of importance to Australia to begin specialist studies as soon aspossible after entry. They should be told in effect they are not wantedback again till they learn the language fluently and assimilate the life, politics and culture of that country. When they have done that they should then have several years desk or embassy work covering the area of their specialisation before being sent to do other work which would allow them to broaden their interests.
There should be no half-measures in all this. The present system whereby a few entrants are sent off for a desultory one or two years to some institute to learn a difficult language like, say, Japanese, is counter-productive. By the end of their training and posting they still do not have enough language to rate as specialists; if they try to continue their study they risk falling further behind their generalist colleagues. Success or failure in their first area of specialisation, including the language, shouldbe made crucial to the officer’s career. Those unwilling to undertake area specialisations should be allowed to follow other interests or specialisations, but it should be clear that this is a career second-best. Conversely,there should be career incentives for officers who can add other specialisations.
Having said this, I accept that Foreign Affairs’ quest for the perfect generalist diplomat is not without idealism. Occasionally, one meets someone of this breed (usually working for another foreign service). The amalgam of all the qualities needed-good representational presence,bureaucratic skills, wide range of information, judgement, ability to handle people-is impressive when it happens. In the traditions of diplomacy such men move easily to win confidence of foreign leaders, and influence the policies of foreign countries. But in the present world of instant communication these diplomatic success stories are much rarer-Australia may have produced one, possibly two. And if the amalgam fails to combine one is often left with little more than an amiable fellow who would probably be happier teaching school children or opening school fetes. In any case the fact that a man has spent twenty years of his life at a variety of posts, conferences, cocktail parties, interspersed with brief periods on various desks in Canberra certainly does not give him an exclusive right to decide foreign policy. Even less does it equip him in any efforts torelate to the politicians of the day and provide politically acceptable advice.
If the amalgam does fail the damage can be doubly corrosive. In effectForeign Affairs asks a large group of talented and initially-dedicated youngAustralians to do the impossible-to go to any country and by virtue of some undefined generalist diplomatic excellence to begin discovering and even influencing the intimate views and policies of the government there. Perhaps in a few close countries such as New Zealand, Fiji or Nauru, and just possibly in Indonesia and Malaysia, a presentable diplomat can gain entry to high government circles by virtue of being Australian. But elsewhere it counts for little; the average diplomat simply has no chance tomove at the levels demanded of him. Meanwhile back in Canberra he is being judged on his ability to produce the cables and memoranda thats how he is in there among the local elite discovering their secrets.
In this situation the generalist diplomat has one of several choices. He can, as many do, simply opt out. He reads the local newspapers (intranslation); he settles down to a round of half-hearted entertaining for the few friendly locals, embassy hangers-on and resident Australians.Occasionally he writes a report based mainly on local gossip but with enough seeming authority to impress some back in Canberra. For the rest of be time he is waiting out the end of his posting while saving his various and generous allowances. Alternatively, he may decide that the local government and society is hostile to Australia for failing to welcome him to its bosom. Deliberately or otherwise his work degenerates into a bureaucratic exercise of slowing down and even frustrating contacts with the host country.
The more ambitious may try harder. The usual pattern is an all-out effort to cultivate links with “friendly” western embassies, the US and UK in particular. In this way they get access to better information and contacts than our own embassies alone can usually generate. It also usually has the advantage of confirming the information supplied from our Washington and London missions. This exercise is useful but its limitations and drawbacks are also obvious. More than the “bootheels”and “all the way” syndromes of past Australian Prime Ministers, it explains the underlying pro-US and pro-UK biases in our policies. The pro-US bias is particularly deeply rooted. Generations of Australian officials serving in Washington and elsewhere have been firmly seduced by the sense of friendship, familiarity and access to power that they get from their US colleagues. A senior Australian diplomat recently listed the Americans, the Canadians and the British in the first tier of our diplomacy, ahead of Japan, India, Indonesia and the Soviet Union. Asked why, he said that these were the countries with which we could best communicate,with whom we could be more “intimate”. Others might feel that the countries with whom we should be intimate are the ones with whom we should be trying hardest to communicate, regardless of whether they speak English.
Specialists are spared at least some of these pressures. If they are working in the area of their interest they will inevitably find it easier tobreak into at least some circles-academic, bureaucratic, artistic-of the local society. If they are serving elsewhere, their specialised interest in anarea of diplomacy at least provides a point of entree to the local diplo-matic officialdom. An Australian diplomat posted to say Paris, Tokyo or Moscow will make more impression on the hard-nosed bureaucrats of the Quai d’Orsay, Gaimusho or MID if he can introduce himself as a specialist say in Cambodian or Chinese affairs than someone whose conversation goes no further than a list of past postings and the weather in Canberra.
The problem faced by generalist diplomats sent overseas is one thing.Even worse in some ways is the habit of bringing people back to Australia, putting them into desks covering areas where they have no previous experience and expecting them to produce considered policy submissions. Foreign Affairs sees this as a useful generalist exercise. In fact it is a major stimulus to superficiality. It explains much of the weakness in the Department’s professional operations.
True, the specialist does tend to “over-represent” the country of his interest. But there are ways to neutralise this damage. He can, and should, be forced to broaden his range of interests and experience. And he will, naturally, find himself balanced by other specialists with rival interests in other areas. In any case, the bias of the specialist may be healthier than the bias of the activist generalist diplomat. The latter is not happy unless he can see himself as part of the overall policy scheme.He feels he should be doing things: towards our “friends” he wants tobusy himself with a whole range of aid and other policies to keep them”on side”; towards our “enemies” he plots happily to frustrate their diplomacy. He sees this activism as belonging to the “real” world of diplomacy.
Hopefully the balanced specialist will realise that the guts of diplomacy is something quite different, that it is the slow, patient development of knowledge about and contacts with foreign countries regardless of whether they like us or not. This less activist approach may not always exist, of course; there will also be cases where, say, an Indonesia-Malaysia specialist may urge activist relations with those two countries just because they are the countries he knows best. But even this shows better motivation than the generalists who value Indonesia and Malaysia largely because they feel we must be “involved” in the region, that we should be tryingto mould other countries to our image, and that these two countries respond more readily than others to our paternalist instincts for such involvement “Because Indonesia is a near and substantial neighbour, it is deemed to be a principal Australian interest that we should do what we can to ensure that it remains friendly, peaceful and progressive”, the Department claims officially.10 Imagine how we would feel if the Indonesians were saying the same thing about us!
Foreign Affairs – A Mega-ministry?
The generalist bias also underlies Foreign Affairs’ desire to become the agent for all government activities involving overseas countries: “Through its trained and experienced representatives abroad and its political and functional Divisions at head office, a Foreign Ministry is the only organisation equipped to facilitate a harmonious interaction and accommodation between domestic and international policies and requirements.11” From which it followed that Foreign Affairs might even become a “mega-ministry”-a Department of International Relations in which OverseasTrade, Immigration and the Australian Information Service and perhapsothers would be absorbed. At the very least, it has been claimed, ForeignAffairs should be consulted on all matters of overseas interest and it wasunfortunate that some departments such as Treasury and Minerals and Energy had not submitted to such consultation.
But consultation on what? At what point do the economic and other domestic policies of a country have to be bent to meet Foreign Affairs’concept of “good” or “bad” relations with foreign nations? And who should decide? True, Foreign Affairs has built up some expertise ininternational trade. And its intervention is often necessary to prevent or relieve the mistakes of our immigration officials. But with almost no expertise on international finance can Foreign Affairs really have something to say about exchange rates, interest rates or the IMF? In foreigneconomic matters we will often need to behave as everyone else does,with priority given to hard calculation of the domestic economic interest.Foreign Affairs’ contribution would tend to be an occasional plea to pre-vent one or other of our “friends” from getting upset; that we should,for example, buy an inferior plane from country B rather than a superiorplane from country A simply because B was particularly keen to sell usplanes and would be upset if we said no.
Even if Foreign Affairs could equate possible foreign policy gains withpossible domestic losses (and there may well be occasions when thisequation should be struck in favour of the foreign policy gains), we wouldprobably on balance end up doing harm to our overall interests if thedepartment played too active a role. If foreign governments know ForeignAffairs is involved in our external economic decisions their scope forputting pressure on us by claiming upset over unfavourable decisions isgreatly increased.
Ultimately it should be for Cabinet, not Foreign Affairs, to adjudicateany clashes of domestic and foreign interest. Foreign Affairs’ job is totell the government what this foreign interest is and when it is damaged.Unless it is to become a mini-government it cannot hope to judge thewide range of our domestic interests accurately; its past record suggestsit has enough trouble judging where our foreign interests lie.
One of Foreign Affairs’ more controversial interventions is the demandthat it should have a say in our resources policy: “In view of the importance of certain of our raw materials and energy resources for our major trading partners, especially Japan, and the effects that domestic decisionson price, quantity and rate of supplies have on our commercial andultimately political relations with these countries, this Department has sought to be consulted and to inject foreign policy considerations into decisions taken in this area.* The Department has complained strongly and publicly over the way Minerals and Energy refuses co-operation; over the way its direct telephone “hotline” to that department remains unused.
But can Foreign Affairs say much of use of this subject? Less than a handful of our diplomats would know the difference between coking coal and steaming coal, let alone their relative prices. Would the average diplomat have the slightest idea of the difference between titanium andtungsten? As a journalist in Tokyo I once had to bear witness to the fact that the resident linguist in our Tokyo Embassy did not know the word in Japanese for minerals. Yet Foreign Affairs would have us believe it is in constant dialogue with Japan on resource matters and that it could overnight produce the experts to handle these affairs if only the obstruc-tiopists in other departments were moved aside.
What we are really seeing in all this is yet another aspect of the pervading generalist cult. Like the amateur sportsmen of 50 years ago Foreign Affairs likes to convince itself that the superior quality of its personnel is sufficient to guarantee their success in enlightening narrow-minded specialists from other departments. “No need to get bogged down in petty details now; when the time comes just give us the facts and wewill do the job for you” is the typical approach. The only trouble with all this, as Foreign Affairs is finding, is that people are going to be reluctant to give the facts and ask for jobs to be done.
The same superficiality pervades even the legitimate work of the Department. Typically, the departmental generalist only concerns himself withthe tasks presented him. Areas of major Australian interest are left untouched simply because there is not immediate demand to cover them.Thousands of man-hours will be spent on some hopeless aid project for Saigon destined to be destroyed in later fighting while little is done to find out the real strength of the Saigon government let alone the anti-Saigon forces. True, the “representational” demands on officers are amajor reason for this distortion. Until very recently even petty details of aid administration were left to our diplomats to handle because there was no one else to do it. But even that does not excuse the shallowness with which many foreign policy questions are handled.
One example concerned myself. Working on Chinese affairs in Foreign Affairs I was vaguely aware that the US commitment to Taiwan had not always been as solid as it appeared in the sixties. In which case the US,and our own, insistence on the moral “obligation” to the people of Taiwan was not quite the crucial factor we made it out to be. Yet there was no pressure on me or anyone else to check what the US had actually said in late 1949-early 1950. Only after I left the department did I begin to do the vital homework I should have done years earlier. It was then I discovered the highly relevant fact that the US government in those earlier years had repeatedly and publicly described the protection of Taiwan as unjustified intervention in China”s domestic affairs. Needless to say it had a somewhat dramatic effect on my approach to the China question.
Such ignorance is inexcusable, and I don’t think I was the only culprit.It is matched by the reluctance of older diplomats to keep up to date.Many who were brought up on the post-Munich and Cold-war textbooks feel today they have little need to read the new generation of revisionist historians influenced by the record of Western misbehaviour in Asia. They know Kennan but they would ignore Chomsky.
A Role for Foreign Affairs
If Foreign Affairs feels it must have an outlet for its undoubted reserve of talented personnel it should consider expanding backwards into the area of intelligence gathering and analysis. So far this has been left almost entirely to the military; predictably enough they have used it for their purposes. Enormous resources are devoted to counting road bridges in Cambodia while almost nothing is done to discover the thinking ofthe Khmer Rouge. During the 1960s when our diplomats were forbiddeneven to talk to the Chinese let alone visit the country, the intelligenceexperts were busy counting the ships in and out of Shanghai port. When our military men could tell you accurately the deployment of the Chinese military down to last platoon our diplomats were telling themselves andthe politicians that Hanoi was “a creature of Peking.”12
It is Foreign Affairs and not the military which should be setting the priorities for intelligence. They should control the full resources of our intelligence gathering operation-an exercise which would, of course, be much easier if they had already done something to acquire a corps ofAsian specialists to evaluate, pull together and guide the gathering of intelligence. The present dichotomy between the military intelligence machine with its vast expanding resources concentrated on the key countries of Asia, and Foreign Affairs with its preoccupation over unimportantout-of-the-way posts, UN subcommittees and cultural exchanges is yet another factor pushing the Department into accepting so readily the alarmist interpretation of Asian developments.
To be fair, not all the fault belongs to Foreign Affairs. It contains within its ranks a number who, apart from a period of China-Vietnam hysteria of the mid-sixties, were prepared to work for a more enlightened foreign policy. But the Department has to operate in a domestic environment; to an extent far greater than most realise it is highly sensitive to community views on foreign policy. And for most of the post-war periodthe community, including the press, has made it quite clear that it prefersconservative anti-communism in its foreign policies.
Even stronger than the press has been the influence of Australia’s conservative academic establishment; it helped greatly to confirm the diplomats in their suspicion of China and communist-led opposition movements in Asia in the 1960s. Like the diplomats who believe they are relevant only if they can relate to the politicians, the academics have believed they are relevant only if they can relate to the diplomats.13 Instead of acting as an outside impartial judge and stimulus to our diplomatic performance they have spent much of their time seeking ways to ingratiate themselves with the military-diplomatic establishment. Exchange of personnel has been one technique.14 Another is tacit co-operation with the foreign initiatives of the day. A generation of conservative academics has been happy to write glibly about Chinese backing for Asian insurgencies. Yet to this day not one of them has bothered to look at the most interestingof these insurgencies-the anti-government Chinese in Malaysia, Sarawak in particular, where China has consistently refused all arms to the compatriots with whom it sympathises. Such restraint is inconceivable on the part of any other great or medium-sized power; it deserves a detailed study in itself as a vital clue to understanding China’s attitude to the outside world. When British and other distant academics were producing valuable work on Sino-Indian relations our academics were assuming Chinese “aggression” on the Sino-Indian border. No attempt was made to study the actual situation. Yet Australia is well placed to make these and other valuable studies of Asia. Despite the expenditure of millions of dollars of public money by the international relations/ politics departments of our universities it would be hard to think of more than one or two publications which have gained international recognition.
To be fair, also, Foreign Affairs is not the only department which suffers from the generalist bias. Most of the Public Service is imbued with the philosophy that expertise is the job of technicians; that the man who administers the experts and produces the submissions for the politicians is some how a superior being. A good example of this came to light recently when the former permanent head of the Department of Labor and Immigration released a note his department had done for its minister on the economic effects of wage indexation. The note began:
“In response to your request, the following comments are made on this issue (wage indexation). We have not of course had the time to under-take an in-depth analysis in this regard so that the views should be perceived as professional judgement rather than being authoritative.” 15
The idea that professional advice is somehow less “authoritative” than advice which takes account of the political angles is an idea fraught with danger. In Foreign Affairs it produces situations where an officer whose professional expertise tells him that non-recognition of China is mistaken is automatically ranked as less competent than the officer who advises non-recognition because this is clearly preferred by the government andpolitical climate. Ability to relate to governments, to produce advice pitched to the ideological tone of governments, becomes a major criterion for advancement. (Curiously, the ability-and the promotions-seem easily to be able to survive changes of governments.)
It may well be that formulation of policies acceptable to governments should be a major function of public servants. Politicisation of the public service is another term for it. But in that case some mechanism is needed to separate this function from the “normal” professional duties of public servants. And no where does this apply more than to foreign policy. In domestic policy, for example, there is general agreement on ultimategoals, even if there is debate on methods. In Foreign Affairs even the goals are doubtful. Until very recently the majority of Australia’s foreign policy advisers believed sincerely that we should oppose rather than recognise communist movements in Asia. The present government believes the reverse. It is neither wise nor fair to ask the advisers to change their views overnight: those who are prepared to change their views so easily are obviously going to be unreliable sources of advice; those who refuse to change should not be penalised.
One answer might be to create what could be called a departmental political secretariat to service the political needs of the government of the day. The department proper would concentrate on the job of representation and the processing of information/ intelligence (hopefully withmore professional expertise than it has shown in the past). It wouldfeed its information into the secretariat together with its own analysisof trends-rather as the better intelligence agencies do for Foreign Affairswhen they are operating as they should. The secretariat would digest this information, and use it as the basis for advising the government on its policies. Staff of the secretariat could be drawn both from the department (mainly from officers who shared the political views of the government in power and who were willing to transfer) and from outside. They would not be permanent appointments, and would obviously have to be ready to resign with a change of government. In this case those who had joined from the department proper would be allowed to rejoin the department with no loss of standing compared with what they would have enjoyed if they had not moved out.
The secretariat system would provide a neat answer to the present dilemma of political appointments to the public service. It would be of particular value in the case of the Foreign Affairs portfolio. But it should also be considered for other departments.
1There is little reason to doubt press reports at the time of senior department officials opposing Prime Minister Whitlam’s decision to meet with Prince Sihanouk during hisvisit to Peking in November 1973.
2 The author’s In Fear of China (Lansdowne Press, 1968) gives a fuller account of Australia’spolicies on the Sino-Indian and Sino-Soviet disputes.
3 The author adheres firmly to the view that Australia was to the right of the US on Indo-China policy and sought deliberately to involve the US in greater military intervention.
4 One proof of this is the alarm and shock that Dr Kissinger provoked in many of ourmore conservative diplomats. Kissinger, at heart, is probably even more conservative than they are, but he has shaken up Western diplomacy by simple recognition of the needto go out and talk to other governments-enemies as well as friends.
5 By contrast, the relative maturity of our Indonesian policy, particularly during the con-frontation period, owes much to the limited pool of Indonesian expertise that existedat the time.
6 See At the Centre-The Australian Bureaucracy in the 1970’s by Bruce Juddery (Cheshire1974) which notes Foreign Affairs disappointment over losing three of the Chinesespecialists it had trained. It should also be noted, however, that Foreign Affairs showedremarkable unenthusiasm over regaining two of these specialists when their servicesbecame available several years later.
7 See Foreign Affairs’ reply (Canberra Times, March 21, 1975) to F. A. Mediansky’sarticle “New Challengers in Foreign Policy Administration: A Comment,” AustralianOutlook, December 1974.
8 Some might argue that the rigidity with which we now endorse some communist regimes against their opponents matches the rigidity of our previous anti-communism.
9 The ultimate parody of this syndrome is the urge to rush economic aid to the “enemies”the West has failed to destroy-viz Indochina reconstruction. In Vietnam our aidpaternalism is particularly obvious, since the Vietnamese in their history of successfulwarfare have shown organisational and technical skills which Australians could not match.
10 The Department’s submission to the Royal Commission on Australian GovernmentAdministration, October 1974.
12 The reader will have to accept the author’s assurance that the term appears repeatedly in the pieces of paper the bureaucrats write to each other. They (the pieces of paper) will be exhumed in due course. In the meantime the author would like to take the chance to rebut the argument that the diplomats secretly disagreed with the claims of Menzies and Hasluck that Hanoi was Peking’s puppet and that Peking was thrustingsouth via Vietnam. The claims of the diplomats at the time were even more extreme.
13 ANU sponsorship of a blatantly anti-China seminar in 1966-“India, Japan, Australia-Partners in Asia?” and its subsequent publication (ed-J. D. B. Miller, ANU Press,1968)-is one example. Foreign Affairs was almost certainly the originator of this new, and totally unrealistic, alliance concept.
14 The author recently engaged in a newspaper debate with Professor Hedley Bull of the International Relations Department, Australian National University, on this subject (The Australian, August-September 1974). He (the author) stands by the point made in that debate-that the ANU has consciously or unconsciously shown a bias in favour of recruiting ex-intelligence officials for its international relations studies. He could add a point of personal experience-that he was himself offered an international relations position at the ANU when he was a diplomat with a specialist interest in Chinese affairs but the offer was quickly withdrawn when he began to oppose the government’s China policies.
15 Sydney Morning Herald, January 17, 1975.