Fiddling While It Burns

Remembering Australia’s soft power | 17/03/2009

The Australian has run an opinion piece today by Lowy Institute Executive Director Allan Gyngell decrying the Rudd government for not giving enough priority to the foreign service:

Nations have two broad ways of shaping the world: by coercion or persuasion. Coercion works when you have effective armed forces and other resources that can deter and, if necessary, defeat potential adversaries or, more subtly, lead others to accommodate your interests. During the past 20years, since the end of the Cold War and even more intensely after the terrorist attacks of September 2001, an international debate has been raging about these instruments of national security policy. In almost every Western country, military forces and domestic security agencies have been reshaped and their roles redefined. Many have received increased funding.

But until recently there has been no similar debate about the instruments of persuasion, the role of diplomacy. This is odd. Military equipment is very expensive (just wait for the defence white paper); diplomats are cheap. The budget of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is little more than one-twentieth the size of the Defence Department’s $22billion.

Of course defence forces and diplomats don’t do the same things, and both are important. Still, each exists to advance the same national strategy.

The Australian is the last major Australian daily publishing this sort of serious policy thought on a regular basis; perhaps its one-time rivals at the Sydney Morning Herald need that space for the tabloid nonsense that News Ltd prefers to keep in the Telegraph. The Age still maintains some of its air of broadsheet prestige and therefore a bit of depth on the opinion pages, but probably shies away from pieces like this for a rather different reason; it’s a little embarassing for those of us raised in the current liberal arts academy to take seriously the rich white men dispensing sage advice as the masters of the universe. See below for the ethnically diverse rogue’s gallery.

Regardless of the reasons for these serious foreign policy pieces getting less space, however, they remain important to the nation’s future, even a future in a far less nationally-oriented world.

This piece raises some very important questions. Are diplomacy and soft power being given the priority they deserves? Why does Defence, with all its limitations, decisions made on tradition rather than policy thinking, and brutal realities of waste, have guaranteed massive annual increases in funding, while DFAT must scramble for every dollar, when diplomacy starts, finishes, and carries on throughout any mission Defence will ever undertake?

DFAT, like all government departments other than Defence, was severely cut in the 2008 budget in the name of financial prudence and preventing inflation. Now it seems desperately short-sighted to cut such important functions as the Bureau of Statistics, for the sake of slightly increasing the budget surplus in good times, when the challenges to government are technical and multi-faceted as never before.

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