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Australian diplomacy - from Plimsoll to the present: speech, Hobart.

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11 May 2007, Hobart

Australian Diplomacy - from Plimsoll to the Present

It is a great honour and delight for me to inaugurate this annual lecture series celebrating Sir James Plimsoll - a legendary diplomat, public figure and great Australian. He would have had a particularly wry smile seeing me - his junior officer

when he was Ambassador in Brussels - commemorating him here today.

But I stand here today partly because of him. I learnt from the master. He was a great mentor, not just a boss. And today I hope to repay the debt of gratitude I owe him just a little.

Sir James would have applauded the vision Professor Le Grew has outlined for this annual lecture series. He recognised the importance of community understanding of - and debate about - Australia’s foreign and trade policy. So I hope that these lectures will become recognised as a major event in the public discussion of Australian diplomacy.

Sir James would also have been heartened that the three sponsors of this lecture series share such a bold vision: the Tasmanian Division of the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA) - with which I know he had a close association; my Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade - where Sir James had a distinguished career for more than 30 years; and the University of Tasmania - where as the much-loved Governor of this great state Sir James attended almost every graduation ceremony.

This last point speaks of Sir James’ commitment. A typical example of his dedication to service can be seen in a small note sitting in Sir James’ papers at the National Library in Canberra. It is a card from the 1960s about availability for military service. In Sir James’ own hand he notes that he has previously served in the military and is available at short notice to serve again if needed. Modestly, without irony, he also notes that he might have difficulty being released from his current job. That job just happened to be the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs.

Sir James Plimsoll

Sir James Plimsoll was one of the greatest men Australia has produced. One thing that distinguished Sir James from others was an incredible ability to inspire trust in people. He was a clear thinker and a straight talker, and he had a genuine interest in and respect for others. On overseas postings he had an uncanny ability to forge close working relationships with senior political and business figures even in the face of

difficult political dynamics.

He worked his entire life to make a difference. He understood that people and countries are not the victims of fate, but agents of change. The belief that you can help define the future, that things are not set in stone but wrought into being is part of what made Sir James such an outstanding diplomat.

Sir James’ time as Governor of Tasmania capped off a remarkable career in public service - he was Secretary of the Department of External Affairs for five years, and he served as an ambassador no less than eight times.

Some indication of the sweep and significance of his career can be seen in his ambassadorial posts: he served in South Korea during the Korean War, at the United Nations in New York, in New Delhi, in Washington, in Moscow, in Brussels, in London, and in Tokyo. By any measure, this list includes many of our most important

diplomatic posts - then and now.

After working as an economist at the Bank of New South Wales, Sir James enlisted in the army in 1942. During World War Two he spent most of his time in the Army’s Directorate of Research, at Land Force HQ in Melbourne. When the war ended in 1945, Major Plimsoll was in Washington with the Australian Military Commission. He was assigned to join the Australian delegation to the Far Eastern Commission in Washington - the international body established to coordinate the Allies’ post-war policy towards Japan. This was the start of Sir James’ international career and he soon caught the attention of the then foreign minister, Dr H.V. Evatt.

Sir James’ External Affairs career began in the pioneering era of the Department, in 1948, and he quickly climbed through the ranks. His first ambassador-level post was in Korea from 1950, a sensitive and potentially dangerous job in the midst of the war there. He performed so well and built such a close connection with Korean President Syngman Rhee that, upon his return to Canberra, the United States promptly asked if he could be sent back to Korea - a rare tribute that marks his contribution at that delicate time, especially in ensuring an effective role for the UN forces.

Today we take Australia’s business, political and personal links with Asia for granted - it is hard to imagine how much smaller these links were in the first twenty years after the Second World War. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Sir James was at the

forefront of building our new relations with our region. For instance, Sir James served as High Commissioner to India for two years in the early 1960s. His standing was such that he was the only resident foreign diplomat invited to contribute to a book of essays written to commemorate the life of Jawaharlal Nehru - a book to which Lord Mountbatten, Clem Attlee and John Kenneth Galbraith also contributed.

Sir James also worked hard to explain the importance of Asia to the Australian public. He helped Foreign Minister R.G. Casey write his 1954 book Friends and Neighbours, just as he had earlier helped H.V. Evatt write his book, The Task of Nations.

Sir James also had a life long love of music and the arts, so much so that - as many of you will be aware - he has a gallery named after him here at the University of Tasmania. I remember Sir James as a renaissance man with a wide knowledge of literature and an unrivalled knowledge of opera.

Present at the Creation

Sir James’ remarkable career in international affairs spanned all the major strategic challenges of the late twentieth century from the Second World War to the Cold War. He was, to borrow former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s line, 'present at the creation'. From the ashes and ruin of the Second World War, Sir James - like so many of his extraordinary generation from around the world - helped create a new international order.

It is easy to forget the scale of these achievements: the Marshall Plan’s resurrection of Europe and rehabilitation of Germany; the rebuilding of Japan into the democratic powerhouse it is today; the relatively smooth transition of millions of people to independence and sovereignty; the creation of the United Nations and international economic systems that ensured a framework for stability and prosperity; and, of course, the discrediting of Communism and winning of the Cold War.

It is just as easy to forget or glide over the fact that none of this was assured. With the passing of time, as we’ve absorbed these world changing events into our daily lives, hindsight might tempt us to see all this as obvious and simple - as events just destined

to happen.

But you would never have thought so peering into the future from the wreckage of the Second World War, or in the teeth of the Cold War. At times it must have looked quite hopeless.

What gave hope were people like Sir James - people who understood that Australia needed to define its future, and who recognised that, with effort and creativity, we could not only carve out a place for Australia but help shape the world we live in.

What we must not forget and never be complacent about is that these great feats did not just happen. Other approaches, other sets of policies could have seen much less happy results. Less astute and effective diplomacy could have seen great tragedy instead of the many successes.

Continuing with the right choices: strengthening our key relationships

This brings me to today. While many of the global challenges we currently face are different to those faced by Sir James, they are no less serious and no less important to our lives and to Australia’s future. And our success in meeting today’s challenges requires the same qualities embodied in Sir James: vision, judgement, conviction, sound policies and strong diplomacy.

As it was in his day, a critical element of ongoing success will be how the great and emerging powers intersect and how Australia advances its own interests in relation to each of them and the interaction between them.

A defining - if not sufficiently acknowledged - achievement of Australian foreign policy over the past few years is that we have simultaneously strengthened all of our key relationships.

Where once it was famously - or infamously - predicted that Asian governments would not talk to this Government, Australia has never been more engaged in Asia than now. Nor has Australia’s alliance with the United States ever been stronger. In the process, we have demolished this narrative that recurs from time to time in public debate that our alliance with the United States costs us in the region and that we will inevitably have to 'choose' in some way between the United States and Asia.

I’d like to highlight some of these significant achievements.

We have worked to deepen our relationship with the United States on the basis of the same logic cabled from Washington by Ambassador Plimsoll in 1970, where he wrote: “the American alliance is and will continue to be vital to Australia’s security and prosperity”.

Part of our strengthened relationship has been borne of tragic circumstance where - as so often in the past - our shared values and interests see us shoulder to shoulder with the Americans; this time combating the threat of terrorism - in Afghanistan and Iraq, and beyond them as well.

Our strengthened relationship has also been a deliberate act of choice. We understand the centrality of the United States for stability in our region and of its global leadership for prosperity and security.

Reinforcing our alliance with the United States also bolsters our own capabilities to pursue what is important for Australia. It gives us extra weight and influence in our region. It gives us the special access to intelligence that helps protect Australian citizens.

It also gives us access to military systems and technology to defend ourselves, and training to allow us to operate seamlessly with the world’s most formidable military to face down common threats. Without the American alliance, Australia would need to spend billions more on its own defence.

Our historic free trade agreement with the United States has broadened our access to the world’s largest market. And Australian exporters are seeing the benefits - exports to the United States increased by around ten per cent in 2006. The FTA has also given us standing and leverage in negotiating similar arrangements around the world.

But, these achievements are not unique to our relationship with the United States. One of our most important international partners is Japan, and we are similarly deepening economic and security links with that country. Japan buys almost as many of our exports as our next two largest markets combined (China and the Republic of Korea). And we have begun to negotiate a free trade agreement with Japan - something unthinkable even a few years ago.

But our efforts go beyond just developing our trade. We recognise the important role Japan can - and wants to - play in promoting regional and global security. Japan now makes a major contribution to regional stability and prosperity through its economic, political and diplomatic influence. We welcome this and are working with Japan to continue to build on the values and interests we share - including our common commitment to democracy.

Where once we were enemies, we have developed the relationship to the point where Australian and Japanese troops worked together on the ground in Iraq over many hard months. And we have recently signed the Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation with Japan that will ensure even closer security cooperation in everything from disaster relief to military training.

At the same time, we now have unprecedented relations with China. The rise of China is reshaping Asia and the world. China’s economy has grown by more than nine per cent a year for more than 25 years and has already overtaken Germany to become the

world’s third largest after the United States and Japan.

We welcome this remarkable pace of development as good for both China and the world. China’s liberalisation and integration into the world economy has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and helped to ensure a robust global economy. Australia’s trade with China has increased more than five-fold over the past decade, with China now being our second largest merchandise trading partner.

Our strengthening relationship with China extends beyond economic opportunity. China’s leaders regularly visit Australia. We enjoy a frank dialogue that is adding breadth and substance to the relationship across areas as diverse as energy, the environment and regional security, while allowing us to openly discuss areas where we may disagree.

As China assumes greater economic and strategic weight in the region, we have never been better placed to encourage China’s continued positive international engagement and reinforce mutual interests.

We have also continued to strengthen our relations with key emerging countries such as India and Indonesia. India is now our fastest growing export market and the defence relationship has been taken to a new level.

Our relationship with Indonesia has never been better. Despite well known ups and downs, we have forged an increasingly close security and economic partnership with Indonesia. We have endured common grief and suffering as victims of terrorism. The strength of our relationship can be seen in the way we have worked together in response to these tragedies. In another significant step forward, last year I signed the

Lombok Treaty to deepen and expand our security links.

I cannot list all our relationships in one lecture. But our traditional close relationships with the United Kingdom and New Zealand remain strong. So, too, do our relations with partners throughout Asia, such as the Republic of Korea, and beyond.

More than the sum of their parts

These are significant achievements. These strengthened relationships are in and of themselves of great value to Australia - both economically and strategically. They reflect the fact that Australia’s interests are global and that our prosperity and security are connected to a diverse set of relationships. Each delivers tremendous benefits for Australia.

But these relationships add up to more than the sum of their parts. Our most important bilateral relations - with the United States, Japan, China, Indonesia and India, for example - are with the countries that will be central players in addressing the major foreign policy challenges of this century. We have simultaneously strengthened all these relationships without trading one off against the other. We have balanced our key relationships in a way that reinforces our economic and security interests, and maximises our opportunities.

Combined, these relationships are a force multiplier. These countries will pursue their own interests vigorously, of course. But we have never been better placed to work in concert with key powers to our advantage.

This is already evident in a number of foreign policy challenges. I would like to focus on two concrete examples: stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific and combating terrorism.

As the Prime Minister has said, history will have no larger stadium this century than the Asia-Pacific. The centre of economic gravity is inexorably shifting to this region. It is also home to eight of the world’s largest standing armies and some of the most

volatile potential flashpoints in the world, including the Korean peninsula and the Taiwan Strait. Japan’s more active role, China’s rise and India’s growth - among other things - all have implications that affect our interests.

The American presence in the Asia-Pacific has underpinned the region’s remarkable development, and a strong US presence in the region remains vital for stability and security. America’s alliance relationships will continue to be the anchors for the US presence in the region.

In strengthening our alliance we strengthen American commitment to the region, and our ability to forge closer Australian involvement in the Asia-Pacific. For there is no doubt that our alliance with the United States adds to our strategic weight and capability in the region.

This is evident in the growing interaction on regional issues between Australia, the United States and Japan. Our deepening relationships with the United States and

Japan are combining with Japan’s more active regional and global role to create more common ground for cooperation.

Through our Ministerial Trilateral Strategic Dialogue, I work with my US and Japanese counterparts to advance regional security and stability. This is producing tangible benefits, such as more coordinated regional counter-terrorism efforts, closer trilateral security cooperation and better information sharing. It also helps us to have a more integrated approach to the work of multilateral institutions such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, and in addressing pressing problems such as countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

By simultaneously strengthening our key relationships we have opened up further opportunities for regional cooperation, building a sense of shared interests and joint responsibilities. This reinforces regional stability and security while enabling our influence to work to advance Australia’s strategic and economic interests.

For example, we are supporting the United States, Japan, China and others - such as South Korea - to press North Korea to forsake its nuclear weapons programs. While we are under no illusions about how much work remains on this front, our ability to work with key partners vastly strengthens our position. Our close links mean that the key players recognise that we have important interests at stake in the Korean nuclear

issue and a significant contribution to make.

The same can be said for the way we are working with the United States, Japan, China, India and South Korea to meet the challenge of climate change through the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate - the AP6. Asia’s economic growth is not just changing the strategic picture in Asia; it has also brought environmental challenges to the fore.

These are pressing in many areas, but none more so than the challenge of reducing carbon emissions while maintaining the economic growth that has fuelled the biggest reduction of poverty in history.

Helping to manage the intersection of economic growth, energy security and climate change will be one of Australia’s major tasks in the years ahead.

The AP6 initiative takes us some way toward this through promoting technological solutions and the efficient use of energy to reduce carbon emissions. Our leadership in the AP6 initiative is testimony to the way we are making our key relationships work for us, and the way we are working with partners to the benefit of the region.

Part of the challenge in addressing any global or regional issue is getting the major powers to share your vision, to back your strategy. We have been able to do this with policy towards the Pacific Island countries. Australia has a special responsibility to help the Pacific Island countries. We are working with them to provide them with the tools - particularly good governance - to work towards a sustainable, prosperous future.

Our interests in the Pacific, and our leadership role, are respected by the major powers. We have been able to focus US attention on the area, too. We have been able to encourage greater Japanese engagement. Together with the United States and Japan we have worked trilaterally to coordinate our approaches. And we have been talking with China about contributing to good governance and sustainable development in the region.

The goal is a better future for the Pacific Island countries - and we stand a better chance of success if we work with our key partners to promote it.

This same approach applies to what we call regional architecture - the interlocking system of regional organisations that help manage co-ordination on security and economic affairs. APEC is the most important. It involves all of the major regional players and it has a real role to play in promoting and delivering economic and trade liberalisation.

This year, as host, we are keen to push the agenda forward. And as we push forward, we have been able to bring the major powers along with us. It is never easy to get 21 member economies of APEC to agree. But if you can use the strength of your bilateral relationships to bring others on board, it makes the process much more effective.

APEC matters because the United States, Japan, China and other key players all sit down together. We can use our stature to help APEC deliver real results - on trade and investment liberalisation, on human security, and on energy and climate change.

The final issue I would like to focus on is terrorism.

The terrorism we face today from violent Islamist extremism is more than a physical threat; it is also a battle to defeat a new totalitarian ideology with universalist ambitions. This is a struggle that is as much about ideas and values as it is about policing and counter-insurgency. It pits tolerance, pluralism and openness against tyranny and fundamentalism. It is a struggle that is likely to be with us for a generation - until the ideology that provides the motivation and justification for acts of terrorism is discredited.

This is a global challenge. We should be very clear about this, because terrorists have been very clear about it. Australia has been targeted by the terrorists, and the global terrorist network extends from South-East Asia through to the Middle-East and into northern Africa. And when terrorists strike in the United States, or in Britain, or Afghanistan, or in Indonesia, they are also striking against us, against the values and freedoms that we believe should underpin the global order.

Our bilateral relationships are once again central to our efforts to fight terrorism. In our own region, we have formed a remarkable counter-terrorism partnership with Indonesia. The Australian Federal Police has, with great effect, helped its counterparts in Indonesia track down and capture those responsible for the Bali bombings and the

attack on our Embassy. New attacks in the planning have been prevented.

We are also helping our regional partners strengthen their counter-terrorism capabilities. We have, for example, helped establish a very effective counter-terrorism training centre near Jakarta - the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation - which has already trained 2000 law enforcement officials from around the region.

We are working to challenge the terrorists’ destructive ideology. One way we have done this is by initiating inter-faith dialogues, which are a powerful way to identify positive messages on tolerance and understanding. And we are helping regional partners to counter the terrorists’ narrative with positive messages of tolerance and moderation. In Indonesia, I’m pleased to say, polling suggests that the minority of Indonesians who support violent extremism is in decline.

Further afield, the Australian Defence Force is playing a vital role on the ground in Afghanistan confronting terrorist networks and building for a better future. We are working with the Dutch to help reconstruction and development in the province of Oruzgan. We do this because we understand the strategic imperative of not allowing

Afghanistan to once again become a safe haven for terrorists. But this is also a matter of principle - collective security cannot work if nations free-ride on the efforts of others.

I make the same point about our involvement in Iraq. Whatever views you might hold about the original decision to intervene in Iraq, we need to focus on the stakes involved now. As the Prime Minister has said, it is not right that Australia and its allies prevail in Afghanistan but fail in Iraq. Nor is it right that we seek to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for global terrorism but fail to see the same imperative in Iraq.

The terrorists’ goal is to replace our way of life with theirs. They want to make people believe that different faiths and beliefs are not capable of living together. They want to turn people against each other. Their goal is destruction. The struggle against terrorism will not be a short one. It may well take a generation to win, but we have to persevere and prevail.


In foreign policy, governments are often faced with short-term crises that require management. But you cannot simply be reactive, you cannot allow yourself to be swept along by events. You need to have a vision of where the country should be, of it how it should be placed, and you work over the long-term to take it there.

The Australian Government has made deliberate choices to build on our most important relationships.

Our relationships with key partners are stronger than ever. The strength in these relationships helps us pursue our goals, whether in meeting the challenges of terrorism, economic liberalisation, or climate change.

The challenges we face today are no less than those of Sir James’ day - the ideological struggles against fascism and communism, the building of the post-war era, and managing the emergence of new nations. We, too, are faced with task of choosing how the future unfolds.

Australia is well placed to contribute to a better world. We are a significant country. We have an enviable record of stable, open government. The rights of our citizens are protected. And we are prosperous. Using our resources and being creative in our diplomacy, we can have a great impact on the global future.

We need dedication to the task and a clear-sighted vision of the future. Sir James Plimsoll brought those qualities to bear on all his responsibilities. Australia’s foreign policy - then and now - benefited greatly because he did so.

See also: Sir James Plimsoll Lecture Series (University of Tasmania)