John McCarthy, lowyinterpreter.org
In conjunction with the recent launch of the Lowy Institute's Global Diplomacy Index, we present a series of pieces on embassies and embassy experiences.
Globalisation — and the communication revolution which has both driven it and been encompassed by it — has meant that the world is smaller.
It is argued we don't need embassies to know what is happening abroad and we can have experts travel almost anywhere in 24 hours to solve problems. So why bother?
But the other side of that coin is that globalisation and the developments associated with it have meant that nations and their populations have much more to do with each other than hitherto.
This view reflects, for example, the growth of international trade and investment, of transnational crime, in international climate issues and above all in the movement of people, for tourism, business or education.
This means countries still need systems — and arguably better ones — to deal with each other.
The sceptic might agree with this last proposition, but say embassies are of decreasing relevance in those systems.
Not so. Embassies, like post offices or armies, will be necessary for generations to come, but aspects of their raison d'etre will change as will their methodology.
Some things don't change.
International relations rely partly on guarantees and coercion. But like personal relations, they also rely on trust.
Trust can be forged between leaders. But it also requires contact of the sort only people living in a country can develop. There is nothing arcane about this. It's just life
Countries need to understand each other. This can be achieved partly by education, by taking advantage of the plethora of sources of information currently available, and travel.
Effective embassies can also do much to run programs in a host country which help convey an articulate national view, e.g by cultivating future leaders in a systematic way, by work with media, by use of social media, etc.
And in dealing with another country, you need to know what drives its policies. Experts in, say, trade in beef or maritime strategy will be better equipped than an embassy as negotiators, but someone needs to understand the vicissitudes of the local beef industry or popular security concerns. It is usually the embassy.
And while you don't need an embassy to duplicate the media in reporting on many broad developments, you do need people to be watching closely how these developments affect us. Again this usually means intelligent engagement — and being on the ground.
It is hard to see these constants in international dealings changing much.
Other things do change and we have to adapt.
First, foreign travel has increased exponentially and when citizens get into trouble, most governments have to do something about it.
In the past 20 years, the number of Australians travelling abroad has increased almost fivefold. The number of consular cases has increased by almost the same ratio, not counting enquiries. Cases have become increasingly complex, in particular with drug related crimes and mental health issues.
Having been in a number of consular crises, including the 1985 Mexico earthquake, the 1992 Bangkok riots, the 1998 Jakarta riots, the 1999 Timor crisis, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami (as it affected India), and the 2008 Mumbai attacks, I would never underestimate the pressures put on an embassy to perform in these circumstances. Specialists can fly in to help — and they do. But the local mission is the agency with the necessary propinquity and local knowledge to carry much of the burden — and it does.
And more people want to come to us. A strong case can be made that our immigration system is too cumbersome, but few would dispute the need for some sort of sensible system, which has to be administered in the sending country by an agency of the receiving country.
Second, globalisation has brought new issues to the forefront of international attention.
International issues no longer simply fall into political, economic, defense, consular and immigration categories. The international agenda now includes many areas: quarantine, crime, financial issues, the environment, education and science to name only some. This tends to mean more experts in an embassy. It also requires heads of mission with the capacity to reconcile conflicting priorities of agencies in a mission.
Third, the information revolution has meant that more people in any given country are aware of international issues. This in turn influences the process of making foreign policy in that country — whether the matter relates to a quota or tariff issue, prisoners on death row, or border security issues.
It is therefore more important than before for an embassy to extend its contacts and voice beyond the policy-making elite to the institutions and the general public of the country to which it is accredited. Elites take more notice of what is absorbing the public at large via the media than they do of the private urgings of foreign envoys.
This set of developments suggests two broad sets of tasks for an embassy.
One is, over a long period, to help generate a positive perception in one country of another. A central approach should be a well funded public diplomacy program which avoids an emphasis on narrow cultural interests and which gets through to the general public. The Australian Government and its embassies have generally handled this aspect of diplomacy with neither commitment nor sophistication.
The second approach is for an embassy to be unabashed in taking advantage of television and social media opportunities to counter adverse perceptions in a crisis. Our High Commission sought to do this in India during the student crisis in 2009/2010. We probably did not make much of a dent on adverse perceptions with the public at large at the time, but through what we said on television, we made some difference with the elite and arguably made it possible for the relationship to recover more quickly than had seemed likely.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.