Successful diplomacy is always personal

By Sue Boyd, Former Australian Diplomat

In reflecting on a 34-year career in the foreign service, former ambassador Sue Boyd concludes the key ingredient to success is “tradecraft” – and especially the ability to establish and maintain good personal relationships.

The key to success of Gough Whitlam’s ground-breaking visit to China 50 years ago was personal diplomacy — face to face meetings with Chinese officials and leaders — according to the eyewitness account of Australia’s first ambassador to the People’s Republic of China, Stephen Fitzgerald.

These face-to-face contacts have been the enablers of mutually beneficial and satisfactory relations between China and Australia ever since. The staff of diplomatic missions in each other’s countries have worked assiduously at the task. And not only in China.

In addition to Embassy staff, individual non-official Australians and host country nationals have worked together, on university exchanges, on development of trade and on a range of other non-government contacts.

Contributors to Geraldine Doogue’s recent four-part ABC Radio National series on “What modern diplomacy really looks like – and why we should care” have all stressed the importance of such personal contacts. On this, John McCarthy, Martin Indyk, Geoff Raby and I — all former ambassadors — agreed. It is at the heart of diplomatic tradecraft.

As I stressed in my own recently published autobiography Not Always Diplomatic, we strive to build personal relationships, to understand what makes people tick, and to comprehend the interests of the people we are dealing with. This is what enables negotiations that create agreements to meet the needs of both parties. They are the fundamental tools of successful diplomats in advancing the interests of their own countries.

Not Always Diplomatic - book cover
"Not Always Diplomatic: An Australian Woman’s Journey through international affairs" by Sue Boyd – University of Western Australia Press, 2020.

Real and lasting agreements are not made via megaphone diplomacy.

Of course, the Chinese minister would not return a phone call from his Australian counterpart. Why should either one walk into an unprepared, highly political and public contact without the ground having been meticulously negotiated, and each minister being fully aware of what was lying in store and what was expected?

Even top-level phone calls between ministers of very close and friendly countries are carefully prepared. And this is especially true of contacts with communist regimes, where foreign policy questions are carefully considered by the party before the foreign ministry is authorised to take an action or make any commitments.

I frequently experienced this while conducting negotiations on international security, defence and human rights questions when I was Australian Ambassador to Vietnam.

When Paul Keating visited Vietnam in 1994, shortly before I arrived as ambassador, Vietnamese Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet asked Australia to build a bridge across the Mekong River, opening up the southern Mekong Delta. Keating agreed, and this remained the most prominent symbol of the bilateral relationship for many years, establishing trust and a preference for much Australian commercial exchange. It opened the way in due course for more difficult discussions on matters such as human rights. It is still known as the Australian Bridge.

A year after Keating’s visit, Governor General Bill Hayden came to Hanoi as the guest of Vietnam’s President Le Duc Anh. As Ambassador, I accompanied Hayden. Towards the end of the initial talks between the two, Hayden suddenly, without any prior warning, raised the issue of Vietnam’s breaches of human rights. He was under some pressure from the Vietnamese community in Australia to do so. The President responded angrily, accusing Australia itself of committing egregious human rights abuses by the very nature of breaching Vietnam’s sovereignty through invasions and activities during the Vietnam war.

Hayden had not expected such a reaction. There was a hostile and awkward silence while he rummaged in his brief and appealed to me for support. I suggested that these important questions required fuller discussion, the allocated time for our meeting was coming to an end, and maybe the subject might be best continued over dinner that evening? We were ushered out of the room.

The senior foreign ministry official in charge of the visit, who I knew well, was soon on my back. This was supposed to be a formal, friendly, visit, where contentious discussions were not anticipated. The President was angry and inclined to direct that our visit be brought to an end. On our side, Hayden had done what he had to do, in raising the human rights issues, but admitted privately that he might have given some warning that he wished to discuss the topic. The marker had been put down, the visit program could continue as planned, and of course there was no discussion over dinner.

The negotiations I conducted with the Foreign ministry to establish a defence cooperation agreement and cooperation in combating international crime were all careful, step by step discussions, stretched out over periods of time, with each stage being cleared by the party. My foreign ministry counterpart and I established a good professional and personal relationship, which enabled careful and open discussions as each difficult issue was examined and overcome.

All these episodes show that the personal touch can work both ways. It comes down to knowing your audience and understanding their priorities. That takes time and a willingness to get to know your counterparts.

Australia has an extremely competent foreign service, able to give ministers good advice and to help prepare the ground.

But it does not control the political agenda of governments or the behaviour of ministers. Australian ministers have appeared gauche and ignorant in their attempts recently to deal with China, and seem to be playing to short term local interests rather than long term international success.

Effective political leaders understand that the value of personal contact and of having long-term vision in foreign policy. When Australia went through another rocky patch with China in 1996, John Howard met Chinese president Jiang Zemin on the sidelines of the APEC leaders’ summit in Manila. Their meeting — which Howard described in his memoir as “about the most important a meeting I held with any foreign leader in the time that I was Prime Minister” — set relations on a long and mutually-productive upswing.

Jiang concluded the meeting by saying to Howard in English: “Face to face is much better, isn’t it?”

And, indeed, it is. Whitlam in the 1970s, Bob Hawke in the 1980s and Howard in the 1990s brought a personal touch that underpinned long periods of strong diplomatic relations with China.

In the current bilateral political relationship with Beijing, more than ever now, we need an approach which recognises China’s new political aspirations.

In the first negotiation skills course I attended, “What are the needs of the other side?” was the fundamental question.

We do not hear about any quiet exploratory discussions. That’s as it should be. I would not expect these to be trumpeted. But I do expect, or at least I hope, they are going on. Our relationship with China is vital and even as the foreign policy environment has fundamentally changed the personal touch that launched diplomatic relations in 1971 is as necessary as ever.

Sue Boyd was Australian Ambassador in Vietnam 1994-98, Consul General in Hong 1998-99 and High Commissioner to Fiji and other South Pacific countries 1999-2003. Her book, “Not Always Diplomatic” was published in September 2020.

Banner image: Foreign Minister Marise Payne speaks with then-US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Victoria Barracks, Sydney, Australia - June 5, 2017. Credit: US Secretary of Defense, Flickr.