Talk is cheap, so let’s invest more in it

Investment in diplomacy would have Australia in a better position to deal with shifting regional power dynamics in the Indo-Pacific, says Tom Barber.

Tom Barber is a Program Officer at Asia-Pacific 4D. He holds a Master of International Security from the University of Sydney and has worked as a research assistant at Deakin University and La Trobe Asia.

Serious and distinguished individuals have for over a decade, been calling for an increase to Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade budget. Regrettably, these calls have not been heeded. After yet another round of job cuts in 2020, Rory Medcalf described the successive economising of DFAT not as “cutting fat, but rather cutting muscle and bone.” In previous years, the consequences of the Department’s chronic underfunding remained largely hidden from view, or at least were apparent only to a specialist and interested demographic. This is no longer the case.

Recent decisions, particularly the non-consultative and PR-laden AUKUS announcement and the perplexing decision to discontinue domestic manufacture of AstraZeneca vaccines for distribution in Australia’s developing neighbourhood, starkly reveal the marginalisation of diplomacy’s influence over Australian foreign policy making and implementation.

More adequate diplomatic investment over the past decade would have had little influence on shifting regional power dynamics in the Indo-Pacific; but it would have put Australia in a much better position to deal with them. Instead, Canberra finds itself unprepared for a much less comfortable, much more contested regional and international strategic environment. Rather than serving as a reminder of importance of and need for diplomacy, Canberra has failed to learn the lessons of underfunding diplomacy; indeed, it has not even recognised that there is a problem. Worse still, Australia has skipped ahead a step – turbocharging its defence capability while leaving diplomacy to languish at a time when it is needed most.

In an anarchic world that has no higher authority, military force is a state’s insurance policy of last resort, and it is warranted in the current climate of uncertainty to invest more in defence. In that sense, as well as from a deterrence point of view, defence is an undeniably important tool in the statecraft toolkit. But it is not the only tool, and nor should it be relied upon as a substitute for diplomacy. Clausewitz may well consider war to be the continuation of politics by other means, but Sun Tzu reminds us that the acme of skill is to win without fighting.

Moreover, whereas defence relies on continuous investment in new capabilities and the acquisition of eye-wateringly expensive platforms (not to mention maintenance and upkeep), diplomacy is a relative bargain. It is estimated that the money spent so far on the now defunct French submarine contract – with nothing to show for it – amounts to around $2.4 billion. This waste is $400 million more than DFAT’s entire departmental funding for 2021, yet has gone relatively unremarked upon. Imagine the uproar if that amount was squandered on a development aid program scrapped before it commenced.

It might be true that a dollar spent on diplomacy is worth more than a dollar spent on defence, but not enough to offset the fact that Defence receives more than seven times the funding of DFAT. Not every problem is a nail, and a well-funded diplomatic corps is infinitely more agile and deployable in responding to a much wider range of problems and challenges than is the hammer of defence, which has one core, war-fighting function. Defence logistics can, for example, help tackle some of the symptoms of climate change – such as the ADF’s Operation Bushfire Assist – but the military is not configured to address its root causes in the same way that diplomatic efforts like the COP are.

An overreliance on defence – what Dr Anna Powles terms “khaki-isation” – and the securitisation of Australian foreign policy more broadly, risks regional security dilemmas becoming self-fulfilling. The “drums of war” rhetoric emanating from certain quarters is equally counterproductive. Indeed, as former DFAT Secretary Michael Costello put it recently: "Diplomacy seems to have been forgotten in the febrile alarmism that has taken hold in Australia's security establishment and now dominates our national discourse on external relations. The relative decline in DFAT's resourcing and influence is a critical related factor." The benefits of securitisation generally include a greater resource allocation to the issue being securitised, but those additional resources are themselves securitised, and are therefore not directed towards addressing the underlying problem of an emaciated diplomatic corps.

How then to proceed? If the Defence budget is locked in as a percentage of gross domestic product, then DFAT’s budget should be too. Better yet, why not abolish arbitrary quotas and institutionalise a whole-of-government approach to foreign policy resource allocation grounded in a dispassionate analysis of what Australia actually needs to achieve – something akin to the UK’s integrated review.

The result of a ‘radical’ assessment of Britain’s place in the world, the UK’s integrated review is essentially a distillation of its Foreign Policy and Defence White Papers into a single summary document. It notes the overlap and interaction between a broad range of trends, outlines Britain’s national security and foreign policy objectives in response, and underscores the benefits of a coherent and integrated approach to achieve them. It is less an attempt to prescribe policies on every issue identified; more an outlining of a national narrative that “sets a foreign policy baseline and identifies priority actions.”

As Melissa Conley Tyler and Richard Moore note: “An integrated international relations strategy is not a panacea, but the process can allow policymakers to step out of constraints, re-evaluate risks and opportunities, and chart a new course.” A reactive Australian outlook is inherently predisposed to view Defence as the solution to a myriad of challenges. An integrated review process – one which outlined a future vision of Australia’s place in the world and identified pathways to get there – would help reorient Australia’s outlook, break Defence’s virtual monopoly on the strategic policymaking process, and ideationally and materially reinvigorate Australian diplomacy.