ANDREW FARRAN. Molan v. Woolcott: The rough and the smooth in regional diplomacy

Jan 14, 2017

Molan writes that this sensitive touch in relations with Indonesia is reflected in a long tradition of Australian diplomats putting Indonesia’s interests and the views of Indonesians ahead of our own. Indeed he implies that but for geography Indonesia would be of little or no importance to us at all.  

In an article in The Australian (January 10, 2017) Major General Jim Molan (Rtd.) has, with a sweeping hand, criticised Australian diplomats generally for their handling of our relations with Indonesia over time. In doing so he has singled out one of the most celebrated of those diplomats, Richard Woolcott, an ambassador to Indonesia at a most sensitive time in those relations and a former head of the Department of Foreign Affairs.

The theme around this criticism concerns ‘sensitivity’ to the relationship. This is accentuated by the acknowledged cultural, religious, political and other differences between the two countries. Woolcott asserts that “in the future no relationship will be more important to Australia than that with Indonesia” and that this will require a sensitive touch in their handling (Pearls & Irritations, January 11, 2017).

Molan writes that this sensitive touch is reflected in a long tradition of Australian diplomats putting Indonesia’s interests and the views of Indonesians ahead of our own. Indeed he implies that but for geography Indonesia would be of little or no importance to us at all.

So how should we get on with Indonesia? In Molan’s view the differences between Australia and Indonesia are so great that he “is amazed that any level of workable relationship exists”.  But somehow despite all the differences, even irreconcilable ones can be managed.

What style of handling will produce this without resulting in further serious breakdowns in the relationship? If both sides are going hard at an issue at what point does one back down and why?

Looking back at some diplomatic history which Molan overlooks, the challenges presented to Australian diplomats in the 1960s during Indonesia’s Confrontation of Malaysia over the formation of the Federation; and the conflict between the PKI and the Indonesian army which erupted in 1965, resulting in the deaths of some half a million people, faced the Embassy and its staff, including military attaches, with many difficult and testing predicaments. There was nothing in this to suggest any failure to uphold Australian interests during these upheavals, particularly in the case of Malaysia.

It will be recalled also in relation to both West New Guinea (as it was) and East Timor, that Australia initially took a strong stand but later relented. Was this due to weak diplomacy or coming to terms with ‘reality’ (a noun which Molan much adheres to) when to do otherwise would damage the national interest and be beyond our military capabilities to affect anyway. In relation to West New Guinea the realities were the strength of Indonesia’s commitment to the completion of its territorial sovereignty and the fact that the United States had  advised that we would not have their support if we were to maintain our position against its incorporation. In relation to East Timor, similar considerations applied concerning its unassailable position under international law pursuant to established decolonisation processes, regardless of Indonesia’s then occupation which had inter alia involved atrocities against the civil population. In both of these cases sensitive Australian diplomacy, over time, was evident and found a way through. The difficulty for the diplomats was responding to and translating the ambiguity and indecisiveness of policy on the part of their own politicians. The outcomes may not have been as our government initially desired but they were reached against a background of political reality with no substantive damage to the on-going relationship.

To take a recent case, ‘turning back the boats” as it is called. Here Molan has no concern for sensitivity. He writes: “…that notwithstanding the importance of our relationship with Indonesia, we should never sacrifice our strongly supported and effective border control policies for it”. Very categorical, but  unmindful of his own view that “definitive statements can get you into trouble, not least because they can create unrealisable expectations…and they may be wrong”. So what if holding to such a position could lead to avoidable conflict or, in heightened cases, to actual war? Is that a sound way to proceed? Is that not how previous wars have started? Prior to that point being reached it would be prudent to consider the sustainability of one’s own position and the potential for a better solution. Obstinacy is neither a method nor a solution.

Molan however implicitly suggests that a military mindset is what is required (both for politicians and diplomats). Here he would draw on his experience as a seconded ADF person to the US command in Iraq in 2004-05 as the third highest ranking Coalition officer in that theatre where he planned and directed the attacks in late 2004 on Najaf, Fallujah and Samarra. The measures adopted not only included shattering air strikes but also restricted access for medical supplies, food and water as a weapon of war against the civilian population.  Those attacks and related inhumane measures got even worse as the campaign went on. Molan claims a respect for the rule of law, but in this case it has to be said that it was observed more in the breach than in its observance (see Christopher Doran on “Aleppo and Fallujah” in On-Line Opinion, 4 August 2008, reposted in John Menadue’s ‘Pearls and Irritations’, December 30, 2016).

There is a divergence between how the military goes about its business and how the diplomats go about theirs. The latter have to get it right whatever juggling and ambiguity may be required. If they and the responsible politicians don’t, we may stumble into war; when the means to the end at the hands of the military may justify anything – but if they are on the victor’s side they may get away with it nonetheless..

The most catastrophic failure of diplomacy was in 1914 when the neglect and failure of negotiating skills led, as has been described, to a whole continent sleep-walking into war. Each of the parties were very mindful of their own interests but wouldn’t or couldn’t give a fig for the interests of others. For us in regard to Indonesia, given all the complexities and relativities of the situation, our relations with them, and with others in the Asia Pacific region, are more important to us than their relations with us are to them.

While Molan may have a fondness for outcomes in the Middle East – and many Australians too, not surprisingly, have a fondness for Britain and Europe – the Asia-Pacific region is, to quote Woolcott, “where the world’s major relationships now mostly intersect”.  He goes on: “It is where the template for the US-China relationship will be largely shaped. It is also the crucible in which the inter-relationships on Asia- Pacific issues between Australia and Indonesia, as well as the US, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and other regional countries, will be forged”.

This will require Australia’s steady and non-distracted concentration on the region and much sensitivity in its diplomatic dealings there. More sensitivity it would appear than might be allowed by General Molan.

Andrew Farran is a former diplomat, trade adviser, and senior academic in public and international law.

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