Not Always Diplomatic

Not Always Diplomatic

An Australian Woman’s Journey through International Affairs

Book Review
AFA11 The March of Autocracy

This review is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 11: The March of Autocracy. To read the full issue, log in, subscribe or buy the issue.

Why has the profession of diplomacy suffered a loss of prestige over recent decades? There are many explanations, but one reason is simple: too few citizens understand what it is that diplomats actually do.

This makes Not Always Diplomatic, a memoir by one of Australia’s first female ambassadors, particularly welcome. Sue Boyd has served during interesting times, as the saying goes, from Portugal’s Carnation Revolution and Cold War East Germany to nuclear weapons negotiations at the United Nations headquarters in New York. In the region, she’s been head of mission in developing Bangladesh, tiger economy Vietnam, post-handover Hong Kong and coup-era Fiji.

Kim Beazley launched this book and described it as a “rollicking good yarn” in his foreword. I worked with Sue Boyd at the Australian Institute of International Affairs, and reading this is a lot like sharing a meal with her as she regales you with stories of distant places and times (being a good raconteur is a key skill of diplomacy). She takes the reader through the warp and weft of diplomatic life, providing a “view from the trenches”, having served under twelve foreign ministers between 1970 and 2003. She also offers intriguing snippets of diplomatic tradecraft – and gives a sense of the valuable work diplomats do.

A diplomat’s job, Boyd observes, focuses on three questions. As Gough Whitlam put it when he called on her to brief him on Portugal and Timor: “What’s going on? What does it mean for Australia? And what should we do about it?”

When a diplomat is dropped into a new posting, the task is to try to understand the workings of the country, identify Australia’s interests and advance them. This involves developing a deep understanding of the country’s motivations, and building relationships with the people that matter. Boyd gives example after example of how she cultivated connections in what is famously a “people profession”.

There is plenty of grist for those who are distrustful of elites. She mentions meetings with royalty. And learning golf. I doubt she’d be apologetic. Getting into the minds of influential people is a vital part of a diplomat’s work.

One reason that diplomacy is the key institution of international society, as international relations theorist Hedley Bull described, is that intercultural understanding is very difficult. This is underappreciated in an age when news flows instantly around the world, giving us events but not deep understanding. In his foreword to the book, Beazley writes, “Those who say all we need to know is in the public arena in various forms of media could not be more wrong.”

Spanning thirty-four years, Not Always Diplomatic charts many changes in the status and practice of diplomacy. For instance, communications underwent a revolution during Boyd’s career. When she started, the department had one huge computer and a typing pool. She sent messages via telex (an explanation is provided for younger readers). In East Germany, she rightly assumed she would be surveilled and her phone conversations recorded, but she didn’t have to worry about cyber threats. When she was the foreign affairs spokesperson during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, she would appear on breakfast television, but she didn’t have to contend with the 24-hour news cycle. By the end of her career, the ready availability of information on international events, as well as the ease of travel, had undermined diplomats’ status as a privileged source of knowledge.

Boyd makes a compelling case that today there is still the need for skilled teams on the ground, with the right contacts, a detailed understanding of what is going on, resources and nous, and the capacity to “find the right path”. She gives an example of this – her time in Fiji during the 2000 coup, led by George Speight – that comprehensively debunks the fashionable idea that diplomats are less essential than those from a military background in safeguarding Australia’s security. During the 56-day crisis, she, as high commissioner, was commanding officer for all diplomatic staff, ensuring their safety and that of other Australians on the ground. She played a vital role in helping to broker an agreement among the parties, made possible by her deep personal relationships. This is national security by diplomatic means.

Not Always Diplomatic also offers a valuable description of the process of promoting diversity within an organisation. Boyd’s career coincided with massive change for women in foreign affairs. When she joined DFAT, she was one of only two women in the graduate intake, and was paid 10 per cent less than male colleagues for the same work. The marriage bar – which required women to resign from the public service upon marriage – meant that there was a reluctance to hire women, and so almost no role models for Boyd. She characterises the department as a “sexist minefield of low expectations, resistance, hostility”. There were lewd comments. Additional hospitality responsibilities. Exclusion from particular posts. She was conscious of being judged not just as a diplomat, but as a woman diplomat.

She describes weaving gently through this environment, to carve out a better workplace: “We danced the constant dance of upsetting the men as little as possible so that they became allies rather than adversaries.”

How Boyd worked with others to enable better conditions for women offers valuable lessons for those who are trailblazers in their professions, whatever “non-traditional” group they belong to. These lessons include using your skills to your advantage, learning the importance of mentors and champions, being proactive in your career progression, overcoming impostor syndrome and not discounting your own competence.

Boyd broke a glass ceiling to become Australia’s first female ambassador to an Islamic country when she was posted to Bangladesh in 1986. She stayed in the diplomatic service long enough to see it welcome rather than tolerate women. In 2017, Frances Adamson, the first female secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, said that Boyd had been a mentor to and role model for most of the women in the department.

Today, fifty years after Boyd entered the department, its funding is at the lowest percentage of the federal budget in our nation’s history. As I wrote in a previous issue of this journal: the combined diplomacy, trade and aid budget was 8.9 per cent of the budget in 1949, compared to 1.3 per cent in 2019.

To raise awareness of this underfunding of Australia’s diplomatic capacity and why it matters, we need more diplomats explaining their work. May they all share Boyd’s humour, candour and pragmatism.

Melissa Conley Tyler


AFA11 The March of Autocracy

This is a book review from Australian Foreign Affairs 11: The March of Autocracy. To read the full issue, log in, subscribe or buy the issue.