Foreign ministries can and should ‘do strategy’
19 May 2014|

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation. Can foreign ministries do strategy? Yes, certainly. Ask the government in Kiev, as it surveys what’s left of Ukraine, whether the Russian Foreign Ministry does strategy.Peter Jennings’ post ‘Why doesn’t DFAT do strategy’ has resulted in a series of posts that explore both the nature of strategy and the claim that DFAT doesn’t do strategy. This claim, readers will recall, was prompted by Peter’s reading of Bob Carr’s Diary of a Foreign Minister, in which the Senator observes that in his experience ‘all foreign policy is a series of improvisations’.

Of course, if that were literally true, it would be an indictment on DFAT. But I’ve heard a similar lament from New Zealand foreign affairs officers that foreign policy is ‘just a reaction to one damn thing after another’. Or as John Foster Dulles once remarked, ‘the great thing to remember in this business is that at any one time one third of the world is asleep. But the other two thirds are awake and making trouble’.

Still, perhaps we shouldn’t take everything we read or hear from our DFAT or MFAT colleagues at face value. Like Rob Ayson, I don’t think the absence of a recent Australian White Paper on Foreign Affairs, or the musings of a former Australian Foreign Minister who sums up his time in office as ‘just running from one international meeting to another, from one consular crisis to another’, is necessarily evidence of a lack of strategic thought or capacity within DFAT. After all, it would hardly be possible for Australia to have gained a seat on the UN Security Council without having given its candidacy significant thought, and without the expenditure of some serious resources to secure the desired result.

I agree with Peter Jennings, though, that there’s a predisposition in DFAT and MFAT to avoid what they see as the straitjacket of a strategic framework. And I agree with Peter that this disinclination to ‘do strategy’ is regrettable. Why? Because government departments that don’t subject themselves to the discipline of prior strategic thought and analysis will indeed end up exhibiting the reactionary pathology that Bob Carr writes about. A policy of simply reacting to events is transactionalism writ large. It’s akin to having a policy of no policy at all. It’s hardly the route to achieving the kind of influence in the region and further afield that a country of Australia’s strategic weight aspires to have: to be the shaper, not the shaped.

Is strategy best thought of as a ‘state of mind rather than as a formal process’ as my colleague Rob Ayson urges? Certainly not. If that’s what Lawrence Freedman also believes—Rob quotes him at length—then I despair. A state of mind, no matter how elevated, won’t produce the necessary requirements of good strategy: best defined, I believe, as honest problem diagnosis, a long-term view of objectives, an understanding of the critical factors at play, a coherent and coordinated response involving critical choices made, resources committed, purposeful action and relentless follow up.

Some readers may recognise that I’m drawing from Richard Rumelt here. His book Good strategy, bad strategy is one of the more useful strategy texts I know. And while Rumelt depends heavily on military examples to illustrate his theme, his advice isn’t limited to military audiences. Indeed, his primary audience is the US business community.

Incidentally, Brendan Taylor’s reading of Hew Strachan’s seminal paper The Lost Meaning of Strategy takes exceptionalism too far. It’s a mistake to argue that strategy should be confined merely to the relationship between military means and political ends—and that, for that reason, DFAT shouldn’t do strategy. I think that’s an extraordinary view.

I know Clausewitz argued, in effect, that strategy is the bridge between political power and military instrumentality. But Clausewitz was considering the phenomenon of war in the Napoleonic era. Modern society can, and must, take a broader view.

In short, as Geoff Mulgan argues, strategy is the business of attempting to find coherent, long term answers to the simple question that all of us must ask of ourselves and our organisations: where is it that we want to go and how will we get there?

Can foreign ministries do strategy? Yes, certainly. Ask the government in Kiev, as it surveys what’s left of Ukraine, whether the Russian Foreign Ministry does strategy. Or ask the Vietnamese, or the Japanese, both facing a government that certainly does long-term strategy, as we can readily see in events currently unfolding in the South China Sea, in Africa, and elsewhere. Should the Australian and New Zealand Foreign Ministries do strategy? Yes, absolutely—it’s the only way to prevent the urgent crowding out the vital.

Can Defence organisations teach their diplomatic colleagues how to do strategy? Yes. But so can business, and arguably better so. The strategy literature coming out of our Schools of Business and Government these days is in many ways richer and more informative than that from our military colleges.

Let me finish by citing Rod Lyon. The Australian government as a whole, he says, struggles with strategy. The same is equally true for New Zealand. That suggests a role for both ASPI and the New Zealand Centre for Strategic Studies to take on the educational task of lifting the level of strategic performance of both governments across the board. So that, as Rod argues, Australia (and New Zealand) can ‘define, pitch and fulfil (their) roles’ in Asia consonant with the constraints of wealth, political systems, declaratory settings, and (Rob Ayson’s final thought, picked up also by Peter Jennings) a ‘sharp appreciation’ of their national interests.

Lance Beath is adjunct senior lecturer in strategic studies in the School of Government, Victoria University of Wellington. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.