How Australia can use all its tools of statecraft

Australian policymakers have increasingly spoken of the need to use all the tools of statecraft in international engagement. This includes statements by the prime ministerdefence minister, foreign ministers (currentformer and shadow)minister for developmentchief of the defence force and others.

So, what does ‘all the tools of statecraft’ mean?

At its core, the phrase captures a straightforward and uncontroversial notion: in a difficult and contested time, we need all the different elements that connect Australia to the world to be pushing in the same direction. No one doubts the scale of international challenges. Australia is only one country among many, and it has finite resources. But the multiplying effects of having its different instruments working in concert means Australia can do more with relatively less.

To see why this idea has taken hold as a bipartisan ideal, imagine the opposite. Would someone really suggest that Australia’s different tools of influence should work at cross-purposes and undermine each other? We want defence, foreign affairs, development, trade, immigration, education, energy and other policy areas all contributing to Australia’s capacity to influence the world around it.

But given the siloed nature of institutions—and the sheer number of ways that Australia interacts internationally—the challenge is how to implement it.

new report from the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue examines what it looks like to use all the tools of statecraft in practice. It focuses on four levels: strategy, structure, staff and wider society.

First, Australia needs a coherent strategy and narrative for its international engagement.

This means having clear, overarching strategic guidance that outlines Australia’s worldview, high-level objectives and priorities. Options for developing this include a whole-of-government, integrated review like the United Kingdom has done; a strategy document that comprehensively assesses challenges and provides detailed guidance; or a regular policy statement outlining Australia’s outlook, priorities and resourcing to achieve objectives. The prime minister and senior cabinet ministers should make clear statements about valuing and using all the tools of Australian statecraft.

Second, Australia needs effective structures and mechanisms to enable a coordinated approach.

This effort needs to start at the top, with how ministers make decisions and work together through the cabinet and its committees. The ministers for climate change and international development are members of the National Security Committee and it could be further expanded to include the trade minister. The powerful Expenditure Review Committee could permanently include the foreign and defence ministers. It’s important that decision-makers interrogate the relative value and importance attributed to different tools—and that, in particular, defence capabilities are not always regarded as tools of first resort in most situations.

Australia needs an organising bureaucratic entity with a clear mandate to conduct long-term planning and coordinate how the tools of statecraft are used across government to avoid conflicts and generate greater coherence. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade would be best positioned to take on this role as an extension of its current functions. An alternative model would be to boost the central coordination function of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Third, staff need to be able to work across silos.

This means providing structured engagement and learning opportunities, such as secondments, encouragement to move between agencies and perhaps an international-policy graduate program across government. Australia should encourage and resource creative collaboration between agencies at working levels and administer whole-of-government futures exercises and simulations that draw in representatives across and from outside government to build networks and understand how an array of tools of statecraft can be brought to bear on complex problems.

Finally, there needs to be a concerted effort to achieve whole-of-nation engagement to support international objectives.

This will require a long-term effort to build understanding and support for Australia’s international objectives across society. The government needs to consistently engage with a broad range of people and groups—such as the business, science and tertiary education sectors; non-government organisations; community and diaspora groups; media and sports groups; and cultural organisations—to increase its capacity to coordinate with external expertise. This will help ensure that tools beyond the government’s immediate control can be harnessed more effectively.

Getting all parts of Australia’s international engagement working together will always be a challenge. Strategic coherence is like a holy grail—we may always fall short of perfection. But the scale of the international challenges facing Australia means that we have a duty to try.