Richard Woolcott: a great Australian diplomat
8 Feb 2023|

With Richard Woolcott, you always had to take the smooth with the smooth.

No rough edges for this wattle-proud Australian who was one of our greatest diplomats. His smarts and his steel always presented in suave and subtle hues.

Woolcott encapsulated Australia’s major diplomatic ambition—then and now—in a single phrase. In Asia, he said, we must be ‘the odd man in, not the odd man out’. Typical Dick Woolcott—the central point offered with an optimistic up beat, accompanied by the broadest of smiles.

On Woolcott’s death in Canberra last week at the age of 95, the plaudits aimed high: a ‘legend’, a ‘diplomat’s diplomat’, a ‘giant’.

As a happy warrior, Woolcott used a jest to open his memoir about his 40-year career from diplomatic cadet to department head. He recalled walking into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 1988, shortly after he’d been appointed its secretary, accompanying the new foreign minister, Gareth Evans:

Beside me, Gareth asked: ‘How many people work here?’

‘About half,’ I replied. ‘But between us we can change that.’

It was a quip about an institution that defined his life. Woolcott talked of ‘the department’ with a mixture of affection and exasperation and enjoyment.

After the serious business of the memoir reflecting on diplomacy from Joseph Stalin’s death to the Bali bombings, Woolcott produced a second book on the lighter side of international life, Undiplomatic activities, filled with anecdotes and tall tales (and launched by former prime minister Bob Hawke on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Sydney in 2007):

Required not only to sacrifice a settled home life in the service of their country, diplomats must also heroically offer up their livers to booze, their stomachs to endless official dinners, their integrity to dangerous liaisons and the weasel art of spin, and their sanity to the pomposity and weird protocols that are an integral part of the international scene.

In explaining those weird protocols, Woolcott several times quoted to me a maxim of another Australian mandarin, James Plimsoll: ‘A decision not to make a decision is definitely a decision.’ Woolcott’s character, though, pushed against no-decision havering.

See Woolcott’s smarts and steel in the two issues he nominated as the most high profile of his career: the ‘disappointing and negative’ experience of East Timor and the creation of APEC (‘an important foreign and trade policy success for Australia’).

As Australia’s ambassador in Jakarta when Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975, Woolcott and the Australian embassy were better informed about Indonesian military’s plans than Indonesia’s foreign ministry. Even critics who said that Australia’s close knowledge became silent acquiescence recognised the professional brilliance of the Australian embassy’s work, and its intelligence coup in giving Canberra three days’ advance notice of the time and place of the Indonesian invasion.

On 5 January 1976, Woolcott sent a long dispatch from Jakarta on ‘Australia, Indonesia and East Timor’ that became one of the most notorious leaked telegrams in Australian diplomacy.

No matter how unjust the invasion may seem, Woolcott wrote, ‘Indonesia could not have been diverted from this course by Australia.’ Canberra must accept the reality of Indonesia’s incorporation of East Timor, he advised:

It is on the Timor issue that we face one of those broad foreign policy decisions which face most countries at one time or another. The government is confronted by a choice between a moral stance, based on condemnation of Indonesia for the invasion of East Timor and on the assertion of the inalienable right of the people of East Timor to self-determination, on the one hand, and a pragmatic and realistic acceptance of the longer term inevitabilities of the situation, on the other hand. It’s a choice between what might be described as Wilsonian idealism or Kissingerian realism. The former is more proper and principled but the longer term national interest may well be better served by the latter. We do not think we can have it both ways.

The following month the cable was leaked and was on the front page of the Canberra Times. A former Labor leader and foreign minister, Bill Hayden, commented decades later that Woolcott was guilty of writing too vividly in tendering advice. Diplomats, Hayden observed, need to use more obscure language when dealing in ‘realpolitik’.

The creation of APEC in 1989 played to Woolcott’s vision of the central place of Southeast Asia (and Indonesia) in Australia’s Asia destiny.

For Australia, ASEAN held the crucial cards in the effort to form APEC. The initial omission of the United States from the core membership proposed by Prime Minister Bob Hawke in floating the idea reflected this concentration on East Asia. A masterstroke in the diplomatic dance was the dispatch of Woolcott in April 1989 as the prime minister’s emissary to the (then) six ASEAN capitals, plus Tokyo and Seoul.

Woolcott went first to Indonesia, showing deference to Suharto as ASEAN’s central figure. He told Suharto that Australia had come for advice and guidance on how a new regional body should proceed. Woolcott wrote that it was essential to get ‘Suharto’s support or at the very least his interest and acquiescence’.

The reward for this proper show of respect to ASEAN’s leader was an expression of Suharto’s willingness to think about the idea. Armed with that relatively neutral Indonesian position—APEC was an interesting proposal worth discussing—Woolcott then travelled through the rest of Southeast Asia building Suharto’s half-nod into a consensus that overcame Malaysia’s strong opposition.

Malaysia’s prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, had wanted to kill the APEC concept in embryo, seeing it as a challenge to ASEAN. Malaysian officials complained at the skillful way Woolcott played his ASEAN cards, claiming that Suharto’s simple expression of a willingness to listen had been used to leverage stronger endorsements from the rest of ASEAN. Certainly, Woolcott had made full use of the guidance he received from Suharto and the fact that there was no Indonesian veto.

Woolcott’s shuttle diplomacy was a bravura performance of the art he described in his memoir:

The instruments that Australian ministers and diplomats need in efforts to secure our national future are in the main the capacity to persuade and to influence. In other words, we need competent, professional and effective advocacy and diplomacy backed, of course, by public support for the government’s policy, as well as credible defence capability in the background. Diplomacy is really the art of persuasion and accommodation and of building support in other countries for one’s policies. Very rarely can diplomacy be used to impose a purely national pattern of activities on the international community.

Dick Woolcott saw good diplomacy as a key asset for the country he loved to negotiate its place as the ‘odd man in’—Australia must be an integral part of the Asia that he loved.

The language Australia uses today about the centrality of ASEAN to the Indo-Pacific draws on the vision of earlier ASEANists such as Woolcott. That’s an important legacy from a great Australian who was a great diplomat.