Menna Rawlings CGM
British High Commissioner to Australia, 2015 – 2019; Director General Economic and Global Issues, Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Looking back over four years as the United Kingdom’s High Commissioner to Australia, I think of a period of global change and uncertainty, but also one of progress on many fronts – and great personal fulfilment.
We are living through a period of accelerating change, in what Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper calls a ‘contested world’. We’ve had terrible wars in Syria and Yemen, instability across the Middle East, and a refugee crisis in Europe. There have been terrorist attacks in Paris, Barcelona, London, Manchester, Sydney, Melbourne and Christchurch.
We’ve seen the rise of sharp power – an expression coined to describe the efforts by some states to move beyond influence to interference, and we have witnessed a growing sense of impunity among some actors within the international system. The erosion of the taboo around the use of chemical weapons, stretching from Syria to the streets of Salisbury in the UK; fresh attempts to acquire or develop nuclear weapons; atrocities committed against the Rohingya people in Rakhine province; and increasing attacks on media freedom, brought into horrific focus by the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
This turmoil has challenged our ability to predict events. The bookies got it wrong on the Brexit referendum and the Trump presidency. But so did many of the rest of us, reflecting the way that institutions and so-called ‘elites’ are sometimes adrift from the mood of the wider population.
Meanwhile, the planet has literally – as well as metaphorically – got hotter, recording the three warmest years globally on record during my time as High Commissioner. The world’s coral reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef, have suffered major bleaching events, with around a fifth of the world’s coral lost over this period.
But despite all this bad news, I think we need to avoid a narrative that suggests humanity is on an irrevocable downward slide. As a diplomat, it is my job to maintain proportion and balance, resisting the drama and drag of 24/7 news reporting. And as British film director Richard Curtis said recently, we should ‘beware the romanticisation of bad things’, and remember that humans’ desire to do good in the world still far outweighs the bad.
One sign of hope is the way the world has responded to some of the disasters and atrocities that I’ve mentioned – even if sometimes a little belatedly. Then there’s the fact that the world is still capable of coming together to deal with the most complex challenges, such as in the Paris Agreement.
So alongside enormous suffering there is also progress – of the kind we tend to take for granted. Economic growth, rising life expectancy, progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (with an estimated 80 million people lifted out of extreme poverty since 2015), and the end of some despotic regimes in Africa.
I find that taking a long-term view also helps. It’s worth remembering that fewer than one in 100,000 people have died in combat each year since the turn of the century: that’s one-sixth of the rate between 1950 and 2000, and one fiftieth of that between 1900 and 1950.
My point is that there is still room for optimism in the world. You just have to look for it. There are two things in particular that make me feel positive about the future.
The first is progress on gender equality, even though it has often been in the spotlight for the wrong reasons during my time in Australia. The #MeToo movement has highlighted a shocking underbelly of harassment and even assault within many of our societies. This has to stop.
And yet: the gender pay gap is shrinking, our public and private sectors are becoming more representative of society, and we are normalising female leadership, creating a new generation of role models for the women who come after us. A Prime Minister in New Zealand who has had a baby in office. The second British female Prime Minister. The first two female Foreign Ministers in Australia. And most importantly, the first female Doctor Who!
Girl power is on the up. As the first female career diplomat to do this job, I have been part of that shift, which is a seismic one. Women were not allowed to join the Diplomatic Service in the UK until 1947, due in part to resistance from the men within who argued it would be ‘impossible’ for women to be diplomats and have babies. And as recently as 1973, if a female diplomat got married she had to resign immediately.
As a proud DiploMum I’m delighted to prove those old naysayers wrong! And I’m not alone: we now have 65 women in ambassadorial roles around the world, and over a third of the Foreign Office’s senior managers are women. The story in Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is similar – if anything they are slightly ahead of us when it comes to female representation.
My second reason for optimism is the UK/Australia relationship. Of course I’m biased, and there are few things worse than an outgoing Ambassador marking their own homework. But there is solid evidence behind what might otherwise be considered a diplomatic platitude.
Because over this volatile period the UK and Australia have emerged as two of the strongest voices upholding the Rules Based International System, working alongside other international partners. The UK and Australia have leaned into each other, leveraging our like-mindedness to tackle complex issues on foreign policy, security and serious organised crime.
And as global power shifts East, Australia’s role as a like-minded regional power becomes even more important in upholding our shared values and interests. In fact, I would argue that we are in an era of unprecedented closeness in terms of our relationship.
Someone once said that the relationship between the United States and Australia appears close; but in fact the similarities are superficial while the differences are fundamental. I obviously can’t comment on that, but I am confident that the inverse is true for the UK/Australia relationship: the differences are superficial and the similarities are fundamental.
I have seen that time and time again during my posting. One might say that cricket alone creates a common language, as well as a friendly (up to a point) rivalry. But as countries we are woven together by countless familiar threads, from history and language to culture and tradition.
These create a unique bond, but more importantly in today’s world, they create trust. For when we are suffering from what the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, describes as Trust Deficit Disorder, trust where it does exist is one of the most precious commodities in today’s international system, just as silk was in ancient times. And it’s worth nurturing.
According to the Lowy Institute poll of 2018, 90 per cent of Australians trust the UK to act responsibly in the world. A 2015 survey in the UK by Chatham House showed that Brits view Aussies most favourably, ahead of Canada, the USA and the Netherlands.
During those dark days in early 2017 when we faced successive terrorist attacks in Britain, the support and the empathy we got from our Australian friends was moving and remarkable. We will not forget that. Nor that Australia was the only country outside of the Euro-Atlantic alliance to expel Russian intelligence officers following the Novichok attack in Salisbury.
Of course, Brexit has been a defining issue during my time in Australia.
Our exit from the EU will be a defining moment for my country – arguably the most important moment for British diplomacy since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Although we will always remain close to our European friends, Brexit will mean that the UK’s relationship with Europe and the rest of the world changes.
And here’s the good news: Australia is at the opportunity end of the Brexit spectrum.
A stronger economic partnership between our two countries to enable our flourishing trade relationship to grow even more is a top priority for the UK. This includes a future Free Trade Agreement once we leave the EU, but we’re not waiting on that – our relationship is galloping ahead in any case.
For example, people-to-people ties are closer than ever: in 2017 there were over a million visits to the UK by Australians.
Geography is less of a barrier than ever before, thanks to the new Qantas non-stop flight between Perth and London. And from January 2019 our e-gates at airports (including Heathrow) will be open to incoming visitors from Australia (as well as the US, New Zealand, Canada and Japan).
These close personal ties underpin the bilateral trade and investment relationship. The UK is Australia’s seventh biggest trading partner; and Australia is the UK’s seventh largest export market outside the EU. We remain the second largest foreign investor in Australia and the second biggest destination for Australian investment overseas. We are alsodeveloping partnerships in exciting new areas such as FinTech, space, science, the digital economy and renewable energy, as we work together to capture the opportunities of the fourth industrial revolution.
And if we are judging diplomatic success by outcomes as well as relationships, which we should, a high point of my posting was the decision by the Australian government to choose BAE Systems to design and build the next generation of Australian frigates – the Hunter Class. For me, this is less about the commercial and industrial benefits, important as they are, than its significance as part of a multi-decade strategic defence partnership. This really matters.
It also speaks to a broader British intent which also serves Australian interests – captured in the idea of ‘Global Britain’ – and gives fresh focus to a wide range of international relationships and institutions: the UN, the Commonwealth, NATO, the G7, the G20.
The combined impact of all of this is to propel the UK back into this part of the world, with a sharp up-tick in ministerial interest and visits; and the deployment of maritime assets. And in 2019 we will establish three new diplomatic posts in the neighbourhood – in Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu –which will make the UK the most-represented European country in the South Pacific.
My time in Australia has convinced me that we need a less formal, less stuffy, less reverent, more ambitious, more flexible, more digital type of diplomacy. Less protocol and politeness; more direct talking and a focus on outcomes. In other words, perhaps diplomats can all be a bit more Aussie.
We also need to think about what I call ‘fusion diplomacy’, which means using all the tools in the diplomatic toolbox to achieve results. Hard power and soft power. Development assistance as a way to secure our national interests – as well as for the moral good. Public campaigns as well as private negotiations.
And of course soft power: the ability to influence others through the power of attraction and ideas, whether via the British Council, the BBC, our 0.7 per cent commitment todevelopment aid, or our leadership on climate change. The UK is a soft power superpower.
And increasingly, we can use soft power to influence hard issues – such as ending sexual violence in conflict, or promoting media freedom. It’s also an effective antidote to the deployment of sharp or coercive power by some of our competitors. For it celebrates the fruits of freedom, by showcasing innovation, diverse and multicultural societies, and a willingness to take risks and try new things.
Finally, as diplomats we need to build trust. I think diplomacy has the potential to be part of the answer to that Trust Deficit between people and institutions. But at the moment it can be seen as part of the problem, and diplomats – in that old put-down – viewed as ‘honest people sent abroad to lie for their country’.
I will conclude with a particularly British point. I’ve served in a number of countries – Ghana, Kenya, Israel, the US, and now Australia – where we Brits come with a lot of baggage. I believe that how we wear our colonial past will define how successful we will be in creating partnerships that enable us to move beyond our history without denying it.
I have found it personally hard at times to come to terms with the impact of exploration and colonialism on Indigenous peoples in Australia. I carry that with me, not in the sense of letting it weigh me down, but as an inspiration to work with the grain of Australian society in pursuing better outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
So I am incredibly proud of the work we do with Richard Potok and the Aurora Foundation to get Indigenous students into top British universities. Since 2010 we have supported 30 talented Australians to undertake further study in the UK, so they can return to their country and have a positive impact – in their communities and beyond. Of course, there is much more to be done; but it’s a start.
I will forever be a strong advocate for the UK-Australia relationship: its moment has come. Together we can navigate the uncertainty and risks in this turbulent world, but also seize those positive opportunities. Because it is optimism about the future rather than nostalgia about our past that defines the 21st Century partnership between our two nations.
(This essay is based on a speech given at the National Press Club of Australia.)