Foreign policy in an uncertain world

by Elise Stephenson

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Debates on national security are often devoid of discussion on the future of the human actors involved in said decision-making. Yet, the current focus on elements of ‘hard’ national security must also include a focus on the humans behind the decision-making. We know that a diverse and inclusive leadership produces more durable, comprehensive and successful decision-making, something that will become increasingly important in the rapidly changing arena of foreign relations.

Given this, the topic of the AIIA National Conference in Canberra recently — the future of foreign policy in an uncertain world — was timely. The opportunity to hear from the Hon Julie Bishop MP, Senator Penny Wong, the Hon Kim Beazley AO, and academics and experts on foreign policy was valuable. Yet, noticeable by its marginalisation was any discussion related to the people involved in the making of future foreign policies. Ignoring who the decision makers are can be dangerous, as the people leading foreign policy evidently matter to national (in) security — take Donald Trump or Kim Jong Un for instance. Those who develop and implement policy decisions at the coalface matter. Rather than the trend to talk about national security in terms of the threat of X or Y country, Professor Ramesh Thakur noted that the biggest threat to nuclear detonation is Trump himself — an individual. In a world of increasing political polarities, paying attention to individuals will be key to supporting national and international security.

David Irvine AO, Elise Stephenson and Dr Alison Broinowski

From the perspective of an enduring and significant marginalisation of women in foreign affairs decision-making, myself and other young professionals in attendance were left wondering where do discussions on individual women’s participation in foreign policy form part or this debate? And if not here, why not?

The AIIA National Conference included a Masterclass with young professionals on the day before the conference. Over half of participants in the masterclass were women. The panellists at the Conference events were also gender equal (thank you, AIIA). Things are clearly changing compared to the panellists’ earlier careers as young professionals. Former ambassador Dr Sue Boyd FAIIA was only one of two women to join the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) in her cohort and until 1966, women employed in Commonwealth service were sacked upon marriage.

Fortunately, many organisational and structural barriers to women’s participation in foreign policy have weakened and in some cases, altogether disappeared. Yet I know that this is not reason to pause. As the conference suggested, global uncertainties are more profound than in previous decades, with unprecedented technological and environmental change. There are greater numbers of large strategic actors in Asia, and the Indo-Pacific is becoming an increasingly congested place for world powers vying for influence. Further, international rules-based order, to which Australia is committed, is under increased strain with actions of rogue states and some leaders at times acting unilaterally.

The reasons are simple — as Professor Michael Wesley of the Australian National University stated, Australia needs to be more sophisticated in how it goes about navigating the international economy. As the face of Australia, our human actors have an enormous opportunity to develop more holistic, nuanced, and sophisticated methods for collaborating in a world of increasing national self-interest and unilateral action.

With half our Masterclass of young professionals being women, will career progress for women become the norm? Will our voices continue to become the mainstream in foreign policy? Or like decades of the ‘pipeline theory’, will the idea of a naturally increasing gender balance prove to be inefficient in addressing entrenched inequalities in women’s access to and ability to influence in foreign affairs? Mukund Narayanamurti, CEO of Asialink Business spoke at the Conference to argue for foreign policy interests decided ‘by the people, for the people’ — a move away from policy-making that is elitist and not representing the interests of the majority in the country. Yet how are we to support such a diverse group of foreign policy individuals?

Due to visa requirements, gay women who seek to represent Australia in various Pacific countries still must bring their spouse as a ‘member of the house’. Their same-sex or gender-diverse wives, husbands or life partners can only be recognised and supported as their ‘maid’ or ‘driver’, meaning individuals receive unequal treatment as spouses and international representatives also lose some financial spousal benefits. This obviously has real ramifications on individuals, but it also has wider ramifications for the support of talented, intelligent leaders who, as Narayanamurti advocates, can represent all of the Australian community and act courageously in the increasingly complex and uncertain world in which Australia wishes to play a part in leading.

Among foreign affairs young professionals, I also heard whispers of young women wondering whether they should change their names to be less feminine and more gender neutral. I heard others discuss the lack of representation in foreign affairs that is not ‘white’, Anglo-Saxon and upper-middle class — particularly jarring against a multicultural and multiethnic Australian community. The support for women and for diverse individuals in foreign policy is clearly still patchy. Mirroring the general uncertainty around foreign policy, young women are obviously somewhat uncertain of their place in the future of Australian foreign policy.

With globalisation reaching an increasingly troubled state as economic and other inequalities heighten, the efforts of initiatives like 50:50 by 2030 will be increasingly important. My message for foreign policy discussions is: don’t ignore the humans involved in the national security machine. As Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un make clear, individuals are fundamental to national security. Any focus on national security must inherently include a focus on the humans behind the decision-making, to bring diverse, inclusive, and more durable decision-making. Out of all the uncertainties, we must make certain that continued gender inequality in the foreign policy arena ends and we have real representation in decision making going forward.



Elise Stephenson is a PhD candidate at the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University in Brisbane.

Her research explores the experiences and effects of women leaders in Australian international-facing agencies across foreign affairs, defence, immigration and policing. Elise was an inaugural New Colombo Plan Scholar of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 2014–2015, with considerable experience working on women’s leadership initiatives throughout Hong Kong, China, Vietnam, Taiwan and Southeast Asia. Elise is also a United Nations Australia Association Community Awardee (2016) and Associate Fellow of the Royal Commonwealth Society for work creating gender-based violence prevention strategies and advancing young women’s empowerment in Australia.