Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Diary of a Foreign Minister

Diary of a Foreign Minister
by Bob CarrCarr - Diary FM

Typically Australians prefer their former politicians to be neither seen nor heard. While a judiciously delayed post-office memoir is considered acceptable, we don’t seem to quite know what to do with those like Paul Keating, Malcolm Fraser or Bob Carr who breech this convention.

Yet we are the better for them having done so. While Keating (Engagement) and Fraser (Dangerous Allies) have written two important books on foreign policy ideas, Carr’s Diaries are a must read for their insight on foreign policy practice. And indeed politics as it is practiced daily by our political class.

The joy of this book is being as close to the action as possible, with a very dry, boyish narrator leading us through his mere 18 months near the top of the greasy pole, and some insight into how he got there.

This book exploded into the popular press with its lines about lack of pjs in first class, missing subtitles on Wagnerian operas and steel cut oats and abs. These comments can be read alongside the other bemoans of deep sleep deprivation & a loss of the comfortable retired life of the mind Carr had built. But Carr knew exactly what he was doing by keeping such absurd concerns in these pages. Bob Carr is one of the greatest directors of the Sideshow of Australian politics, and these pages and the launch of this book show him still a master of this game.

For foreign policy buffs, the real insights are twofold. One that Gillard and DFAT were bereft of a coherent foreign policy approach (i’m loath to use the word strategy for reasons discussed here:…). No great surprise there but this book is all the prosecution needs to secure its case. This lack of preparedness or direction for Australian foreign policy did leave me wondering whether books on Australian foreign or defence policy history have had much chance to grace his bedside table. Like many of our political class, he seems to regard history as something that happens to other countries.

More encouraging is Carr’s attempt to untangle the US-China-Australia knot. Carr seemed unprepared for the challenges he faced, and he comes out of the experience with no great insights for the way forward. Yet his rambling seminar is still a must read for showing how bedeviling the relationship truly is for our leadership and the narrowness of their sense of policy options. The two radical ideas Carr has – A proposal to resolve the South China Sea disputes based on the Antarctica Treaty, and Australian membership of ASEAN are raised then quickly dropped. Carr’s assertion that ‘all foreign policy is a series of improvisations’ is rightly criticised, but given he was given little direction from above or below, and the complete failure of the system-builder he proceeded (Rudd), his record in office is a highly competent one.

This is a long book, but it is very well written, often very funny and for those who want to get a sense of just what it’s like to be in the job, there’s no better option. While no doubt many former colleagues (and bureaucrats) have cursed his name in recent months, the Australian public is well served by the book’s release. Simply writing such a book and putting it out within months of his departure from the spotlight is a radical move.

More of this please.

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