Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Book review: Dancing With Warriors, Philip Flood (2011)

The first thing to announce about my efforts with this book is that I didn't finish it. It's subtitled 'A Diplomatic Memoir' but it's hard to know precisely in which way this should be taken. Certainly it's a memoir that chronicles a life spent in the business of diplomacy. Further than that, however, it's also a memoir written in a highly diplomatic manner. You don't always know who the particular audience is for any specific section of the narrative.

With the same angle in mind, the book's title suggests a certain measure of difficulty encountered during those years of being a diplomat and also running government agencies involved in diplomacy. This is deeply misleading for the person in the bookshop hoping for a bit of realism; there is very little evidence of those political struggles that must have accompanied the formulation of decisions made in order to promote Australia's national interests. Often Flood will give credit to a minister, or thank a particular party encountered in the course of acquitting his duties, but of the disagreements and fights there is only the vaguest indication.

This is not true, of course, of the sections that deal with Australia's interactions with Indonesia, where Flood served as ambassador for a number of years during the Suharto era. And overall the book is fun and interesting to read. Of especial interest, I think, are those sections that talk about the changing relationship between Britain and Australia. Britain signalled its position on the antipodes, Flood says, at two crucial points. One of these was its behaviour during WWII, when it became obvious that Britain would place Australia's interests second to its own. The other notable occasion occurred when Britain was successful in joining the EEC. Decisions made by Australia's top bureaucrats and by Australian politicians prior to this latter event that were aimed at establishing a uniquely Australian stance in the world, turned out to be wise ones.

So the book provided me with a mixed experience. On the one hand it is written in a way that is quite seamless. If the job of the diplomat is to achieve his or her goals in the absence of any displays of emotion or disappointment, then this book reflects the skills and attitudes Flood developed over many years in the service. Some people will read specific sections of the book with a keen eye for the telling detail, but I'm not one of these people. I suspect that Flood always kept that person in mind while writing his memoir. The political commentator interested in Australia's reaction to 1991's Dili Massacre, for example, will no doubt find more of interest in this book, than me. Of course I read of these events with interest, but for me of greater interest are Australia's official attitudes toward West Papua, where many indigenous people are seeking independence from what they see as a colonial power. Flood glosses over this issue, as does the Australian government whenever it rises to the surface in Australia's public sphere. Flood remains, as always, on messge, even in his retirement.

So who would read this book? I think anyone can profit from reading it. The writing is high quality and accessible, and there is a refreshing lack of jargon and bureaucratic language. The writing seems to me to be appropriate for the purpose, and I think that this facility had something to do with Flood's success in the diplomacy game. He expresses himself well, gets on with the job with little fuss, but also displays a depth of knowledge that gives you confidence that you are in good hands.

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