The Bob Carr Masterclass In Recent World History: An Appreciation

(By Nic Nelson)

One of the more fascinating things about a book is when its reception becomes as entertaining as the book itself. The expected and obvious responses in the Australian media that decried Carr’s work for its content (too liberal in divulging information) and for the author’s personality (Carr’s obsessions with diet and fitness) simply missed the essence of this piece. Those who read Carr’s book (I mean read, not the desperate ones who nitpicked for jealous gossip or political innuendo) will find something that is far more than a diary that “reveals the eccentric demands of a former Foreign Minister”.

Carr’s Diary of a Foreign Minister is refreshing because it is what politics in our nation needs- honest, deep, intellectual and educative. The extent of disclosure in this book helps to illuminate the 18 month period in which Carr was Foreign Minister. While our current Foreign Minister Julie Bishop may disagree when she says that such honesty is “unworthy of any Australian politicians let alone a foreign minister”, I believe that those who read it will see that publishing text messages from the Indonesian Foreign Minister, divulging Security Council bid conversations, providing insider information on John Kerry or outlining briefing notes adds to the nuance of this text and would do little to damage our strategic relationships. Perhaps it would provide a sliver of extra intelligence to Chinese officials concerned about how closely Australia is aligned to the United States, but it’s unlikely that any of what Carr has disclosed is a revelation to those involved in the diplomatic sphere.

On the contrary, we need politicians who are honest and unafraid to wear their convictions and personality on their sleeve “the kitchen staff…know that for breakfast it’s got to be…organic steel-cut oats…lots of berries…two poached eggs”. Such a ruthless diet was condescended in the media, but why shouldn’t we promote a healthy approach to life? My feeling is that Carr would be damned either way. The array of diet/exercise anecdotes help to illuminate what it’s like to be a Foreign Minister.

Without such candour, Carr’s diary would solely read as a history of world events over the last 18 months. Some examples of this where it sheds new light include our relationship with Indonesia, the situation in North Korea, the United States’ view of China and the inner workings of Australia’s successful Security Council bid.

Further, this book is full of great passages for those who read in order to learn. There are passages on the workings of government- the Rudd rebellion, developing Australian foreign policy or determining UN votes. There are lessons of how to be a successful politician “sell yourself and your cause hard, carry the electorate with you, explain your policies, be the huckster”. For students of foreign affairs, there are fantastic strategic passages on the Middle East, China, Southeast Asia, the Pacific, the United States, Indonesia and South Asia. For the aspiring diplomat or sensitive traveller, there are good tips on cultural sensitivity “I had switched to Melanesian mode, been hesitant and low key”.

As a young person and someone quite despairing with our current government, I found that there are inspiring moments throughout this book, none more so than Carr’s work to shift Australia’s position on the UN Palestinian vote, the advocacy for the Pacific or observations like “this is the dream that must sustain us, that the Abrahamic faiths can rediscover commonalities”. It highlights what Australia’s foreign policy can be, in stark contrast to our blundering with Indonesia of recent months. Carr’s continual trumpeting of American liberal internationalism point to what is possible in both our own foreign policy and the attitude of our nation to other nations too.

The book is also filled with novel ideas for Australian foreign policy, most notably, our relationship with China, the need to temper our closeness to the United States, reaching out to the Middle East and Africa as a new partner, embracing change in Burma and accepting that the best outcome for both Israel and Palestine will be Palestinian statehood.

What makes the book so readable is Carr’s eccentricities and personality.

Whether it is silly “slightly delirious, I indulge a fantasy of the world leaders moving from behind these tables, linking one another in a conga line and led by Putin- with Obama clutching his hips”, self deprecating “I am the best Chairman I know”, or just plain excellent “if this- New York light through the canyons of Midtown buildings and the liberal internationalism of the newspaper- is not perfection, I don’t know what is”, one can’t not be enamoured with Carr’s idiosyncrasies. We should celebrate the kind of intellect that can weave a discussion on Islamic culture, Central Park and late 18th century revolutions into two paragraphs, or the boyish enthusiasm with which Carr embraces the “global trivia” contained in the diplomatic cables he receives.

The anecdotes on diet, hotels and the amount of Normisons (sleeping tablets) that are taken give the diary an expeditionary feel and the book has a great flow to it, so much so that I read 100 pages in one night without realising the time.

Carr’s discussion of the ALP makes for interesting reading, especially the passages on the leadership struggle, his personal reflections on the direction of the party and his character appraisals of Gillard, Shorten and Conroy are honest and often brutal.

Where this book suffers from a foreign policy perspective is it is underwhelming on aid. Carr is a storyteller, and that is how he transmits his messages on aid, but there isn’t a clear passion for a big aid program that Australia runs, nor does he go into detail over the aid program. It would have helped to illuminate how positive our foreign policy was over those 18 months. Interestingly, he leaves out the day that the ALP cut the aid program from the memoirs.

From another perspective, Carr can be arrogant “I’m a self-generating publicity machine”, which is bound to put some readers off and his judgementalism on plastic surgeries and weight probably weren’t necessary. Carr can be a little overawed with Henry Kissinger and there are odd paradoxes- his support for Palestine and Rudd’s Manus Island policy is one clear one. He shows he can be insensitive, stating that “my lilac tie on lilac striped shirt; navy suit” was “enough “to win the case on its own” in reference to his TV appearances when discussing the mistreatment of Papuans in Indonesia.

My recommendation is that if you’re interested in educating yourself on Australia’s neighbours, Shakespeare, travel journals, high culture, international strategy, want to discover a great new diet, or you just want to take yourself back to a time where Australia didn’t screw up its foreign policy or aid budget, then read this book.

  1. This is a great read.

  2. Beautifully written, Nic. Enjoy the dinner date with il maestro!

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