Diplomacy—the art of a country having “an eye, an ear and a voice” in the world—can often seem quite removed and abstract. It’s often hard to tell what it is exactly that our official international representatives discuss, and how that relates to our everyday lives and what we care about.
As a 24-year-old New Zealander studying for my Master’s degree at Oxford, I’ve been wondering whether the issues that I am passionate about are similar to those that get discussed by our diplomats. Recently, I got the chance to find this out for myself in the most realistic setting possible—without, of course, having to become a diplomat myself.
In late October I travelled to Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur, as a youth delegate with the Asia New Zealand Foundation for the 11th ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Dialogue. This was a Track II dialogue where officials and diplomats sat alongside non-officials, academics and commentators to discuss political, economic and social challenges and opportunities facing the Asia-Pacific.
For me, having spent four years living and studying in Singapore, it was fantastic to be back in the region and to actively participate in discussions ranging from China’s influence in Southeast Asia, economic diplomacy and trade strategies, to evolving democratic and liberal dynamics in Southeast Asia, and the role of New Zealand and Australia.
These themes generated interesting questions across the room: What is the difference between influence and interference when it comes to how a country acts in another? What is “ASEAN identity”, and do young people in Southeast Asia feel that this is a salient identity category? What should we name a region—Asia Pacific or Indo Pacific, and why does it matter? Is there such a thing as “kindness diplomacy” in the times we are living in? It was exciting to see the array of perspectives and ideas that people brought to these conversations.
For this year’s dialogue, young people were given a dedicated role – to bring some fresh faces and new ideas to the table, and to explore avenues for cooperation beyond the more formal elements of the dialogue.
Among and between the official proceedings, twenty of my peers met on the sidelines to discuss our thoughts throughout the dialogue.
We analysed comments people made, scrutinised the different positions, but most importantly identified what we thought was left out or under-discussed. A number of us noted environmental change—particularly climate change and issues of pollution—were not at all mentioned, despite the fact that a stable environment underpins trade, economic development, and politics.
It seemed that New Zealand and many parts of Southeast Asia (particularly the smaller island countries) face many common challenges and would benefit greatly from greater discussion cooperation over these issues.
It was really valuable to be given the chance to raise this during the last session of the dialogue, and to see the challenge of environmental degradation be acknowledged by some of the more experienced people at the table.
For me, one of the key take-aways from this event was that so many of the young people present at the dialogue came together over these kinds of issues, rather than national identities. Given the fracturing and hypernationalism that seems to dominate international relations and domestic politics these days, the dialogue showed that we could still work together across national identities on issues like education policy, tackling economic inequality, or coming up with innovative environmental solutions.
Though many of us still had differing points of view on how to address these issues in practice, what was significant was that we cared enough to cast aside national identities (at least temporarily) and engage in genuine and constructive dialogue. Moreover, it was clear that what we cared about were not just young people’s issues - but rather everyone’s issues.
This forum gave me the opportunity both to put into practice some of the important concepts I’ve been studying, as well as to think more about how I might shape my future career around bringing these issues to the fore of New Zealand domestic and foreign policy. I am excited to see how future dialogues build on the solid foundation of cooperation that we built in Kuala Lumpur.
Sarah Novak is currently completing her Master’s degree at Oxford, where her studies focus on public policy and environmental governance. Sarah completed her undergraduate honours degree in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics at Yale-NUS College in Singapore. She has also worked in the New Zealand Parliament, in public sector consulting, with the New Zealand Chamber of Commerce in Singapore, and with an international affairs think tank in Washington, D.C. Having spent four years living, working, and studying in Singapore, Sarah is very interested in building New Zealand’s diplomatic and economic relationships in the ASEAN region.