Tony Abbott and Joko Widodo meet after the new president’s inauguration. Photo: Michael BachelardAt times, international diplomacy resembles nothing more than speed dating.
After the inauguration of Indonesia’s new president, Tony Abbott, along with a number of other international dignitaries, was found a short slot to meet with Joko Widodo.
A lot was riding on this brief encounter from Abbott’s point of view. He was searching for some way to establish a personal relationship that is warm, smooth and, as Abbott promised in the election campaign, contains “no suprises”. It follows a decade-long affair with Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono that had strong features of co-dependency — full of effusive praise (the diplomatic equivalent of roses and chocolates) then massive tantrums and the withdrawal of the ambassador.
So how do you go about building intimacy in international affairs between two people who have never met whose countries have a long and sometimes troubled history?
You put them together in a big room, the chairs barely facing one another, surround them by observers and note takers, and then ask them in about 30 minutes, to establish “warmth”.
Oh, and you invite dozens of cameras and reporters in for the first minute or two to capture the moment, which will then be publicly dissected and discussed.
In Abbott’s and Joko’s case, the first moments were painfully awkward. There was a long pause. The two men smiled at each other. Smiled at the room. The cameras flashed. Abbott nodded a few times. More smiles. Then Joko finally spoke, telling Abbott that, “if we have a problem, you can talk to my ambassador because for me communication is important”.
It may have been the equivalent of being told “talk to the hand”. Or it may have been a function of Joko’s self-acknowledged innocence in matters of foreign affairs.
Abbott replied that he was following in the footsteps of his mentor, John Howard, who had attended Yudhoyono’s inauguration in 2004.
Then the media were hustled out.
Afterwards, Joko walked Abbott out to the road and he left, with a wave, in his big black limousine. That left Joko, in the gap between that and a meeting with US secretary of state John Kerry, to kiss and tell.
He told journalists that “the main topic” of conversation had been Abbott’s strong desire for a second date at the G20 summit in Brisbane. Joko — who will already have been to two international summits that month, APEC and ASEAN — was again non-committal.
So all Australia has is the phone number of the ambassador. Abbott wants a a better, longer, less observed chance to find common ground with this new, unknown leader.
On the evidence of the first encounter, though, warmth may be a little hard to find.