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Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS)


Spotlight: Edward Cohen

“If you’re serious about international relations, do your postgraduate study overseas.”

Such was the injunction to me in early 2007 from Dr Michael Fullilove, the Executive Director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, with whom I had just begun an internship. This advice was not a slight against the many excellent international relations programs at Australian universities but rather an intervention to make sure his intern would get outside the Australian milieu at a still formative stage and trawl some fresh intellectual waters before beginning a career in the field in earnest.

Although I had my hopes set ultimately on joining the Australian foreign service, the wisdom of Michael’s advice was readily apparent. Cambridge’s traditional strength in the history of political thought particularly appealed to me and I was more than satisfied in this respect by the neat combination of Professor Jonathan Haslam’s course on the history of thought in international relations and Dr Duncan Bell’s course on international relations theory. Professor Haslam’s ‘No Virtue Like Necessity: Realist thought in international relations since Machiavelli’ still occupies a prominent place on my bookshelf.

However, it was Drs Stefan Halper and John Thompson’s course on US foreign policy that inspired not only my abiding fascination with that subject but also my sense of the importance of the interplay between academic endeavour and practical work. The combination of Dr Thompson’s fascinating tours through the great debates in US foreign policy alongside Dr Halper’s analyses, informed by many years as a senior practitioner, of the contemporary dilemmas and opportunities in US foreign policy, was a thrilling experience for an aspiring diplomat.

Working with Dr Halper, who was also my thesis supervisor, instilled in me the idea of aspiring to be a scholar-diplomat. Working with Dr Halper helped to sharpen my work into ways that would help it to get noticed in the policy world, particularly nixing my occasional penchant for prolixity. During one thesis supervision meeting, Dr Halper, perhaps employing some diplomatic flattery of his own, told me that in the foreign service I would find that a policy position argued crisply on one page invariably would cut through more than a lengthy paper ever would, however passionate its author. Putting that advice in this context helped it to stick and I’ve done my best to adhere to it.

My research sought to address one of the biggest foreign policy questions that did then and still does face Australia: how could Australia re-interpret the idea of ‘middle power diplomacy’ in its present strategic context to help contain aspects of competition between major powers in the Asia-Pacific region that could most affect Australia’s interests?

This question has been an underlying theme of my career to date, starting, much to my surprise, with my foreign service interviewers asking me ‘Could you summarise your thesis in one sentence for us?’ ‘Of course’, I said, silently thanking Dr Halper as I did so. (The rest of the answer was that assembling flexible issue-based coalitions to tackle particular issues was more likely to be successful than trying to forge new formal institutions.)

The foreign service graduate program took me through rotations working on relations with Thailand and Malaysia, India and Central Asia, policy planning and the United States. After that I was selected for a posting to Timor-Leste, a place I had never previously visited but which is one of Australia’s most bilateral relationships. The experience was not was not unlike another degree, if this time a practical one, on post-colonial politics, resource economics and private sector development. On my return to Australia, I continued to work on the Timor-Leste file, before a secondment to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet on the taskforce delivering the first ever summit in Australia with the leaders of the ten countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which was a landmark moment in the recent history of Australian foreign policy.

After a brief stint working on the China file, I was selected for a posting to South Africa, the country of my wife’s birth, and a place for which I have great affection and admiration. It also offers another case study on an economically significant regional power’s global role in a time of geopolitical flux. But with a foreign service career offering such diverse opportunities, one might ask what the enduring link is to Cambridge. For me, it is two-fold: first, having the opportunity to write a thesis on a major strategic policy question gave me a sense of the enduring importance of relating my work to the wider strategic picture and, second, the importance of always maintaining the enquiring, restless and critical approach honed in the seminars and supervision sessions in Cambridge in my engagement as a diplomat abroad.

It was an enormous privilege and superb training to study at Cambridge. The friendship and fellowship with students and the academic staff in the gentle, picturesque and yet concentrating environs of Cambridge was an experience that I think of often and would like to return to in future. But the main lesson for me from my year at Cambridge is just as apparent to me now as it was then: the opportunity to study there is a standing invitation to contribute to public service in a manner worthy of the privilege.

Edward Cohen

MPhil in International Relations, St. Catharine’s, 2007

Currently First Secretary, Australian High Commission, South Africa