Academic diplomacy can enhance Track 2 dialogues. Photo by Adam C Smith on flickr

Academic diplomacy can enhance Track 2 dialogues. Photo by Adam C Smith on flickr

Debate, dialogue and the sharing of ideas will help middle powers muscle up on the world stage.

Today Australia’s foreign minister Julie Bishop gave an address at the Australian National University on the role of a group of active middle powers – Mexico, Indonesia, the Republic of Korea, Turkey and Australia (collectively known as MIKTA) – in global affairs.

MIKTA is important to the foreign minister, and for good reason. Formed in 2013, it has met five times already and provides a valuable alternative channel for getting new ideas to the world’s top tables.

One of the key issues on today’s agenda was how MIKTA could facilitate new forms of debate and dialogue through its recently constituted Academic Network. This is a promising space for ‘academic diplomacy’.

Academic diplomacy requires some explanation. It sits somewhat awkwardly with standard ideas of what universities and research centres are about. Naturally, we teach, spend time in the field, write papers and books, interact with the media, and mentor rising generations. These are all big responsibilities.

So what is the purpose of academic diplomacy? I take it to mean the international meeting of minds – largely unencumbered by official constraints – to take stock of big issues and work towards shared understanding of current problems. Sometimes we refer to this as Track 2 diplomacy; where Track 1 is for officials and Track 1.5 is caught somewhere in-between.

The second track has its advantages. For a start, it should ideally provide a forum for the exchange of frank views, including those that might be contentious. It makes sense that discussions at this level will lack the clout of their official equivalents, but they can also serve to generate useful advice.

One of the problems with many Track 2 dialogues is that because neighbourly disputes and historical animosities tend to lurk in the background, there is reticence about venturing too far from the standard scripts.

This is why I suggest the newly formed MIKTA Academic Network has such potential. When this mechanism for academic diplomacy was launched in Seoul in May 2015 there was great enthusiasm about the contributions it could make. Bold ideas came think and fast.

As these discussions have evolved, I have continued to wonder: how would you develop the MIKTA Academic Network so that it fully captures the potential of today’s academic diplomacy?

Here’s my brief answer.

First, such a network needs to partially set aside official hesitations. Professional academics, and their students, should be encouraged to push the envelope. Happily, such audacious approaches emerged during the conference held in Seoul and I expect that over the months to come such ideas will get more attention, including at the unfolding series of MIKTA academic events.

Second, MIKTA, in its academic diplomacy incarnation, clearly needs to tackle global level issues. As liberal societies, forging their own democratic paths, influencing the lives of hundreds of millions of people, the MIKTA countries offer tremendous examples of how humanity is doing in the 21st century. What lessons can we draw from our respective experiences? These might be about education, technology, food production, urbanisation or political institutions. Such lessons might even lurch towards questions of creativity and cross-cultural collegiality: all topics that we need to focus on.

Third, and this is where things get interesting, I imagine MIKTA could actually change how we think about diplomacy, particularly in its second track forms. As we have already heard today, maybe MIKTA can dispense with the anxieties of official diplomacy to give fuller treatment to issues that will matter for all of us, in MIKTA and beyond. Of course, there are already an abundance of regional groupings and global thematic forums. What does MIKTA offer that could be different?

From my perspective the answer is in the constellation of interests and achievements of these five countries. On the second track, why not do the high-tech, no holds-barred, non-traditional diplomatic activity that would be inconceivable with other partners. It should have hashtags and Twitter storms, scenario-planning and plenty of face-to-face exchange. As the summary of the recent Academic Network Conference notes, MIKTA “needs savvy use of new technologies where #MIKTA should come to signify innovative and improved governance for the 21st century”.

In this context, here at the Australian National University we are delighted that next month we will welcome a group of 25 students from across the MIKTA countries. They will be in Canberra for two weeks. Also, next month Korea will host a group of 55 students and faculty in Seoul for another major academic event. Hopefully these are just the beginning of ever more creative and constructive MIKTA scholarly engagements over the months and years to come.

My suggestion, in conclusion, is that in MIKTA we should not limit ourselves to the patterns that prevail in today’s academic diplomacy. This group, given its unique configuration, has the potential to set a new standard and to use this experiment in global interaction to break the mould.

Dr Nicholas Farrelly is Director of The Australian National University’s Myanmar Research Centre and co-founder of New Mandala. This article is based on a speech delivered at a seminar on MIKTA held in the Great Hall at ANU on Wednesday, 24 June 2015.

MORE: Watch Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s MIKTA address in the player below.