David Richie AO graduated from UQ with a Bachelor of Arts in German in 1975.
He joined the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) straight from university and carved out a career as one of Australia’s top diplomats - serving as Ambassador to Indonesia, Italy and Germany.
Mr Ritchie was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from UQ in 2016.
He reflects with UQ’s Gillian Ievers on his 42-year career and how his Bachelor of Arts opened many doors.
Tell us about your career highlights?
There are a lot. I guess the stand-outs would have to be serving as Ambassador in Indonesia - which is a highlight by itself- during times of great crisis, including both the Australian Embassy bombing in 2004 and the awful tragedy of the Boxing Day tsunami.
Having had the huge privilege of three postings in Germany, in both the former West and East Germany (so both sides of the Wall) during the Cold War and most recently, as Ambassador to the reunited Germany.
Working as the Senior Advisor (International Relations) to then Prime Minister John Howard was another highlight.
Being honoured by Australia with an Order of Australia (AO), for my role in the fight against terrorism in South-East Asia, as well as receiving a Group Bravery Citation. I was recognised by Germany with its Grand Cross of the Federal Order of Merit (Grosses Bundesverdienstkreuz) for services to the bilateral relationship.
Of course, one of the greatest highlights has been receiving an honorary Doctor of Letters award from The University of Queensland. That, I’d have to say, was one of the greatest thrills of my life so far!
What has been the biggest challenge you faced during your career?
Again, there have been many. For example, I was heavily involved over an extended period in helping to free an Australian taken hostage by a militia in Libya! Not easy– but successful in the end.
But responding to the series of terrorist attacks – twice in Bali, at the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta and the Embassy bombing – that took place during my time in Indonesia must be the biggest challenge by far. How can anyone forget the tragic suffering of all of those caught up in all of these crimes, especially those who lost their lives, their families, and those who were injured? Those were awful times.
The world has changed massively in recent years: as someone working in the international arena what excites you most/keeps you awake at night?
One of the most important lessons you learn, as a serving foreign policy officer about the world is that things always change, often unexpectedly, and almost nothing remains static.
That’s best highlighted by thinking about the world as it was when I arrived in Bonn in 1975 on my first posting and how it is today.
Above image: The Bonn Stadtbahn was officially inaugurated in 1975.
In 1975, I faced a divided Germany.
The Soviet Union was dominating Eastern Europe and a major, hostile player opposite the United States; the threat of nuclear war; a strong European Union looking to integrate even further (no Brexit then); none of the revolutions that have taken place in North Africa and the Middle East - a Middle East in which the Israeli/Palestinian conflict was the biggest problem - with none of their massive associated asylum-seeker and other issues.
China was still weak and poor; not much sign of the huge problem of terrorism, including from those pretending to represent Islam… I could go on. But that world was different in almost every way to today.
Change – and the certainty of change – is the only constant.
This is exciting for foreign policy professionals and their countries. It requires some foresight – although most of this could not have been predicted in 1975 – and very great flexibility. It also throws up tremendous opportunities for countries like Australia.
But it is also incredibly concerning and deeply unsettling. At a time like now when we have to face so many problems and have to deal with the foundations of the world we knew changing so rapidly and unpredictably there is an awful lot to lie awake worrying about at night!
That’s why we need, now more than ever before, an excellent – and properly-resourced foreign service.
Active and clearly-focused diplomacy is one of the strongest tools the Australian Government has at its disposal to help shape the international environment in a way that meets Australia’s national interests, as well as to respond both to emerging opportunities and problems.
Did you always want to work in foreign affairs? What advice would you give students who may be interested in pursuing a career in government or foreign affairs?
To be honest with you, the idea of joining the foreign service had never really crossed my mind until, towards the end of my time at The University of Queensland, I saw an ad in the papers and thought I might just give it a go! Even after what was – and still is – a gruelling selection process, I was only giving myself a slight chance of actually being employed by The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade! But it did work!
So the very first step people interested in a career in foreign affairs and trade should take is to apply! This sounds trite but we were always on the lookout for good people with potential.
Potential is one of the most important values of the selection criteria.
There are usually a small number of positions and a huge number of people chasing them. So good academic qualifications and a demonstrated interest and involvement in foreign relations are basic requirements. But those positions must be filled from somewhere.
There are no areas of study which have precedence for entry. Foreign affairs and trade does have a lot of lawyers and economists, of course. But it also definitely needs good linguists of all sorts and talented people from across the study spectrum. We even had a Doctor of Immunology in my intake!
Specialists are required for various jobs - but overall, foreign affairs and trade wants excellent generalists, who can learn and adapt and be flexible. So it’s very good for Arts graduates, like me, too.
What are your fondest memories of UQ?
Almost everything, actually!
I made a lot of really good friends and greatly enjoyed the atmosphere and even the study. It was wonderful to do something – German – that I loved doing. I was a member of the Queensland University Musical Society and that was just excellent. I love choral music.
My father was Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Fabric and Finance) when I was at UQ and that made for some interesting 'discussions' between us after hours!
And I have come to value UQ even more through my dealings with it over many years during my career. It’s always been a pleasure. And I am very proud indeed of having gone to such a terrific university.
As I mentioned above, studying Arts has opened many doors to me, across the board and in my chosen career. As an Arts student, you learn a lot generally, as well as in your specific subject area. You can range widely across study areas too. And of course, Arts can be combined with other, more specific degrees. I started out doing Arts/Law before the scales fell from my eyes and I realised I wasn’t cut out to be a lawyer.
I would, however, want to make one specific point about which I feel immensely strongly. When I went to do Arts at UQ it was a requirement for entry that you had done a foreign language up to Year 12. No language, no entry. I deeply regret the loss of that requirement. Being able to speak a foreign language, even if not fluently, is an absolutely essential part of understanding the world and resisting the temptation to retreat into insularity, isolation and ignorance (the “three I's”?). People in other countries put us to shame on this front.
Let’s start a movement aimed at reinstating the language requirement!
What are your plans for the future/ambitions?
I left the Australian public service last year after almost 42 years in the job.
It was a wonderful career but the time had come for a change. What I now most want to do is to pass on my experience gained over a very long time, to the next generation of people interested in international relations and diplomacy, including practical things. We are very poor in this country, at capturing a lifetime of experience before it is lost. I’d like to do this in conjunction with UQ, if I could.
And I really want to keep travelling. I was also Ambassador to Italy for over three years and I think that both Italy and Germany will figure very prominently in the years ahead of me. There is so much in the world left to see.
Above all else, though, I want to spend as much time as I can with my family. Without their support and sacrifice, I couldn’t have done what I have done. Always remember that your family is your very biggest asset in life. I regret every moment that I’ve not been with them.
Allison McClelland was on an internship in the Berlin Embassy. Her story is here.