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Australia's Ambassadors in Washington

Launch by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC of David Lowe, David Lee & Carl Bridge (eds), Australia Goes to Washington: 75 Years of Australian Representation in the United States (ANU Press, 2017), ANU, 24 July 2017

Reading any account of Australian ambassadors abroad – like this one or the earlier volume on our High Commissioners to London on which two of the present authors also collaborated – I’m reminded of Don Chipp once being asked whether he had ever been tempted to take on such a role. ‘Why on earth’, he replied, ‘would I take a job which meant I had to get up in the middle of the night to be out at the airport at 6 in the morning to greet Gareth Evans?’

Ambassador’s lives, even in the most important and glamorous posts, with all the trappings that go with them are certainly not nearly as glamorous as they’re so often cracked up to be – and certainly, for someone who has been a Cabinet Minister, not nearly as close to the decision-making action as they are used to being. As Kim Beazley – who, notwithstanding his stature at home and abroad, has probably suffered more from Relevance Deprivation Syndrome since leaving politics than anyone I know – puts it neatly when he says in his chapter that the ambassador is just ‘a cog in a giant wheel of policy advice and delivery’ (p.237).

It was not always thus. As Kim says in the immediately preceding sentence ‘Ambassadors once had the power to make war and treaties’. While those days are very long gone, it is the case that in the early years in Washington the best of the Australian ambassadors were much more than just cogs in a much larger wheel – with Richard Casey enjoying both regular access to and the confidence of President Roosevelt and his inner circle (as Carl Bridge shows in his chapter), Percy Spender having a particularly intimate relationship with Secretary of State Dulles (as David Lowe describes) and Howard Beale (as Matthew Jordan records) having even greater and more regular access to the highest levels of decision-making, including the President, than Spender.

Even as late as the mid-1960s, the first non-politician to hold the post, Keith Waller – shown on the cover in deep and meaningful conversation with President Nixon – spent an extraordinary amount of time (as Peter Edwards describes in his chapter), some hundreds of hours, with President Johnson, though almost invariably in the company of their mutual friend, US Ambassador to Australia Ed Clark, and evidently without ever getting much of a word in.

But as time went on, in the 70s and 80s – certainly by the time I was Foreign Minister from 1988-96 – that kind of ambassadorial access, whatever the calibre of the incumbent, has been beyond Australia’s pay grade. As David Lee records Rawdon Dalrymple writing in 1985, there were only five or six ambassadors in the entire corps who had relatively easy access to the Secretary of State, another half dozen who could get to see him if they pressed hard enough, while ‘the rest of the countries, and that category included Australia, could only get in to see him if they were accompanying a head of government or senior minister from their own country’ (p.186). And, although Kim Beazley notes that his former ministerial role did give him a little entrée with Hillary Clinton during the Obama administration, nothing has really changed since then. While this book stops in 2015, I can’t imagine that Joe Hockey is doing any better with Mr Tillerson: indeed with the State Department being the ghost ship it now is under the Trump administration, I guess he would be counting himself lucky to have direct contact with any officials at all…

All that said, it is very clear from this excellent history that – notwithstanding having had for many years only limited access to highest-level decision-makers, and being usually only marginal players in terms of direct participation in high-level policymaking – Australia’s ambassadors to Washington have occasionally played key policy roles: recent examples appear to have been Michael Thawley’s lobbying for the free trade agreement negotiated by the Howard Government, and Kim Beazley’s part in persuading the Obama administration to give Kevin Rudd’s ‘East Asia community’ ambition some content by joining the East Asia Summit.

It emerges from the text that perhaps the greatest value that has been added by our ambassadors to Washington over the decades has been in public diplomacy outreach, and more recently in burrowing into Congress. Casey, Spender, Beale, James Plimsoll, Bob Cotton - and more recently Andrew Peacock, John McCarthy, Don Russell, Thawley, Dennis Richardson and Beazley have all in their different ways been effective networkers and proselytisers, both beyond the executive branch in Washington, and across the whole country.

Even Norman Makin, back in the late 1940s, whose unwillingness – or inability - to master even the most basic of diplomatic briefs made him the despair of his professional advisers did, as Frank Bongiorno recounts, use his religious beliefs and networks, and old socialist stump-orator skills to evidently great effect preaching and public-speaking right around the US. May I say in parenthesis here that my awe at the versatility of ANU’s best academics knows no bounds, as exemplified by Frank being the author not only of this sympathetic biographical chapter on Makin, whom he describes as ‘small, bespectacled, tidy … earnest, abstaining, self-improving Methodist layman’, but also that seminal work, The Sex Lives of Australians: A History.

Given the vagaries of the American constitutional system, and the centrality within it of an ever more divided and intractable Congress, probably the most immediately value-adding of the Australian ambassadors’ roles has been in working the House and Senate corridors, especially on trade-related issues, which has been done on a much more systematic and professional basis since John McCarthy, in a pre-ambassadorial incarnation, pioneered the role of Minister (Congressional and Public Affairs) in the embassy in the late 1980s. While there is a huge amount of important interaction at the staffer level, the reality is that as Kim Beazley says of Congress members and Senators ‘We are the only ones they will see’. (p.249) And as Jeremy Hearder, who has an excellent chapter on Jim Plimsoll, points out, the better travelled our ambassadors are around the country the more effective they are: ‘Senators and Representatives can be expected to respond better to an ambassador who has some first-hand acquaintance with their own states’.

A theme running right through the book is of course the centrality of the US alliance in Australian thinking – if not always on the US side – and the periodic flurries of anxiety that have consumed our mission when events have conspired to put that relationship under strain: most seriously with the Whitlam Government over Vietnam, but also with the Menzies Government over West New Guinea, the Hawke Government over MX missiles and for a while APEC, and the Howard Government over intervention in East Timor.

My own view, which this book does nothing to undermine, is that with security issues just as with trade issues we should never be in any doubt that the US will, at the end of the day – and usually rather earlier than that – put its own interests ahead of ours, that it is quixotic to think otherwise, and that our relationship with Washington should be kept in that perspective. As I’m quoted in the book as writing when I was Foreign Minister, ‘Impressive though its achievements and authority are, the United States is not so much an all powerful force but a nation like any other, with interests like any other, and domestic pressures upon it to act …like any other’ (p.214).

Well, perhaps not like any other – but I have always been super-cautious, and continue to be, about elevating our relationship with the US, important as it is, to a status that transcends all others. (Perhaps that’s why I was never invited to become a standing member of that exalted in-group, the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue, even when Foreign Minister – though I sometimes then invited myself …) And with the alarming deterioration in the quality and consistency of foreign policy decision making under the Trump administration, and the current abdication of American global leadership on a whole variety of global public goods issues, I am afraid I am reinforced daily in the prescription I recently offered that Australian foreign policy should for the foreseeable future be premised on the principles More Self-Reliance; More Asia; Less United States.

But that’s a bigger topic for another day. All I will add for present purposes is that while dealing with the vagaries of the Trump Administration has posed a whole new set of challenges for our representatives in Washington, spare a thought for the challenges being faced by Washington’s representatives abroad…

This book is a great contribution to our diplomatic and broader international relations literature. Well-conceived, well-organized, well-written by all its contributors, and well-edited by David Lowe, David Lee and Carl Bridge, this book is a credit to its editors, authors and ANU Press publishers. I congratulate them all, and declare Australia Goes to Washington duly launched.