Kennedy brings Washington closer to Canberra
20 Jan 2022|

It was Prime Minister Robert Menzies who told President Lyndon B. Johnson bluntly but accurately what the simple requirement happened to be for an effective US ambassador to Australia. The ambassador had to have the ability, Menzies told LBJ, to pick up the phone and talk directly to the US president. After all, under the US system, ambassadors represent their presidents and serve at their discretion.

LBJ understood Menzies’ advice. His chosen ambassador to Australia was one Texan, Ed Clark, known colloquially within the Austin political establishment as ‘Mr Ed’. The Australian media tended to regard Clark as something of a yokel. After all, didn’t the folksy ambassador turn up at the opening of Pine Gap carrying one peppercorn to pay the annual rent? But Clark was very significant in LBJ’s political universe and more than once he had literally carried the bag of campaign cash for Johnson during his congressional and presidential campaigns. He enjoyed the president’s absolute confidence.

This had been tested during one campaign where the future ambassador left his briefcase under the table in a remote Texas roadhouse in the early hours of the morning. Returning to the road, Clark realised his mistake and frantically drove back to find the briefcase intact. It contained $50,000.

My favourite story of Clark was told to me by a later US ambassador to Australia. Delivering a valedictory address for a retiring Texas legislator, ambassador Clark paid him the ultimate compliment: ‘He is as honest as the times will allow.’

Australia has been well served by US ambassadors in Canberra. Mel Sembler was close to George H.W. Bush and Tom Schieffer remained close to his partner in the Texas Rangers baseball team, George W. Bush. While most US ambassadors are political appointees, one excellent Foreign Service Officer was Ed Perkins, who had a distinguished career in the US diplomatic service in South Africa and at the UN.

But the main current problem for the US diplomatic service is the appallingly slow process by which nominees are confirmed or rejected by the US Senate. Delaying tactics are practised by both sides of the aisle in Washington, but it has assumed disturbing proportions of late as Senator Ted Cruz holds up nominations until he can strike a deal on an issue of concern to him. At the end of last year, some 30-odd nominees were released from Senate gridlock after majority leader Senator Chuck Schumer agreed to bring to a vote Cruz’s opposition to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. In Washington, it is sometimes called the Molotov–Ribbentrop pipeline to register maximum distaste. But Cruz won the point.

It’s appalling that at a time when the US is required to demonstrate greater political and diplomatic leadership its Senate treats the appointment of its representatives abroad with such cavalier disdain. Such capricious indulgence is a stain upon Washington.

Australia lacked a US ambassador for years until the appointment of the thoughtful Arthur B. Culvahouse Jr as Donald Trump’s ambassador. Fortunately, the embassy in Canberra fell back upon its chargé d’affaires, James Carouso, who stepped effortlessly into the breach. But we cannot always rely upon this diplomatic depth.

It was Ambassador Culvahouse who made the perceptive observation that Americans had more confidence in Australia than perhaps Australians did.

This is why the impending arrival of Caroline Kennedy is such undiluted good news. A lawyer and author, Kennedy has already served successfully in Tokyo as the US ambassador for Barack Obama. Given the closeness of the relationship with the US and the growing closeness of relations between Japan and Australia, it is difficult to think of a better person to take up residence in Canberra. It can be hoped the ambassadorial nomination is not stymied in recriminations on Capitol Hill, born of the most pathetic impulses to score points.

Kennedy obviously comes from a renowned political family, which has achieved much and sacrificed much in service to the American republic. But the ambassador herself has displayed astute political judgement in endorsing Obama and Joe Biden for president early, when many other Democrats were looking elsewhere. This kind of judgement is of inestimable value.

Unfortunately, her grandfather, Joseph P. Kennedy, did not have her astute capacity for careful political assessment. This is documented in an excellent biography of Joe Kennedy, titled The ambassador: Joseph P. Kennedy at the Court of St James’s, 1938–1940, by Susan Ronald. It is the best political biography of this Australian summer.

Kennedy arrived in London on the eve of World War II, having contributed materially to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election in 1932 and 1936. But his political skills deserted him and his period at the Court of St James’s was not a happy one. Disregarding US foreign policy and committed to appeasement, Joe Kennedy became a defeatist and by the time he returned home he was being sidelined by Washington and ignored by the British. Contrast this performance with the masterful contribution to the war effort of Ivan Maisky, Stalin’s long-term ambassador to Britain, who was obliged to not only navigate Tory ruling circles but avoid an ignominious end in the cellars of the Lubyanka in Moscow. The Maisky diaries: red ambassador to the Court of St James’s, 1932–1943 makes riveting reading.

Australia has every reason to be pleased by Biden’s decision to send Kennedy to Canberra. We’re a little unlucky not to have had the forceful Admiral Harry Harris posted here years ago by Trump. Instead, Harris went to Seoul, where his presence was very reassuring to the Korean allies.

It is not too much to say the present time represents the greatest strategic challenge to Australia since World War. The dictators make no secret of their aggressive ambitions. As counterbalance, the ANZUS alliance is entering its 71st year, but the new latticework, to quote US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, requires sustained diplomacy.

The Quad, with the US, Japan and India, and AUKUS, with the US and Britain, are major shifts and will occupy serious diplomatic time in the respective capitals of the participants. Appropriately, Kennedy brings real diplomatic gravitas to Canberra. Her appointment will add serious weight to US and Australian capacity to make a difference for the better. She will be able to do far more than pick up the phone.