On being Australia’s ambassador to the United States
27 Jan 2023|

In a chapter of a book marking the 75th anniversary of Australian representation in the US, I noted that a key challenge for any ambassador is keeping up with direct communications between ministers and principals. I wrote:

In my time, the most extensive extra-ambassadorial communicator was former prime minister Kevin Rudd. He was nonstop at all levels and branches of government. So ubiquitous was he that, when he briefly returned to office, excited individuals at the White House said they were forming the Rudd Letter Committee. That was brought into existence, they assured me previously, because it was the only way to handle the regular written communication from the Prime Minister.

His expertise on China was well regarded by Barack Obama during his time as president. Generally, I was advised, whenever Obama interacted with China via a meeting with the Chinese leadership, a call to Rudd was part of his briefing. The regard in which he was held was demonstrated to me when he was foreign minister and we visited the national security adviser in the White House. Obama dropped in on the conversation. This was not a normal event.

Many members of President Joe Biden’s foreign policy and national security team were officials in those times. Rudd knows many of them and they’ve all followed him and his very public post-government global presence. Since his appointment as Australia’s next ambassador to the US was announced, he has received plenty of advice on modifying his views and his presentation. He knows the protocols of the department he has rejoined. He must and will abide by them.

We’ve been for some time valued interlocutors on our broad region by US administrations. When I had the job, I was encouraged by the Americans to establish a regular conference at the residence with national security officials from both countries on developments in North Asia. There will be numerous opportunities for Rudd to engage with senior officials on his and the Australian government’s view of the region. These activities will take a modest portion of his time. Absorbing more time will be the granular aspects of our contemporary relationship. He is now a cog in the wheel of a representational machine that puts in place national security policy for development and implementation.

In the history of prime ministers as heads of Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade missions, Rudd is only the second appointee since World War II. The other, Gough Whitlam to UNESCO, doesn’t really count. Those appointed pre–World War II, Stanley Bruce, Joseph Cook, Andrew Fisher and George Reid, were, like Rudd, assigned to help manage the relationship with our then principal military ally and our major investor. The great 19th-century British political theoretician Walter Bagehot said great prime ministers were men of commonplace opinions but uncommon administrative abilities. It’s not Rudd’s opinions that will count so much here but rather his administrative abilities.

Our Washington embassy contributes to the evolution of policy towards the US and more broadly. But where it counts is dealing with the infrastructure of policy delivery, particularly on national security. We stand in the top four of American weapons customers. The defence section of the embassy is as large as DFAT’s and greater when intelligence is added. In my time, the defence section was managing more than 400 items in the US foreign military sales program. The work isn’t handled by the ambassador, but often the contracts throw up issues that require the ambassador’s engagement. The ambassador also has a multitude of representational tasks in the DC diplomatic round, the embassies of friendly states, and the layers of organisations and local governments wishing to hear from us.

The main task for the next few years will be national security. The ambassador and embassy will be an on-the-ground tool for Australia’s government. The US administration and much of Congress have worked through their assessments of us to the point where we’ve moved from our Cold War backwater status to the geopolitical front line. That was foreshadowed in Obama’s ‘pivot’ to the Pacific. Then, China was viewed with some wariness but was seen as mainly benign, and the US hoped for a productive relationship. The focus was on the growing significance of Asia–Pacific nations in the global economy. Now the strategic issues far outweigh those calculations in driving American policy.

In Rudd’s lap will sit the task of making the AUKUS technology-sharing agreement work. Getting what we need on nuclear submarines is enormously complex and the ground under it will be constantly shifting. Many in the US are disturbed about sharing their most critical technology.

The other AUKUS pillar of collaborative high-end research will likewise tease up issues and need intense support from the embassy. Crucial will be activity associated with the development and supply of critical minerals. Every manoeuvre by the prime minister, foreign minister, defence minister and trade minister, not just in terms of relations with the US, but also in the strategic region we inhabit as the US now sees it, will have to be shadowed by the ambassador constantly looking for ways to enhance our effort and forewarn of subtle shifts in American positions.

The ambassador is also essential in guiding relations with Congress. Rudd will find himself in a better position than I was as we now have quite a substantial Australian caucus. When dealing with Congress members, you must remember that they are the most important people in the room and it’s a privilege to be with them. I was well advised to never approach a member, particularly a House member, for a ‘hail fellow, well met’ encounter. Their days are spent raising money and gathering votes. We are irrelevant. You must always have either a question or a point of substance on a matter they’re interested in if they’re to see you, let alone take you seriously.

Directly and indirectly, Congress can greatly damage our interests.

The starting point of that damage is the capacity of a fringe-controlled Republican Party to seriously undermine the economic standing of the US with the threat to repudiate debt. Then through struggles over the defence budget, though there Republicans are supportive. For AUKUS to work fully, there will need to be a legislative change in the US that heavily protects its best capabilities. We’ll need to work with that. We will have nuanced views on the Indo-Pacific strategic environment, requiring explanation in Congress.

Beyond Congress, but including Congress, will be the resources associated with the initiatives announced at the last AUSMIN talks. The very substantial build-up of American capacity to utilise our defence facilities is vital to our deterrence posture. When the US Marines’ deployment through Darwin was announced by the Obama administration, there was much behind-the-scenes disagreement on costs and capacities. This small exercise involved the embassy. A fast-tracked decision for the substantial adjustments necessary across the northern facilities and the Stirling naval base will involve substantial costs. Details are not handled by the ambassador, but any impasse reached will land on their desk, and they have a substantial watching brief.

The US now understands Australian strategic geography and is incorporating that knowledge in its mental map of the region. When we used to argue about issues like our involvement in the China-initiated Asia Infrastructure Bank, I’d point to differences in our perspectives on the Indo-Pacific. Theirs, I said, was an east–west perspective. They looked at Asia through the perspective of Confucian societies. We looked north–south. Our view ran through Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu societies to the Confucian. Our judgement in participating in the bank was informed in part by its enthusiasm for our participation. We prioritised it over US opposition. There were different purposes there, of course. Now the Americans have come to value the possibility of engaging from our strategic geographical perspective. A southern look at areas of interest to China can complicate its task.

Rudd’s challenge will be to build in the Americans a level of trust enabling him to carry our interests through the complexities that will emerge. This does not involve evolving power relationships in the Indo-Pacific. That is a matter for ministers. It’s about administration, being on top of the detail, working the best outcomes for our survival in a zone where we have decided that, given local capabilities, we have no warning time on really damaging threats. We know that is central to American willingness to share information on emerging technologies. This is particularly so with the crown jewels of American strategic capability, their nuclear submarines. The level of trust necessary here is unprecedented. Building that is the ambassador’s job.