CAVAN HOGUE. Do we really need an American Ambassador? Or will Rupert Murdoch do?Oct 10, 2018
Do we really need an American ambassador? Ambassadors are paid to represent their own country, not ours, so what’s in it for us? Do we really need an imperial legate to keep us in line when we never get out of line? Our media relies on American sources for its news and Rupert Murdoch makes sure we get the right message. We may expect increasing pressure to join in putting pressure on China to do what the US wants it to do but an ambassador is not really needed for that. We can salve our wounded pride with the thought that a very large number of other countries don’t have an American ambassador either and President Trump prefers twitter to send his messages. Anyway, Joe Hockey has lots of mates in Washington so leave it to him.
Thee has been some angst in the media over the failure of the USA to send an ambassador to Australia. Some say it doesn’t matter that much and others that it does. An item in the Lowie Institute Informer cited a former senator who was US ambassador to New Zealand using his influence to get some legislation though Congress. It might be worth looking at the nature of the beast.
Ambassadors are paid to promote the interests of their country so if the American Ambassador to New Zealand pushed something through Congress it would only be because the Administration saw it as beneficial to the USA. If New Zealand benefited that would be incidental. It is the job of the Australian Ambassador to the US to push Australian interests there and the US representative here to push American interests here. If you believe that the Charge d’Affaires a.i. in Canberra is not pushing American interests effectively that is not Australia’s problem. Sometimes a country will use the resident embassy to pass a message to the home country instead of doing it through our representative abroad or we we can even do both. Given that the State Department is presently toothless the Charge in Canberra probably doesn’t have much hope of getting a message through to anyone that matters in Washington but Joe Hockey does seem to have good contacts so best leave it to him to talk to his mates – although I fear his mates are more interested in talking than listening.
In the US system ambassadors resign when there is a change of president and the new president appoints new ones. Important posts will normally get somebody important while comfortable posts of lesser importance get somebody who is owed a favour but not a big one. Uncomfortable or dangerous posts go to career diplomats unless they are very capable and have status. Career diplomat George F. Kennan to Moscow is an example of this kind of appointment. Canberra has a history of lesser luminaries because we are of lesser importance and can in any case be taken for granted. When Gough Whitlam got a bit cheeky we were sent a capable career diplomat to sort us out but this is rare. I imagine New Zealand got a former senator because they have shown much greater independence that Australia. As a rule the level of the ambassador sent reflects the importance of the receiving country to the sending country. As with any rule, there are of course exceptions. I knew a Dutch Ambassador in Canberra who had been top of their Foreign Service tree but who told me this was his gold watch where he could play golf and not have to work. The switching of Admiral Harris was interesting not so much because he was sent to Korea which is important but because he was coming to Australia in the first place. We have not been as enthusiastic as we should in following American attacks on China so perhaps Harris was supposed to bring us into line. We are, however, normally faithful followers who don’t cause any trouble so there is no need for a serious appointment here. We have been showing signs of independence on trade matters which might cause some concern in the USA but so far they don’t seem over worried.
We are just one of a host of countries who have not got an American ambassador and that is interesting. We can only speculate that Trump is just not interested or that he doesn’t have many people he needs to pay off. If he feels he needs to sort out a country he tends to do it on twitter rather than through an ambassador. It also seems clear that the State Department is being bypassed in Washington and that the President doesn’t want advice from anyone he doesn’t want advice from. Only direct contact seems to work. For example, Turnbull did get concessions on steel exports by phoning Trump directly. Of course, we don’t know what the price for that will be especially since Turnbull drew on our shared defence/intelligence partnership.
We have far more important things to worry about than having a US ambassador here. Rupert Murdoch makes sure we get news from the US and our other media outlets rely on American sources for their news coverage. A US ambassador would just put extra pressure on us to do things we don’t want to do so maybe we are better off without one.
Cavan Hogue is a retired career diplomat and Australian ambassador to a number of countries.