From one ambassador to another: good luck if you go to Washington, Joe


September 23, 2015

I don’t know you, but they tell me you may be going to Washington, Joe.

If so, I wish you the best. You can do it well but don’t underestimate it. You may have been a senior cabinet minister, but welcome to a new tough world where, despite your international experience, you will be a new boy.

But the Americans will worry not one iota that you lost out in the last spill. For them that is all in the game — even for the finest people they have.

First a few hard truths.

Washington likes Australians, but they prize time more. No political city is busier nor less tolerant of purposeless discourse — and have we had enough of that in our country in recent years! Never, never rest on our Australian laurels — despite the flattery at which political Americans have no peer.

Don’t think that having been a senior politician carries much weight. Ex ministers (and a few ex heads of government) abound. It may help a bit with the denizens on Capitol Hill, but only once. You then have to deliver something that makes sense in their framework.

Don’t be offended if, having waited around a senator’s office for a confirmed appointment, you end up seeing a 25-year-old staffer. No huffing and puffing. The young person will know a lot and you will win respect. His or her boss will get to know whether you are worth seeing in future.

And don’t ever, ever get intellectually lazy. You have been treasurer – see how far that gets you with the Summers and Yellens. When you see these sorts of people — and this in itself will take perseverance — for Christ’s sake do your homework.

Don’t tell people what you think first and don’t boast. Australians do far too much of both. Ask your interlocutors what they think and then modestly give your views.

Don’t rely on the casual knowledge of the average Australian about the United States. Read deep. In whichever country you are an ambassador, you have to show interest. Interest means respect and respect is the coinage of good diplomacy.

If you can see politicians out of Washington — in their home state — do it. You have taken the trouble to visit their turf. Again, you are showing respect and they may even want to show you off.

See politicians when they are out of office. They remember it when they come in — or even more if they return after earlier defeat. You have embraced them when they were out in the cold.

And travel everywhere, it shows interest in a great country. You need to understand its diversity. You will learn much — and it is fun.

You can and must get across the substance of all our issues. Kim was already authoritative on some of them. He had read American history — again a demonstration of respect. And he already knew much of the security issues we have in common, but he had to keep at it. In political terms, Washington is the centre the world with the ever changing complexity that entails. Get across it, ask advice. Americans will give it to you generously.

You will have good staff. While it is fashionable to berate our foreign service, they are hard working and clever. Treat them as professionals and they will do anything for you. Treat them with condescension and you both will be the poorer – but as you will be the boss your poverty will be the more obvious.

And remember that the professionals are paid to understand what is foreign to Australians.

“You will be an ambassador — not a sycophant. You may have uncomfortable days — but if you know what you are doing, you will win respect.”

But now a very serious note. Remember you represent Australia in America — not vice versa. Camaraderie is not diplomacy. As they should, Americans put their own interests first, second and third. When the chips are down, sentimentality erodes.

We must do the same.

Over the years we Australians have lost the capacity to make up our own minds on our security (even though we have been robust on trade issues). In an era of growing geopolitical complexity, remember that in the final analysis Australian interests may not be the same as those of America. Recognise that and when you have to, put our case.

You will be an ambassador — not a sycophant. You may have uncomfortable days — but if you know what you are doing, you will win respect. The best ones do.

We are expected to understand Asia, but don’t think the Americans don’t. So if there is a China or Indonesia issue, remember the people you will see are awfully good. Don’t play with our national interests by winging it. You have been around so you know this. But believe me I have seen this happen.

It is a truism that much of the world is now undergoing the toughest set of challenges since the Cold War — arguably since the end of the WW2. The Cold War after all had a set of rules and a certain predictability. These days, there will be no more exciting and testing place to be than Washington.

Life is full of surprises. You doubtless feel hurt. If you go to Washington at this time and treat the job with the skill, guts and perseverance that it needs and deserves, you may ironically have got the better of the deal and achieve genuine and unchallengeable distinction.

Whatever happens — good luck.

This article was first published on The Drum.

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