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Washington DC

Australia needs to assert its interests in Washington

By Peter Jennings

Well over twenty years ago, as Chief of Staff to Defence Minister Ian McLachlan, I remember feeling the embarrassment of how easily Washington DC ‘players’ could dismiss Australian concerns.

On a visit to the capital McLachlan had been scheduled to make a call on a former Republican heavyweight with CIA and other national security credentials. Perhaps we were getting in the way of lunch because the brusk greeting was that we had nothing to discuss. There were ‘no problems’ with Australia and our host clearly had bigger catfish to fry. Slightly stunned, we found the hour’s scheduled meeting was over in 10 minutes.

In fairness, this was a unique experience compared to dealing over decades with so many engaging Americans, genuinely committed to the alliance. But some Washington insiders work in just that way: they think national security is about problems to be managed rather than relationships to be nurtured.

Maybe we should take it as a compliment that the alliance runs so well without ambassadors that Admiral Harry Harris can be diverted from his Canberra role and put to the task of managing one of the biggest problems on America’s plate, the Korean peninsula.

If only that was the American motivation. Its more likely though that Mike Pompeo, under pressure to receive Senate confirmation as Secretary of State, was trying to placate his inquisitors, who were unhappy that it had taken so long to fill the ambassador’s position in Seoul.

One problem ‘solved’ has created another difficulty –who to make ambassador in Canberra.

This is not an easy question for an Administration that has emptied out the State Department and black-banned many national security Republicans who publicly committed to never working for Trump when he seemed unelectable.

Harry Harris is a fine individual, but its not clear to me that he is the optimal pick for ambassador in Seoul. He’s not going there to be a military planner. Harris will understand that he can’t second-guess the role of his nominated Pacific Command successor, Admiral Philip S. Davidson, nor for that matter the commander of US forces in South Korea, General Vincent Brooks.

Harris’ key task will presumably be to strengthen South Korean President Moon’s resolve to stick with the Americans. The admiral will need all his Tennessee charm and a bit of US Navy steel to kerb President Trump’s worst instincts to turn negotiation with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un into another chapter in The Art of the Deal.

The risk is that Trump is just too naïve about the North Koreans. Kim’s father and grandfather have long histories of making deals they had no plans to keep. Admiral Harris will have to keep the President focused on making sure any ‘deal’ on denuclearisation is verifiable and won’t leave the US and its allies exposed.

Keeping any ‘deal’ focused on the effects on the US alliance structure in Asia, not just on what Kim will do in exchange for what Trump will do and what happens next, is key. That will be demanding work.

By contrast Harry Harris was perfect for the Canberra job.

He knows Australia well and understands that the essential core of the alliance is defence and intelligence cooperation. Harris also knows Asia and the role that Australia can play in strengthening the region’s resolve to push back against an aggressive and opportunistic China, feeling its national security oats everywhere from the South China Sea to the Port of Darwin and to Vanuatu.

Above all, Harry Harris would have been able to pick up the phone to Malcolm Turnbull and Donald Trump pretty much any time he needed to. That’s essential in Washington when the Administration is so quirky and when Trump is capable of dramatic policy U-turns on a whim. As Shinzo Abe, Theresa May, Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have all found, the only way to forge a reliable working relationship with the Administration is to build a personal connection with Trump.

Malcolm Turnbull is confident that he has the right personal connections with Trump. In some ways they are similar: the business background; the curious relationship to centre-right politics; the close dependence on family; a healthy ego and a consuming interest in social media all come to mind (the differences in personality are equally obvious). Harry Harris would have added some disciplined focus on national security to that personal connection between President and Prime Minister.

Well, the Harris train has left the station and we should all wish him well on his new demanding job. The key question is what should Australia do now to address the uncomfortably long gap between American ambassadors in Canberra?

Malcolm Turnbull should take it straight to the top. To avoid a surprise outcome of someone like an Anthony Scaramucci heading the President’s list, Turnbull should call Trump, ask for Admiral Harris to be involved in the discussion and ask for a senior ambassador in Canberra who is close to the President and who will sustain a close personal discussion between the two leaders.

Given the strategic times the American ambassador should be a senior military figure. Two possibilities come to mind: General Vincent Brooks, currently leading America’s forces in South Korea and General HR McMaster, recently departed as the President’s National Security Adviser.

Both Generals know Australia well and have worked closely with the Australian Defence Force on military operations. Both are, in the best possible sense of the term, thinking Generals with a deep understanding of the big strategic trends currently fraying the fabric of global security. Brooks has served in the Korean role for a little over two years and a move would not be out of place.

McMaster apparently had some tough encounters with Trump as National Security Adviser but Trump respects strong military leaders and with McMaster out of the West Wing, my guess is that the President would value his further service.

I haven’t asked either man if they would want the job (I know Brooks and respect him greatly and McMaster is also very well regarded by the Australian Defence establishment). Then again, Harris probably wasn’t given too many options to decline the Seoul posting. As a rule, senior military leaders do what their Commander in Chief asks of them.

Something our own Government should understand is that pitching for a senior military figure in the same league as Admiral Harris to be America’s ambassador in Canberra is a way of saying to Donald Trump that we are serious about making a leading contribution to security in the Asia-Pacific.

That’s not always true. Malcolm Turnbull talked up Australia’s strategic leadership on his recent trip to the US, but when it comes to the practical realities of pushing back against Chinese pressure in the region Canberra often loses its voice. Our Government is sticking to the hope that we will be able to navigate between Chinese assertiveness and American expectations.

It’s often the role of the smaller power to set the agenda for alliance cooperation because as we have seen, we spend more time in Canberra thinking about Washington than vice-versa. Australia has a golden opportunity to reshape alliance cooperation but doing so will require a stronger voice and more determined push to make the Americans pay attention.

The alliance stays in great shape and adapts for the future when it is tended to and deepened by ideas and engagement.

Empowered and connected ambassadors here and in Washington are a vital way to make this happen. It will be the job of the next American ambassador to remind both Trump and Turnbull that alliances are grow through effort and practical actions, not just warm words.

It would be mistaken to see Admiral Harris’s switch to Seoul as an insult to Australia, but nor should we let the Washington establishment think that they can give us the flick too often. It’s time for Malcolm Turnbull to call the President.

Originally published by: The Weekend Australian on 28 Apr 2018