It was Prime Minister Robert Menzies who told President Lyndon B. Johnson bluntly but precisely what the simple requirement of an effective US Ambassador to Australia was. The ambassador needed to have the ability, Menzies told LBJ, to pick up the phone and speak directly to the US president. After all, in the American system, ambassadors represent their presidents and serve at their discretion.
LBJ understood Menzies’ advice. His chosen ambassador to Australia was a Texan, Ed Clark, known colloquially within the Austin political establishment as “Mr Ed”. The Australian media tended to view Clark as something of a thug. After all, didn’t the popular ambassador show up to the opening of Pine Gap with a grain of pepper to pay the annual rent? But Clark was very important in the LBJ political universe and more than once had literally carried the bag of campaign money for Johnson during his congressional and presidential campaigns. He enjoyed the President’s absolute confidence.
This had been tested during a campaign where the future ambassador had left his briefcase under the table in a remote Texas truck stop in the early hours of the morning. Back on the road, Clark realized his mistake and frantically drove off to find the briefcase intact. It contained $50,000.
My favorite Clark story was told to me later by an American ambassador to Australia. Giving a farewell speech to a retired Texas lawmaker, Ambassador Clark paid him the ultimate compliment: “He’s as honest as time allows.”
Australia has been well served by the American ambassadors in Canberra. Mel Sembler was close to George HW 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, an 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 candidates are confirmed or rejected by the US Senate. Delaying tactics are being practiced by both sides of the aisle in Washington, but they have taken on worrying proportions lately as Sen. Ted Cruz delays nominations until he can strike a deal on an issue that worries him. Late last year, around 30 candidates were released from the Senate deadlock after Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer agreed to put Cruz’s opposition to the Nord Stream pipeline to a vote. 2 connecting Russia to Germany. In Washington, it’s sometimes called the Molotov-Ribbentrop pipeline to save maximum disgust. But Cruz won the point.
It is appalling that at a time when the United States must show greater political and diplomatic leadership, its Senate treats the appointment of its representatives abroad with such cavalier contempt. Such capricious indulgence is a stain on Washington.
Australia lacked a US ambassador for years until the thoughtful Arthur B. Culvahouse Jr was appointed as Donald Trump’s ambassador. Fortunately, the Canberra Embassy fell back on its Chargé d’Affaires, James Carouso, who effortlessly stepped into the breach. But we cannot always count on this diplomatic depth.
It was Ambassador Culvahouse who made the insightful observation that Americans trust Australia more than perhaps Australians.
That’s why Caroline Kennedy’s impending arrival is such undiluted good news. A lawyer and author, Kennedy previously served successfully in Tokyo as Barack Obama’s US Ambassador. Given the closeness of relations with the United States and the growing closeness of relations between Japan and Australia, it is hard to think of a better person to settle in Canberra. Hopefully, the nomination of ambassadors doesn’t come up against recriminations on Capitol Hill, born of the most pathetic impulses to score points.
Kennedy obviously comes from a renowned political family, which has accomplished and sacrificed much in the service of the American republic. But the ambassador herself showed sound political judgment by endorsing Obama and Joe Biden for president early on when many other Democrats looked elsewhere. This kind of judgment is invaluable.
Unfortunately, his grandfather, Joseph P. Kennedy, lacked his astute ability for careful political evaluation. This is documented in an excellent biography of Joe Kennedy, titled The Ambassador: Joseph P. Kennedy at the Court of St James, 1938-1940, by Susan Ronald. This is the best political biography of this Australian summer.
Kennedy arrived in London on the eve of World War II, having contributed materially to the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 and 1936. But his political skills failed him and his time at the Court of St James n was not happy. Disregarding American foreign policy and committed to appeasement, Joe Kennedy became a defeatist and by the time he returned home he was ostracized by Washington and ignored by the British. Compare this performance with the masterful contribution to the war effort of Ivan Maisky, Stalin’s longtime ambassador to Britain, who was forced not only to navigate conservative ruling circles, but also to avoid an ignominious end in the cellars of the Lubyanka in Moscow. The Maisky Diaries: Red Ambassador to the Court of St James, 1932-1943 makes for engaging reading.
Australia has every reason to be pleased with Biden’s decision to send Kennedy to Canberra. We are a bit unlucky not to have had the mighty Admiral Harry Harris posted here years ago by Trump. Instead, Harris traveled to Seoul, where his presence was very reassuring to the Korean allies.
It is no exaggeration to say that the present times present Australia’s greatest strategic challenge since the World War. Dictators do not hide their aggressive ambitions. In return, the ANZUS alliance is entering its 71st year, but the new grid, to quote US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, requires sustained diplomacy.
The Quad, with the United States, Japan and India, and AUKUS, with the United States and Great Britain, are major changes and will occupy serious diplomatic time in the respective capitals of the participants. Appropriately, Kennedy brings real diplomatic gravitas to Canberra. His appointment will add serious weight to the ability of the United States and Australia to make a difference for the better. She can do more than pick up the phone.