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Saturday 19 Aug 2017 | 15:25 | SYDNEY

Email of the day II: Too much emphasis on our image

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20 March 2008 13:38

More on Australia's image in Washington, from Christian Bennett:

The contributions by Michael Fullilove and Jeremy Shapiro seem to miss one essential point — our diplomatic efforts, whether through traditional, military or intelligence channels, are not about image, they are about outcomes. In particular, outcomes that serve the national interest and often, particularly for a close military and intelligence ally like Australia, in invisible ways. 

I fully share Shapiro's lament about those that whine about whether Australia has the right 'profile' in Washington. Rest assured, Singapore's profile is low, but they secure excellent outcomes. And it should come as no surprise to Fullilove that John Howard's recent speech received little attention. His official visits to Washington barely rated a mention in key US dailies such as the Washington post or New York Times, although Australians might think otherwise, courtesy of exaggerated Australian media reporting that would suggest Washington DC came to a standstill. 

But media coverage is not the benchmark of success in diplomacy. Three years working at the Australian Embassy focused on building US foreign policy attention towards South East Asia and the Pacific, including during the East Timor crisis, highlighted to me one thing — Australia shouldn't navel gaze about its public image in Washington or anywhere else in the US. It should remain squarely focused on outcomes that promote our strategic and economic framework, whether public or not. Those outcomes are secured in the corridors of key agencies such as the National Security Council, the State Department, the Pentagon, the CIA and in Congress. Success is also supported, as Shapiro notes, by working multiple non-official channels, such as the think-tank and NGO community. From my experience, the Australian Embassy worked all the angles of US domestic politics that Shapiro suggests, with one caveat:  to the extent that limited resources allowed. 

The one area of weakness, however, and a medium which Shapiro did not mention, was building influence with key editorial boards such as Washington Post,  NYT and LA Times. The Op-Ed pages of these journals are read by important decision-makers, yet there seemed to be hesitancy around using this medium, reflecting a general nervousness and risk-averse approach to using the foreign media as a behind-the-scenes diplomatic tool. 

Australia will continue to secure good national interest outcomes in Washington if adequate resources are dedicated to what is a complex and challenging diplomatic environment where the competition for attention is acute, and the traditional gaze is trans-Atlantic, not trans-Pacific. We will never have a diaspora that can rival the political influence of the Indians, the Italians or the Israelis etc. We will never have an organised cluster of politically charged Australians such as the Hmongs in Minneapolis that can exert disproportionate influence in Congress. We need to invest in and continue to leverage off the strengths we do have, and others would pay handsomely to have. But one thing is for sure, whether we are included in a Gallup Poll or not is not going to alter the quality of our advocacy and the strength of our outcomes.

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