What’s next for Mateship?

mateship-web-banner-5Representative Mike Gallagher (R-WI), one of the co-chairs of the Friends of Australia Caucus, joked during the Caucus’s commemoration of ANZAC day, that many Australians cringed when hearing him talk about Mateship. His comment captures similar sentiments expressed in public by the likes of Professor James Curran, for example. Gallagher, as with many Americans, likes the message. While some Australians might not care for the Mateship campaign, it has been tremendously successful in the US. Even with the campaign’s success, it leaves one big question unanswered.

Commemorating ANZAC day in Washington began in earnest under the Howard government. Today commemorations of April 25 include a dawn service at the Korean War memorial, as well as a midday service at Washington Cathedral where the Australian and New Zealand ambassadors take turns in remembering those who fell at Gallipoli. Later, the Australian and New Zealand embassies take turns to host a reception. These events draw hundreds of Australians and Kiwis from around Washington, not to mention a fair number of their American friends.

While the commemoration of the ANZAC tradition is certainly genuine, it also serves another purpose.

ANZAC day in Washington also provides an opportunity to tell the ANZAC story and make connections to the broader legislative and policymaking community. And in these days when virtually every politician in America unflinchingly uses the phrase, “thank you for your service”, when addressing veterans, it should not be surprising that the diplomatic community sees an opportunity.

Diplomats cannot be blamed for seeking advantage while operating in Washington. After all, it is a crowded playing field with 177 diplomatic missions, over 11,000 lobbyists, not to mention thousands of journalists as well. Everybody wants something and it creates a lot of noise. Standing out and being noticed takes careful planning and hard work.

The challenge for diplomats in Washington has long been figuring out how to get their message across. It should not be surprising that refining a public message with all the characteristics of product promotion ends up playing a large role. Quiet diplomacy only goes so far in Washington. Sometimes diplomacy gets nudged to the louder stage of public advocacy.

Enter Mateship. While many Australians might find the Mateship campaign cringeworthy, and some historians voice annoyance at the rather loose historical interpretation, the campaign nonetheless finds a receptive audience.  Australian diplomats should be pleased. After all American policymakers and politicians repeatedly pick up Australian talking points and use them as their own.

Just last month President Trump noted that the US and Australia were celebrating “100 years of Mateship”.   The then-Vice President, Joe Biden, during a speech at Sydney Town Hall, said:

“Over the course of 100 years spent fighting side by side, over 65 years of a formal alliance, although every testing — through every testing we have faced as a nation, Australians and Americans have built an unsurpassed partnership.  Our peoples joined in easy mateship [emphasis added].  The history that forged the foundations of our alliance in iron and baptized it in blood has long bound the fortunes of our two nations.”

James Mattis, the US Secretary of Defense, commented that mateship “underpins the ironclad Australia-U.S. alliance.” Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson commented, “The United States remains committed to our unbreakable alliance and our powerful bonds of friendship and mateship, based on shared values and shared aspirations for the future.”

All of this is to say that the Mateship campaign has been enormously successful political messaging. It demonstrates that in the US Australian diplomats have succeeded in shaping the public rhetoric around the alliance. Yet, the very success of the campaign does leave open the question of what next. Now that officials in the US government so warmly embrace the rhetoric of mateship, how can that be leveraged into something more? And, what is that something more to be?

April 24, 2018 – The Trump administration has yet to successfully appoint an ambassador to Canberra.  Admiral Harry Harris had been in line to take up the post, but the Trump White House has decided to appoint him to South Korea.  While one can certainly appreciate the need to appoint an ambassador to Seoul, Trump had ignored the most qualified appointee, Victor Cha, and clumsily opted for Harris.  In the meantime, Trump has left Australia in the lurch.  At this point, it would not be a stretch to argue that mateship seems to go in one direction.  A quick nomination of a replacement for Harris might help heal the wound, but such a nomination seems unlikely.

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