Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 02:22 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 02:22 | SYDNEY

Email of the day II: Notes on visibility in Washington


Sam Roggeveen


19 March 2008 16:12

Jeremy Shapiro, who recently contributed to our Afghanistan debate, has this response to Michael Fullilove's lament about America's lack of interest in Australia: 

I'm a European expert here at Brookings, and truth be told, before Michael Fullilove appeared on my hallway, I did in fact think that Australia was mostly populated by tennis players and violence-prone sharks (as well as Anthony Bubalo). Still and all, I would assert that my ignorance, while lamentable, is rational for a US citizen and undeniably common. I moreover have little sympathy for the old 'invisible ally' whinge, which I hear roughly once a week from a representative of some European country that has roughly the population of Fresno and is only notable for its tradition of being invaded by its neighbors.  There are quite a lot of allies in Washington vying for visibility and the US Government has a very limited attention span. But some do quite a bit better than others at gaining attention. So to be (slightly) less glib, and a bit more constructive, I'd offer the following notes on visibility in the US I usually give the representative of Fresnonia (or whatever it's called).

(1) First, don't rely on reliability. Having fought alongside the US in every war in the last hundred years is a great talking point, but reliability is the enemy of the visibility. If you can be counted on to show up anyway, what's the point of us begging publicly? This is certainly unfair, but this is international politics, not cricket — being troublesome and unreliable but ultimately pliable under specific circumstances is the preferred position. The French have long since mastered this technique; the Poles, after a slow start, are learning fast.

(2) Second, send several thousand immigrants a year to the US, have them settle in cohesive blocs in large swing states, and cultivate in their progeny a certain nostalgic mythology about the home country and a passion for forming lobbying organizations. This is essentially the method by which many countries including Armenia, Greece, Italy, the Czech Republic, and many others have raised their profile here in Washington. The masters of this are the Irish, a country of 4 million people which manages to claim some 60 million ethnic offspring in the US, which is 20% of the American population. As a result, when the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was here this week, he had no trouble getting an appointment with John McCain and Hillary Clinton. This is clearly a long-term plan, but very effective.

(3) Finally, and most constructively, play in US domestic politics. The US has an extraordinarily open political system — policy here is a like soup in which many chefs throw in ingredients; the resulting dish is a bit of a surprise to everyone. Foreigners can and do join in this soupmaking, and many countries find they are able to influence the policymaking process in a manner that is effective and considered legitimate.  The British, the Taiwanese, the Israelis, the Germans, and even the Japanese have all at times been very effective at understanding this complex process and working to raise their country's profile and influence in it. The key here, especially for a small country, is not to focus on the President. He is the hardest access point to reach and, although he is the single most powerful person, power is in fact quite diffused in Washington and there are many other routes to influence and visibility. A small country should worry less about getting a State Visit or photo op with the President at some international summit where preset policies are very hard to influence. They should instead focus on retail politics in Washington: working the Congress, the non-governmental organizations, think-tanks, advocacy groups, lobbyists and public relations to get the word out, set the terms of the debate, and to influence policy before it is fully made. All while the Prime Minister and his government holds back and plays hard to get.  

If Australia is unsatisfied with its image and profile in Washington, I would suggest it is though retail politics in the soup kitchen of Washington policymaking that it should be looking for improvements.