An Interview with Jeff Bleich, U.S. Ambassador to Australia
Jeffrey L. Bleich was named the Special Counsel to the President in March 2009 and was nominated for ambassadorship by President Obama shortly thereafter. As ambassador, he has worked to advocate for free trade, security, and human rights and to further Australian-American collaboration in education, space, energy, and technology. Prior to his political career, Bleich was one of the leading lawyers in the country, serving as President of the San Francisco Bar Association (2003), President of the California State Bar (2008), and Director of the White House Commission on Youth Violence (1999). His professional career has been characterized by dedication to human rights, social justice, and community service. The City of San Francisco declared an official “Jeff Bleich Day 2003.”
The Politic: Why did you agree to become the American Ambassador to Australia?
In part, it was because of my interest in Australia. I had been here before and I had a strong sense of kinship with Australia. Moreover, it related to the plans for strategic rebalancing to this part of the world. Australia, of course, plays a critical role in this effort. It is probably our closest ally because of its expression of similar values.
The Politic: Why Australia in particular? Your predecessor, Robert McCallum Jr., had never visited Australia prior to being named Ambassador. What is your experience with Australia prior to this appointment?
I had done work with Australians; I first came out with a client in the United States when they had a case in Australia, so I was in Sydney and Melbourne. I remember coming back after ten days of depositions and gushing about how much I enjoyed the country. I knew it must be a great country if you can enjoy it while doing depositions.
The Politic: Is there one experience, person, or event in your country that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies? How so?
Because I was Special Counsel to President Obama for the first part of the Presidency, I was part of the transition of the team. So there were a few events in particular. These were moments of great resilience that stand out for me. I don’t remember meeting the famous people or the fancy events, but [I remember] the Queensland floods. I went up there and it was remarkable to see people wait in lines to grab a shovel and help their neighbors out. Everyone was pitching in and sacrificing for one another.
The other event that really stood out was the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. That day, in Canberra, the storms came out and there was just horrible weather. It was pelting rain, the winds were wicked, and it got to a point where I had never been that cold. And I grew up in Connecticut! But every seat was filled and ordinary Australians came out just to pay their respects and honor the ceremony. These people could have watched it from their homes, but this just shows the strength of our friendship.
The Politic: As a political appointee, what were some things about the Foreign Service or being an ambassador that surprised you upon entering the Chancery Building?
I was fortunate to have been in the White House before, but it surprised me in two ways. One, I was surprised by how smart, motivated, and competent the Foreign Service people were. There was a bias in the private sector that they are the ones doing the hardest lifting and that government jobs don’t require the same initiative and drive. The people who perform these [government jobs] are outstanding. Another thing that surprised me — in a negative way — is how much you have to fight internally to get the right thing done. There are a lot of bureaucratic hoops to go through, even if everyone agrees on what to do. Part of this is the fear of being ridiculed in the press. That leads people to become more formal in their thought processes. I don’t think it is because people want to be more bureaucratic, but they have been burned by the immense public scrutiny. If you work on Wall Street and you get 9/10 investments right, you are put on the cover of Time Magazine. But in the public sector, if you get 9/10 decisions right, people focus on the tenth decision and you’re seen as a villain or a goat!
The Politic: What are some of the key issues on which Australia and America can work together?
The tough thing is to identify what we have not been working on. Australia is one of our closest allies, and it is definitely one of our three closest friendships. It is an extraordinary partnership. We talk regularly about how we work with each other in the international community; the main one is the rebalance. We have joined the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Treaty, the Indian Ocean Regional Conference. We have stepped up our diplomatic game in terms of trade. We have been active in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Australia will play a key role in. And our national security posture — America’s largest military exercises with another nation happens in Australia and we have our new force training in Darwin. We’re also expanding our work on cyber and satellite security. We have increased cooperation on air forces. On top of that, we also have Afghanistan. The spectrum really can’t be overstated. We work on major counterterrorism and counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan and elsewhere. We work on climate change and space — even the Mars Rover was an international mission with Australian-American partnership.
The Politic: What are some issues on which Australia and America disagree?
Most of the areas where we have a disagreement tend to be relatively modest. We’ve had disagreements in the trade area for example. Agricultural issues tend to be disagreements between most countries and it is the same here as well. We are trying to open their sugar and beef markets, their stone-fruit markets. But these are minor and happen in every relationship.
We’re also working on how to move forward with cloud computing. There has been reluctance in Australia to adopt international clouds. We want the safest international clouds and so the United States will use Blackberry, even if it is a Canadian product. Australia, as of now, has been reluctant to do the same, but we would like to see them get on board. It would help with managing and transferring data exchanges between the two countries.
The Politic: I would like to push back on climate change, because there has been some grumbling in Australia that America hasn’t been very active on climate change — an issue where it, as the leading emitter, needs to lead.
No — if you look at the intention of the administration and what we have done over the last four years, you will realize how much we have done on climate change. The Obama administration shares the concern of the Gillard government and we believe a carbon market is the most efficient and effective way of doing that. [President Obama] pushed a bill that made it through the House in his first two years but couldn’t get it through the Senate. And that is generally a conservative idea, a Republican idea.
Markets are the best way to price externalities and the President prefers that, but because he could not get that through the legislature, we have done a lot on other things. Our carbon emission rates have been the lowest they have been in the last twenty years. We’re actually accomplishing a lot on that front. We recognize, and every other country’s diplomatic corps recognizes, that each country needs to operate within its political constraints and within its resources.
The Politic: America has traditionally been Australia’s largest economic market for imports and its closest ally geopolitically. In recent years, it has been economically displaced as the largest consumer of Australian goods by China. Is America concerned that it will be displaced in a geopolitical sense by China eventually?
No. We think it is good that there is a very good economic relationship between China and Australia but here’s the thing — Australia can have many friends, but it has one ally. Australia and America are joined by shared common values, democratic principles, free and fair trade — elements that bond us well beyond any economic front. Even on economic fronts, you don’t just look at balance of trade. We have five times the FDI [Foreign Direct Investment] in Australia that China does. The portfolio of investments goes both ways and is thirty times that of China. We are the number three partner of Australia, and given we do not import natural resources and minerals — unlike most other partners of Australia — that shows the depth of our commercial relationship. In terms of trade, we don’t feel threatened by China and are comfortable with our position in Australia. Having said all this, we’re glad that China and Australia have good economic relations.
The Politic: In part because it relies on both countries for economic growth and it relies on the US for military support, Australia has been more hesitant in embracing measures and agreements that some, including the Chinese government, may see as balancing the rise of China. Do you think Australian enthusiasm for and support of American foreign policy projects, such as the invasion of Iraq, which China opposed in 2003, will wane as China’s economic footprint on Australia grows even larger?
No. Again, the U.S. and Australia are encouraging China’s rise, not trying to inhibit it. We have both made big bets on China’s success and we have reoriented our markets for a stronger China and a stronger consumer market for China. I think China sees that and the public sees that as well. A growing China and growing economic relations is a win-win-win, in my opinion.
Is there concern within pockets of Australia about U.S. foreign policy in the past? Of course. There was a substantial amount of the Australian population that was skeptical of the purpose and necessity of the Iraq War and part of my job is to explain U.S. foreign policy and to ensure Australians feel confident about the decisions and approaches we are making to foreign policy challenges. If you look at the polling of Australians, it looks like we’re doing a good job. There is 80 percent support of the alliance and that is an extraordinary endorsement of the alliance.
The Politic: What misconceptions do you feel the average citizen of this country has toward America and vice-versa?
As I said, the average Australian tends to be very positive. The criticisms tend to be based on a caricature. For example, we will get people who will say that the U.S. Patriot Act allows the U.S. to invade the privacy of its own citizens. Having been a civil rights lawyer and having worked with international human rights law and having represented international media corporations, I have been extraordinarily impressed with how we [the government] respect civil rights and privacy and civil liberties. When the government does start to stray and push, it is great how our public and media pushes them back quickly and corrects the course.
The Politic: What sorts of exchange or community outreach programs do the most good?
I would say a few things. One is that it’s very good to be on social media. We are doing a lot more with Facebook, and Twitter, and Flickr, and Instagram, and you name it, we will do it. That’s good for accessing people who aren’t getting their news from a newspaper these days. I think another thing is to take risks. There used to be an approach that if you were an ambassador, you should not be seen in front of the camera and if you had to, you would not take questions or you would issue a press statement. We have become much more willing to go out and do live programming and unscripted forums. We do this program, Q&A, and it is a live program where anyone can ask any question. There is no hiding and it is tough, but people are looking for authenticity and real answers. They want to know what you think and they will push back if they do not think you are answering them fairly.
The Politic: You, this administration, and the U.S. media have bandied the word ‘rebalancing’ a number of times. What does rebalancing mean to you and where does Australia fit into the pivot?
Rebalancing means you look around the world and we have interests around the world, but you should focus on where you think your greatest interests and capability to change is happening. The Asia-Pacific is one of these major areas of growth and activity and we’re already very much focused because we are a Pacific country. But as we wind down our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, with greater energy independence, hopefully we will not be as invested in some parts of the Middle East as we have been. Same with Europe, where we probably do not need as much focus as we did during the Cold War. So, diplomatically and in every other way, we are moving resources and people to the Asia-Pacific. We aren’t reneging on any promise or anything, but we are moving there.
Being the sweet spot of the Asia-Pacific with the fourth largest economy in Asia after China, Japan, and India, Australia is critical. It is also our closest ally and critical partner in South Asia and Southeast Asia. It is just as important to rebalance from North to South as it is to balance from the West to the East. Australia is also geographically critical in between the Indian and Pacific Ocean, with lots of natural resources. Moreover, Australia is a country and culture that is conversant in both Western and Eastern styles. Companies that may be apprehensive about diving into the Asian market for a number of reasons can partner with Australian companies that have experience in working in Asia. Culturally, they have done business with both the West and the East for a while, which makes Australia a very valuable place.
The Politic: What would you like to see achieved in your remaining years as Ambassador to Australia?
Well, I have a handful of goals. One is to put in the building blocks for the rebalance. There is still a lot more to do, but I feel, in terms of the rebalance, they are there. The second is opening up trade. We have worked very closely on TPP and I think we will be able to have that ratified by the end of the year or early next year. That will only strengthen this region’s ability to grow economically. The third critical thing I want to do is reach out to sectors of the Australian community that may have had doubts of the American public or were unwilling to invest in America. The young generation of Australians, in particular, grew up under the shadows of the economic crisis and the Iraq War. That is not the image of American leadership they should be exposed to. We are also reaching out to people only focused on the economic boom in commodities today and not thinking what the world will look like in twenty or forty years. We want to build a partnership and an economic relationship that does not just look beyond tomorrow’s deal, but where we are in the next generation.
Embassy of the United States to Australia: http://canberra.usembassy.gov