There Be Monsters Down There: A Letter to Australia

A student brought to my attention an important insight into the lack of knowledge Americans have about Australia.  He showed me this BuzzFeed story, Australia As Seen By Americans = The Most Dangerous Nation On Earth.  I have no doubt this is the prevalent view among Americans of Australia.  Australians should not take this lack of awareness as be a passing American oddity - it cuts right to the core of the Australian-American alliance.  American ignorance of Australia is the strategic weak link in the bilateral relationship.  I reprint below my Letter to Australia.

There Be Monsters Down There: A Letter to Australia

Australians, your closest ally hasn’t got a clue of who you are. It’s true. Most Americans while positively disposed to Australia haven’t got a clue about Australian culture, history, economy or politics. Not only that after millions of dollars spent on getting Yanks to visit Aussie's shores, there is still precious little understanding of Australia in the US.

Alliances, like any relationship, require understanding. The problem is, however, that the understanding in the Australian-American relationship is largely one way. Australia has spent literally millions in educating fellow Australians about the United States. Australians know an ever increasing amount about the US Congress, Presidency, and electoral system. News reports on the minutiae of the American economy and culture fill Aussie airwaves. On the other hand, Americans almost never hear a real Australian accent (though they do hear several poor imitations in television adverts). Even at the elite level, few Americans can describe how the Australian government works, understand ANY domestic Australian issues, or have any real appreciation of immense difficulties the Australian people faced in successfully reforming the economy. The chance of Americans understanding any of these issues is next to nil, as there are only two universities that regularly teach anything about Australia. Secondary schools are even more poorly served, with virtually no focus on Australia whatsoever. It does not have to be like this.

Americans need not live in ignorance of Australia, and it’s not good for Australia if they do. The lack of American understanding of Australia has real economic and political consequences for Australia. As Australia moves to balance relationships between traditional allies like the US and newer relationships, such as those with China, it will be vital for Americans to understand Australian interests. The reason why Americans must come to understand Australian interests is simply the fact that Australian policy will come to increasingly reflect two different sets of partnership needs. With the Australian and American dollar at parity, the already significant Australian investment in America is becoming a torrent. Increasingly, Australians and Americans share a financial partnership, yet the people in whom Australia invests don’t know anything about their Antipodean partners. Increasingly, Australians know their American counterparts, but the same cannot be said of the Americans. One day American and Australian businesses or governments will clash, and without adequate understanding, the risk is American public opinion will not be forgiving. The last thing Australia needs is to get on the wrong end of American public opinion. And the best way to prevent that is through education.

So what is the way forward? Happily the answer is quintessentially Australian. Taking a longer-term strategic view, Australia should educate Americans about Australia. Already there are two university centers that study and teach about Australia; one at Georgetown University and the other at the University of Texas, at Austin. Along with the Chair in Australian Studies at Harvard, they represent the foundation of the effort. Alone, however, they are small beer. Using Australian know-how in distance education, however, can augment and expand their reach. Online courses and materials about Australian government, politics, economy and culture will go a long way to filling the void. Taking an even longer-term view, American high school students should be offered the opportunity to learn more about Australia. American education curricula are decided upon and created at the local level. This complicates the effort in one way, as there is no one single body who can be persuaded to include Aussie topics. On the other hand, with so many points of entry, there are numerous opportunities for success.

In the shorter term, a recommitment to teaching Yanks the Australian story should create better-informed business people and policy makers. It should help in the process of building the trans-Pacific relationship. In the longer term, as the Asia Pacific evolves, an educated American public will be more able and likely to understand the policy choices and challenges faced by Australia. This may reduce potential misunderstanding, as well as increase the likelihood of a helpful America.

So what can be done? The way forward demands commitment to bring the Australian story to Americans. It requires the support of government and private enterprise to fund a long-term project that will bear fruit for all involved. Equally, it requires the support of the Australian public to see it in their best long-term interests to develop newer and better ways of telling their story – the Australian story.

Some might say that trying to educate 300 million Americans is beyond Australia's reach. Reliance on a few elite contacts to protect Australian interests is old school. It comes from a time when a few elites had a stranglehold on events and the levers of public opinion. Today, however, it is an unmediated world, where technology combines with good strategy to create all sorts of new opportunities. Look across the globe and see what role social media played in the Arab Spring. The lesson for Australians is multifaceted. Australians can get the message across, the permission or buy in of a few elites is no longer required. Australia doesn't need to get to every American, but can surely expand its reach. For too long Australians have relied upon the adage “to know Australians is to love Australians”. In today’s globalized competitive world, simply being Australian is not enough. Reliance on this old-school method will not benefit Australians in any walk of life. It’s time tell the Australian story with pride and confidence, knowing that it is a powerful and good story.