World News

With Senator’s Snub, Australia Gets Stood Up by US — Again

Posted May 22, 2018 12:22 p.m. EDT

SYDNEY — Australia’s hankering for a U.S. ambassador hit another snag Tuesday when Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., announced that he had turned down the job.

“At the end of the day, I just felt like it wasn’t the right fit and I still had work to do in the Senate,” Corker told Reuters.

Talk about rejection. It was the second “no, not me” in less than a month. In April, President Donald Trump withdrew the nomination of Adm. Harry B. Harris, the head of the Pacific Command, assigning him instead to South Korea.

Australians have been reeling ever since.

Why? From Australia’s perspective, this isn’t the first offense. And Australia is not just any ally.

Let us explain.

— Doesn’t Trump care about Australia, even just a little bit?

[Sigh] It’s complicated.

First there was the angry phone call, in which Trump yelled at Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull about a refugee deal he hated.

Then there was a warm exchange on an aircraft carrier in New York. That was followed by another cozy meeting in Washington, which was quickly undone by Trump’s steel tariffs (he hates us!), which were later reversed with an exemption for Australia (he loves us!).

One more cloud hovering over the relationship: One of Australia’s senior diplomats was a key catalyst for the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

— Is Australia being singled out for punishment?

Actually, dozens of U.S. embassies around the world do not have an ambassador.

According to the State Department’s latest report, 63 of 188 ambassadorships are vacant, including countries with histories of close ties to the United States, such as Ireland, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

— Why does Australia care so much?

Nobody puts Australia in the corner!

Australia prides itself on a historic relationship with the United States.

Soldiers from the two countries have fought and died alongside each other since World War I. Australia is also a key player in Five Eyes, an intelligence alliance with the United States, Canada, Britain and New Zealand.

“Australians feel that they are by and large very important, and surely the U.S. views us as very consequential,” said John Blaxland, a professor of international security and intelligence studies at Australian National University.

Americans tend to agree, especially those in Trump’s own party. In a survey of Americans last year, Republicans said Australia was the country’s most important ally.

The reality is that with other powers like China, Russia and North Korea confronting the United States, Australia is a bit player, a friend the Americans know they can invite out for dinner and then stand up.

“The perception emerging is that, well, maybe Trump doesn’t care,” Blaxland said. “Maybe it doesn’t matter in his calculus.”

— Who’s in charge now?

Right now, the fort is being held by the chargé d’affaires, James Carouso. Carouso, who took over as the head of embassy after the last ambassador’s departure in September 2016, has the same diplomatic duties and protections as an ambassador.

But he lacks some of the protocols — and, most importantly, the status that comes with the title.

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has criticized the vacancy as a sign that “Australia, from President Trump’s perspective, is a second-class ally.”

Historically, the position has been filled by career diplomats during periods in which the United States is concerned about developments in Australia, said Blaxland. In more relaxing times, the position has been a reward to presidential benefactors.

Right now, though, no one seems to know what message Trump is sending. Corker has often feuded with the president, leading some to speculate that he was offered the job in Australia to banish him from Washington.

Is there a strategy at all, some are asking, or just chaos? “The criticism is mounting,” Blaxland said.

— Who should become the ambassador?

Some Australians are calling for Carouso to get the official nod.

We asked readers, and a few prominent Australians, for their recommendations.

— “If Ellen DeGeneres is in any way inclined toward retirement or producing her show in a different time zone, I’m sure her Australian wife would love a homecoming,” said Benjamin Law, the gay Australian author, essayist and screenwriter. “After all, comedy can be a form of diplomacy, and us queers excel at international relations.”

— Alison Lowe, a New York Times reader in Australia, requested “someone fleet-footed at dodging potential pitfalls, whether animal, arachnid, marine, culinary or diplomatic.”

“Scrap that,” she added, “just send Jon Stewart.”

— Andy Griffiths, the best-selling children’s book author known for his “Treehouse” series, told us he was sympathetic to anyone offered the post, given the politics of Canberra: “I reckon Bob Corker took one look at the invitation and thought it would be like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire,” he said.

— Ronny Chieng, a comedian on “The Daily Show,” suggested Nicole Kidman, but later concluded that he, himself, was the best choice. “Nobody will be tougher on Australia than me,” he said.