Jeffrey Bleich is concerned about the internet. Not concerned in the traditional, the-internet-is-the-end-of-the-world way — he is confident that eventually our media landscape will be able to meet the needs of the “much more sophisticated consumers” it is producing — but about what will happen along the way. He sees similar challenges for the media and for diplomats — “there’s a lot of uncertainty in the world and people because they just don’t know what to trust and what to believe”.

As Ambassador of the United States, even in an ally like Australia, trust and belief can be problematic. Mistrust of US intentions over Julian Assange, President Obama’s drone wars, what some claim is the build-up to war with Iran, the perception that Australia is co-operating too closely in American efforts to contain China — all built up in the perceived gap between what the Obama administration says and what it does. And it’s a problem not helped by what Bleich himself identifies as a declining trust in governments.

As the Ambassador talks to Crikey in his Canberra office — read his thoughts on WikiLeaks from yesterday — he’s clearly been reflecting on how to be an effective diplomat in an era when people can pick and choose their own sources of information.

“One thing I worry about is lack of fact-checking,” he says. “In the old days, nothing appeared in The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal or The Washington Post unless two different sources had verified it and there’d been all this kind of exquisite reassurances that it’s all true … people have opinions but they don’t have any facts, they make up facts to suit their opinions and then before you know it, a lot of other people take that as gospel, and it’s hard to convince them that something they’ve now believed for a long period, or seen over and over again on the web, isn’t true, which is why 30% or 40% of Americans think that President Obama wasn’t born in the US — freakin’ carbon-dated his birth certificate, what more can you do, the ink was put there in 1961, can we just move on …”

But the genie is out of the bottle, he says. Eventually, people will identify those sources that they believe they can trust. But until then, it’ll be “destructive and dislocating for how we make policy”.

Apart from the Clinton years, when State Department appointees came here, Canberra has traditionally been a politically appointed post. But Bleich isn’t exactly Mel Sembler. He is a lawyer, with a glittering CV — clerk to a Federal Court justice (which is when he met a hotshot young lawyer called Barack Obama) and then Chief Justice Rehnquist on the Supreme Court, a move into international law at The Hague, then a relocation to California and a rapid rise via “litigation powerhouse” Munger, Tolles & Olson.

He was law lecturer at Berkeley, president of the State Bar Association and filled senior positions in the American Bar Association, all while keeping his hand in in international law and positions on bodies such as Human Rights Watch. He returned to an old interest in juvenile violence during the Clinton years, becoming director of the White House Council on Youth Violence. When Obama was elected president, he tapped Bleich to be his Special Counsel. Like several previous ambassadors, Bleich had been a key fund-raiser for his president. He was co-chair of Obama’s Californian campaign and on his national finance committee.

“We have tried it both ways, both with career foreign service officers and with what are called non-career or political ambassadors appointed directly by the president and our sense has been that Australia has preferred overall having non-career ambassadors,” he says. “Most people in DFAT already have plenty of friends in the State Department and they both know how to work levers within the agencies, so we’re really looking for someone who can cut through the bureaucracy a little bit and go directly go to the President or already has contacts in the other branches of government, and working with other cabinet offices and also with Capitol Hill.”

I ask him about the biggest debate in US-Australia relations at the moment, perceptions of US “containment of China” and our role in it. It’s only three weeks since Paul Keating launched The China Choice by Hugh White — called an “appeaser” in some circles — and its call for the US and Australia to accept China’s rise to greatness.

“What Hugh did was he wrote a book which is helpful in getting people to think about Australia’s role in a changing, dynamic region,” says Bleich. But he thinks the book posits a false tension: “He sets up these two options — either the US is going to have to be cast off by Australia and the region in order for it to protect its economic prerogatives long term or the US has to be embraced in strangling all growth in the region so that it can maintain its proportionate position in the region. No one’s thinking in those terms.

“The US has no interest in containing China and in fact it would be ridiculous to try — our economies are deeply, deeply interdependent. America’s rise and continued rise depends on China’s success and vice versa, so we are both betting big on each other … We’re investing heavily in the continued growth of the region, been doing it since we opened the relations with China back in the ’70s.”

He also thinks recent developments in defence co-operation have been overstated. “Obviously as we’ve ended one war in Iraq and we’re winding down a second war in the Middle East in Afghanistan, the US is going to think about where to focus its energies and what matters and what doesn’t matter in the next century. And what matters is peace and prosperity in the region, so we want to have people who are trained to operate in the Pacific, whether its humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, ensure there’s no piracy, those sorts of things, just to keep peaceful and calm seas, and this is a good place to train and exercise.

“But we only do it Australia wants us to do it. So Australian facilities, they invite us here, right now we’re talking about a Marine company, it’s 200 Marines here for six months doing some training exercise. It’s valuable and we’re proud of it but it’s business as usual, I mean we’ve been training together in Australian facilities for decades, it’s a 60-year-old alliance, so I think it’s over-hyped.”

And he says there are no US concerns about our level of defence spending, although he chooses his words carefully: “No. We don’t. Australia’s a sovereign nation and it’s working out the same balances as we do, between how much to put in in a particular year for its defence needs and also meeting domestic objectives and everything else. So, no, we understand that Australia is making its trade-offs and we try to know of one another’s budget priorities so that we can work together, but it’s Australia’s decision.”

*Tomorrow: copyright, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and what features of Australian public life Bleich would like to take home

Peter Fray

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