Ambassador John Berry was the US Ambassador to Australia from 2013 to 2017. He is now the President of the American Australian Association.
Ambassador Berry joined Misha Zelinsky to talk about the future of the ANZUS Alliance, strategic competition in the Asian region, Chinese debt diplomacy, the rise of autocrats globally and how we can get young people to care about politics and democracy.
This is a transcript from the interview with Ambassador John Berry. Please forgive any typographical errors.
Misha Zelinsky: Recently, I caught up with Ambassador John Berry. John was the U.S. Ambassador to Australia from 2013 to 2017. Since that time, he’s been named the president of the American Australian Association. Ambassador Berry and I had a great chat about the future of the ANZUS Alliance. Strategic competition in the Asian region, the rise of autocrats, and how we can get young people to care about politics.
Misha Zelinsky: Ambassador John Berry, welcome to Diplomates. I honored to say today, it’s a little bit of eponymously named, as you are a former ambassador to Australia, and obviously, I know you’ve said on many occasions that you were a mate of Australia. And we certainly consider you a mate of ours. But, welcome to the show, and thank you for joining us.
John Berry: Misha, it’s a great privilege to be with you this afternoon. Thanks so much, I really appreciate it.
Misha Zelinsky: The privilege is all mine, I assure you. But look, I though it would be a useful place to start, it’s a big sort of topic, but the importance of the relationship between the U.S. and Australia. You’re a former ambassador. You’re now the head of the American Australian Association. I think sometimes, Australians don’t think that the relationship matters from the American end. And sometimes, we feel that it’s slightly one-sided, or that we’re very much, the junior partner. I’d be curious to get your take on that.
John Berry: Yeah, I think there’s really no sense of a junior partner. Australia is a full-fledged partner, and really, the best ally of the United States, both in history and in current times. We deeply, deeply appreciate both the creativity, the intellectual power, and the straight-forwardness of the friendship that the United States shares with Australia.
John Berry: Sometimes, when you’re heading off in the wrong direction, it’s awfully good to get advice to get you back to the destination. And Australia is not afraid to do that. And you’ve never been, and never will be. We don’t ever want you to. You’re a sovereign nation. We want your straight opinion, and I think the relationship is so deep, because that opinion has been proven time and time again to be so helpful to the United States.
John Berry: So, it’s a full partnership. It’s an active one. It’s engaged on every level. Economic is the strongest. But, also, equally important is that the defense and the intelligence and the cultural, and the educational connections that we share, along with sports.
Misha Zelinsky: That’s right, and unfortunately, though, whilst we’re good friends with the Americans, we often don’t criss cross in the same sporting arenas. We very enjoy beating the English at cricket, but unfortunately, you guys aren’t really much into it. But, maybe we’ll teach you sometime.
John Berry: Yeah, my Tigers didn’t make it to the grand final this year, but they acquitted themselves well this season. Maybe next year for the grand final.
Misha Zelinsky: You can’t win them every year, unfortunately. Now, you’re showing your Australian bona fides, but of course, you were ambassador in Australia for a very long time. But, your father was also in Australia for World War II, as I recall. It always fascinated me, that story. Perhaps you could share a little bit about that.
John Berry: Yeah, Misha. In fact, it’s interesting. You know, right now from August until December of this year, it’s the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal, which was the first land offense in the Pacific in World War II. And, my father was in the United States Marine Corp, First Division, which was the division charged with taking and holding that land during the war.
John Berry: It was a much harder, tougher slog of a battle than was expected or anticipated. Japan appreciated the strategic importance of that battle, and knew that if they could defeat the U.S. land effort there in Guadalcanal, that likely, U.S. attention would prioritize Europe ahead of Asia, and that perhaps, the war would not end up as it did.
John Berry: But in fact, those Marines did hold that rock of an island, that’s an important island. And were given R and R to come to Melbourne. It was a tough six months. My dad was a skinny kid, 18 year old from Philadelphia. And he lost 45 pounds on Guadalcanal. He didn’t have that much to lose. But, I grew up with, from the youngest age, of hearing his powerful stories about what a wonderful people he found in Australia, and that not only were they good, they were true. They really reestablished his belief that there was good left in the world, which quite frankly, he and many of his mates doubted after they left Guadalcanal.
John Berry: And, you know, he tells a story about how he was just on the trolley car in Melbourne, and he was looking pretty, his clothes were pretty loose on him. And the ticket taker on the trolley said, “Young man, you look like you could use a good cooked meal.” He said, “You know, I get off work at the next stop. Why don’t you come home with me?” And my dad would tell us all the time how that was the best dinner he had the entire war. And he was just so stunned that someone would be so friendly.
John Berry: And so, till the day he died, if we were anywhere, when I was growing up and even when he was older and I was older, if my dad heard an Australian accent, he would jump up and offer to buy them a beer. And it was that deep and profound a relationship.
Misha Zelinsky: Well, that’s a great way to make a mate in Australia, is to buy them a beer.
John Berry: Yeah.
Misha Zelinsky: So, if he’s …
John Berry: Well, lest you think it’s just one guy’s story, it’s important to point out that it was so impactful, not only on my dad, but on the entire First Marine Division, which is the storied First Division of our United States Marine Corp, when they landed at Melbourne, a band struck up the tune, Waltzing Matilda. And here we are, 75 years later, the fight song of the United States Marine Corp First Division is, and always will be, Waltzing Matilda. And it’s because that tune and the spirit and welcome of the people of Australia, renewed their faith in the goodness of humanity, and taught them not only was it still very much alive in the world, but it was still damn well worth fighting for.
John Berry: And so, it is, whenever that division ships out even today, to Afghanistan, to Iraq, they do so to the strains of Waltzing Matilda. And when they come home, it’s to the same song. So, you get a sense of just how deep and power and lasting that friendship is.
Misha Zelinsky: That’s an incredible story. And we often like to hear Waltzing Matilda around the water. I never would have imagined you’d hear it in a U.S. Military Division, but that is a fantastic story.
Misha Zelinsky: I think that’s a good spot to sort of pivot to the importance of the relationship between the United States and Australia. Because it’s probably at it’s most contested. You recently said that it’s important for democracies to stick together when you were in Australia. And you said that we must defend democracy, our collected democracies. And that second place is not an option for democracies and the geo-strategic place in respect to military, AI, and that we need to avoid a Sputnik moment, so to speak, as you put it.
Misha Zelinsky: And I’m curious to take your, get your take on why democracy needs to stick together, and how we might defend our democracy in that context.
John Berry: Well, you know, we’ve been lucky. We have enjoyed 75 years of peace, or just under that, because obviously, World War II didn’t end until later. But, the world has enjoyed an absence of world conflict, if you will. Not to say that there haven’t been regional conflicts or terrible battles and troubles around the world, but nothing on the scale that would go back to World War I or World War II.
John Berry: And, I think we, you know, would be looking at history through rose-colored glasses if we felt nothing like that could ever happen again. And look, I think a lot of us who’ve worked in diplomacy over many years hoped and continue to hope that China’s rise will continue to be peaceful. But, there are many signals that are warning signals, that democracies need to pay attention to.
John Berry: First, we need to admit we’re not dealing with a democracy in China or in Russia, or in Iran, or in North Korea. And these countries are increasingly coordinating their efforts, and they are significantly, not only singling us out, but attacking each of us individually, through our democratic processes and using our own liberties and tools against us, if you will, in such a way that you have to call into question what their end goal and end objective is.
John Berry: You know, I was very happy when President Xi stood in the Rose Garden and promised that there would be no militarism of any of the land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea. He lied. We now know they’ve been intentionally militarized. There are three runways on those islands, now longer than the runway, the international runways at JFK here in New York City, right behind. Those are not runways needed for life-saving missions.
John Berry: The hardening and the missile installations and the radar installations that are being installed on those islands are not for life-saving missions. And no one should kid themselves about what’s going on there. And when you see what China’s done with the internet and the use of information, and artificial intelligence, what they have done has been able to increase the ability of authoritarian governments to suppress liberty, to suppress freedom, and to clearly, as they’ve shown both there, as well as other countries, like Russia’s involvement in our elections and other countries around the world, that they are not supporting democratic values, vision, or future.
John Berry: And we ought not kid ourselves that this is all going to end without some troubles. And so, you know, democracies are slow to recognize and prepare, oftentimes, for these things. As the world gets more technologically proficient, the time to prepare may grow even shorter. And so, that’s why I think it’s a good time for all democracies around the world to be on guard.
John Berry: I’m not saying it’s time to hit the panic button. I’m not saying conflict is a given. But, we shouldn’t be caught off guard.
Misha Zelinsky: No, it’s interesting, you’ve talked about the South China Sea. It gets discussed quite a bit in Australia. How do you think Australia and the United States should be responding to the militarization of the islands in the South China Sea? I mean, you know, part of China’s strategy is seem to be, to break up some of the will to resist, particularly with the Asian region, you know, with the Philippines. Is there a way that those countries can actually stick together in a way that gives them confidence? Or, is China gonna be able to pick countries off one by one?
Misha Zelinsky: Some countries in our … Well, there’s some discussions of the quad which is India, Japan, United States, and Australia. I’m just curious about how do you think you can resist that kind of, almost, irresistible force from the China’s government in the region.
John Berry: Well, we ought to not kid ourselves. It’s not gonna be … There’s no simple solution, Misha. This is gonna be a long-term effect. And I think Australia’s doing a great job already with your response right now. And Papua New Guinea, and you know, to …
Misha Zelinsky: In respect to the cables, you mean, or …
John Berry: Yeah, well, in terms of the one belt, one road expansion throughout the Pacific. You know, that’s not only the Pacific, but the Indian Ocean, around the world, and Africa, and beyond. And, these 99 year leases are all, when you step back and look at the map, are very interestingly located in strategic military and trade choke points. You know, again, not saying that they have to end up being military or strategic choke points, but we ought not kid ourselves. We ought to prepare. And one of the ways we can do that is to … You know, nations are already realizing this debt burden that they’re being saddled with is taking away a great deal of their sovereignty. And that’s of great concern to their populations and governments.
John Berry: And as the awareness of that grows, I’m concerned for this initiative as a true trade initiative will be called into greater question. But, the responses that are happening by democracies, you’ll notice, not only is the United States regularly exercising these rights of free travel and navigation throughout the South China Sea, but many other nations do as well, including Australia. And Great Britain has stepped up its actions in that regard.
John Berry: So, it’s again, a sign of democracies recognizing that you can’t just let an existing situation rule the day, especially when it’s been done by might and not right.
Misha Zelinsky: And you touched there on the 99 year leases. In Australia, we were quite alarmed to find out that there was discussions of a potential port being funded by the Chinese government in Vanuatu, and given the situation that occurred in Sri Lanka, where that port was funded by the Chinese government through the One Belt, One Road Initiative that government can’t pay. And, of course, that port is then handed over. The prospect of a port that could be militarized, 200 nautical miles up Australia’s coast, is very alarming.
Misha Zelinsky: It’s debt diplomacy, it’s called, which is, you know, you lend on terms that are somewhat unfavorable. And then, of course, when you can’t pay, you take that strategic asset, as you said, and in key points. How can the U.S. and Australia resist that type of easy money for these countries? You know, the Papua New Guinea government has made it very clear that they’ll take the best deal on the table, commercially.
John Berry: No, I think that’s where we have to be involved. And Vanuatu is a very good example of that, Misha. And Australia’s response there has been very, very helpful. You know, the United States is stepping up its efforts and increasing resources that’ll be available. I think other democracies will hopefully do that. And I think coordinating that effort is going to be something that we really need to think through.
John Berry: There are many institutions that can do that, but we need to, we could increase and leverage the power of our investments on the democratic front, if we were to work more carefully, in careful coordination. And so, I think that’s begun. That’s under way. And it will hopefully, only continue to improve.
Misha Zelinsky: And I’m just curious to get your take, you know, we’ve talked a lot about the contest between democracy and autocracy, and perhaps the autocratic countries coordinating in a way that, perhaps, they haven’t in the past. And that the importance of liberal democracies coordinate amongst ourselves. And I think that makes a lot of sense in a geo-strategic sense.
Misha Zelinsky: Curious about the credibility of democracy. You know, that’s another thing that is new, perhaps, in the modern debate with the Brexit debate, you know, what’s happening in Europe with the rise of autocratic governments in parts of Europe with the … Italy has a pro-Russian government. Hungary and Poland have right wing governments. You know, the Brexit election was very troubling for Britain, but also the recent United States election and the discussions of Russian meddling. What’s the … How does the credibility of democracy impact on this broader piece of countries competing against one another?
John Berry: Well, I think it’s important, each generation has to revive it’s appreciation for those core values of being able to have governments created that are responsive to the will of the people. That is still a very legitimate goal. And it is a goal that every one of the authoritarian nations fear mightily. And much of their actions are meant to undermine it, wherever they can, because they do not see it washing onto their own shores.
John Berry: So, first, we need to recommit our own selves to our own values. Those core values that our fathers and mothers fought, died, and suffered and sacrificed for, over so many generations. And I think we ought not take them for granted, because we’ve been fortunate to have enjoyed Australia … You’ve enjoyed the longest period of economic growth, I think, in any country in the world. You have a really phenomenal …
Misha Zelinsky: For 27 years.
John Berry: It’s a pretty phenomenal result. You know, you didn’t go through the global financial crisis like we did. You didn’t make many of the mistakes that we did. But, you know, so each generation can sometimes forget amidst its good times, the importance of those core values that allow those good times to exist. That allow people to exercise their creativity and earn a living, and to benefit from their creativity and their ideas and their hard work.
John Berry: As you, so you say it so beautifully in your National Anthem, wealth for toil. That is not a given around the world. And it’s important for democracies to continue to support and continue advancement. We have to always get better. As Winston Churchill said, it’s the worst form of government ever invented, but no one’s found anything better. And so, so we’ve got to keep at it. We’ve got to … We need to deal with … You know, in our own country, we have issues with student debt. We need to resolve that.
John Berry: We need to resolve our overuse of our credit card. You all are much more fiscally responsible than the United States. Here we are, in very good times ourselves, we’re running up increased debt at a time when we should be paying it down. So, you know, democracies make mistakes. Let’s not kid ourselves. But, it doesn’t mean that the core values of allowing people to control their governments and protect their liberties isn’t important and still worth fighting for.
Misha Zelinsky: It’s interesting, because you’ve talked about student debt and the economic piece. And I think that that’s also an interesting part of what’s going on around the inequality story and how that’s eroding the capacity of democracies deliver for ordinary people. I find it very concerning in an Australian context, but it’s certainly global, that young people don’t automatically consider democracy to be the best form of government. And I think that’s very troubling.
Misha Zelinsky: You’ve, in the past, said that, from an Australian context, that you’d like to take back what we call independent redistricting, or having the government, an agency, set the boundaries of electorates. In the United States, that’s a political exercise done by the politicians in charge, who unsurprisingly, draw up the boundaries to suit themselves; What you guys call gerrymandering. And also, you have non-compulsory voting in Australia, compulsory voting is in place, which the theory goes that the more people that vote, the more that they [inaudible 00:22:06], and you get less extremes. Do you think that those would be useful in an American context, still?
John Berry: I think they would greatly assist us, Misha. It would be a great thing, not only those two ideas, you know, correcting gerrymandering, compulsory voting. Americans don’t like to be told to do anything, so we’ll have to find a different word than compulsory. You know, maybe a national holiday voting, or something that would encourage higher turnout would be how we, maybe, have to approach that.
John Berry: But, you know, other ideas you do that are brilliant, I think, you limit your entire election time, is it to 60 or 90 days? I forget the day limit.
Misha Zelinsky: The minimum is about 31 days, I think. But sometimes that could be longer.
John Berry: Americans would think they’ve died and gone to heaven, if we could have a 31 day or a 60 day, even a 90 day election. You know, as you know, our presidential election for the next, which is three years out, has begun already. So, you know, obviously, we have a mid-term coming up here in three weeks, which will tell a lot. But the other thing you have … I’d say there’s four things that would really benefit our democracy that you’ve pioneered. And the last one is campaign contribution limitations.
John Berry: And, prohibiting, you know, the impact of so much money that can have such an untold influence on elections these days. So, you know, the secret ballot was invented by Australia. And we adopted it after much debate here in the United States. And while it was being debated in the late 1800’s, it was referred to in the United States as the Australian ballot. So, you gave us our secret ballot, which now we take for granted.
John Berry: I hope that the four lessons you all have also pioneered in this past generation of having a national commission that draws up unbiased legislative districts, having 99 percent of your population voting, you know, limiting your election cycle so that they don’t endlessly drag on, and controlling campaign contributions, are four very smart things for democracies to undertake. And certainly, the United States would benefit from all four of them.
Misha Zelinsky: No, although I will say that we actually had a … Our last federal election was eight weeks, and it was considered to be the most longest, most oneriest, you know, turgid campaign. And so, even an eight-week campaign in Australia seems like a long time.
Misha Zelinsky: Just on, you’ve touched on contributions and the effect of money in politics. You made some comments about, that the United States was alarmed about donation interference from the Chinese government in Australia’s democracy. It was very alarming to a lot of Australians, as well. I think it was something that we, a little bit, as a country, slip on the wheel and have sought to correct. But how concerned should all democracies be of that foreign interference of that nature?
John Berry: Look, I think it’s one of the areas where we have to play a very, very strong defense. There is no legitimate purpose, Misha, for any foreign government, especially a foreign authoritarian government, to be involved by contributing dollars in any other sovereign nations, a democratic nation’s, elections. There’s just no legitimate purpose. It’s illegal in the United States. It should be illegal in every democracy, because there is no argument on it’s behalf. It is, it has no good, positive effect. And, I hope, I know Australia has a number of efforts that it’s considering in that regard that it will continue, but not let the issue die. Because you know, if it’s allowed, we will eventually, if it is allowed in democracies, I believe that democracies can eventually lose control of their ability to maintain their sovereignty in dealing in important issues. And, you know, no democracy should allow itself to be so prostituted.
Misha Zelinsky: I think that’s very, very good advice, and that’s certainly something that we’re looking at very closely in Australia. But, I think you’re right. We need to guard against the easy money that can seem easy. But, as we talked about, even in the context of the 99 year leases with the debt diplomacy of the One Belt, One Road Initiative, money often comes with strings attached, as you rightly point out.
Misha Zelinsky: So, yeah, I just wanted to, perhaps, pivot to last couple of questions, but pivot to, you’re a former ambassador, but you’re also our most recent ambassador in the sense that the chair has not yet been filled. Let’s [crosstalk 00:27:41].
John Berry: Very, very hard to replace, Misha.
Misha Zelinsky: That’s right, irreplaceable John Berry. So we’ll, well, you’re welcome to come back, mate, at any time. That’s …
John Berry: I would in a heartbeat, but I don’t think I’ll be being sent your way.
Misha Zelinsky: Well, we did actually have an ambassador en route who was then directed to some important work in South Korea. Are you able to give a scoop? Are we gonna get an ambassador soon?
John Berry: Well, he would have been fantastic. He’s a dear friend, Harry Harris, Admiral Harris, is a brilliant man. And he would have made an outstanding ambassador. I know there’s a bunch others being considered now. I hope the president will pick a good one and send them down as quickly as he can. It’s important, and thank goodness we have a great [inaudible 00:28:28] in James Carouso there. He’s doing a great job during the interim, and I think James would make a great ambassador.
John Berry: So, there’s plenty to pick from. There’s plenty of good Americans who would do an outstanding job in Australia, and I just hope the president sends one soon.
Misha Zelinsky: Well, we’d love to have one. But as I said, mate, the chair’s still warm for you if you’d like to come back. But, just lastly, the question I’d like to ask our guests is … particularly, foreign guests, it’s a show that’s about, we call it Diplomates. It’s about mates you put in diplomacy, and it’s a hokey pun. But, I would say, in your time in Australia, if you could invite three mates to a barbecue, perhaps at the ambassadorial residence, given it’s still vacant, we could have a party there, who are the three Aussies that you would invite along as your mates?
John Berry: Well, the hardest thing, Misha, would be narrowing it down to three.
John Berry: Oh, boy, well, one, I’ll tell you, would be Quentin Bryce, who is the most wonderful person I’ve ever met in terms of everything, intellect … She has more class in her little finger than I will ever have in my entire life. And whenever I get to spend 10 minutes with her, I learn something. And so, I would love to have Quentin Bryce be one of those people. She is one of the crown jewels of Australia, in my opinion.
John Berry: The other is someone who I just love. He’s a native of Cambra. He’s president of the University of Cambra, Dr. Tom Calma. Tom is a brilliant leader in the Aboriginal community. He’s an indigenous Australian, a proud indigenous Australian who has done so much good in his lifetime, advancing his community within your wonderful country. And, we … Just like you, we talked about how you could help improve our democracy through some of your reforms, there’s many things that I think we could learn through more exchanges between our indigenous cultures. Because our history with Native Americans, Native Alaskans, and Native Hawaiians, for example, here in the United States, has been a sad one. And we’re still wrestling with many, many issues that are a result of that sad history.
John Berry: There’ve been some great success stories in Australia, just like we have had success stories in the United States. And I think Tom is one of those people who is a glass half full kind of guy, who is always coming up with new ideas and creative ways to make the future better, for not only indigenous people, but for all people in the country. So, Tom would be my second person.
John Berry: Who, who’d be the third? That is tough. Gosh, it’d be a toss-up between … You know, you’ve got two LGBT leaders there that I think are wonderful. Ian Thorpe and Alan Joyce. Alan comes at it from the business perspective, Ian from the, sportsman perspective.
John Berry: But, both of them have been amazing leaders in the LGBT community. And as you know, that’s one of my lifetime Civil Rights engagements and involvements.
Misha Zelinsky: Absolutely, yep.
John Berry: So, maybe you can give me the luxury of having four, and I’d invite Ian and Alan together, and then, we’d have a wonderful barbecue.
Misha Zelinsky: Well, I wouldn’t, couldn’t possibly deny having the Thorpedo there, so it’s more … And Alan can fly everyone in, so it’s no problem at all.
John Berry: And all of them should bring their spouses, so that would be, that makes it more than three. You can’t have a barbie without their good partners along, so …
Misha Zelinsky: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for your time, Ambassador Berry. I think Admiral Phil Davidson recently said that there’s friends, allies, partners, and then there’s mates. And Australia and the United States are mates, and I think you’ve proven that today. So, thank you so much for your time. And good luck with everything over there. And we look forward to getting an ambassador soon.
John Berry: Misha, thank you so much.