By Tim Johnson
Fondly known by locals as the “bush capital,” Canberra’s name derives from a Ngunnawal word meaning “meeting place,” coined by the original custodians of the land who have called the area home for more than 21,000 years. Now home to 400,000 people, Canberra’s high quality of life makes it beloved by locals as “Australia’s best-kept secret.” The city offers both a lively urban core centered near Australia’s leading university and quieter suburban and country exurbs. Australia’s coffee and food culture live up to its international reputation, and Canberra is full of independent cafés serving up classic Aussie “flat whites” or “smashed avo toast” (though vegemite remains an acquired taste). Canberra and its surroundings also boast some of Australia’s most iconic wildlife. Kangaroos regularly hop across side streets, koalas nap away at the top of eucalyptus trees, and countless tropical birds call the embassy grounds home—including the occasional swooping magpie.
With stunning vistas and frequent sunshine, Canberrans regularly spend time outdoors; and many public events make that easy to do, including a hot air balloon festival, a spring flower festival, a multicultural festival, and of course, Australia’s famed “footy” culture. Within a short drive, Canberrans can snowboard in the Australian Alps, surf on crystal blue waters, taste new world wines, or take in Sydney or Melbourne.
The city exists in no small part thanks to the deep personal connections between Australians and Americans that underpin their relationship to this day. American architects Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin won an international competition in 1911 to design the new Australian capital, a purpose-built city established between the colonial capitals of Sydney and Melbourne. This power couple of American design created the vision for a planned city of sweeping boulevards and roundabouts, grandiose parks and bush landscapes, and monumental buildings—not dissimilar to Washington’s design—all oriented around a newly created lake anchored at the city’s core. The result is one of the world’s most open and livable capital cities. Two other Americans, Romaldo “Aldo” Giurgola and Hal Guida, designed Australia’s inspiring Parliament House, an homage to the democratic principles Australians and Americans hold dear.
World War I put Canberra’s development on hold. The Great War also marked the first time that Australian and American soldiers served together in war, fighting alongside one another in the trenches of France. Since then, they have stood shoulder-to-shoulder in every major armed conflict, a testament to the enduring bond forged in shared sacrifice and values. The United States and Australia established formal diplomatic relations in 1940. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt officially dedicated the U.S. Embassy a few years later during one of the darkest moments of World War II, when she undertook a hazardous tour through the South Pacific theatre of operations as a Red Cross representative. Her determination and resolute goodwill left a resounding impact with the Australian public, inspiring hope across the region as she rejuvenated the spirits of wounded servicemen and championed the instrumental wartime work of women. The shared endeavor during World War II laid the foundation of an “Unbreakable Alliance.” This alliance was enshrined in the 1951 Australia, New Zealand, and United States Security (ANZUS) Treaty, which continues to play a major role in advancing the security and prosperity of both countries, the Indo-Pacific region, and the world to this day. Australia invoked the treaty for the first time in its history in response to the Sept. 11 attacks and subsequently joined U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Australia has no better friend than the United States. Embassy Canberra is working to ensure that this storied relationship continues as both nations chart a positive future by addressing shared global challenges. To make the U.S.-Australia Alliance relevant to a new generation, Mission Australia has initiated a range of programming to cultivate a network of future Australian leaders equipped and motivated to keep the alliance as vital and relevant going forward as it has been to past generations.
One crucial area of focus is a robust economic relationship. The United States is Australia’s most important economic partner. According to a recent Deloitte report, U.S. trade and investment accounted for a remarkable 7 percent of Australia’s gross domestic product in 2019. The United States is also Australia’s largest source of foreign investment, building on relationships based on a shared commitment to the rule of law, transparency, hard work, and fair play. Australians and Americans are joining forces to research and develop frontier technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing that will continue to generate high-paying jobs of the future on both sides of the Pacific. Many of those innovations are being driven by Fulbright alumni, more than 5,000 of whom have contributed significantly to the betterment of the people of Australia, the United States, and the world since Australia signed the Fulbright treaty in 1949.
More than 50 years after Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” echoed around the world—a historical moment made possible by an Australian space tracking center just outside Canberra—Australia signed the Artemis Accords. This enabled NASA to work more closely with the Australian Space Agency on the next phase of space exploration. Together they aim to put the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024 and eventually launch a human mission to Mars. This collaboration in space will drive research breakthroughs that will benefit both countries’ economies in ways that cannot yet be imagined.
Another emerging area of the U.S.-Australia partnership is on critical minerals used in products ranging from mobile phones and electronics to medical equipment and military hardware. The two countries recently committed to collaborating on securing supply chains for critical minerals so that they are extracted and processed responsibly, resilient against economic coercion, and isolated from the use of forced labor and substandard environmental safeguards. Partnering with like-minded countries such as Australia, the United States is strengthening its economic and national security by ensuring that supply chains for critical minerals are robust, transparent, and rooted in rules-based standards.
The United States is also working closely with Australia to promote a free, open, prosperous, and secure Indo-Pacific region. Australia and the United States are pursuing increased maritime cooperation to safeguard freedom of navigation and overflight in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. More than 2,000 U.S. Marines have participated in an annual joint rotational training exercise in Darwin with their Australian counterparts, which continued this year despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Future exercises may include additional partners and allies, as they work together to identify new ways to maintain security and stability in the region and deter coercive actions better. Recognizing the importance of mobilizing private sector investment, Australia and the United States deliver high-quality, resilient infrastructure and natural resource projects in countries that uphold rule of law, sovereignty, and free-market principles. In the Pacific Islands, the United States recently announced more than $200 million in new funding as part of its Pacific Pledge, designed to support the region to become safer, healthier, and more prosperous for all. This engagement is complementary to Australia’s “Pacific Step-up” policy to increase engagement with its Pacific Island neighbors. These two initiatives reflect the growing importance that Australia and the United States place on their relationships with countries in the South Pacific.
Part of that shared vision for the Indo-Pacific also includes addressing malign activity when and where it arises. At the annual U.S.-Australia bilateral meeting in July, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Women Marise Payne expressed deep concern about efforts by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to undermine Hong Kong’s freedom, its campaign of repression against the Uyghurs, and other coercive and destabilizing actions across the Indo-Pacific. Over the past year, Australia has led the way in confronting PRC interference, disinformation, and cyber aggression and standing up for human rights and freedom of expression.
“When Australia speaks, the world listens,” said Ambassador Arthur B. Culvahouse Jr. during a recent webinar series engaging leaders from across the Indo-Pacific region.
Mission Australia is accomplishing its objectives through a large team spread across the embassy in Canberra and consulates general in Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth. The Mission also includes many military personnel and exchange officers embedded with their Australian counterparts to further enhance American cooperation and interoperability with this critical ally. Mission Australia operates in the spirit of “one team, one mission.” That sense of teamwork was particularly profound during last year’s devastating bushfires, as American and local staff and members of the community came together to support each other during the crisis. Mission Australia has also sought to strengthen cohesion and effectiveness through diversity and inclusion across all posts to ensure that their workplaces represent the United States’ highest ideals. As part of the team’s whole-of-mission commitment to environmental sustainability, Embassy Canberra won the Department’s Greening Diplomacy Initiative award in 2019 for its efforts to integrate renewable energy, conserve water, and minimize waste.
Though no language training is required to serve in Canberra, many Americans find themselves perfecting their Aussie slang while at post, as Mission Australia’s hallways echo with common refrains like “g’day,” “arvo,” and “ta.” Life and work “down under” present numerous opportunities to solidify a warm friendship with the Australian people while deepening the United States’ relationship with this critical ally. There is no better place than Canberra to enjoy life while advancing peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.
Tim Johnson is the cultural affairs officer at Embassy Canberra.