By KATE BANVILLE
IT’S rare for Australian journalists to have direct access to one of Washington’s most senior government officials, let alone be allowed an on-record interview with them at a time of extraordinary international turmoil and conflict.
But, fortunately, the Caller was among a contingent of just four reporters invited to sit down last week with Elizabeth Allen, the United States Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Affairs, inside the heavily fortified walls of the US Consulate in Sydney.
Allen was in Australia on a special visit to key partners throughout the Pacific and South America, holding discussions aimed at deepening relations in the two regions. She spoke with selected journalists as part of an initiative by Women in Media.
Very few people sit above Elizabeth Allen when it comes to US Government communications.
She’s currently the senior most communications professional at the US State Department. The State Department’s spokesperson, and all other diplomatic communications staffers, work for her.
Allen was appointed to her role directly by President Joe Biden, for whom she served as Deputy Press Secretary during the Obama administration.
“She’s a VERY big deal,” a Washington-based former White House offical told the Caller.
The US Consulate is, to me, one of the most interesting corridors of power. It’s an inconspicuous building in North Sydney with barely any signage – simply a piece of paper on the front door reading “knock to enter”.
During my seven years of service in the Australian Army I saw plenty of high security environments, but the room in which we met Elizabeth Allen was heavily guarded even by military standards.
As journalists we needed special permission to bring our phones past the security screening so that we could take an audio recording of our meeting.
Sitting behind bulletproof glass in a highly secured briefing room, I couldn’t help but wonder about the high level conversations which must have taken place here, particularly as it was only announced an hour earlier that President Biden would travel to Israel amid the escalating war in Gaza.
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The United States is taking a new and unconventional approach to its foreign policy, Allen said, with Australia central to its success in revitalising relationships throughout the Pacific
With concern over China’s rising military might, nations of the Pacific Islands are now at the forefront for US policymakers looking to maintain a strategic foothold throughout the Indo-Pacific.
Allen (pictured) said it was made an early priority of the Biden administration to ‘re-engage and deepen its alliances and partnerships’.
And with Australia pointing straight into the archipelago that connects the Indian and Pacific oceans, Allen said Australia had never been a more important ally.
“The future of the next century will be shaped in large part in the Pacific, we believe that,” she said.
“And so as a Pacific neighbour, Pacific partner, Pacific country, and friend, it’s really important to show up.
“(Our) increased visits and presence is a reflection of the fact that we strongly believe that there’s no problem the US can solve alone in the world.
“Quite the opposite, that the time for alliances and partnerships has never been more important than it is right now.
“And so, we’ve spent the better part of the last two and a half years deepening and re-engaging with our closest allies, Australia is absolutely among them.”
Allen pointed to not only the geographical importance of Australia but also its strength in maintaining diplomatic relations with neighbouring countries.
“It’s not just those government-to-government relationships that are going to matter because governments do go through transitions,” she said.
“I think the investments that we’re making in public diplomacy and around some of our foreign policy priorities, really reflect the fact that it’s investment in civil society, its investment in academia, its investment in young people.
“That’s just as much part of our foreign policy priority for that reason.”
Allen pointed to a rising and asserted dominance of China, along with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the raging Israel-Gaza war as examples of concern where the spread of information, including propaganda and misinformation, has been impossible to contain and largely happening on encrypted platforms.
She said conventional approaches to communication were outdated, with misinformation now a major threat to democracy for governments globally.
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“The evolution of the information space has been one of the most consequential drivers of how we have gotten to where we are geopolitically across the world right now,” she said.
“The information space is now a contested theatre of competition.”
Because of this, the need for a free and independent press has never been greater, with media literacy, and digital literacy programs also a key focus of the Biden Administration, Allen said.
Her comments are supported by an annual snapshot by advocacy group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) which highlighted disinformation, propaganda, and artificial intelligence posing mounting threats to journalism.
In 2023, the Middle East is considered the world’s most dangerous region for journalists. The US fell three places to 45th, while Australia sits at 27 out of 180 countries on RSF’s World Press Freedom Index.
The global rank of China declined to 177 out of 180, with only North Korea having less press freedom.
“We can’t control other actors’ actions in the information space as much but what we can do is create a healthier information environment,” Allen said.
“We’re thinking a lot about what are the tools and what are the structural policy solutions and changes that we can start to prioritise.
“Supporting independent media is actually one of the most important things we can do globally to make the information space healthier.”
The Under Secretary’s trip comes as Prime Minister Anthony Albanese this visits to the White House this week, where he is meeting with key congress figures to help expedite legislative changes and make AUKUS fully operational.
This growing suite of force posture initiatives is propelling the US – Australia alliance into uncharted terrain, as the longtime superpower fights to maintain its dominance, all the while Australia faces national security challenges of its own.
Allen said this new era of relations is reflective of the mutual respect of democratic values Australia and the US held.
It comes amid Australia’s efforts to implement recommendations outlined in the Defence Strategic Review, which would result in the biggest restructuring of the Australian Defence Force in more than forty years.
*Country Caller journalist Kate Banville was invited to visit the US Consulate as part of an initiative by Women in Media