A Broad and Deep Conversation with Arthur Synodinos, Australia’s Ambassador to the U.S.

A former senator, minister, cabinet secretary, chief of staff to Australian former PM John Howard for more than a decade, Arthur Synodinos is Australia’s ambassador to the United States since 2020. The second generation Greek-Australian diplomat spoke to The National Herald about Australia’s diplomatic mission to the United States, the pandemic, and his ties to Greece.

The National Herald: Second time’s a charm, it seems, as this post has been offered to you previously. And, yet, luck would have it that you were to arrive in D.C. as Australia’s ambassador just as DC – and the world- was shutting down due to COVID. What was that experience like?

Arthur Synodinos: Well, if you had told me before I got here that we’d be facing a once-in-a-century pandemic, the biggest economic contraction since the depression, race riots in the summer, an election campaign that didn’t seem to end until the 6th of January, I would have said that doesn’t sound right. That was not my expectation when I agreed to the job. I had six weeks of running around when I got here in February 2020. I was lucky enough to present my credentials to president Trump a couple of days after I arrived, so that was great to get out of the way and start my official duties. But then, very quickly, COVID hit and we had to go to more remote working – we had to lock down the embassy. So a lot of the normal stuff that you do when you go into a post, in terms of meeting people and all the rest of it, we had to adapt and do more of that on Zoom or WebEx or whatever. So I didn’t have the sort of introduction I expected, but my consolation was that we were all going through similar challenges, and we all had to adapt, and we all found ways to adapt. And we’re still adapting. We’ve got this wave of Omicron coming through. We’re encouraging people, again, where possible, to work from home. So, I think we’re doing what we can. It’s been a test of ourselves and our systems; we’ve learned a lot more about how working from home works, the positives and the negatives. We’ve learned how quickly we can get things done if we need to. Look at what’s happened with the vaccines, how quickly they’ve been developed. I’m hoping we take some of those lessons that we’ve learned during the pandemic, post pandemic. On that I am a stubborn optimist, a relentless optimist. We have found ways to work with this, to live with this – including through vaccination and boosters and the rest. We just have to keep going and not allow this to play with our minds too much. It has had an impact on mental health, and I particularly worry for those who tend to be isolated or alone, and for children who may be growing up in circumstances where this is the first major external influence on their lives. But we have to get on with it. I’ve adapted my own style; we were able to do more this year, get out and about, travel around the country, which is an important part of what I do. The challenge is ongoing. But, when I have been able to travel, it’s reminded me of the diversity of America, how big America is, how different parts of the country are. This is a continent unto itself, and it’s fascinating to be here. I felt lucky to be here during the election, to watch the election first hand, and see how this most important of electoral contests actually is carried out. What struck me was how much focus there is here in the U.S. on the constitution, the central role the constitution – the first amendment, the second amendment, other amendments – plays in American life. This is a place where the history of the country is very much alive. You’re reminded constantly of the history of the country and how this country came about, and what its values and its ideals are. These are very strong impressions that you get.

TNH: Talking about the pandemic, no statistic depicting loss of human life can be good, but it does look like Australia has been managing COVID with greater success than other countries. The vaccination coverage is particularly impressive. How has Australia gotten there, and what challenges do you see ahead?

AS: In Australia, in the first year, we shut down fairly quickly. The federal government and the states took urgent measures, including lockdowns, where necessary, to assuage the impact on the health system, because we didn’t know how badly it would be impacted by the caseload. Because these measures were taken early and were substantial, they had an impact in assuaging the spread of COVID early on. Based on population estimates compared to other countries, we think we avoided something like 30,000 excess deaths. The lockdowns made people in Australia who may have been a bit hesitant about getting vaccinated, or complacent about getting vaccinated, finally decide we needed to really get vaccinated properly and quickly, and now Australia has something like more than 90% of the eligible population fully vaccinated. Now, because of Omicron, we’re starting to roll out the boosters. So I think it’s been a combination of, as an island, being able to shut the island off and take strong measures early. This year, accelerating the vaccine rollout once public attitudes changed, the public may have been lulled into a certain degree of complacency, because we had managed to suppress the virus quite well. But, when Delta came along and exacerbated the situation, people realized we can’t have stop-start situations, opening and closing, because of the virus. We have to learn to live with it. And the way to do that is to vaccinate. Australia has also had a generous program of providing vaccines, particularly to our own region, because, unless the rest of the world gets vaccinated, we will never ever be fully safe.

TNH: The pandemic has been more or less politicized in each different country. As an inherently political event, do you see the upcoming election in Australia playing a role in pandemic response?

AS: As a public servant, it is probably not best for me to be giving political commentary. All I will say is I think it depends whether COVID is an issue at the time, whether people feel comfortable that it is under control, or whether they’re still anxious about some elements of it. During the pandemic itself there’s no doubt it has tended to favor incumbents, because they’ve had to take strong measures. But I’m not going into political commentary. All I will say is that, to the extent possible, we should avoid what you alluded to before, which is the politicization of the measures. We have to take measures based on the best knowledge, the best science, and also to recognize that each of us, in exercising individual responsibility, also has to ask a question: who is our neighbor? It is the person that we can potentially infect with this thing. Therefore, what measures do we want to take to protect them as we would expect them to take measures to protect us? So this is not just about individual responsibility, but also about how we act as a community, to take collective action to stop this virus from spreading further.

TNH: You talk about communities of neighbors, so let’s talk about political and national neighbors. As chief of staff to former PM Howard, you were instrumental in coordinating policies to deepen and strengthen Australian-American relations. During your ambassadorship, those relations found a new and profound expression in the AUKUS pact, which you championed. Now that some of the dust from its announcement has settled, what has the pact meant for the Australian mission to the U.S. as a whole, and what diplomatic challenges do you see remaining for Australian relations with the rest of the world?

AS: I think AUKUS has taken our relationship with the U.S. to the next level in showing our willingness to, essentially, back ourselves, and to say that, in response to developments in our region, we are prepared to do more, to act together, to promote peace and prosperity in the region. And that is our aim. The aim of everything that we’re doing in our security policies, our foreign policies, our development policies, how we exercise our soft power. All of it is about how we work to create a peaceful and prosperous region – the Indo-Pacific, in which we live. The AUKUS pact will make its contribution to that. It will further deepen the relationship between the U.S. and Australia, as well as – of course, being a trilateral pact – it will have an impact on our relationship with the UK, but in terms of our relationship with the U.S., from my perspective as Ambassador in Washington, I think it will have a profound impact on our further collaboration and cooperation. I’m particularly excited by the possibility of scientific and technical cooperation across a range of capabilities. Not just submarines, but others that have been identified, A.I., machine learning, cyber, quantum, other  undersea capabilities, and broader capabilities, as well. The reason for that is that I think Australia’s future lies in being an innovation nation. The work that we do with the U.S. in these areas and the way we deepen our industrial collaboration will be very important for those aims. I’m very optimistic about what it means about the future of the relationship. We already have a number of American companies expressing interest in how they invest further in Australia as a result of this announcement. Now, this announcement does not change all the other pacts or alliances that we have. This is a capability pact. It’s not an alliance in the way that ANZUS is. But it sits there with the other alliances we’ve got, whether it’s ANZUS, whether it’s partnerships like the QUAD – Australia, Japan, India, and the U.S. It sits there with our relationship with the countries in our region who are central to its architecture. It is a very important component for us, and I’m excited about what it means for the mission here. It’s a lot more work for us with our Australian colleagues, but it’s good work. It’s a strategic decision, which has ramifications not just in the immediate term and the medium term, but certainly also in the longer term in our region. It’s good long-term thinking by Australia.

Arthur Synodinos. (Photo: https://usa.embassy.gov.au/)

TNH: Thank you for mentioning the ANZUS treaty, now heading into its 71st year. Former prime minister Howard had once boasted that Australia highlighted how close relations can be had with both the U.S. and China. In celebrating the ANZUS treaty and the Australian-American ties, you yourself have recently written that the rise of China is good news for the world. In the shadow of AUKUS, do those views continue to translate practically, given what appears to be some deterioration of Australian-Chinese relations since the Howard and even much more recent administrations?

AS: It’s a good question. But, from our perspective, our relationship with China has gone through a number of iterations. The opening to China was a great boon to the Australian economy. During the Howard era we took full advantage of that, and even further down the track, in more recent years, when we had a resources boom largely off the back of the further development of China, and we negotiated an important free trade agreement in 2014. What’s happened since then is that, as China’s continued to grow, it’s become more assertive about prosecuting what it regards as its national interests. Frankly, this has led to a number of situations where we felt that our national sovereignty had to be asserted in the face of actions which we thought were inconsistent with that. That’s led to a situation where there are growing pains in the relationship. And we also realize that, on the current trajectory, we have to keep diversifying our trading relationships. We can’t put so many eggs in the China basket. China itself recognizes it cannot be as dependent as it was on Australia – certainly in a trade sense, and particularly at a time when there have been other geopolitical issues which have come to the fore. So I guess both sides are coming to a more mature realization of how our interests have to be prosecuted in the world which we now face, and that’s why we’ve taken some of the decisions we’ve taken about upgrading our defense in the region, the decisions we’ve taken around AUKUS and other things that we’ve done. Where will things land with China? I think, over time, things will change for the better. We’re open to dialogue with China, but with no preconditions. So we’ll wait and see. But I think the Australian government is quite comfortable that we’ve done what we needed to do to protect Australia’s interests and preserve our national sovereignty, and our message to the region is that everything we do in the region – the partnerships, the alliances we’re part of – are all there to help promote peace and prosperity in the region and help countries to exercise their sovereignty, so that countries don’t feel that they have to do things at the behest of others which compromise their national interests.

TNH: You’ve mentioned the QUAD, the quadrilateral security dialogue between Australia, the United States, India, and Japan, which is a powerful alliance shaping that broader dialogue. How does AUKUS affect Australia’s position in the QUAD and its role in the region?

AS: We see all of these alliances and relationships as pieces of a mosaic that fit together, and they serve different purposes. AUKUS is a capability pact; the quadrilateral dialogue is a way that we work with major like-minded countries in the region in order to help shape it towards greater peace and prosperity. The QUAD’s focus is on positive things, what are we for, rather what are we against. Its first major priority was the vaccine distribution to the region, upping production in India, because, as I mentioned before, unless the world as a whole is vaccinated, we’re not really going to put the pandemic behind us. There’s a climate working group, and there’s also a very important critical and emerging technologies working group, which is looking at how we set standards in the region for technologies like A.I. and machine learning, quantum, cyber, and others – a whole series of areas where we’re working together. We’ve just announced under the banner of the QUAD that there will be fellowships in STEM to encourage people to study these areas at the graduate level and above in the U.S. There will be 100 fellowships, 25 from each of the QUAD countries, to study here in the U.S. The study will be STEM, plus looking at how we communicate science, how we deal with public policy in science, the ethics of science. We’re trying to encourage the development of students who have a rounded appreciation of the role of STEM in society as well as actually just learning more about STEM. It’s those sorts of positive things that the QUAD is trying to promote in the region.

TNH: What is even more fascinating about your analysis of foreign affairs is that your own personal background highlights their potential. You’re a second generation Greek-Australian, correct?

AS: Yeap – and proud of it!

TNH: It seems that that would mean you have always been acting as an ambassador in some sense. The ambassadorship is nothing new to you. Has that been the case? Have you felt that you were always standing representing a community?

AS: That’s a very good question. I’ve always felt a sense of having this Greek identity, and it’s very central to who I am. Growing up, I spoke Greek before I spoke English. I learned English at school; the local Greek Orthodox church was a religious and social center for much of our growing up. I have a brother and a sister, and we all grew up in Newcastle. For me Greek things were natural; it was just the milieu in which I was. I look back thinking about my parents and other relatives, and I think about the conversations they would have around the table, and even how they spoke, how different it is to how we speak now. Just the everyday conversations people would have and their observations on things. There was often a profound wisdom in them that you only really appreciated as you got older and you think “oh, this is just an ordinary table conversation.” But there was so much wisdom that was distilled into it. So I always grew up in this environment, which was very affectionate. Now, to some extent, I’m probably looking back with rose-colored glasses. But I have to say we had a pretty happy childhood. Greek families are very close. Kids mean everything to their parents, and we certainly had that feeling growing up. So that Greekness was an integral part of me. And, yes, I grew up in an Australian environment, where I was always conscious of being caught, to some extent, between two worlds, which you reconcile in various ways. Sometimes it could be embarrassing when you took food to school and you had feta cheese in your lunchbox, and that didn’t exactly smell the best. That could make you a bit self-conscious, that you were different. Sometimes you’d get called names, although I never encountered what I would describe as systemic discrimination on account of my background. But I was called the odd name at school – you know, kids get called all sorts of things at school, they get awful nicknames and all the rest of it. But I was conscious of this duality, of being part of two worlds. And it made me appreciate that being a migrant is a hard thing. It’s hard to take yourself off from your family, from your own context, and go halfway around the world to start a new life. You know, you wonder at the desperation that took. The people just decided, pragmatically, they had to go. They couldn’t stay where they were. And, certainly, I know my own father, who came to Australia in 1945 after being on merchant ships in the pacific, I think saw the future out here, rather than back in Greece. And my mother, who was from the same island, came out after the earthquakes there. They knew each other. I think she also saw the future as being out here. So one of the things about migrants is that, fundamentally, they’re optimists. When they come to a society, they want to make it work, they want to put into that society, and they’ll get something out of it. Often, they become the most loyal of citizens, because they’re so grateful for the opportunities that their new country has offered them. One of the proudest days for my parents was when they became naturalized Australians, because they felt that sense of acceptance. We see this with America, as well, with all countries that are positive about migrants, what they stand for, what they contribute. That, as long as you subscribe to certain ideals, then you’re welcome as part of the society, and you can celebrate your culture, your heritage, your religion, free from interference, as long as there’s that overarching loyalty to the society as a whole. That’s a small price to pay for being able to exercise your identity.

TNH: Was the immigrant experience a factor in getting into politics?

AS: I was interested in politics and current affairs from a young age. I always saw politics as important and consequential, and I always took an interest in news and current affairs. Even as a small child I would watch news programs and all the rest of it. Maybe I needed to get out more, I don’t know. I’m not sure how the immigration played a role, except, I guess, to the extent that I recognized that the government played a big role in our lives and regulated what we can and can’t do, including being able to immigrate or not emigrate, and become a citizen or not become a citizen. I don’t know that it was decisive in my interest in politics, but, certainly, by becoming involved in the Greek community in Newcastle and then in Canberra, and becoming involved in the organizational side of the Greek community, particularly as it also related to the Greek Orthodox church, it gave me an appreciation for how organizations work. In a funny way it was its own political training ground.

TNH: The Orthodox Church plays an important role in your life. I think you also met your wife through the Church, correct?

AS: Yes. She was temporarily working in Canberra – that’s where we met. At that stage I was involved in the organizational side of the local church in in Canberra, I was on the committee. I became treasurer and then president for a while, and I worked on the development of a preschool there and of an aged care home. The funds to build the home were donated by a very kind family in the area. So I got a lot of experience in how communities operate. In a funny way that also helped me with my political training, because I got to understand not only how organizations work at the board level, but also how organizations on the ground react to people and their needs, and how they convey that to other organizations, including government. So I had a grassroots view about how government impacts communities and citizens in a way that perhaps I wouldn’t have, if I’d had some different sort of life experience.

TNH: I believe your family was more left-leaning, is that so?

AS: My mother was more right-leaning, my father was always maybe a little bit more left-leaning. But more towards the center, really. They were conservative in their social outlooks, but my mother had been scarred, I think, because she had been in Greece during the Civil War. My father hadn’t been. So my mother had been through the Civil War and I think that left a lot of Greeks bitter and divided. It affected even politics of Greek communities in Australia, where some churches aligned with the Archdiocese, which was aligned with the Greek government, and other churches were outside the Archdiocese, and had a different allegiance and tended to be churches with a leftist orientation. Those divides went on for a long time, and really affected Greek society. And they had an impact even on the Diaspora.

TNH: We saw you welcoming Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to the United States on his latest visit, and you have worked to promote the Church in Australia. How do you think the Church can continue to play a role in sustaining Greek identity in diasporic communities?

AS: I think a lot of it often comes down to the priests and how they relate to their congregations. I’ve noticed it here with St. Sophia. I haven’t been able to go very often, but I watch the livestream on Sundays. If you have priests who relate to their congregation and who understand their needs, and relate what they’re talking about to the everyday needs of their congregations, that has a powerful impact. Leadership by example is important. Being able to outreach to younger people and make what you’re talking about relevant to them is also very important. Today, if you can be in people’s lives, at the turning points of their lives and at the times when they really feel pressure, like we do, at the moment, mental health pressures, you can do a lot to relate the work of an organization like the Church to the everyday needs of people. Because, at the end of the day, you’ve got to communicate with influence. So a lot comes down to that grassroots communication with the laity, who are the backbone of the Church. Without them there is no Church.

TNH: You mentioned grassroots operations and institutions that help bring together Greek communities in different countries. Have you had opportunities to work with the Greek American or the wider Greek community in the States? You recently had a discussion with Andrew Liveris on ANZUS and the QUAD, and Australian-American relations. I think he heads The Hellenic Initiative in Australia, the Hellenic initiative being one shared institution between the Greek-American and Greek-Australian communities.

AS: I haven’t interacted that much with the broader Greek community here. I’ve met Archbishop Elpidophoros and other leaders, and I am doing work with Andrew Liveris because we have a shared interest around science and innovation, and about how to promote its role in society. Liveris is doing a lot to promote those links between Australia and the U.S. He’s a very good friend and interlocutor on many things. I think The Hellenic Initiative – to which I’ve contributed in the past – is an excellent idea. For a lot of Greeks outside Greece, what happened to Greece during the global financial crisis was a wake-up call that more needed to be done to help Greece get through this tough period. Greece was seen as having had a tough time of it for a whole series of reasons. Some were its own responsibility, but others were what had happened to it. Greece deserved that help. Ιn recent years we’ve seen Greece continuing to grow strongly, its relationships developing – the U.S.-Greece relationship going from strength to strength, as far as I can see, and a very good American ambassador in Greece, Geoffrey Pyatt, doing a great job. The other thing I became optimistic about is I saw again the great resilience of the Greek nation, that you cannot stamp Greeks out. No matter what you do, Greeks will survive. It was a reminder to me that Greece survived 400 years of occupation, preserved its language and culture under the most difficult of circumstances, and it asserted its independence – one of the first countries to assert its independence in the 19th century, as the old empires started to dissolve. This is a country with resilience in its DNA. And the way Greek society held together, the way families and communities held together, was again a reminder of what is so strong about Greece, what makes Greece such an inspiration. I often used to say in speeches to Greek audiences back in Australia, “don’t forget you’re carrying in your bones a few thousand years of history, and the DNA that goes with it. Be proud of that, and be proud of what that means, what Greece has contributed to the world, and what it continues to contribute.”

TNH: You mention resilience. What would you say, other than faith, is a characteristic Greek value that helped immigrants to Australia assimilate better?

AS: I think Greeks have ‘philotimo’ and I think that helped with the settlement into Australia, because Greeks helped other Greeks, they’d take them into their homes, help them find jobs, help them find husbands and wives. They did so much. The social chain was very strong, and I think that was something entirely admirable. It’s a great national characteristic. For Greeks, the challenge has always been – because it’s a relatively small country surrounded by bigger countries – how it relates to other countries around it. That’s why being part of the EU, being part of those broader structures which can help reaffirm the democratic values that Greece has helped to seed and germinate is very very important. There are challenges for Greece’s current position, but it’s a country which has always found ways to make strength out of weakness, and that makes me very optimistic.

TNH: Do you visit Greece? Do you still have family in Greece?

AS: We still have cousins and other relatives there. I haven’t been to Greece since 2005. I was last there when my mother passed away. She’d gone to visit my sister in Greece – my sister has since come back to Australia. We have a lot of affection for Greece – we have a lot of affection for Kefalonia, where my parents were from. It’s just a beautiful part of the world. Now that we’re in the U.S., notwithstanding COVID, we would aim, I hope, next year to take more of the family back to Greece. My son and his grandmother were in Greece this summer. They had a great time. I’m keen to get back there, as well.

TNH: Is there an element of your everyday life, your family life, that you’d attribute to your Greek heritage?

AS: That’s another good question. I like Greek food. So, having Elizabeth’s mum here more recently has meant we get a bit more Greek food, which is great. That’s something that’s integral to Greek life, being able to break bread together. That’s wonderful. The other everyday thing that relates to my Greekness is that I like getting people together and giving them praise and thanking them for what they do. I get a big kick out of that, and I think that is a Greek thing. People often say the Greeks are great individuals. Well, yes, they are, in a sense. But, also, when they need, they really pull together. And that’s something that in my mind has always instilled the importance of taking a team approach to things. So, getting people together, saying thank you for what they’ve done, that is very important to me




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