As the former chief-of-staff to then prime minister John Howard, who did not hesitate to back George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks and in the Iraq invasion – despite the latter’s being an American strategic blunder – Sinodinos is inextricably linked in many senior Washington figures’ minds with a high watermark of the ANZUS alliance.
“He’s a consigliere,” said Simon Jackman, CEO of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. “He’s a great counsellor to prime ministers and to his party. He’s a straight shooter, which is exactly what you need when there are hard conversations to be had about what Australia can do and what it is less likely to be able to.”
Current ambassador Joe Hockey has very tight relationships with Trump’s inner circle, Jackman says, including his acting chief-of-staff, Mick Mulvaney. Sinodinos will be able to pick up that role immediately.
He’ll need every bit of his smarts, his charm, his persistence to steadily convey to the Americans a few things Canberra wants to happen – and not to happen.
We want the US and China to manage their great power competition sensibly. We don’t want to have to choose between them. We want trade differences resolved through an international system of rules. We don’t want the world’s technology supply chains and markets to be split into a US sphere and a Chinese sphere.
We most definitely don’t want to be thrown under the bus in any trade deal between Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
And we don’t want to be drawn into the Fox News conspiracy theory – which Trump has embraced by asking his Attorney-General William Barr to investigate – that senior elements of US intelligence and law enforcement plotted with foreigners, including the Australian government, to concoct the Russia allegations.
At the centre of that conspiracy theory is George Papadopoulos, the former Trump campaign aid who famously met with former foreign minister Alexander Downer in a London wine bar.
Papadopoulos, who seems genuinely to think he is James Bond, tweeted on Sunday morning that the US should “expose the Australians” and added that “they need us. We don’t need them!”
Sinodinos will find many friends in Washington. There is still an overwhelmingly sensible centre of gravity in the world’s most powerful capital. He’ll need those people to mediate the more extreme characteristics of the Trump administration.