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Koalas are Australia’s Most Effective Diplomats

Welcome to the softer side of politics.

President Obama holds a koala at the 2014 G20 Summit in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo: Pete Souza/Public Domain)

In 1943 a young Australian politician by the name of Winston set out to visit the United Kingdom. World War II was raging, but Winston was deemed politically important enough that a law banning his exit was suspended and he embarked on a two-week sea voyage to Liverpool.

A few days before arrival, the ship had a brief clash with a German submarine. Depth charges were set off, creating some noise and disturbance on board. Winston, weakened by the journey, sadly passed away.

“(His) loss is a great disappointment to me,” British Prime Minister Winston Churchill telegrammed the Prime Minister of Australia. He did however, feel that his namesake’s death wouldn’t be totally wasted if Winston could be stuffed. An unusual proposition for most deceased politicians, but not for Winston who was, after all, a platypus.

Australian animals have long been dispatched internationally as a form of diplomacy. In the past two years however, it has been koalas, rather than the platypi, who have shot to international notice as key Australian contenders in political power plays. In March this year, the Australian Labour Party’s ‘Liberal Waste Watch’ site made international news after it reported that the incumbent Liberal Party’s koala diplomacy costs came in at over $400,000. “This Government is obsessed with hugging koalas,” said Waste Watch spokesperson Pat Conroy.

Australian politicians Julie Bishop and Ken Wyatt with a koala in 2014. (Photo: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/dfat.gov.au/CC BY 3.0 AU)

The numbers should perhaps not have come as a surprise. Politicians visiting Australia are regularly enticed to wrap their arms around a koala. In 2014, at the G20 international government summit in Brisbane, a koala named Jimbelung stole the limelight, scoring hugs from everyone from Vladimir Putin to Barack Obama. The animals are also loaned out to international zoos. In early 2015, four koalas were sent to Singapore Zoo for a year, during which they received twice-weekly deliveries of eucalyptus leaves.

From Winston the platypus to Jimbelung the koala, animals have come to form an important part of the deployment of ‘soft power.’ The term, coined by American political scientist Joseph Nye, refers to countries’ abilities to co-opt or attract agreement, rather than force it using shows of power.

A snacking koala. (Photo: Łukasz Lech/C BY-SA 2.0)

In 2015 Australia was ranked sixth globally for soft power diplomacy by Portland Communications. In a January 2016 address to the US Studies & Centre for New American Security, Australia’s Current Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop ranked koala cuddling first among other soft power strategies that help “build a stronger, connected and more prosperous region.” And it wasn’t simply a passing comment or a cute addition to a dry speech on international relations. Recently reports have emerged that Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has created a 600-page manual on animal diplomacy strategy.

So how exactly did the sleepy, chlamydia-bearing koala usurp the platypus as a diplomat? The koala is not the most manageable of animals—in 1983 John Brown, former Australian minister for sport, recreation and tourism, declared “it’s flea-ridden, it piddles on you, it stinks and it scratches.” And, like Winston, the first koalas to be transported internationally didn’t fare particularly well. Governor Philip Gidley King wrote in 1803, “ I much fear that their living on leaves alone will make it difficult to send them to England.” It wasn’t until 1880 that a koala finally made it alive to London. Unfortunately its happy home didn’t last long. It was suffocated after a washstand lid fell on its head.

Not always cuddly: koalas sleep for around 20 hours a day. (Photo: Pixabay/Public Domain)

Though not many live koalas were making their way overseas, they were getting some cutesy attention in children’s books. Many attribute the koala’s rise to power to the anthropomorphism employed by Australian authors such as Norman Lindsay and Dorothy Wall. Wall’s Blinky Bill, for example, created in the 1930s, was an anthropomorphic koala who wore overalls and walked upright with a bindle slung over one shoulder. The character was portrayed as both mischievous and patriotic, joining the army during WWII.

As koalas began to be successfully exported to international zoos after WWII, tourism also increased and zoos were often a popular destination. A hugely successful Qantas ad that began in 1967 starred a live koala who complained about the tourism industry. Since then, the advertising value of news coverage of koalas has been estimated in the millions of dollars.

Koala souvenirs. (Photo: Bahudhara/CC BY-SA 3.0

But putting koalas in zoos isn’t as easy as just flying them off to Australia’s hoped-for allies. Koalas are notoriously tricky to keep. According to some however, that’s part of the charm. After all, pandas—China’s ancient answer to soft power—are also difficult to please. In 2013 a trio of environmental historians wrote that “panda loans are not simply part of a larger deal; rather, they represent a ‘seal’ of approval or ‘panda of approval’ and intent for a long, prosperous working relationship.”

Because these animals are hard to look after, taking them on means signaling you’re interested in the long run. And for Australia, nothing says “burgeoning international relations” like a sleepy, smelly koala.