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Remembering Brendan Sargeant: Australia’s Premier Strategist

By Robbin Laird

This is a piece I never wanted to write and certainly did not anticipate having to do so.

This weekend Australian friends informed me of the untimely death of my friend and colleague Brendan Sargeant, who would often point out that I misspelled his name.

Hopefully I got this right my friend.

I first met him many years ago when he was serving in the Australian embassy in Washington DC. He was introduced to me by a mutual American friend and his Australian wife.

I can remember that meeting clearly as my last. During our initial meeting we had a wide ranging discussion about the world, but then honed in on the issue de jure which was the joint strike fighter. By the time I had met him, I had met many of the pioneers in standing up the aircraft and the program and we discussed what I had written and what I thought about the coming of the program and its impact.

Having had the chance to work with Secretary Wynne, first as head of acquisition and then as Secretary of the Air Force, it was clear that the program was founded to create a new global capability for the United States and its allies. Brendan had honed on this aspect of the program and early on got it and its importance for Australia.

We had many conversations through the years, but they always we very similar to the first one — wide-ranging, blunt, and always left me with more to think about and to puzzle over.

I am sure his many friends would say the same.

Because that was the thing about Brendan — he would ignite reflection and curry thoughts, whether you agreed with the particular point or not.

When I finally got to Australia in 2014, and kept coming back because of my involvement with the Williams Foundation, my twice a year visits — at least until I left in a hurry on March 2020 — I would have the chance to meet with him and to visit his home and be hosted by his wife and he and be in the presence of his friends, and we would have a wonderful meal and have a wide ranging conversation about Australia, the United States and the world.

The fact that this will not happen again truly saddens me.

But whatever the loss for me personally, it is an even greater loss for Australia.

Australia, like the other liberal democracies, is entering a new historical era and sorting out our way ahead is more than challenging.

This was the topic we discussed frequently by phone since my last visit to Australia, and I was very much looking forward to my next visit and meetings with Brendan.

But in a way my last published interview with him is a very good epitaph for him.

That discussion was about the need for strategic imagination for a period of historical change such as we are clearly.

This is how he described what was needed:

“We need to be ruthless in our self-analysis, about our strengths and weaknesses, and who we are. We need to have a clear sense of the range of possible futures and the various responses that we may need to make. That is why I say a crisis is a challenge to imagination, a challenge to identity before it becomes a policy or a strategy challenge.”

This was what Brendan brought to the table. He met this challenge and provided constant insight and guidance.

To think that he is no longer here is very hard to contemplate.

I have lost a friend; and Australia has lost a leader.


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