Illustration: John Shakespeare.

The US media has noticed a new trend in advertising of major brands in America – the mainstream taboo on using mixed-race families has been broken.

The multibillion-dollar Cheerios breakfast cereal is running a TV ad starring a biracial girl with a white mother and a black father, for instance. Honey Maid, a venerable brand of graham cracker, features a variety of unconventional families in a new ad campaign, including one with a Hispanic mother and an African-American father with their three mixed-race children.

You might think that in a country whose president is the product of a white woman and a black man, this would have long been accepted as unremarkable.

But no. It took more, the brute arithmetic of demographics.

“The big brands are coming to the conclusion that diversity in America is inevitable,” cross-cultural psychologist Andrew Erlich told the newspaper USA Today. “The horse has left the barn.”

Or, as the conservative Fox News host Bill O’Reilly put it on the night Barack Obama was re-elected and the white Republican Mitt Romney was rejected: “The white establishment is now the minority.”

Whites are not yet outnumbered in the US, but the Census Bureau projects they will be a minority of the US population in 2043. Or, as Americans like to say in one of their many race euphemisms, theirs will be a “majority minority” country in 29 years.

In just five years from now, most children in the US will be non-white, according to the Census Bureau. America’s demographic trajectory is taking it to a place that Australians will find looking – and sounding – less and less familiar. Most of the immigrants to the US since 1965 are Hispanic.

What is Australia doing to keep in touch with the profound change in its great ally? Not much, is the answer, so Phil Scanlan decided to do something about it.

Scanlan, an Australian with an imperial air and remarkable energy, is a former chief executive of Coca-Cola Amatil, and Australia’s former consul-general in New York. He’s best known, however, as a network-builder extraordinaire.

He and his American wife, Julie Singer Scanlan, founded the Australian American Leadership Dialogue 22 years ago. It started as an annual exercise in private diplomacy. The idea was to renew the close personal ties between the two nations that had been forged in World War II.

The dialogue succeeded in creating a web of new relationships between business people, politicians, academics, officials and journalists. It’s always been politically bipartisan, in both countries.

The White House under Obama has been every bit as welcoming as it was under George W. Bush, for instance, inviting the annual dialogue contingents of 50 or 60 for high-level briefings. Peter Costello and Julie Bishop sat side by side with Kim Beazley and Kevin Rudd.

But people unfamiliar with the dialogue are always unsatisfied to hear that it has done something vague-sounding like created a new web of relationships. What has it accomplished, specifically? In other words, what transactions have flowed through that web? The dialogue is a private event, not controlled by any government or institution, and that’s one reason for its success.

But two case studies have found their way into public over the years. One is in the realm of trade. The former US trade representative, Bob Zoellick, has said publicly that the US-Australia free trade agreement would not have happened without the dialogue. Under that agreement, two-way trade has doubled in five years.

The other is in the arena of crisis management. When John Howard decided that Australia would lead a UN-mandated force into East Timor to help midwife its independence from Indonesia, he turned confidently to the US for help. The US under the Clinton administration flatly refused. But the personal relations built by the dialogue kicked into life immediately. With the help of private back channels in both countries, the US position was reversed within three days.

Now, with the future America in mind, Scanlan this month created a new iteration of the dialogue centred on Miami. This Florida city is sometimes called the capital of Latin America, a portal through which people, money and business flows between the US and the continent to its south. Australia doesn’t have a consulate there.

“You have to think ahead in this business,” says Scanlan.

“If we are going to understand our major strategic and economic partner as it looks to its own future, we need to look at key strategic locations like Miami.”

And the week after inaugurating the Australian dialogue with Miami, Scanlan convened a major dinner at New York’s Harvard Club to launch yet another dialogue – the Global Leadership Dialogue in New York.

“Leadership is about creating new space in the service of others,” is a Scanlan motto. He creates the network; it’s up to the members to make the most of the opportunity.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Scanlan’s dialogue-building has been a signal success. Canada, Israel and New Zealand have all mimicked the Scanlan model to create dialogues with Australia.

And the Abbott government took office promising to replicate the Australian-American Leadership dialogue in a new Australia-China Leadership Dialogue.

“Australia is a three-ocean continental nation with 23 million people and we are privileged to live in it. Our obligation is to add value to the rest of the planet, otherwise the rest of the planet will take care of the continent for us.”

Peter Hartcher is the international editor. He is a long-standing member of the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue.

Article pulled from Sydney Morning Herald