Finding Australia’s soft power
27 Aug 2018|

Last week, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop launched Australia’s first-ever review of soft power. It’s a bold move, flagging a new reality that Australia must engage more strategically through official and public diplomacy if it is to remain a ‘persuasive voice’ in its own region. And, coming at a time when the competition to influence narratives, set political agendas, and frame the rules of a changing regional order is intense, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

In launching the review, Bishop made the point that Australia ‘starts from a position of strength’. Indeed, Australia features pretty regularly as a top-10 nation in global surveys of soft power. That’s a good thing. Read a little closer, though, and it becomes clear that Australia does well because of things like economic stability, natural beauty, easy-going citizens and an overwhelmingly pleasant climate. But as Jonathan McClory, author of The Soft Power 30 index suggests, not even the lucky country should rest on its laurels when it comes to soft power.

There’s nothing new in soft power. When Harvard professor Joseph Nye coined the phrase in 1990, he acknowledged that, at its core, soft power, or the influence acquired through attraction, reflected the basic elements of human interaction. In framing the concept, Nye drew on established international relations scholarship about power, and provided a necessary counterpoint to hard power in foreign policy discourse.

Nye was not without his critics, of course. His subsequent shift towards ‘smart power’, the coordinated and calibrated use of hard- and soft-power instruments, was intended to counter misperceptions of soft power. Unsurprisingly, smart power gained immediate traction in the US foreign policy community, and the opportunity to delve more deeply into the conceptual underpinnings of soft power was missed.

For the past decade, Canberra has remained resistant to the soft power concept. Indeed, for some, shining a spotlight on Australian soft power is a problem. ‘Isn’t soft power like Fight Club?’ one policy official suggested to me recently. I was perplexed. They continued, ‘And the first rule of Fight Club is that you don’t talk about Fight Club.’ Ah. Got it. There’s the resistance.

And it’s understandable. The language of soft power is a problem. Many equate ‘soft’ with ‘weak’ and ‘superficial’ or, worse still, ‘subversive’. These terms rarely sit easily with those in the business of advancing national interests. And they can prompt resentment from those on the receiving end of soft power, who find themselves the subjects of co-option. The abstract and long-term nature of soft power adds to the ambivalence of practitioners who are tasked with measuring and evaluating the impact of their work, usually within short-term political cycles.

None of these issues is insurmountable. But they are significant insofar as they reveal a deeper gap in soft power’s conceptual framework, particularly for Australia in an Indo-Pacific context. I’ve made the point before that there is remarkably little interrogation of soft power, especially outside of the experiences of Europe and the United States. In their study of how authoritarian states wield soft power, Michael Barr, Valentina Fekylunina and Sarina Theys present a similar point, noting that ‘Western understandings of soft power are limited in their analytical purchase.’ As a result, conversations about soft power turn in circles and persistent gaps continue to constrain practice.

Australia’s review of soft power offers the chance to unpack and understand soft power in a unique Australian context. DFAT’s current focus on soft-power assets and weaknesses provides a starting point, but is lacking in necessary nuance that might bring conceptual clarity. Other distinctions between ‘affective’ soft power, which relates to notions of attractiveness and appearance, and ‘normative’ soft power, which draws from behaviours on the global stage, could be usefully explored to add value to an Australian model.

In a 2013 lecture on Australian soft power, Peter Varghese talked about the capacity to reach ‘beyond the negotiations between governments or the transactions of traders and to tell a story about who we are, what inspires us and what we seek to be as a nation’. Such a story reflects on the diversity we represent and the value we place on our democracy, our individual freedoms, and our right to be viewed as equals.

Of course, Australia’s story is neither uncomplicated nor entirely easy. Issues relating to the treatment of Indigenous people, the White Australia policy, offshore detention and our wavering commitment to the environment are all problematic. But they are elements of the Australian story. Engaging with those elements in the public and political spheres through thoughtful debate is critical to understanding the character of our soft power.

There’s another side to this story: the ability to bring diverse voices to the table, to understand and engage with the stories of others. In the remarkably diverse Indo-Pacific region, this carries weight. It’s a region in which ‘the other’ holds significance, and indeed where multiple ‘others’ might be encountered not only between states, but within them as well.

Soft power offers a way to bring the stories of our region to the fore, breaking down notions of ‘otherness’. The media play an important role here, and one of the great frustrations for Australian soft power has been the diminution in recent years of Australia’s broadcasting capacity in the region, especially short-wave capacity in the Pacific; China, by contrast, is increasing its capacity.

For what it’s worth, there’s value in a national conversation about soft power. The review is an important step in getting that conversation underway. DFAT’s push to engage civil society actors in a deeper discussion is significant. It’s a conversation that should draw on the voices and experiences of those who are involved in the breadth of Australia’s international engagement from across sectors: education, science and research, the arts, media and broadcasting, disaster management and sports—to name a few.

The notion of soft power doesn’t appeal to everyone. That’s okay. It won’t reflect the sum total of Australian power; it’s not meant to. But the aim of soft power—to help shape an environment that is positively disposed to Australian foreign policy interests and values over the long term—is not to be dismissed if Australia is to navigate its way in a more contested region.