Firming up Australia’s soft power in Indonesia
25 Feb 2021|

In an earlier Strategist post, I touched on Australia’s aid and soft power—an aspiration too often unfulfilled for all the rhetoric to the contrary. Australia’s efforts on soft power in Indonesia generally fit in the same category. Any Australian government that’s serious about making it an integral part of a strategy for addressing the country’s strategic challenges therefore also needs to get serious about a key instrument for achieving that: public diplomacy. So far as Indonesia is concerned, we should start by giving more thought to what aspects of Australia are more likely to resonate with those we’re seeking to influence.

However well Australia might rank on soft-power indexes, the scant evidence offers far less reason to assume that our attractiveness and any power stemming from it are as evident in the archipelago as they appear to be elsewhere. If soft power has been an objective of our public diplomacy in Indonesia, it’s hard to see how the paltry sums we’ve spent on it have been worth it. That’s no reflection on those selecting and managing Australia’s public diplomacy activities. Nor is it to suggest that such exhibits of Australian culture and society aren’t intrinsically worthy. On the contrary, many are outstanding reflections of the more creative elements of the nation. But they haven’t made us more ‘powerful’ by having changed attitudes towards us.

One response would be simply to give up on soft power—as the Morrison government seems to have done. That would rest on the premises that soft power is either non-existent or irrelevant in today’s geostrategic landscape, and that Australia couldn’t hope to exert it meaningfully. The first of those contentions increasingly has its adherents, and to some degree with good reason. Its success is hard to quantify and normally a long time coming. And claims that one nation’s attraction has made or could make a profound difference to the behaviour of another are often hyperbolic. One struggles to recall, for example, when Indonesia has done anything it wouldn’t otherwise have done with Australia because of our ‘widely envied lifestyle … natural beauty, world-class produce’ and so on.

But it seems an equally absurd claim that the examples of advanced, liberal democracies have had no influence on the politics and policies of Indonesia. This was the model, after all, that Indonesians sought to emulate from independence (albeit with varying degrees of commitment and success) and revived after Suharto, essentially because they perceived it as the best path to a wealthier, freer and fairer nation. The more that the established democracies deliver equitable prosperity at home and use public diplomacy effectively, the more that Indonesians and others will be reminded that a democratic system remains the best, fairest and most attractive—and is more appealing than alternative authoritarian models.

Australia’s enduring prosperity and resilience, as well as our relatively high ranking on governance measures, should provide reasons for our being an exemplar. But our trust deficit in Jakarta—evident yet again in a recent survey—weakens our case. Until we address that, the same messages from others—especially the Japanese, various European states, New Zealand, Canada and the United States—may well have more resonance. We should encourage their efforts.

In the meantime, we should chip away at the distrust and shape a less distorted, more attractive image of ourselves in Jakarta. It will be a long, sometimes dispiriting haul, but it’s in our interests to start. We should consider it a form of burden-sharing.

Reorienting our public diplomacy to focus on those aspects of Australia that Indonesians value in other societies should be elemental to this. While science and technology haven’t been absent from our public diplomacy, they warrant greater attention. The more effectively we project the fact that great scientific and technological achievement is an integral part of the nation’s contribution to the world, the more attractive and worthy of emulation we are likely to appear to the emerging Indonesia.

The values we project are also vital. Our democratic ideals and the rule of law feature appropriately in our representations of ourselves, but one value that accords with both the better parts of our national story and the ideals of Indonesia should get a much greater airing. One of the five silas of Indonesia’s foundational ideology is ‘social justice’ for all Indonesians. If Australia’s history is far from perfect on this score, particularly in relation to the First Australians, it’s replete with examples of public policy and societal transformation built on the principles of fairness and equal opportunity for all Australians. We should weave that narrative into the broader depiction of who we are, without camouflaging those episodes of our history in which a ‘fair go’ was hardly universal.

But we’ll need to do much more if Indonesians are to find Australia so attractive as to imbue our advocacy with greater persuasiveness. Successive governments will need to commit far more resources over a decades-long time frame. They’ll need to view the goal of greater Australian persuasion in Indonesia through attraction, as well as effective public diplomacy as a primary means of achieving it, as a sustained bipartisan national project.

A new centre of Australian culture and society in Jakarta could be an element of this project, especially if it functions at arm’s length from the government while being instrumental to its soft-power strategy. Australia’s embassy may reflect impressively the nation’s mineral endowment, but its status and imposing security define it as an official, distant manifestation of Australianness.

A distinct institute would create a focal point for our public diplomacy, becoming a wellspring of attraction. It should bear an indigenous name to reflect the fact that the First Australians and the people of the archipelago have long known each other. It could stage everything from artistic events to events focusing on science and technology, as well as exhibits and lectures on the national story. The idea obviously comes with its challenges of funding and security, but none would be insoluble if tackled with conviction and vision.

Undertaking such a long-term national project of public diplomacy won’t guarantee success, but not attempting it will certainly guarantee that our chances of boosting our soft power will depend more on serendipity than careful cultivation.

And it’s not as if it would break the bank. It’s likely to be infinitesimally cheap compared to what Australia is set to spend on our military preparedness over the same period, with no greater guarantee of success.