Soft power ‘with Australian characteristics’ (part 1)
22 Oct 2018|

How could it be that many foreigners simultaneously love American films, music and fashion, yet, as Peter van Ham writes, they judge Washington so harshly as to say the US ‘got what it deserved on 9/11’?

Or that many people in Asia and the Pacific perceive Australia as rich, racist, transactional, subservient (to the US), and arrogant and exploitative? How to reconcile such perceptions with Australia’s recurring appearance near the top rankings in global surveys of ‘soft power’ attraction?

The ambiguity and contradictions associated with such questions have long muddied perceptions of soft power and its place alongside hard military and economic capacity in national policy. Ideally all forms of influence and force should be work together. But that’s easier said than done in the realm of ideas and perception.

Coming to terms with ambiguity and apparent contradictions should therefore be a cardinal marker of progress for the government’s soft power review. Despite the velvety quality of soft power jargon, the policy grist is anything but squidgy, especially since the relative benignity of the post-Cold War years has given way to international disorder.

As Allan Gyngell comments, Australian foreign policy has never before had to deal with a world like the current one. So the nation’s embrace of soft power strategy needs to be targeted, authentic and contextually appropriate. What’s required is not a universal franchise but rather soft power ‘with Australian characteristics’.

A starting point is to set aside the easy boasting rights that seem to accrue from Australia’s performance in global soft power rankings such as the annual Soft Power 30. Typically these branding-derived surveys highlight the status of advanced liberal economies engaged in peaceful competition with one another. But the world—and the Indo-Pacific region in particular—comprises a much greater diversity of post-industrial, industrial and agrarian or pre-industrial societies. To say nothing of the region’s marked disparities of power relations, demography, ideology, religion and cultural heritage.

Australian policy needs to differentiate clearly between manifestations of non-military power that sit within the purview of government control or influence and those beyond its reach that produce serendipitous results. It also needs to commit to the exercise of normative influence, not just the nation’s affective outreach (attraction). Many activities of culture and exchange contribute to the quality of relationships and the attraction of Australia internationally. But the emerging strategic environment demands more.

The miscellany of issues to be addressed could begin with:

  • ideational challenges across the Indo-Pacific that have implications for security, trade, multilateralism and the moral authority of secular democracy
  • the relative decline in Australia’s political influence and reputation in the Pacific
  • Australia’s uneven visibility and reputation in Asia resulting from what John McCarthy calls ‘a challenge of cultural divides’.

So there’s a need to unbundle assumptions about ‘attraction’ and its relationship with power, and also to look beyond the generalised soft power rubric for more nuanced analysis. People may be drawn to Australia for different reasons but attraction does not necessarily translate to respect or political influence.

Peter Berglez differentiates between global culture and a global outlook. Global culture develops through the spreading of certain values. These may be embedded in music, fashion and transnational commercial brands. But that’s not the same thing as the development of a global outlook, which Berglez describes as a ‘distinctive mode of communication’. The fact that an Australian film or television program finds favour with international audiences does not mean those audiences will extend their approval to Australia’s values, mores or conduct.

Shin-wha Lee tackles the problem by discussing affective, normative and cognitive forms of power. Lee argues that affective power (attraction) arises when other nations like or dislike a state, regardless of its political, economic, and military strengths and weaknesses. Normative power depends on whether other countries regard a state’s policy and international role as being legitimate and justifiable; and cognitive power relates to the pragmatic evaluation other nations make of a state’s image and standing in international affairs.

Australia’s relationship with Pacific island nations provides a local example. This country remains the single largest aid donor to the region, a go-to provider of emergency assistance, and a self-appointed security guarantor. Yet Australia’s political influence and dominance in the South Pacific has been declining.

There are multiple factors to consider. But it is reasonable to speculate that Pacific nations adopt a pragmatic acceptance of Australia’s regional status (this country’s cognitive power) while being at once attracted to and/or repelled by certain manifestations of Australian policies, attitudes and conduct (affective power). This may compromise Australia’s capacity to assist peaceful region-building or exert influence over standards of regional governance and development (normative power).

Van Ham writes convincingly of ‘discursive’ rather than ‘soft’ power. Ultimately, the observer rather than the agent of Australian soft power determines who and what is attractive or credible. So he emphasises the importance of agenda-setting, the framing of issues and advocacy of norms, in the contest of ideas. Key policy instruments include media, public diplomacy and place (or nation) branding.

Australia needs to develop a multi-faceted and purposeful strategy if it is to address the apparent ambiguities and contradictions apparent in its status as a secular democracy in the Indo-Pacific. In a second post I shall sketch what a soft power strategy with Australian characteristics could include.