Soft power ‘with Australian characteristics’ (part 2)
29 Oct 2018|

The Foreign Affairs team conducting Australia’s soft power review has been travelling the country to invite a national conversation about influence and persuasion. In Hobart, for example, interlocutors ranged widely from public, commercial and educational entities to small and less customary actors such as the much-travelled Terrapin Puppet Theatre.

All good. Let a thousand flowers bloom. But, in the interests of policy coherence and meaningful application, they need to be growing within the confines of a planter box and not in the wild. The principal policy challenge is in leveraging appropriate resources to achieve meaningful influence and persuasion in the disorderly context of the 21st century. Soft-power theorist Joseph Nye, in The future of power, refers to this process as ‘power conversion’.

What works for a great power may not work for a lesser one. What makes sense in Europe or North America may not suit Australia. As I argued previously, a national strategy for non-military power projection needs to be targeted, authentic and contextually appropriate. It should result in soft power ‘with Australian characteristics’. No matter what the global stretch of Australian interests, it will be in the heterogeneous complexity of the Indo-Pacific that those characteristics find their clearest definition.

Where Australia’s visibility remains low, as in some Asian nations, the task is to enter public discourse and to help frame that discourse. Where relationships are based on pragmatism, rather than moral authority, the challenge is to convert that cognitive power into attractive engagement. Where there is attraction, an opportunity presents to help shape and influence beliefs and desires. Steven Lukes calls this influence the third dimension of power.

Given the re-emergence of mercantilism and a rivalrous, multipolar system, Australia needs to defend multilateralism and international law. As Greg Raymond argues, that may require a policy decoupling of this country’s commitment to the US military alliance from discourse about the ‘rules-based order’, allowing for more effective advocacy of international law and global institutions from an Australian perspective.

In response to the shift in great-power gravity, and the return of contested ideology as a significant factor, Australia needs to actively represent the idea, legitimacy and competence of its political system, institutions and economy. Part of that challenge will involve a concerted effort to engage foreign publics to counter slow-changing and unfavorable  perceptions of this country in Asia and the Pacific.

Australia’s permanent interests in Southeast Asia, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific extend beyond security and trade to the moral purpose of good international citizenship in contributing to national development and peaceful region-building. But perceptions and relationships remain ambiguous or uninformed.

Australia should reach out not only to more cosmopolitan opinion-leaders and decision-makers, as well as Pacific communities, but also to the rapidly expanding middle classes of Asia. Definitions of the income range that constitutes a middle class vary. Regardless, the overwhelming majority of people achieving middle-class status live in Asia, and by 2030 they will still be poorer and less educated than the middle classes of Europe and North America.

According to the Asian Development Bank, the emergence of the politically influential Asian middle class is expected to be a ‘dominating force globally’. But the extent to which they come to espouse ‘democratic or self-expression’ values, rather than conservative values, is likely to differ significantly between countries. Being neither rich nor poor, they remain economically vulnerable, with the potential to veer towards populist platforms if dissatisfied. Note, for example, the World Bank reports that climate change is likely to cause sharp falls in the living conditions of as many as 800 million South Asians by 2050.

The year 2050 also constitutes a useful timeframe of reference for Australian soft power strategists in a nation more accustomed to short-term policy responders. Arguably, there is now an irrefutable imperative to engage, in depth and purposefully, with publics in neighbouring states of permanent interest. That’s the case whether one thinks of a future ‘without America’, as Hugh White posits, or a future with an America that has a diminished presence because US voters are no longer willing to bear the cost of global hegemony (Allan Gyngell).

A long-term, engagement-in-depth deployment of soft-power assets must achieve both empathy and robustness while navigating the ‘challenge of cultural divides’. It will, of course, need to include familiar practices of self-representation—public diplomacy, nation-branding, and various forms of cultural and professional exchange. But self-interested advocacy and spin will not suffice. Nor will reliance on English as a global language to reach the emerging middle classes.

An empathetic and robust soft-power strategy also requires governments to shed their fixation with spin and message control. The contest of ideas and legitimacy in the Asian century demands authenticity and genuine engagement if Australia is to model the values and competence of its secular democracy. It demands an informed regional outlook from Australia, a sense of cultural affinity with the foreign publics concerned, and the mature confidence to debate contested themes on platforms that include state-funded international media.

The times call loudly for a soft-power strategy that lets a thousand flowers bloom—but strategically, in a planter box rather than in the wild.