The power of soft power
20 Aug 2018|

While Heisenberg proclaims the uncertainty principle, a public service inquiry operates on the certainty principle.

Not for government, Heisenberg’s quantum insight about the impossibility of simultaneously measuring position and momentum; nor the observer effect—that to observe or measure something is to change it. Journalists know the observer effect: produce a microphone and camera and see the change.

The certainty principle requires that public servants offer firm facts and solid recommendations. Certainty equals competence.

What can be measured can be managed. What gets managed gets used. And what gets used gets rewarded.

Tension between the uncertainty and certainty principles nibbles at the announcement by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop of the ‘first ever review of soft power to ensure Australia remains a persuasive voice in our region’.

The Bishop statement of intent offers lots of positives:

Soft power is the ability to influence the behaviour or thinking of others through the power of ideas and attraction. By leveraging our soft power strengths, we can advance Australia’s global reputation and prosperity.

These strengths include our economy, multicultural society, world-class education system and sporting prowess, as well as our attractive lifestyle, values, culture, and reputation as a reliable partner, a trusted friend, and a nation of friendly and enterprising people.

The inventor of the ‘soft power’ label is the American academic Joseph Nye, who served as a senior official in both the state and defence departments.

Nye’s insight was that the US won the Cold War with a combination of soft and hard power—institutions and ideas mattered as much as infantry.

In his 1990 book, Bound to lead: the changing nature of American power, Nye called soft power the co-optive power of the US.

Culture and communications could direct the decisions and behaviour of others without the need for military force. Soft power means getting others to want what you want, using the intangible resources of culture, ideology and institutional norms.

Ideas and culture can set international standards in the same way that American software set standards for the world’s computers.

The lifestyle promoted by American media and the promise of plenty offered by American supermarkets helped undermine the Soviet Union, along with the hard power of military forces and nuclear weapons. In the Cold War victory, Mickey Mouse, movies and the Big Mac marched with the marines.

Hard power rests on command, coercion or inducement: ‘the ability to change what others do’, Nye wrote. Soft co-optive power, Nye said, is ‘the ability to shape what others want’.

Soft-power institutions set agendas, define values and persuade others about what’s desirable or even legitimate.

Many are attracted to the power of attraction, and much work has been done to inject certainty into the idea. The Soft Power 30 index, judging the soft power of nations, this year ranks Australia in 10th spot, dropping from 8th place last year, and 6th in 2015 and 2016.

Such exactness is reassuring. Still …

There’s just a hint of Heisenberg in the Oz soft power review, a whole-of-government effort being led by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

DFAT says effective diplomacy will require Australia to consider new ways to engage and a more systematic and sophisticated approach. Australia wants to maximise its soft power in the Indo-Pacific by:

  • exploring the changing nature of attraction and influence … in the face of rapid globalisation and unprecedented technological change;
  • identifying Australia’s soft power objectives and Australia’s key soft power assets and challenges;
  • examining policy options to build and leverage soft power to promote Australia’s security and prosperity, and strengthen Australia’s reputation in an increasingly networked world;
  • considering new and more effective partnerships with other governments, the private sector, development partners and civil society, drawing on examples of best practice.

As a successful multicultural society that, despite the efforts of some of our politicians, still talks a good game about the value of immigration, Australia has fine ‘soft’ credentials. Add in a strong economy, enjoying its 27th consecutive year of growth. And don’t forget those fundamentals many Australians take for granted: solid institutions, democracy and rule of law.

The international worth of our soft power should be a factor in Oz debates about migration and the nature of our society; these aren’t merely domestic arguments.

The biggest recent boost to Oz soft power has been the influx of fee-paying foreign students to our universities. A country seeking an Indo-Pacific future gets much from educating the region’s future leaders. More than billions in cash, the university boom adds to the Oz power ledger. It’s striking evidence that government choices can build soft-power resources.

Yet Heisenberg’s truth about the fuzziness of nature offers a caution about having too much certainty. People are the builders of politics and policy, and there’s a lot of fuzziness in that mix.

Think of soft power in the same terms as another significant asset in international affairs: trust between nations. Trust is always relative, never absolute. Trust between states can’t be ordered up as needed; it has to be built gradually, over time, through many actions and reactions.

Soft power is a slow-growing asset, as much the product of a society as the possession of a government. But, as a twittering US president shows, destroying trust and burning a nation’s soft power can be done with awful speed.