The hard part of soft power

| August 13, 2018

Australia was grasping for soft power long before the term ‘soft power’ was invented.

Here’s an official example from 32 years ago:

Countries still achieve their international objectives by threat, bribe or persuasion. Australia has limited capacity to bribe and less to threaten. With few natural allies, it needs, therefore … to build long and short-term coalitions and alliances and to magnify its bargaining strength.

Stuart Harris, secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, penned that thought in the introduction to his 1986 Review of Australia’s overseas representation.

Stuart has influenced me in lots of ways, and his succinct statement of a truism of diplomacy and the international system—threat, bribe or persuasion—is one I’ve often used. (When lifting ideas, always steal from the best.)

My writing mind is ever skipping through the alphabet in search of alliteration, so over the years I’ve rendered Harris in several ways. Countries achieve their international objectives by:

A: authority, auction, or argument and attraction

B: bully, bribe and buy, or baloney, blarney and bulldust

C: command, cash, or cooperation and communication

D: defence, dollars, or diplomacy

In the hard job of defining soft power, I’d use all the words in that persuasion category: argument and attraction; baloney, blarney and bulldust; cooperation and communication. It’s about the things governments can do—persuasion and diplomacy—and then it’s about much more beyond the immediate, instant grasp of government. What has Australia got that’s so attractive others want it?

Soft power is also a useful bit of fresh kit in the never-ending Canberra bureaucratic battles.

The 1986 Harris report was an early version of the decline-of-Oz-diplomacy lament. The department fretted about its reduced budget and shrinking numbers of diplomats and overseas posts. The following year, Foreign Affairs gobbled Trade, to become the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and fretting was replaced by frantic building.

Come the Howard government in 1996, though, and the diplomatic decline dirge soon resumed. Australia’s longest-serving foreign minister, Alexander Downer, showed his strength as a minister (machismo or masochism?) by putting his own department on permanent short rations. In the age of terror, cash gushed through Canberra, fuelling strong growth for many institutions, but not much largesse reached DFAT.

The Downer denial syndrome defined DFAT and it suffered relative decline in the power stakes.

The discussion of the meagre resources Australia devotes to diplomacy has become a constant hum. That hum has turned into a fresh tune about soft power, which is getting a notable workout in Canberra.

DFAT has a Soft Power, Communications and Scholarship Division. I concede it’s a sign of how long you’ve been in Canberra when you see meaning in the way a department names divisions. Class, please discuss: Why would you put soft power ahead of communications in the title?

Last year’s foreign policy white paper had only eight chapters, and number eight was ‘Partnerships and soft power’, defining soft power as the ‘ability to influence the behaviour or thinking of others through the power of attraction and ideas’.

DFAT is hot for soft power, not least as a way to influence the behaviour or thinking of the rest of Canberra. Fair enough. A basic rule of bureaucracy is that if you’re losing ground to other players, redefine the game.

Foreign Affairs has ceded power to Prime Minister and Cabinet, Defence, the intelligence community and this new big kid, Home Affairs. So, DFAT needs to redefine and talk up the power it does have; it might be soft and relatively new, but DFAT can own it. Foreign Affairs has to work out how far and fast this rocket can go, and how this soft fuel works.

Soft power offers policy heft. And the physics of bureaucracy is that power is produced by policy, politics and personality, multiplied by money. As a complex formula for both explosion and expansion, it’s a proven winner.

The foreign policy white paper foreshadows a detailed bit of tinkering with DFAT’s rocket, promising a review of soft power:

In a globalised and contested world, a systematic and sophisticated approach to soft power is in our national interest. To maintain our strengths in this area, and to ensure our capabilities and areas of focus keep pace with changes in technology, the Government will conduct a review to ensure we continue to build soft power and exercise influence effectively.

Once Foreign Affairs and Communications complete their review of Australian broadcasting in the Asia–Pacific, DFAT can turn its mind to defining the ambition and ambit of this nifty new power it wants to own.

The broadcasting inquiry is a useful preparation: showing how Canberra frittered away the power of international broadcasting as a foreign policy instrument that could promote Australia’s interests, influence and values. Hard news should have been the sharp edge of Oz soft power.

DFAT can reflect on that past failure as it prepares to do the hard work of defining and owning soft power—and convincing the rest of Canberra.

This article was published by The Strategist.

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Graeme Dobell has been reporting on Australian and international politics, foreign affairs and defence, and the Asia Pacific since 1975. From 2008 to 2012, he was Journalist Fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.