Soft power review: Australia hopes to boost its national image

By David Donaldson

Thursday August 16, 2018


Australia is conducting the first in-depth examination of its cultural and diplomatic clout in an effort to boost its international influence.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is seeking submissions for its soft power review, which the government committed to in last year’s Foreign Policy White Paper.

The White Paper defines soft power as the ability to influence the behaviour and thinking of others through the power of attraction and ideas — that is, how you win over other countries without coercion. DFAT notes that soft power assets can include educational institutions, aid programs, tourism assets and economic strength, as well as other elements of national identity such as lifestyle and culture.

“An improved national brand can generate significant income and help governments get things done”

Australia currently does pretty well on soft power. While our diplomatic resources are comparatively under-funded, we’re the third-largest education exporter in the world — behind only the much larger United States and United Kingdom. People around the world associate Australia with nice beaches and cute animals.

This clean and natural image has, for example, fuelled the growth of pharmaceutical and food exports to China. International students from many countries say they enjoy not just the high quality universities but social freedom.

Are we falling behind?

Australia could do better.

The Soft Power 30 index ranks Australia 10th for 2018, having been overtaken by Sweden and the Netherlands.

Of course such rankings should be taken with a grain of salt — how do you quantify a nation’s international image? — but an improved national brand can generate significant income and help governments get things done in the diplomatic sphere.

Australia will have its work cut out trying to catch up to the front-runners in the Soft Power 30 — the top five are the UK, France, Germany, the US and Japan.

Shifting international relations

There’ll be plenty of questions for the review to consider, given the current international environment.

US President Donald Trump’s willingness to use economic coercion and talk up the possibility of war suggests we may be returning to a time when hard power plays a bigger role. Then again, Trump’s approach is so personal and unpredictable that a good national image may indeed be a useful asset for avoiding his ire.

Australia also faces the increasing possibility of China using economic or military coercion to get its way. Among developed economies, only South Korea and Taiwan are as intertwined with China as Australia is. How will the many people-to-people links between Australia and the People’s Republic influence future relations? Can universities and kangaroos generate more than just dollars for the national interest?

Then there’s the perennial question of Australia’s identity as a country within Asia that doesn’t tend to think of itself as part of Asia. It’s a complex and political issue that, like other questions of national image — such as how we treat asylum seekers — won’t be resolved through a review process.

According to DFAT, the review will explore options for the government to maximise soft power, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. It will do this by:

  • Exploring the nature of attraction and influence in the changing global context, particularly 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 assets 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.

Submissions are open until September 28.

Image source: Bondi beach on Wikimedia Commons.

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