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Soft Power or Smart Power? Flipping Australia’s White Paper

27 Nov 2017
By Professor Jacqui True FAIIA
Julia Bishop meets with Tongan Prime Minister Akilisi Pohiva in 2015

The new Foreign Policy White Paper offers a mix of soft power and cooperative initiatives alongside the usual emphasis on hard-nosed security strategy. But is it time for Australia to replace the stick with the carrot as means for fulfilling its objectives?

During the Foreign Policy White Paper release last Thursday, I was in Semarang, Indonesia at an Australian-led sub-regional dialogue on building government and civil society partnerships to implement gender-based prevention of violent extremism. In the wake of the five-month armed conflict between Islamic State (IS) militants and the Philippines security forces in Marawi, the dialogue organised by the Australian government was the stuff of the White Paper’s last chapter on “partnerships and soft power”. That topic should have been the first chapter charting the principles of our future foreign policy. Civil society groups, including those led by women, knew that IS’s influence was spreading in Marawi but when they sought to alert their government officials, none would listen. Their early warning reports could have prevented the violence and instability.

In Semarang, Australian diplomats sought to ‘show not tell’ the way a strong democratic partnership between government and civil society can face down a common regional threat. They enabled civil society to showcase to governments eager to lead, how so-called soft approaches to addressing the spread of extremism could work with investments in locally based programs, information-sharing and research.

Soft power diplomacy like this is defined in the white paper as the power of attraction and ideas to change others’ behaviour and thinking. Regrettably, it is not portrayed as central to the vision for Australia’s national interest and foreign policy. This is surprising in light of Malcolm Turnbull’s bold and inspiring statement in the foreword that “Australian values are enduring. We are one of the oldest democracies and the most successful multicultural society in the world.”

The huge regional and global influence Australia could achieve through soft power is not fully acknowledged in the white paper. The focus is more on the threats to Australian values than on the opportunities for these values to be influential in a rules-based international order. Yet, for a country that does not wield great material power—Australia is currently the 18th most powerful state with respect to its military, the world’s 13th largest economy by GDP, and the 13th highest aid donor—one would have thought that a strategy for soft power would command greater attention and resources. International stability and domestic security is generated not only through military deterrence, but also and increasingly through deepening social networks and critical knowledge capacities leveraged through democratic institutions, egalitarian mindsets, transformative education and the embrace of inclusive multiculturalism.

Paradoxically, a globalising world makes the focus on core values and identity more important than ever before. As former UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said:

“[t]he networked world requires us to inspire other people with how we live up to our own values rather than to try to impose them.”

The white paper cites Australian values as supporting “political, economic and religious freedoms, liberal democracy, the rule of law, racial and gender equality, and mutual respect.” These values, when consistently practiced, are our best line of defence. In Semarang, participants from the South-East Asian region wanted to know: How do you include migrants? How do you promote tolerance of multiple belief systems? How do you foster trust in government, and between government and civil society? They genuinely wanted to learn, and we wanted to learn from them also.

The white paper retains a worldview focused on states engaged in both an economic and a geo-strategic race to the top. This view unfortunately hampers the recognition of positive-sum games and the strength of weak ties in the Indo-Pacific region, even in the face of major global challenges. Despite this, the paper acknowledges that diplomacy is exercised by many Australians, leading to some creative ideas such as connecting New Colombo Plan alumni and international students in Australia, which is by the way, the third largest destination for international tertiary education after the UK and US. Developing shared understandings and identities among youth in our region will enable them to work together to address climate change, extremism and other such problems in the future.

It is a truism that foreign policy begins at home and the white paper embraces the synergy of domestic and foreign policies especially in the economic realm, arguing that domestic and international approaches need to reinforce each other. Gender equality is a case in point. The political empowerment of women has been huge, if uneven, over the past century. The benefits of gender equality within Australia are clear, particularly with respect to economic participation and equality, which continues to generate growth and opportunity. Similar progress for the world’s women could leverage even greater gains in global prosperity, stability and security. The white paper makes strong security, business and human rights-based arguments for promoting gender equality as a lynchpin of Australian foreign policy.

The fact that Australia has a female foreign minister and secretary of foreign affairs undoubtedly matters. While gender equality does not command an entire chapter, it features in a box and is peppered throughout the paper as a core value and policy commitment. Three major investments by Australia in Pacific women’s leadership, in women’s economic agency in Southeast Asia and in women’s livelihoods in Indonesia are highlighted. Achieving gender equality would go a long way to addressing a range of challenges including poverty, weak governance (read: corruption), and conflict and violent extremism.

Interestingly, the risks of persistent gender inequality in some states and regions are emphasised to a greater extent than the positive-sum gains that may come from investing in human rights and gender equality. Moreover, there is a missed opportunity in the failure to mention Australia’s national action plan (NAP) on women, peace and security (WPS). Australia’s NAP has driven a step change in gender equality in Australia’s armed forces. It has also supported gender-sensitive security policy and inclusive diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific region, harnessing women’s peacebuilding agency in Bougainville, Solomon Islands, Myanmar and the Philippines to list just some of the contexts in which the Australian aid program is at work.

All in all, flipping the order of the white paper by placing partnerships and soft power upfront would make good on the statement of Australian values and deliver better on Australia’s ambition to be “sovereign not reliant”. If we read the first of the five stated objectives for Australia’s security as “promoting an open, inclusive and prosperous Indo–Pacific region in which the rights of all” people as well as states are respected, we can begin to imagine the genuine democratic potential of 21st century Australian foreign policy.

The white paper calls for a review to create stronger nation-branding to expand Australia’s markets and influence. It is not public relations that is needed, however, but plain consistency in our respect for human rights. All the world’s a stage and we must play our part in foreign policy at home, at the border and overseas to be prosperous and secure.

Jacqui True is professor of politics and international relations and an Australian Research Council Future Fellow at Monash University, Australia. She is also the Director of the Monash Centre for Gender, Peace and Security.

This article is published under Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.