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Bruce Allen Memorial Lecture - Building Australia's Soft Power

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Speaker: Peter Varghese AO, Secretary, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Soft Power Advocacy and Research Centre, Macquarie University

Peter Varghese


Today I'd like to talk about a crucial element of Australian diplomacy: so-called public diplomacy which rests on notions of persuasion, attractiveness, and credibility: the key ingredients of soft power.

Persuasion is the currency of Australian diplomacy. We are not rich enough to buy international influence, nor strong enough to bully our way to our objectives. Our hard interests, economic and military, are not insignificant. But, perhaps more than most countries, we have to make our own way in the world. And that requires persuasion.

We all know how important persuasion – and persuasiveness – is to us in our daily lives. Our goals in life – the things that we want – rarely fall into our hands. In most cases, achieving our goals – especially the most cherished ones – requires hard work, and negotiation.

The same is true on the international stage. No nation's national goals are easily achieved – not even those of superpowers. For Australia, as for almost any nation, we generally only obtain the outcomes we prefer by dint of painstaking work, and determined advocacy.

In the end, so much of what nations achieve in foreign affairs comes down to our ability to be persuasive. And that in turn depends on how we are perceived and crucially on our credibility.

This is the world this research centre studies – the world of soft power.

It is a world Bruce Allen understood when he worked for the ABC. After all the ABC's core goal – when you boil it down – is to make the case that Australian stories, our stories, are worth telling. And I'm certain that Bruce, as someone involved in so many of our leading broadcasting institutions and programs, knew a fair bit about the art of persuasion. And not just in an Australian context because his perspective was international.

Soft power is the ability to entice others to your course of action or point of view; your attractiveness to others around the world, or the degree to which you can influence others, without force or bribery. Public diplomacy – that is, official communication with the public of a foreign nation – is one of soft power's key instruments.

A soft power nation is a more persuasive one, as it goes about the task all nations face: advancing their national interest and giving voice to their national values.

Public diplomacy is an important tool for mobilising our soft power to compete in the international arena; for convincing the citizens of other countries – and the leaders of their governments – that the logic of Australia's argument, in whichever field of activity we are pursuing, is compelling, and should be followed.

Today I'd like to talk about the importance of soft power and public diplomacy for Australia, but also about some of the challenges different nations face in developing their soft power. And I'll talk about some of the Government's thinking when it comes to deepening and extending our soft power, through public diplomacy.

In the end, soft power is an asset – an asset that can either be developed, or squandered.

The importance of soft power

Let me put this into context with a historical example, drawing on Michael Fullilove's absorbing recent book on the five diplomatic envoys US President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent to Europe in the years ahead of the American entry into the Second World War.1

In February 1940, President Roosevelt sent one of the United States' most senior diplomats, Sumner Welles, to meet with the leaders of the three key warring nations – France, the United Kingdom and Germany. He was also dispatched to meet with Mussolini.

Italy was then, in the early phase of WWII, one of the key neutral powers.

One of Roosevelt's objectives in sending Welles across the Atlantic was to satisfy himself that "there were in fact no lingering possibilities of making peace".

Of the meeting between Welles and Mussolini, Fullilove – currently the executive director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy – writes:

Welles was heartened when Mussolini agreed that "a real and lasting peace" between the Allies and Germany was possible. Berlin's terms would include, [Mussolini] thought, the retention of Austria in the Reich; an independent Slovakia; German control of parts of Poland and the Czech rump; German hegemony in central Europe; and restoration of Germany's colonies….

In fact, Welles had misread his man. Mussolini had played the role of mediator at Munich, and enjoyed it. But since the outbreak of war he had lost interest in a compromise peace. He believed that his country's status as a great power, as well as its "national virility", required war. Jealous of Hitler's victories, and hungry for an empire of his own, he was moving quickly toward committing Italy to fight beside Germany.

For me, the anecdote highlights the misguided appeal to Mussolini of the fascist worldview – and the contrast with the American world view at that time.

The latter imagined a world dedicated to free trade, democracy, openness, freedom, respect for the rule of law and national sovereignty and – most importantly – international peace.

And yet the influence of Nazi Germany's soft power: its aggressive, militaristic, quasi-imperial stance on the structure of the international order was a more compelling construct for Mussolini.

This battleground – played out in Mussolini's mind – was a silent one. Success there didn't win the war for the Nazis. But it did have a dramatic effect on the course of the war – and it had significant implications for the later projection of hard power by the Axis forces.

The rise of American soft power

Nazi soft power – however depraved – reached its apogee in June 1940, as Hitler's conquest of France approached – prompting Mussolini in turn to declare war on France.

By the winter of 1942, Nazi soft power began its terminal decline and by 1945, Nazi hard power was exhausted – largely due to the successful intervention of American hard power.

American soft power, by contrast, continued to grow – and it still does, through to our time.

Victory over Germany and Japan provided a huge boost to the cause of American attractiveness, the persuasiveness of its economic and liberal democratic model.

The Marshall Plan did the same, as did a myriad of other American programs and decisions through the Cold War. Culturally and economically, the attractiveness of the American model was much more than a government-led initiative. It was driven by Hollywood, by Wall Street, by the roiling decades of American social and civic reform, by the success of American science, by putting a man on the moon, by the strength of America's cultural and educational institutions, and by America's commitment to democracy and an open society.

In our decade, one of the dominant narratives in international relations has been the re-emergence of Asia on the global stage. Led by a massive surge in economic power across a peaceful Asia – itself underpinned by the major contribution the US has made over several decades to our region's security – we're living through the re-emergence of China and India and other Asian powers. They are resuming their centuries-old position as centres of power in their own right.

China's industrialisation and urbanisation has been so dramatic – unprecedented in size, scale and tempo – that it has given fresh impetus to the old arguments about American decline. The Global Financial Crisis brought with it many questions for US legislators and budget-makers. The last five years saw the acceleration of China's re-emergence into the top rung of global economies and actors.

But we shouldn't be too quick to judge America in decline. The US military remains far and away the most powerful hard power asset in the world. US innovation remains unparalleled. Its energy sector has reinvented itself. Its business culture will continue to drive new energy and growth, once it clears the shoals of the GFC. Its elite education facilities outshine those of any other nation. Its science labs remain in the front row. Its cultural exports remain vividly alive. It is easy to lose sight of these strengths as we watch a political system in high dysfunction.

The declinists would have you think that US dominance peaked, on some measures at least, in the period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Global Financial Crisis.

But while the margin of US dominance has certainly narrowed, declinists often miss the point by assessing the power of nations – hard and soft – in exclusively material terms. The bases of wealth and power are shifting from tangible assets or physical capital to intangible assets and intellectual capital. Competition among nations is now increasingly targeted at the advantages to be gained from knowledge-based capital. Innovation has become the key to economic and military weight.

On one measure – that of soft power – I would argue that the US has mostly held its ground. Democracy, open markets, the rule of law, Hollywood, Harvard – so much of that picture remains as compelling today as it was in 1940 (even if not to Benito Mussolini).

Along the way, of course, there have been mistakes and misjudgments. And some specific episodes in American foreign policy history have cost the United States a measure of legitimacy and moral authority.

But I think it's important not to overstate this case. Of course the United States has challenges – the shutdown being a pretty good case in point. But the American model retains a strong appeal. And it is continually refreshed. The next wave of innovation out of Silicon Valley; the gradually building restoration of American economic competitiveness, always a powerful symbol of the creative dynamism inherent in American culture. And a refocussed approach to foreign policy, including through the commitment to rebalance American policy towards Asia.

Chinese soft power

An American may have coined the term "soft power" but the US is of course hardly the only country to recognize its significance. In Europe soft power has been a key part of the diplomacy of countries such as the UK, France, Germany and Italy, all of which lay claim to great cultures and all of which underpin their public diplomacy with dedicated institutions such as the British Council and the Goethe Institute.

And closer to home we see the soft power appeal of Japanese fashion, Korean pop music and soaps and Japanese manga.

Cultural inheritance is a key element of soft power as we are now seeing with China, a culture that measures itself in millennia rather than centuries.

As David Shambaugh has written in China Goes Global, Beijing spends up to USD 10 billion a year on "overseas publicity work", to improve its global image and expand its cultural presence abroad. The Beijing Olympics were a significant boost, and Beijing has invested heavily in the expansion of its international media outlets – maybe as much as USD 9 billion on Xinhua, Central China Television, China Radio International and The China Daily.

China's flagship public diplomacy and soft power initiative has been the establishment of its university-level Confucius Institutes, and secondary-level Confucius Classrooms.

Shambaugh tells us Beijing aims to set up 1,000 of these bodies by 2020 – and will provide 3,000 scholarships to support them. Each institute is reported to cost USD 1 million to establish, and USD 200,000 a year to run.

This is of course an entirely legitimate exercise in soft power. As a major power and as the heir to a great civilization, China has every right to project itself in this way.

China is of course careful not to present its system as a model for others to follow although some governments may well be attracted to a system which delivers strong and sustained economic growth under firm government direction.

But as far as broader public views are concerned, China's soft power has some way to go. Polling commissioned in May by the BBC World Service suggests positive views of China fell sharply over the preceding year. Positive views of China across 21 tracking countries dropped eight points to 42 per cent, while negative views rose by the same amount. After improving for several years, views of China sank to their lowest level since polling began in 2005.

Lowy Institute polling has made similar findings. In its June poll, positive views of China dropped five points to 54 per cent, compared with 12 months earlier.

Why have China's efforts in public diplomacy, and those of other states in our region, met with limited success?

Joseph Nye, of course, would say that soft power is hard to build by state direction and control. "Although governments control policy, culture and values are embedded in civil societies."

While some countries are spending more on soft power, they are also increasing their military power. There is no inherent contradiction in this as the US experience has shown. But balancing soft power messages while also building up hard power will remain a challenge for most countries.

Australian soft power

And what about us? Is there such a thing as Australian soft power?

Australians are, as a nation, somewhat uncomfortable with the exercise of power. I think we struggle to see ourselves as an influential nation, even though we are.

Look at us: by almost any measure, we are a successful nation. We are, on average, as wealthy as the people of almost any other nation. Our economy is the 12th largest in the world, even though our population sits more around the 50th rank out of nearly 200 nations worldwide. We are the world's 13th largest military spender; a major contributor to the United Nations. We have an enviable, stable political structure. Business confidence is strong. We enjoy the rule of law, democracy and freedom. We have a world-class health system; a strong school and university sector, that educates not only our own students, but draws in students from around the region, in their hundreds of thousands. A country with a long history of migration – something that continues to draw people from around the world.

We might not see it clearly, but we are successful, and success is attractive.

Our diplomacy has long included programs that have a public diplomacy element to them, that seek to project a sense of who we are to the countries of our region; to tell the Australian story to the world.

But for countries like Australia, public diplomacy is hard work. Not because we have a bad image internationally – far from it. But because we struggle to find symbols of uniqueness and because our location means only a limited number of people have direct contact with Australia The tyranny of distance, which has shaped much of Australian history, also tends to work against us on public diplomacy.

Distance makes it more difficult to leverage off our greatest asset which is direct exposure. I have long believed that the best advertisement for Australia is Australia itself. We can run promotions abroad. We can describe to an international audience what contemporary Australia is all about. But by far the most effective way to convey all of this is for people to touch and feel Australia. To walk the streets of our cities, to see the diversity of our society, to drive the long distances into the bush, and to catch a sense of the laconic Australian character.

As a form of diplomacy, public diplomacy is growing in importance for Australia. Globalisation, the impact of social media, an electronic media with a global reach but a parochial focus, the expansion of democracy, the empowering of consumers, the rapid growth of middle classes in emerging economies – all of these developments are reshaping diplomacy and pushing us to do more in the space of public diplomacy.

There was a time, although it has long past, when diplomacy operated in a very narrow bandwidth – largely limited to the government-to-government relationship. It was an era when Ambassadors and High Commissioners had plenipotentiary powers, long since relinquished, even if they remain in our credentials documents.

But today we all realise that this narrow diplomacy is not enough. If we want to pursue our interests we have to reach further than we have in the past – direct marketing, if you like, to opinion shapers in the media and the arts, to the public at large.

Public diplomacy deals in the currency of public perceptions. Public perceptions matter because how a nation is perceived shapes decisions about the quality of its products, the efficiency of its services, its attraction as a tourist destination, or as a place to migrate, or as a country in which to invest.

And here I think Australia faces some challenges. In particular, I think Australia faces a challenge with respect to how we are perceived in the region. In too many cases, perceptions of Australia are caught in something of a time warp.

I saw this first-hand in India, during the Indian students issue. The Australia I saw reflected in the Indian media was not the Australia I knew and represented as High Commissioner. The perspective on Australia that was reflected in the Indian media in 2009 and 2010 was one still clouded by the White Australia Policy.

Australians were puzzled at the Indian media coverage. We could not recognise the country being portrayed in sections of the Indian media – a country on a racial rampage.

In the last half century, Australia has made a remarkable transition: from the days of the White Australia Policy to becoming one of the world's most multicultural societies. This is not a transition that could have been made if Australia's DNA was racist. This fact speaks for itself: one in four of us was born overseas.

Yet, forty years on, we still have to explain that Australia is a multicultural, multiracial society.

I suspect outdated perceptions aren't a phenomenon confined to the Australia-India relationship, but one common to our interactions with many countries in our region and beyond. The recent Lowy poll on attitudes to Indonesia certainly backs up that contention.

From my perspective, this misperception is an impediment to the strength of Australia's soft power, and addressing it is largely a public diplomacy task.

The work of public diplomacy is inevitably slow and incremental. The Government's New Colombo Plan will be a major new advertisement for Australia, and will help to update perceptions of our country in the region, and the way Australians see our place in the world.

Much of the Government's thinking about the New Colombo Plan – a drive to mainstream the practice of Australians taking time during their education to study and undertake internships in Asia – is about building Australia's intellectual capital when it comes to understanding and operating in Asia and also demonstrating our interest in and respect for what Asia has to offer.

But the plan will also have the benefit of exposing people in Asian countries to young and talented Australians. Each and every participant in the New Colombo Plan will be a public diplomacy ambassador for this country, bringing a tiny slice of modern Australia to the country in which they are living. Bit by bit, they will help us overcome that image time warp, to update mutual perceptions of Australia and our Indo-Pacific partners.

The New Colombo Plan reflects another important point. Effective public diplomacy is not restricted to projecting messages abroad. It is also important to reach back into our own community so that Australians understand why engagement with the world matters to their security and prosperity. And so that we can do something about the time warp in our own perceptions of other countries.

Public diplomacy needs to operate at many levels. There is a place for big cultural promotions such as under the auspices of the Australia International Cultural Council – in Vietnam this year and next year in Indonesia.

Other strands include our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs, our use of the International Media Visits program, which brings foreign journalists to Australia to report on our culture and society.

That was an important part of our response to the Indian students' issue – helping to make sure negative images of Australia were able to be balanced by some more positive perspectives. As was OzFest in 2012 – the largest cultural promotion Australia has undertaken in India. One that sought to convey a sense of contemporary Australia, especially to the youth of a country whose mean age is 26.

And then, showing that soft power is not the purview of governments alone, the somewhat unexpected success in India of Master Chef Australia, which beamed into Indian middle class homes an ethnically diverse, vibrant and egalitarian vision of modern Australia.

For the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade public diplomacy is core business. Every employee of the department – in Canberra, at our state offices and overseas – is responsible for helping project a positive, accurate image of Australia. Not a sales pitch, but trying to make sure that – as a nation – we are able to make the most of our remarkable assets, and continue to build positively on our place in the world.


Public diplomacy is an essential handmaiden of traditional diplomacy, and its importance is growing daily in a world stuffed full of rapidly-changing images.

Within our region, Australia is suffering from a soft power deficit – a deficit that we must overcome if we are to fully advance our national interests.

Governments may lead public diplomacy but it is the private sector and civil society that ultimately have the most important part to play. The hard yards of public diplomacy are gained not by governments but by individuals and groups. It is the networks in the arts, in business, in education and in all the other nooks and crannies of community life which underpin a people-to-people relationship.

Clever diplomacy positions us for the future. Australia's future will be shaped by the strength of our economy, the stability of our polity, the innovation of our society and the cohesion of our community.

But it will also be influenced by how effective we are in taking advantage of the huge opportunities which come from proximity to the centre of gravity of the world economy; to the markets of the projected 3 billion Asian middle class consumers and to the quality of the relationships we build with the countries of our region.

If those relationships are to be durable, they must be based on a contemporary and rounded understanding of Australia and Australians. That is the ultimate goal of public diplomacy: to reach beyond the negotiations between governments or the transactions of traders and to tell a story about who we are, what inspires us and what we seek to be as a nation.

1 Michael Fullilove, "Rendezvous with Destiny", 2013

Last Updated: 17 October 2013
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