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Editorial: What about soft power?

By AWPR President Paul Barratt AO

The Government’s cuts to our diplomatic service are at odds with the raised threat levels perceived by the Prime Minister, and its increased defence spending in response.

During his visit to our wide brown land in 1958, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan uttered the famous words “Jaw, jaw is better than war, war,” a reprise of a comment by Winston Churchill in Washington four years previously: “Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war”.

Both of which formulations drive home the point that there is marked cognitive dissonance in the Government’s decision to make cuts to our foreign service at the same time as we are building up defence expenditure.

Diplomacy and the management of our foreign relationships are the first line of the nation’s capability to influence world affairs, and of its ability to understand what is going on in the world around us.

They are also the first line of its defence. Resolving any international disputes by peaceful means is vastly to be preferred to seeking to resolve them through the use of armed force. Our commitments under both the United Nations Charter and the ANZUS Treaty require us to make every effort to do so, relying on armed force only for our own defence or to contribute to international peace and security pursuant to resolutions of the UN Security Council.

In launching the 2020 Defence Strategic Update on 1 July, the Prime Minister painted the following harrowing picture of the world in which we now live:

  • The post-COVID world will be poorer, more dangerous, and more disorderly.
  • We have not seen the conflation of global, economic and strategic uncertainty now being experienced here in Australia in our region since the existential threat we faced when the global and regional order collapsed in the 1930s and 1940s.
  • We have moved into a new and less benign strategic area, one in which the institutions of patterns of cooperation that have benefited our prosperity and security for decades, are now under increasing – and I would suggest almost irreversible – strain.
  • The Indo-Pacific is the epicentre of rising strategic competition.
  • Our region will not only shape our future, increasingly though, it is the focus of the dominant global contest of our age.
  • Tensions over territorial claims are rising across the Indo-Pacific region, as we have seen recently on the disputed border between India and China, and the South China Sea, and the East China Sea.
  • The risk of miscalculation and even conflict is heightening.
  • Regional military modernisation is occurring at an unprecedented rate.
  • Capabilities and reach are expanding.
  • Previous assumptions of enduring advantage and technological edge are no longer constants and cannot be relied upon.
  • Coercive activities are rife.
  • Disinformation and foreign interference have been enabled and accelerated by new and emerging technologies.
  • And, of course, terrorism hasn’t gone away and the evil ideologies that underpin it and they remain a tenacious threat.
  • State sovereignty is under pressure, as are rules and norms and the stability that these provide.

Does this sound like a good time to reduce our diplomatic reach and influence? 

Further on in his statement the Prime Minister declared that we would invest in “improving our awareness of what’s happening in the region” and “improving situational awareness”, but he seemed to see these solely in terms of technological solutions like improving the Jindalee Over-the-Horizon Network (JORN) and under-sea surveillance. Surely one of the most cost effective ways to improve our awareness of what is happening in the region is to have experienced, expert diplomatic “boots on the ground” in regional capitals. 

The lack of a perceived role for DFAT in improving our awareness of what is happening in the region flows not only from the 2020 Defence Strategic update, but from the very description of the purpose of DFAT presented to the Parliament in the 2019-20 Portfolio Budget Statement, downloadable from here:

DFAT’s purpose is to make Australia stronger, safer and more prosperous, to provide timely and responsive consular and passport services, and to ensure a secure Australian Government presence overseas.

Nor is there any reflection of an intent that DFAT should inform government thinking, by finding out more about other societies and their intentions, to be found in the seven “outcomes” that DFAT is required to deliver pursuant to that purpose (see page 3 of the Statement).

Compare the budgets for the defence and foreign policy functions. The 2019-20 budget for Defence was $38.7 billion; for DFAT it was a mere $5.2 billion, consisting of $1.5 billion of departmental funding, and $3.7 billion in “administered funding” (official development assistance, contributions to international agencies etc).

For as long as I can remember, governments have seen the Australian diplomatic service and the department that supports it as a suitable targets for savings, to the point where in October 2012 the Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade published a report on an inquiry into Australia’s overseas representation in which it expressed deep concern. It is telling that the report was entitled Australia’s Overseas Representation-Punching below our weight?   

While the data in that report reflect the situation almost a decade ago, I have no reason to believe the situation it describes has changed materially, except for the worse.

The Report noted and quoted (p.20) a finding of a 2011 Lowy Institute Report (Diplomatic Disrepair: rebuilding Australias international policy infrastructure, August 2011):

Australia has the smallest diplomatic network of all G20 nations,

and only nine of the 34 OECD countries (all far smaller than

Australia) have fewer diplomatic missions. …

The average number of posts for an OECD nation is 133. Australia

has only 95, and sits at 25th of 34 nations in the OECD league table

of diplomatic representationnumbers which are wholly

incompatible with Australias standing in the world

The Inquiry’s report cited evidence (p. 23) that countries with much smaller economies but larger overseas networks had gained significant traction in the principal organs of the global governance framework: the UN Security Council, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation, the World Health Organisation, the International Court of Justice, the UN Development Programme, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the UN Economic and Social Council.

The Committee agreed (p.24) with the Lowy Institute that Australia’s overseas diplomatic representation is less than it should be for a nation which is a member of the G20 and OECD, and commented (p.24, para 2.85) that:

Australia should not shirk from putting itself forward for leadership in world bodies. This is precisely what a middle power would be expected to do. Australia has a substantial economy and if it wishes to cement its position as an influential middle power it should have a diplomatic network to match.

Important elements of our diplomatic effectiveness include:

  • Our standing in the international community
  • Recognition of the importance of “soft power” – the power to persuade others to do things that you want them to do, without the use of coercion
  • The role of the projection of Australian high and popular culture as an element of our soft power (think of the role of American films and television and creating the world’s image of America)
  • The linguistic, cultural and subject matter expertise of our diplomats and the departmental officials that support them
  • The strength of our presence in international capitals

These are not mutually exclusive factors – each reinforces the others, and we must invest in them all. To be cutting any of them at the same time as we are ramping up our defence spend makes no sense.

Paul Barratt AO  is a former senior Australian public servant and policymaker. He is currently President of AWPR and Chairman of Australia 21.

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