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Soft Power, Public Diplomacy and Civility

Presentation by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC FASSA, Chancellor, The Australian National University, to Council for the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CHASS) Forum  Civility and Democracy, Roundtable on ‘Soft Power and Public Diplomacy’, Parliament House, Canberra, 20 June 2013

Last week’s very uncivil series of happenings in Australian public life – which I’m not surprised to hear has already had some airing in earlier sessions of this Forum – are about as unhappy an example of a country’s negative soft power at work as any I can remember. 

If we accept for working purposes the definition of the originator of the idea of ‘soft power’, Harvard’s Joseph Nye –  viz. that  the soft power of a country rests primarily not only on its foreign policies (when they are seen as legitimate and having moral authority)  but also its political values (when it is seen to live up to them both at home and abroad) and its culture (in places where it is attractive to others) – it will be evident that last week we struck out rather badly.

To take just one piece of media evidence, and unhappily there are many more, the enormously influential blog of the US-based global magazine Foreign Policy, foreignpolicy.com, ran a piece last Thursday headed ‘Australia’s terrible, horrible, no good, very sexist week’ – describing in comprehensive detail for its worldwide readership the  crass Julia Gillard menu affair, the almost unbelievably disgraceful Howard Sattler interrogation of  the Prime Minister on her partner, the clumsy sexist joke of the Socceroo coach, and the latest sex scandal to engulf the Australian Defence Forces.

About the only thing in the piece for which we can be grateful was that its focus was just on sexism, and not the almost equally ugly series of manifestations of racism, casual or otherwise – the ‘King Kong’ gibe and all the rest – which disfigured our public life in the previous two weeks, and made many of us wonder, for all the giant strides we have taken towards making Australia a genuinely multicultural society, and one that is both proud and respectful of Indigenous Australians, we have really made very much progress at all.

In the 25 years that I have now been actively engaged in international affairs, I have never doubted for a moment that a country’s general image, how it projects itself – its culture, its values, its policies - and how in turn it is seen by others, is of fundamental importance in determining how well it succeeds in advancing and protecting its national interests.  It matters in determining whether it is seen as a good country to invest in and trade with, to visit, to study in; as a good country to trust in security terms; as a good country to support in responsible international positions and in responsible decision-making forums; as a country good to work with in solving transnational issues that are beyond the capacity of any countries to solve by themselves.

It’s not the only thing, of course that matters in diplomacy. Hard power – raw military and economic might – has always mattered, and always will, however much its salience may be diminishing (and I’m an optimist in this respect) in a world ever more conscious of its interdependence.  The credibility of particular policies – and not just the general credibility of the country that is advancing them – will always matter.  And the individual personalities of particular leaders – which may be quite at odds, for better or worse, with the prevailing general image of that country’s people – will often matter much more than international theorists like to concede.

But all that said, a country’s general image does matter. And it is critically important for the middle powers, those of us who, by definition, while by no means insignificant in the global scheme of things, are never going to be big enough and strong enough militarily or economically to demand that our interests be accommodated – but rather have to depend overwhelmingly on our capacity to persuade, and work cooperatively and constructively with others.

And in international diplomacy, as in life itself, being seen to be inherently decent; being seen to be empathetic; being seen to understand and willing to accommodate the interests and values of others to the maximum extent possible; being seen to be constantly searching for common ground rather than just standing selfishly and defiantly and unthinkingly on one’s own – are the keys to being persuasive, and being able to work cooperatively and constructively.

Much closed door diplomacy is necessarily going to have to go on being closed door, and much of its effectiveness is going to go on depending on the professional skills of diplomats and the quality of the briefs they are working with, but general perceptions of the kind of country one is dealing with are a part of the total chemistry, the total tapestry, which must never be overlooked or underappreciated.

If I had any success with some of the initiatives in which I was involved as Foreign Minister, I think it had a lot to do with the image I was confidently able to communicate of Australia as a confident, creative, energetic, young country, very comfortable in its new multicultural skin, and – with apologies to my fellow panellist John Howard – having a growing sense that its future would be determined  much more by its Asian geography than its Anglosphere history. 

One of the particular images on which I was able to draw was that of Australia’s military peacekeepers, who – then as now – have a fabulous reputation among professionals around the world and in just about every local community in which they have ever served for being competent, unshirking, cheerful and, above all, whatever the racial or ethnic or religious or caste context, being totally, instinctively and irreverently egalitarian:  neither sucking up or kicking down.

The critical thing to appreciate about the projection of the values and instincts about which I’ve been talking  – the key elements of soft power, and what we have more traditionally called public diplomacy – is that it is not just the preserve of governments, and  does not depend just on the work of governments. The target is not just other governments, but in a sense, whole other populations; and the vehicles for projection are not just our own governments, but, in a sense, all of us.

Of course it’s a forlorn hope that all of us behave as we ideally should all of the time – but if enough of us behave well enough most of the time through all the innumerable ways in which communities interact with each other internationally it does make a difference.  There are a whole range of contacts, through travel, business, the arts, sport, academe, professional associations, service clubs and community action groups which occur without any government involvement.

These contacts add texture and depth – for better or worse – to community perceptions abroad about what kind of country we are. And in many ways I think they matter much more than specifically designed public diplomacy campaigns. Some well-targeted and executed campaigns – like that around India,  under the leadership of then  High Commissioner Peter Varghese (himself of Indian origin) to counter the impact of highly negative reporting of some acts of violence against Indian students in Australia – have made a difference. But I have long had reservations about self-conscious general image promotion campaigns, which can consume vast amounts of resources for not very obvious returns.

The final point I would emphasise about public diplomacy and soft power – and this returns us to where I began – is that of course this is not just about the behaviour of  Australians abroad,  in their direct interaction with other communities, but the behaviour of Australians at home, and how this is reported abroad in this ever more communicative world of ours. Hugely embarrassing behaviour of the kind that we have seen here in the last few weeks – almost all of which has been mercilessly reported abroad in both traditional and social media – does have a negative impact on our soft power abroad, and it’s important for that reason alone, quite apart from all the self-evident domestic ones, that it doesn’t become the norm, or be seen to be the norm.

How we address that behaviour – how we restore and maintain decency and civility – in our public and community life, is what this whole forum has been about, and there are many dimensions to the answer.  My own instinct is that one of the crucial factors is and always will be the quality of political leadership – how our political leaders conduct themselves in their relations with each other and in leading the national policy debate, what they identify as tolerable and intolerable behaviour, and how well their own behaviour actually reflects those standards.

There are some who might be inclined to suggest – and Bronwyn Bishop could conceivably be among them – that, during my years in this Parliament - I might on occasion have been less good at practising what I am now preaching.  But if we can’t always get these things right, at least we should try.  My fear is that if  Australia is going to be the kind of decent, civil society most of us want it to be – and to leverage that civility and decency in a way that really does matter as international soft power – our current  generation of political leaders is going to have to try a little harder.