Written by Julie Bishop Thursday, 07 June 2012
The influential foreign policy scholar Joseph Nye, a former Dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, has argued for many years that nations need to combine the use of “soft power” and “hard power” to leverage what he calls “smart power”.
The United States is arguably the greatest industrial military complex the world has ever seen and its conventional military dominance is currently unchallenged by any nation on earth. During visits to U.S. warships and submarines I have often marvelled at the advanced systems and capabilities on board those vessels that underpin the ability to project “hard power” across the globe.
The U.S. is the first naval power in human history to have predominance in all of the world’s great oceans at the one time. This military might has obvious leverage in the field of international relations, but what is often overlooked is the large and clever effort that the U.S. puts into its “soft power”. I witnessed a small but telling example of this when I travelled recently to Samoa as part of Australia’s delegation to attend celebrations commemorating the 50thanniversary of Independence.
One of the major events was a flag raising and parade that lasted for six hours, as groups of proud Samoans marched past the large crowds of local people and overseas visitors. The U.S. had a number of warships berthed in the harbour of the capital Apia and the sailors combined with staff from the embassy formed an impressive display of US support, complete with a full U.S. Navy marching band, large flags and banners.
Dozens of U.S. Peace Corps members dressed in red, white and blue shirts also danced through the parade in a spectacular display. New Zealand was represented by their Governor General. China’s presence was also apparent with large flags and banners.
Australia is the single largest donor of foreign aid to Samoa, providing about 30 per cent of total aid to the country, and I had expected that Australia would make a strong showing at those celebrations as an indication of our level of interest and influence. Although we had some defence personnel in the parade, much to my dismay, there was virtually no other visible Australian presence.
Any visitor to Samoa for those celebrations would have come away thinking that the U.S., China and to a lesser extent, New Zealand, were the major actors in Samoa and that Australia was not active there. This was a lost opportunity to leverage our soft power assets by promoting the good work being done through our foreign aid program that provided almost $44 million to Samoa this financial year. There is one area of soft power where Australia can make significant gains in our national interest, and that is through international education.
I am regularly impressed by the number of political leaders and government officials in our region who have studied in Australia or who have sent their children to Australia for at least part of their education. As at March this year over 350,000 international students were enrolled in Australian universities, vocational training institutions and schools.
Students from our region first came to Australia in large numbers under the original Colombo Plan initiated by the Menzies government. Combined with the vast number of overseas students in more recent decades, there are literally thousands and thousands of potential alumni that could be embraced as ambassadors of Australia.
Unfortunately it appears that there is no database within Australia of our overseas student alumni, and that relatively few networks have been established to remain in contact with them after they return to their homes. There is an urgent need to establish much more formal networks to ensure we do not lose the goodwill, and that we remain in contact with students who have studied in Australia.
The other weakness in our student programs is that relatively few Australian students have taken the opportunity to spend part of their time living and studying overseas. Having so many students from other countries studying in our schools and universities is a great asset to our nation, contributing to our economy, our reputation and our cultural influence.
Likewise to have a body of young people amongst our citizenry who have a deeper understanding of other countries, their language, their culture, would be a powerful diplomatic tool to use in advancing our national interest.
The U.S. has shown that it is possible to greatly leverage soft power to promote its interests and values abroad, and while Australia also makes use of soft power we need to be much smarter in how we go about it.