Australia as a Southern Hemisphere ‘soft power’
22 Jul 2013|

5310613293_4849c5e670_zAustralian strategic analysts don’t spend much time thinking about ‘soft power’—Harvard academic Joe Nye’s pithy label for the range of cultural, educational, and other forms of influence that states can use, through attraction rather than coercion, to achieve its objectives.

The US is the best exponent of soft power, with a global image machine in Hollywood, the world’s best universities, and a history of social mobility and innovation luring millions of potential immigrants each year.

China, by contrast, seems to have relatively little soft power. The richness of its culture and history can’t overcome the fundamental unattractiveness of its socio-political model. How many people dream of migrating to China or having their kids educated in Chinese universities?

As Nye noted in his original formulation, a country’s soft power includes not just culture and diplomacy but also science, technology, education, aid and trade. It’s these kinds of soft-power resources that lie at the heart of Australia’s role as a Southern Hemisphere soft power.

Ten years ago, Paul Kelly bemoaned (PDF) our lack of soft-power strategy, calling it ‘a powerful idea [which] is undervalued as a tool for Australian policy’, arguing that ‘Australia’s singular recent failure lies in its inability to conceptualise its soft power as a national strategic asset’.

This might be starting to change. There’s been a marked growth in the application of Australian soft power in science, education, sport and other areas of Southern Hemispheric collaboration in recent years.

One example is Australia’s emergence as the world’s tenth largest aid donor. Australian aid has increased by about a third over the past four years. While most still goes to our near-neighbours in Southeast Asia and the Southwest Pacific, new initiatives in Africa and Latin America mean that the global ‘south’, geographically defined, now receives 60% of Australian aid.

Other aspects of Australian soft power also have a strong hemispheric bent. Our peacekeeping missions in the South Pacific have been ‘cooperative interventions’, in contrast to our participation in ‘coalitions of the willing’ in Asia and the Middle East.

Australian-led trade alliances such as the Cairns Group serve to knit together the key Southern Hemisphere states from southern Africa, South America and the Pacific.

In education, Africa and Latin America are new growth markets for Australia, with Brazil now second only to China in terms of a student market for ELICOS (English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students) programs in Australia, and Africa now one of the largest markets for Australian-government scholarships.

And in sport, the Rugby Championship between Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina, which starts next month, is the world’s most geographically dispersed annual major sporting completion, spanning the entire Southern Ocean rim.

In my new ASPI paper, ‘Australia as a Southern Hemisphere Power’, I argue that the reinvigoration of Australian soft power is taking place in part because of our under-appreciated global stewardship role in the Southern Hemisphere.

Scientific research is the key. In some areas, such as Antarctic or Southern Ocean issues, this is a natural consequence of our geo-strategic location and interests.

But other areas in which Australian science tends to excel—ocean science, meteorology, arid lands and climate change research, to name a few—are also dependent on our Southern Hemisphere location.

In astronomy, for example, study of the universe depends on a network of trans-hemisphere telescopic facilities aimed at the southern sky. Australia’s most recent Nobel prize-winner, Professor Brian Schmidt of ANU, first came to Australia for research linking the SkyMapper (in New South Wales) and Giant Magellan (to be constructed in Chile) telescopes.

Last year saw Australia and South Africa chosen to share what will be the world’s largest telescope—the Square Kilometre Array—in one of the great scientific projects of the 21st century, creating a mega-telescope with over 3000 antennas split across continents.

Environmental issues have stimulated various attempts at Southern Rim cooperation. One example is the Valdivia Group, named after the southern Chilean city where they first met, which brought together all the key southern hemisphere states—Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and South Africa—in recognition of the shared interests of all member countries. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer made this argument explicitly in 1996 when he said:

As countries of the Southern hemisphere, we should devote greater attention to collaborative structures with each other. The purpose of the Valdivia Group is to ensure that our ties with the northern hemisphere do not cause us to overlook our links to the east and west; links which stretch across the South Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans … we Southern Hemispheric countries share a very strong mutual interest in ensuring the success of international efforts to understand and preserve this vital part of our environment.

While the grouping has struggled to deliver clear outcomes, such an alliance remains relevant not just for environment issues, but also promoting southern views more generally.

The Southern Hemisphere will never be the main game for Australia. Our ‘hard’ power resources such as economic and military force have long been and will continue to be focussed north, reflecting our major economic (Asia), security (US) and historical (Europe) connections.

But it deserves to be seen as part of the game, especially when so many key elements of our soft power—development assistance, international peacekeeping, trade groupings, and some of our most important scientific, educational and sporting initiatives—are now converging hemispherically.

Next year’s G20 meeting in Brisbane offers an opportunity for Australia to take advantage of this shift. For the first time, leaders of all the key Southern Hemisphere states (Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa and Argentina) will be present in Australia.

Rumour has it that the government is searching for ideas for the meeting. Focusing on the importance of the Southern Hemisphere to major global challenges (such as those of food security, ocean health, climate change) would be one way to give the meeting a distinctively Antipodean flavor—while still engaging major powers such as the US, China, India and the European Union, and acting as a potent ‘force-multiplier’ for Australian interests.

Benjamin Reilly is the Dean of the Sir Walter Murdoch School of Public Policy and International Affairs at Murdoch University. Image courtesy of avtxyz.