This year Australia arrested its soft power decline, overtaking the Netherlands and climbing one spot to 9th. The Australian government’s emphasis on the importance of soft power through the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s (DFAT) soft power review urged investment and interest in Australia’s soft power throughout 2018 and 2019. The White Paper and the DFAT review started a nation-wide conversation that has shone a light on the areas in which Australia can maximise its soft power. One such area is the digital realm, where the number of internet users in Australia has stagnated. Meanwhile, the rest of the world has seen a dramatic surge in the number of people using the internet. Australia suffers from a digital divide that separates the rich from the poor; the young from the old; the urban from the rural; and the employed from the unemployed. Increasing the level of digital inclusion requires a strategic approach at all levels of government. On the pure foreign policy side, Australia watchers are still waiting for a definitive “Morrison Doctrine”. Inconsistencies in the government’s foreign policy speeches have left many analysts scratching their heads. Without a clear direction at the political level, 2019 may be an inflection point for Australian soft power going forward.
Australia has remained consistently strong in the Education sub-index, holding a spot in the top ten since 2016. An increase in school funding, as well as the adoption of the National School Reform Agreement, lay the groundwork for an improved economy, human development and regional stability, which will positively impact the other soft power sub-indices over time. Moreover, Australia’s excellent universities are nipping at the heels of the UK in their growing ability to attract international students, particularly with Asia on its doorstep.
Despite advancing one spot in the overall ranking, Australia saw a decline in every sub-index besides Enterprise. Australia cannot get too comfortable in its position in the top ten. Australia will need to follow through with the national conversation it started on the topic of the country’s soft power to remain in its position. The big question remains on the foreign policy direction the political leadership wants to take.
In order to continue to regain the soft power lost since falling from the sixth spot in 2016, Australia must leverage both its cultural and educational soft power. By combining its attractiveness to tourists and international students alike, Australia can perpetuate its image as a laid-back and friendly scenic destination in the Pacific. At the same time, our polling research shows a country’s foreign policy is the biggest driver of global perceptions. Until the world sees the direction of the relatively new government’s foreign policy, it will be hard to know what’s next for Australian soft power.