It might have been the Bastille Day military parade that lured US President Donald Trump back to Europe a mere six days after his ego-deflating experience at the G20 in Hamburg, but it was something else that made the visit a diplomatic triumph for his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron.
The media called it a charm offensive, but seasoned diplomats saw it for what it was: an exemplary use of soft power.
Soft power, according to Harvard professor Joseph Nye, who coined the term in 1990, is the ability to influence others to achieve the outcomes you want without resorting to the traditional tools of economic or military power. Soft power is exercised through seduction, not coercion. So the tools you need are very different: communications, an attractive culture (including cuisine), and inclusive values.
Tender is the might, is how Monocle framed it a few years ago.
Monocle, the magazine that is the arbiter of cool, in recent years teamed up with the British Institute for Government to determine the top 30 countries whose culture, values, and other desirable assets it judges to exemplify the positive use of soft power.
Their poster boy is Justin Trudeau, who as the new Prime Minister of Canada in 2015 was at the airport welcoming the first group of Syrian refugees to his country. The whole world saw this on television: warm and welcoming, making you feel good about him – and his country.
Needless to say, Canada is in the top 10 countries with huge soft power credentials. As is France which, according to a rival list, The Soft Power 30, whose third issue was published last week, has leap-frogged the United States to the No.1 spot. Trump’s America is No.3.
France’s rise is attributed to the youthful energy of the new President, his defeat of Front National which averted the likely schisms that a Marine Le Pen victory would have created. But more important is France’s standing as “the best networked state in the world”, whose unparalleled diplomatic network and presence in almost every multi-lateral forum gives the country its soft power heft.
The Soft Power 30 is produced by a British communications company, Portland, with the University of Southern California’s Centre on Public Diplomacy and claims a more scientific-based assessment than Monocle’s. There is remarkable similarity, however, between their lists.
Australia is in the top 10 of both but, having been overtaken by Japan and Switzerland since last year, is No.8 and on a downward trajectory.
We appear on three of Portland’s six categories used to measure the sources of soft power and perform well only on two: culture and education. We don’t even register on digital, engagement or government and just scrape into enterprise.
Our policies on climate change, asylum seekers and our relative lack of equality, including absence of same-sex marriage, cost us on the government measure, and our failure to be more linked to the world, especially Asia, means we rate low on engagement.
Our influence has waned in a region where Japan and China are pouring huge resources into trying to boost their soft power. We closed the Australia Network, which delivered news and current affairs television to Asia, and we have decimated our foreign aid to the area. Too many of us tend to see the countries of Asia merely as a holiday destination rather than places to study or work.
We can’t expect people to know or like us if we don’t project what is good about us.
We’d be in big trouble without our Opera House, our weather and our cuisine but they are no longer sufficient. We need to spruce up, innovate and connect more with the world.
A country’s leadership epitomises how a country sees itself.
Malcolm Turnbull’s is at best confused, but with Trump there is no ambiguity whatsoever.
Trump is taking America’s soft power to the toilet. While American movies and music still have huge cultural impact, Trump’s exclusionary foreign policy and harsh rhetoric on most issues are having a dramatic effect.
In just six months, applications to US universities from around the world have dropped by 40 per cent, tourism is down, as is investment. Applications to study in Canada have increased by 25 per cent.
In Paris last weekend, Trump got to recast his view of France as a weak nation prone to terrorist attacks after he was an honoured guest at the Bastille Day military parade.
He had dinner at the Eiffel Tower and was feted with a pomp that takes centuries to perfect. But while Trump was admiring the might of the military, Macron was in his ear about how action on climate change is a weapon against terrorism. Trump came home planning his own parade, but Macron is confident he can bring Trump back to the Paris accord.
This article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 21 July 2017