No longer geographically remote from the principal theatres of great power confrontation, Australia is adapting to the uncomfortable possibility of being a ‘front line state’. Increasingly, foreign policy analysts call on the government to apply an ‘all tools of statecraft’ approach to the nation’s multi-dimensional threat environment, especially across the Indo-Pacific.
Among others, the Labor government’s Foreign Minister, Senator Penny Wong, has argued that Australia must get better at integrating different aspects of state power. Not all of the nation’s assets are natural mixers. Government agencies operate under direct ministerial control; statutory bodies such as Australia’s public service media corporation, the ABC, defend their independent charters and discrete public interest accountabilities; private enterprises large and small pursue the interests and priorities of their proprietors, as do civil society actors.
Each sectoral actor must be comprehended on its own terms, especially if the interests-based conduct of the state is to remain broadly congruent with the espoused principles of a democratic society. Australian policymakers arguably failed to set aside their message control preoccupations, failing to acknowledge the dialogical imperatives of intercultural communication.
Accordingly, when writing International Broadcasting and its Contested Role in Australian Statecraft, I re-appraised the role and efficacy of this ‘soft’ power asset through a strategic rather than cultural prism. The capacity to shape, influence, or determine other peoples’ beliefs and desires constitutes the third face of power (the first face being the power to take decisions and the second is to exercise power by not taking decisions).
Whatever form or style adopted by the (multi-platform) international broadcaster in reaching out to intercultural audiences, it does so with the policy purpose of influencing the attitudes and conduct of foreign persons, whether aggregated as public or individuals in the privacy of their households. It applies the discursive power of agenda-setting, framing, and the modeling of democratic norms to influence what audiences think about and how they think about issues. The frame-setting of discourse and mediation of debates provide the theatre in which political actors represent themselves and contest their preferred strategic narratives.
In other words, the core political purpose of international broadcasting is to help shape the international environment or the battlefield of soft power, on behalf of the state. The term discursive power acknowledges that both the receiver and the sender have agency in the communication process. Ultimately, the receiver is the one to accept or reject the communication, decoding and giving it meaning within the context of the receiver’s culture and lived experience. The sender must therefore engage the receiver on the latter’s own terms of cultural relevance, and sociolinguistic appeal.
Policy objectives that justify state intervention in the international marketplace of ideas, combined with the well-documented properties of media, do not align well with the simple abstractions of soft versus hard persuasive power. Insofar as policymakers ignore or misunderstand the instrumental efficacy of soft power assets, they constrain the development of ‘smart’ (Joseph Nye) or what Walter Russell Mead refers to as ‘hegemonic’ power (the synergistic combination of ‘sweet’ attraction, ‘sticky’ economic and pragmatic interests, and ‘sharp’ military capacity).
Commonly, when abstracted references are made to the soft power of attraction, too little attention is given to what Nye calls the process of ‘power conversion’; that is, the means by which sources of potential influence – aspects of the nation’s social milieu – become instruments of actual influence and persuasion. Similarly, it is common to assume a general power of attraction when, in fact, foreign publics may be drawn to or repelled by different aspects of a nation-state or society.
For example, people of groups might feel a strong attraction to Australia for its relative stability, lifestyle opportunities, and affluence but disapprove of its secular norms; they might happily engage with Australia on an advantageous transactional basis yet have conflicting views deeply held about certain government policies. In an increasingly multipolar world, moreover, perceptions and international relationships may shift continuously amid the turbulence.
Understood as such, these apparently ambiguous or contradictory perceptions need not be confusing. Instead, they serve to reinforce the importance of an ‘all tools approach’ to statecraft, in which multi-platform international broadcasting can be one influential component. Through my book, I develop a model specifically concerned with the task of harnessing aspects of the nation’s democratic milieu to influence intercultural publics. I also identify specific functional attributes of an international broadcaster as it models desired norms while framing democratic discourse.
The comparative relevance of international broadcasting among the tools of statecraft will be contingent on what structural determinants are present in a target territory, such as whether there exists an active marketplace of ideas or a need to reach over the heads of illiberal regimes; whether core interests are in conflict between actor A and its target actor B, in conditions of peace or war; and the selection and circumstance of targets of primary interest. A prerequisite in all situations of national interest is that actor A claims visibility and voice in the marketplace of ideas, however, constrained that market may be.
The purpose is paramount, and so too is an appreciation of the specific properties of soft and hard power agencies respectively, if the state is to succeed in applying a cross-sectoral all tools of statecraft approach to foreign policy in this dangerous multipolar environment.