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Australia’s soft spot for the USA

Last month, I was invited to participate in the Perth leg of 'The Future of the Australia – US Alliance' regional workshop series. The following article analyses an important yet nonetheless sometimes under-appreciated aspect of the US-Australia alliance, the role of soft power. 

There was an entire chapter dedicated to soft power in the 2017 Australian Foreign Policy White Paper. Soft power is defined as  ‘having the ability to influence the behavior or thinking of others through the power of attraction and ideas.’ This is in contrast to hard power, which is based on military intervention, coercive diplomacy or economic sanctions. 

In recent times, the nature of the US-Australia alliance has been dominated by hard power topics such as nuclear disarmament, the Huawei 5G issue, China’s activities in the South China Sea and joint naval exercises. More recently at the 2019 AUSMIN Sydney conference, one of the main talking points was the possibility of a joint military mission in the Strait of Hormuz to sure up the security of oil shipping, after several ships were seized by Iran. With such a focus on hard power, it is easy to forget about the potential impact of soft power. It is important that people-to-people links and soft-power diplomacy are also considered. 


Even with the NCP, the US continues to be the single most popular overseas destination for Australian students, whilst Australia is the eighth for US students studying overseas – second in the Indo-Pacific behind China. To strengthen the alliance, it is important that governments invest in more educational programs to help develop links in future leaders. Getting more US students to study in Australia and leveraging the connections forged by Australian students in the US, are some obvious places to start.


Australians and Americans both share a deep passion for sports. Australia’s obsessions with tuning into the AFL and NRL grand finals in September can easily be related to America’s passion for watching the Superbowl. We only need to look to last year’s AFL Finals Series when the MCG collectively chanted 'USA, USA’ in honour of Collingwood’s US-born footballer Mason Cox. Additionally, we have seen the positive impact that major American sporting exhibition events have had in Australia, both economically and in helping to improve perceptions of the US.  

Revisiting DFAT’s landmark 2030 Indo-Pacific sports diplomacy program is a potential option to further the reach of sports diplomacy. The initial DFAT sports diplomacy program (2015-2018) was considered a success in helping to build links with the Indo-Pacific. The US too has experience in this area. Therefore, it would be a good idea to integrate the US into the 2030 DFAT Sports Diplomacy program. One possible way to do this would be to invite US athletes and sporting organisations to work with their Australian counterparts on the Asian Sports Development Partnership Program. This would create a niche soft-power initiative involving both Australia and the US in the Indo-Pacific region. 

There is already considerable demand for US Sports in the Indo-Pacific region, and DFAT pairing with the US could help realise the demand. A recent survey conducted by the NBA found that ‘of the 1.5 billion social media users following the sport, half of that traffic comes from outside the United States and a large portion of that comes from Asia.’ It is in Australia’s interest to have a strong US presence in the Indo-Pacific region and by inviting the US to partake in the 2030 DFAT sports diplomacy program, there is a chance to help realise this. 

US Ambassador to Australia Arthur Culvahouse recently stressed that the Australia-US alliance is ‘unbreakable’, and emphasised Washington’s intention to remain engaged in the region. Ambassador Calvahouse should draw upon his experience of meeting Collingwood footballer Mason Cox a few months ago for further sources of inspiration.

Soft-power diplomacy has the power to build people-to-people links and create favourable perceptions of countries in a way that hard power cannot. Both Washington and Canberra should look to soft power as a way of further solidifying the alliance.

Adil Cader is a recent University of Western Australia graduate, with a double masters in International Law and International Relations. He previously worked at the Australian Mission to the UN in New York and has been involved with a variety of international policy think-tanks.


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