Ellen Van Beukering | Australian Foreign Policy Fellow
The rapidly changing geopolitical environment of the Indo-Pacific is a clear indication of the uncertainty of our regional future. If Australia wishes to remain the respected and influential middle power it claims to be, significant changes to our foreign policy needs to be made. Not least is the projection of our soft power. Fortunately, Australia will soon have the perfect opportunity to do so when it hosts the 2032 Olympic Games in Brisbane—but before the Olympic Flame reaches Queensland, there’s plenty of work to be done.
Although the International Olympic Committee and many competing athletes protest that the Olympics are not about politics, the reality is that the Games are one of the biggest events for a state to project soft power.
Most indicative of this has been the use of the Games as a highly public way to broadcast a country’s progress or its recovery from traumatic historical events. The 1972 Olympic Games in West Germany became an opportunity to demonstrate the state’s progress since the end of the Second World War. In 2008, Beijing used its platform to display China’s economic progress following a tumultuous second half of the twentieth century, as well as to project an image that fit their narrative of a peaceful and harmonious state enjoying rapid economic growth. Most recently, the Tokyo 2020 Games were (pre-pandemic) cast as the ‘Recovery Games’, intended to demonstrate the state’s recovery form the Fukushima ‘triple disaster’ in 2011.
Ideally, Australia won’t have such a disaster to recover from, but we should be prepared to use the Olympics to our advantage in promoting a positive narrative of the country.
A lot can happen in 11 years. In a perfect world, we’ll be using the Games to show off our continued economic prosperity and national pride, stemming from achievements such as a successful recovery from the pandemic and a continued resilience in the face of climate change. Ideally, the Games would merely serve to cement a positive international attitude about our state.
This works best when a reputation as a constructive, reliable state is already in place to build upon. For Australia, there is work to be done on that front, specifically to address Canberra’s lack of action and concrete goals on climate change. While clearly damaging on an international scale, the impact of our political stance on the issue is felt most in our relations with our neighbours, namely in the Pacific and Southeast Asia. Climate change has been listed as the number one threat to the Pacific, with many, if not all, island states already impacted by rising sea levels and extreme weather events. Australia likes to call the Pacific family, but if we fail to properly address their primary security concern, they will not see us the same way—and our reputation will be undermined.
Domestically, we need to ensure our approach to the Games is as sustainable as possible, not only environmentally, but also economically and socially. A major advantage for those organising the Games in Brisbane lies in the fact that 80 per cent of infrastructure will be pre-existing, thus reducing the costs of preparing for the Games but also minimising the pressures on the community in the lead-up. With the growing importance of sustainability around the world, this paints Australia in a positive light, likely in sharp contrast to previous Games where cost blow-outs have drawn fierce criticism.
The opening ceremony of the Games is also of particular importance—it’s arguably the biggest artistic event in the world, and for hours a significant proportion of the global population will be glued to their screens watching our nation perform. This presents an opportunity to paint a strategic image of Australia’s culture and identity; what we choose to display will stick in the memory of the world forever. Presumably, Indigenous Australians and Indigenous art will be a big part of the ceremony. But without genuine progress toward reconciliation with our First Nations people, any representation of Indigenous culture will likely be cast merely as hollow symbolism.
Finally, we will need to consider the rapidly changing circumstances surrounding the Australia-China relationship. It is important to ensure that despite our clear allegiance to the US, all nations, no matter their alliances or political ties, are welcome in 2032. The Games should aim to remain free of political turmoil and drama lest they become known more for fiery displays of nationalism rather than for sport.
In this increasingly globalised and interconnected world, the importance of soft power continues to grow. Australia needs to ascertain that its reputation remains one of a reliable, constructive, and internationally engaged actor. The Brisbane 2032 Olympics will be a major test for the image of our state—we need to make sure we’re ready for it.
Ellen Van Beukering is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.