By Jack Georgieff
Perceptions across the Indo-Pacific are of a United States that has rhetorically given lip service to the so called ‘rebalance’ but it is just that: lip service. With the reality of budget cuts looming, it gives rise to a perception that the military and diplomatic U.S. muscle needed for the rebalance will simply not be maintained. Yet there are tangible examples of soft power in action, particularly as a form of public diplomacy. It engages partners in the parts of Oceania and Southeast Asia that may otherwise be ambivalent to stronger relations with the United States. The cases of New Zealand and Indonesia illustrate the success of such soft power and public diplomacy engagement.
In 2012, President Obama professed his support for marriage equality. This set off a wave of excitement from LGBT supporters not only in America, but around the world. Other Western leaders were quizzed over such a question by their local media. New Zealand Prime Minister John Key openly declared his support, and announced he would support any marriage equality legislation that might come before the Parliament. It did. And it passed with a resounding 2-1 majority in April.
Simply by voicing his support for gay marriage, Obama ignited marriage equality supporters around the globe. Leaders such as Key (who comes from the more conservative part of the political spectrum) were happy to jump on board, utilizing similar policy positions to Obama for their own domestic benefit. One should not underestimate the power of the so-called Presidential “pulpit” as a tool of U.S. soft power in action. When a US President says something, others all around the world take notice.
Such soft power influence is also carried out at a more macro level, through administration officials, bureaucrats and actors from wider civil society in the United States. Hillary Clinton drove the Equal Futures Partnership Forum in October 2012 with the aim for women to be more instrumental in in positive change in their home countries. The United States will continue building on already solid foundations through providing domestic abuse survivors with financial empowerment and expanding entrepreneurship opportunities for female innovators. They plan to accomplish this with support from private sector collaborators such as Ashoka, Goldman Sachs and Intel.
Indonesia was a founding member of the forum, implementing a domestic memorandum of understanding to advance women’s participation in national and local elections. It is also launching a gender mainstreaming strategy to advance women in decision-making positions in the executive branch of federal government. Indonesia is also clarifying and strengthening the definition of female-headed households and formalizing the definition of women-owned businesses committing to advance women’s economic empowerment. This illustrates the tools for soft power engagement on rights and opportunities are driven by ideals across a range of levels, organizations and functions of government, not purely by one individual. It is also a role model for other countries in the region to follow.
Another way the United States is engaging in soft power is @america, a cutting-edge, 21st-century cultural center in a Jakarta shopping mall where Indonesians can explore and experience the United States. Via these platforms, societal attitudes towards minority rights and freedoms could also be changed by beginning a respectful dialogue, not by imposing new norms. 85% of all visitors to @america are young Indonesians aged 15 to 30 and it has over 53,000 followers on Twitter and nearly 30,000 likes on Facebook.
Nor is @america entirely unique. U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand David Huebner has played a major role in expanding the bilateral relationship to a variety of stakeholders in New Zealand society: young people and ethnic minorities most notably. He is an avid user of social media and has used that platform to bring the United States. to a larger audience in New Zealand. Huebner has over 22,000 followers on Twitter while the U.S. Embassy in Wellington has just over 6,500 Twitter followers. What this demonstrates in Huebner’s personal investment in this form of outreach, which is simultaneously a part of U.S. soft power and a tool of public diplomacy by him as an individual. More of this individual public diplomacy is needed not only by U.S. ambassadors, but all representatives of the American federal government and civil society actors in parts of the Indo-Pacific.
Soft power influence and public diplomacy as a tool of U.S. outreach can truly be a positive force for its relations with partners that may otherwise be ambivalent towards the U.S. It broadens the audience, communicating with groups that otherwise might be overlooked.
The United States should not underestimate the value of soft power. It is an integral part of the rebalance and U.S. diplomacy more globally, engaging and deepening partnerships that might otherwise not have such diplomatic investment on either side. The federal government should continue to invest in these soft power forms of public diplomacy and resist any harsh budget cuts if at all possible.