Why soft power is so hard: the impact of aid cuts on regional security

Australia’s foreign aid commitments play an integral role in the nation’s ‘soft power’ and regional security. Marion Doss

Amidst the controversy over Julie Bishop’s Guardian interview earlier this week, many of the interesting facts about foreign policy under a putative Coalition government were lost.

Notably, the opposition’s shadow foreign affairs minister said that:

Our foreign policy assets - military, defence, economic, trade, diplomatic and foreign aid will be focused not exclusively but unambiguously on our region, and our focus will be on economic diplomacy.

This view of aligned “foreign policy assets” is an important one when it comes to a more strategic understanding of foreign aid in particular.

The federal budget this year was full of confusion and angst on aid issues. Foreign affairs minister Bob Carr proudly announced Australia’s largest aid budget ever at A$5.7 billion.

But he also confirmed that Australia will delay its commitment to reaching 0.5% of national income by another year to 2017/18 and continue to divert aid away from international programs in order to pay for domestic asylum seeker costs. Including the delay already announced in last year’s budget, the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) stated this means a $6.5 billion cut from the aid commitment over five years.

The opposition have recommitted to increasing aid to 0.5% of national income, but without providing a timetable for this increase to take place.

Defence received a $1.2 billion increase, consistent with the new Defence White Paper. The White Paper stresses the importance of “regional engagement”, with bipartisan commitment to a 2% aspirational target.

Now the budget dust has settled, we can ask the sober question. What makes Australians secure within our region, in the Asian Century? As Hugh White asked in 2012, “how are we to align and prioritise a huge range of very diverse policy instruments – aid, diplomacy, armed force, policing, economic and trade policy, immigration policy, health policy, etc., with [a] huge range of security problems to create a coherent strategy linking one to the other?”

It is arguable that foreign aid and to a larger extent development policy, which includes not only Official Development Assistance but also people-to-people links, migration policy, trade policy and peacekeeping is a core part of our regional identity and a core component of our “soft power” in the Asian Century.

Australia consistently under-invests in its own soft power. As Harvard professor and former US diplomat Joseph Nye states:

In this new world of transnational threats and the information age, it is not just whose army wins, it’s whose story wins.

Australia has a great story to tell in the region as a partner in development; as a friend when humanitarian disasters strike, and as a leader when neighbours like the Solomon Islands and East Timor are in transition.

And yet, all this is thrown out the window whenever there is a tough domestic budget in a casual manner that no one would dream about adopting with regard to defence.

Think of aid and diplomacy as core to debates about our national security. The fundamental purpose of Australian aid is - and should remain - to help people overcome poverty. There may be a debate about emphasis but almost all commentators agree that the aid program is at least relevant to our national security.

Our aid program is focused on the eradication of poverty in our immediate neighbourhood. Poverty is a source of insecurity, and so our national interest is promoted by poverty reduction in the region, as well as other human security issues such as pandemics and climate change adaptation.

John Howard once argued that the building mosques to support moderate Indonesian Islamic schools helped to address terrorism. Although the evidence base for this proposition is slim, it probably cannot hurt.

NGOs often argue that focusing on Papua New Guinean education and health programs and constructing Afghani community buildings result in both enhanced opportunities for local communities as well as promoting Australia’s national interest. A win-win.

Should we go further? The Australian Strategic Policy Institute argued in a 2011 report, A Better Fit, that the government needed to explain the link between aid and national security much more clearly, and be more explicit and strategic about the “strategic investment” aspect of the aid program:

….our aid…strengthens our security by assisting friendly states that we believe are important to us.

The federal budget saw A$6.5 billion cut from Australia’s foreign aid commitments over the next five years. AAP

Many NGOs object to interweaving aid and security in particular contexts with special mention to military-delivered aid in Afghanistan. The Australian Council for International Development, the peak body for development NGOs, argued in a 2011 report that the close identification of aid and security in Afghanistan was bad for both.

Aid that follows the fighting - the involvement of military forces in aid projects without development expertise - encroaching on the “independent and impartial space” for NGOs are all negative results for Australia in the long-term.

In the US, they talk about three equal pillars of national security – development, diplomacy and defence. Equal pillars. In the UK, when Clare Short was Secretary of State for International Development in prime minister Tony Blair’s government between 1997 and 2003, she had power to veto other government measures that would undermine the impact of the UK’s development policies. That is not being wished for Australia. Yet.

Settling for strategic use of soft power is a better solution, dependent on getting the respect soft power deserves at budget time.