Tuesday 24 Nov 2020 | 09:40 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 24 Nov 2020 | 09:40 | SYDNEY

Soft power: A matter of faith


Rodger Shanahan


28 July 2008 12:38

Religion has not often featured heavily in Australia’s foreign policy calculus, but there are signs that this may be changing. Not necessarily for ideological reasons (although there could be an element of this), but rather due to the view of religion as a potential source of access and influence, a way of utilising Australia’s ‘soft power’.

The profile of religion in this country received a massive boost with Australia’s successful hosting of the World Youth Day celebrations, with the eight days the Pope spent here profiling the country to an important and influential world leader. That Australia believes the Holy See is worthy of closer political attention was subsequently confirmed with the appointment of Tim Fisher as our ambassador to the Vatican.

Meanwhile, halfway across the world in Madrid (the next WYD host), we saw the political significance of a more ecumenical religious gathering. The interfaith dialogue, also known as the World Conference on Dialogue, brought together religious figures from all of the world’s main religions. The utility of such an event is always open to question, with questions over the limited role for women, the choice of the Saudi-based World Muslim League as organizers, and the fact that Saudi Arabia, the driving force behind the concept, does not allow non-Muslim worship within its borders. 

On the positive side of the ledger, invitees included representatives from the Hindu and Buddhist faiths, normally anathema to the Saudi Wahhabists. The meeting ended with the so-called ‘Madrid Declaration’ that called on the UN to take up the reins regarding future dialogues. Regardless of how effective such a declaration is, the meeting at least showed the potential for interfaith dialogue as a conduit for ideas and with it, influence in international debates.

Events such as World Youth Day and the World Conference on Dialogue show that there is potential for national soft power to be exercised in a religious setting. While such a concept may be anathema to committed secularists, Tim Fisher’s diplomatic appointment appears to be evidence that the government agrees with this soft power thesis.