In my job as a social researcher, I sometimes get taken out for coffee or lunch by a client who wants to have a relaxed chat about how Australians feel about any number of issues, from immigration to corporate tax to cooking shows.
Sometimes these clients are executives from international companies, men and women who what to understand Australia and Australians better. Sometimes these clients are American.
If they are American they always want to know what Australians think of Americans (“enough about me, what do you think of me?”) I remember shocking one American executive from a large and very famous global corporation when I told him that once upon a time Australians admired and looked up to the US. Certainly after the global financial crisis and the endless gun massacres across the country, the admiration has waned.
“You can’t be the great society if it’s easy to get guns and hard to get healthcare”, I told him. He didn’t like me much after that (we split the bill). If anything, the election of Donald Trump has made us more likely to feel a mixture of pity and concern for our special friends across the Pacific.
If we don’t envy the US, do we still believe in the strong alliance between both our countries? Yes, we do, but last year’s Lowy Institute poll shows support is slipping: 71% of the Australian public agreed it was very or fairly important to Australia’s security, down nine points and the lowest level since 2007. The poll was conducted before the US election result and at the time almost half the population said Australia should distance itself from the US if it elected a president like Donald Trump.
What may well be a growing ambivalence towards American leadership in international affairs is reflected in this week’s Essential poll results. When the US president decides to bomb Syria with 59 Tomahawk missiles while eating the best chocolate ever (the best, really the best) the Australian public is ambivalent, with 41% of us approving and only 14% strongly approving, with the most likely to disapprove younger and Greens voters.
This is unlikely to be because these voters aren’t horrified about the chemical attack on civilians that precipitated the attack, more because of their serious reservations that this action will result in anything like a resolution to the acute problems in Syria.
On the issue of US troops in Syria, the public’s ambivalence increases, with 37% approving and only 11% strongly approving.
Haven’t we learned anything from the disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan? Is the US the best foreign power to stop civil wars and create civil societies? These are the questions (perhaps rhetorical) that the Australians ask when the issue of “sending in the troops” is raised in the discussion groups I’ve conducted over the years.
And on whether Australia should provide military support for US actions in Syria, well, the results are even more conclusive, with 50% disapproving and close to a quarter strongly disproving.
These results, combined with the Lowy poll data, raise some genuine questions about the current status of community support for the US alliance. Will the trend we see in the Lowy data continue? Will the lived experience of a President Trump exacerbate it?
And if not the US, who would the community want to replace them as our most trusted friend in defence, trade and international diplomacy? Certainly not China (if community attitudes to Chinese investment in land, property and essential industries are to be taken at face value). If we aren’t following the US, are we ready for a more independent foreign policy? And what would that even look like?
Australians might be lukewarm in their support for American action in Syria, but it should be noted, so are Americans. A recent Gallop poll shows support for the Syria bombing is on track to be among the lowest for any intervention Gallup has asked about in the last 20 years.
Only 36% of Americans favour the US taking military action in order to reduce Syria’s ability to use chemical weapons. The majority – 51% – oppose such action. Guns and healthcare aside, I guess we do share a few things with our special friends across the Pacific.