Are Trump's shenanigans turning us off international relations?

Peter Lewis
‘Australians watched the events in Singapore where Trump and Kim Jong-un summoned in a new era of photo opportunities with a degree of scepticism.’ Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

While those who follow the daily thrust and parry of Australian politics may get het up over the veracity of Treasury modelling of dividend imputation, it can seem like easy listening when compared to the fire and fury that is US politics.

Eighteen months into the Trump presidency, it’s as if the Americans have created a new genre of amplified conflict, where nothing makes sense unless it can be reduced to a tweet.

So after a week when the US President declared his trade allies the enemy and a communist dictator a man of honour, what are Australians making of the global circus?

According to this week’s Essential Report, Australians watched the events in Singapore where Trump and Kim Jong-un summoned in a new era of photo opportunities with a degree of scepticism.

Do you think the agreement signed by US President Donald Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un will make the world more safe or less safe or will it make no difference?

While our government was ready to offer the US President bouquets for brokering the denuclearisation talks and, presumably, setting a new standard in diplomatic video production values, the public is less certain.

Only 35% of our respondents thought that the engagement would make the world a safer place, a majority thought the meeting would make no difference, or haven’t registered a view on the matter.

These findings speak to a general sense of reticence about our engagement with the rest of the world. We regularly ask a set of questions about whether people think it’s important for Australia to have a close relationship with other nations and what I find most interesting is our collective comfort with the status quo.

How important is it for Australia to have a close relationship with the following nations?

First, despite our increasing economic engagement with our region, it is the traditional connection to the USA and UK that still are seen as being the most important.

But more striking to me is that even here no relationship gets above a bare majority response of being “very important”. Instead, nations like China, Japan, India and Indonesia are seen as “quite important”, a lukewarm middle ground in our international consciousness.

Maybe it’s the fact that Trump’s shenanigans are drowning out the rest of the global interactions, after all most of these nations had much higher levels of engagement when we first started polling this series in 2011.

When international relations becomes another part of the reality show, maybe it’s natural for us to take our place in the cheap seats and watch, ignoring the complex global web we are part of.

Or maybe the Trump presidency is having a more profound influence and reducing politics down to a series of personal interactions, with world leaders becoming characters who are booked for guest appearances on the global stage.

If this is happening, then the good news is that Australians clearly prefer our democrats, notably our liberal ones, from our dictators.

Do you hold favourable or unfavourable views of the following world leaders?

Indeed New Zealand PM, Jacinta Adern, and Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau – the world leaders that Trump mistook for a power couple – emerge as the leaders we most admire. These are closely followed by Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, the keepers of a European democratic tradition that Trump is increasingly seeing as a challenge to his own agenda.

Then we see a big jump to Trump at 22% favourable, 64% unfavourable; not far in public regard from the two dictators he has recently lavished with his high regard.

It is worth noting that Trump’s favourability is much high among people who identify as voting outside the established three political groups (Coalition, Labor and Greens), but even these outsiders can only rustle a tad of a third support.

Despite Clive Palmer’s latest foray into billboard marketing, these results suggest that Australians are comfortable with the idea of being led by democratically inclined, slightly boring centrists.

Long may the battle over dividend imputation credits rage.

  • Peter Lewis is the executive director of Essential and a Guardian Australia columnist