Commentary | 24 June 2017

Australians view their military as a 'force for good' in the world

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

  • Greg Colton

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

  • Greg Colton

This year's Lowy Institute poll, an annual poll of Australians' attitudes to the world, was released at a time the world seems to be in turmoil. The British government appears increasingly fragile after a disastrous election campaign, terrorist attacks and the horrific fire in London. Across the Atlantic, Washington seems gripped in never-ending controversy as the White House stumbles, one tweet at a time, from crisis to crisis in a deeply divided nation.

Closer to home, Thailand appears no closer to democracy and the South Pacific is reeling from US President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement – along with the associated Green Climate Fund. Meanwhile, North Korea's quest for nuclear weapons continues unabated, Islamic State is fighting to establish a foothold in the Philippines and tensions are rising again in the South China Sea.

It's little wonder, then, that, against this backdrop, 79 per cent of Australians questioned in this year's Lowy poll are unsatisfied with the "way things are going in the world today". The number of people who feel "safe or very safe" when considering world events dropped to 79 per cent. To put that into context, between 2007 and 2010, this figure did not dip below 90 per cent. More concerning, the number who feel "very safe" has halved since 2010 and is at its lowest since the Lowy poll began in 2005.

This is perhaps unsurprising when examined against the perceived threats to Australia's national interests. International terrorism tops the list of threats: 68 per cent of Australians deem it a critical threat and only 6 per cent indicate it not an important threat at all. Close behind is North Korea's nuclear program: 65 per cent see it as a critical threat and another 27 per cent believe is an important, if not critical, threat to our national interests.

However, Australians appear to have different views on how to confront these two threats, despite them being almost equal in ranking. On the one hand, 61 per cent of those polled are in favour of military force to fight against violent Islamic extremist groups in Iraq and Syria, in contrast to 35 per cent against it.

Although down 8 points since 2015, overall this shows a longer-term swing in favour of military action in the Middle East. In the 2012 poll, 59 per cent disagreed that the war in Iraq was worth the cost to Australia. The results were similar in 2007 and 2005: 57 per cent and 51 percent respectively believed Australia should not continue to be involved militarily in Iraq. Therefore, taken alongside the 2015 poll, the results this year appear to show that Islamic State's brutality has significantly altered the views of Australians about military action in the Middle East, and Australians now support deploying military forces to the region.

How Australia should address North Korea is a much more divisive question. Despite the high numbers of Australians who view the rogue state's nuclear program as a critical threat, the country is split on the use of military force. While 45 per cent are in favour of it if North Korea invades South Korea, 48 per cent say they are against it.

This reflects a more general view about how Australians view their Defence Force. There seems little appetite for military force to be used in large-scale conflicts. Not only are Australians divided over the question of North Korea, 58 per cent are against the use of military force if China initiates a conflict with one of its neighbours over disputed islands or territories. This is despite 46 per cent believing it is likely China will become a military threat to Australia over the next 20 years. In the case of Russia, only 32 per cent are in favour of Australia using military force if Russia invades its neighbours, while an overwhelming 62 per cent are against it.

In comparison, Australians are far more prepared to countenance military involvement in operations other than war. A significant majority, 77 per cent, favour the "use of military force to restore law and order in a Pacific nation". Indeed, when pressed further in a different question, an overwhelming 81 per cent say Australia should intervene to provide military humanitarian support "if there is another major crisis in the Pacific, such as happened in Solomon Islands in 2003".

It's possible this stems from a deep-seated sense of responsibility towards developing nations in our region. Earlier Lowy polling suggested Australians felt a strong sense of responsibility towards their Pacific neighbours. In 2015, 77 per cent said "Australia has a moral obligation to help Papua New Guinea". Alternatively, it may spring from an understanding that stability in the region matters. In the same year, 82 per cent agreed that "stability in Papua New Guinea is important to Australia's national interest".

Whatever the reason, the evidence points more in the direction that Australians support deployments with a humanitarian objective. A large majority, 76 per cent, support Australia using military force to "stop a government from committing genocide and killing large numbers of its own people". This is a consistent theme. Over a decade ago, in 2005, the poll recorded large numbers in support of "United Nations or regionally endorsed peacekeeping missions" (91 per cent) and "to prevent genocide and gross abuse of human rights on the scale of Rwanda, Kosovo or Sudan" (84 per cent).

This perhaps explains why Australian deployments to countries such as Rwanda, Somalia, East Timor and Solomon Islands were more broadly supported by Australians than the missions to Afghanistan and pre-Islamic State Iraq. It's part of the Australian national character – giving others "a fair go" and lending a hand to those less fortunate. While there seems little appetite for war, the use of military force to defeat terrorism, stop genocide and stabilise failing nations is largely supported. If there's one thing this year's Lowy poll shows, it's that most Australians view their Defence Force as a force for good in the world.