Australians have been betting on 2016 as an aberration, under the illusion that Donald Trump and America First was a passing moment. Come November, the United States would once again embrace its allies and friends. The pandemic, police brutality and everything else 2020 has had to offer have shaken that belief.
Historically, most Australians have felt warmly towards the US and supportive of our alliance with it, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office. But 2020 is different. For some Australians, there is a sinking feeling that their once "great and powerful friend” is no longer great, nor powerful. COVID-19 has confirmed Australia’s worst fears about the US, consumed as it is by internal political divisions and dysfunction.
New data from the Pew Research Centre shows a record low number of Australians – only one in three – hold favourable views of the US. The Australian public, like the other 13 countries surveyed, rated America's COVID-19 response as the worst in the world. Only 14 per cent said the US had done a good job; by contrast, 94 per cent commended Australia’s handling of the virus.
The failure of America’s COVID-19 response is hard to dispute, with the tragic milestone of 200,000 American deaths passed this week. For context, the US lost 116,000 soldiers in World War I, and less than half that in the Vietnam and Korean wars.
The US doesn’t have a more dependable ally than Australia,which has joined America in every major conflict since World War II, even when Canada, Britain and other NATO allies wouldn’t. But the public is less willing to send Australian troops at the behest of the US again, according to the 2020 Lowy Institute Poll.
Australians’ trust in the US is at a historic low, 30 points below where it sat during the Obama administration.
This sentiment has not been helped by a president who champions strongmen over democratic leaders, and has proclaimed America First. The militarised response to the Black Lives Matter protests has shocked many; most Australians support the protesters and are critical of institutional racism in America.
The alliance survived the Nixon years ... and it will also survive the unpopularity of Donald Trump.
Australians had low levels of trust in the US during the George W. Bush administration and the early years of the war on terror, but the number rebounded quickly after Barack Obama’s election.
However, today’s lows in public opinion far exceed that time, and an important generational shift has emerged: young Australians, especially those aged 18 to 29, are particularly sceptical of our friends across the Pacific, with equally low levels of trust in the US and China. Young Australians say Australia’s relationship with China is more important than the relationship with the US.
It is perhaps surprising, then, that Australian support for the alliance remains high. Again, this is less true for younger Australians: only a quarter of this generation says Australia’s alliance with the US is very important for the country’s security, a view held by 57 per cent of Australians over 60.
But the alliance survived the Nixon years when Gough Whitlam moved towards the non-alignment movement and opposed nuclear weapons; it will also survive the unpopularity of Donald Trump.
Support for the alliance remains high because as much as trust in the US is declining, so too is trust in China. Australians feel unsafe at record levels, and increasingly view China as a threat.
But Australia is also taking a more independent path: after decades of reliance on the US, July’s Defence Strategic Update placed greater emphasis on Australia’s need to develop independent capabilities, as well as enhanced partnerships in addition to ANZUS.
A victory for Joe Biden in November would not on its own necessarily replicate the bump in sentiment occasioned by Obama’s election. There will certainly be some relief – three-quarters of Australians say Biden would be a better president. This was before Trump refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power after the election, another shocking indictment.
The US began turning inwards more than a decade ago. President Trump accelerated the process. The rise of cultural and economic grievances among the public, empowered by social media, has produced leaders with values that stand at odds with Australia’s values and embrace of the liberal order. Australia is already learning to live with populist leaders.
After 2020, a new US administration from either party would likely be consumed by domestic priorities. Nevertheless, concrete policy actions could help to restore credibility with allies and partners. Australians largely disapproved of Trump’s trade wars, criticism of allies and withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations and Paris climate agreement. Most Australians, and publics elsewhere in the world, support the World Health Organisation and say more global co-operation is needed during times of crisis.
To start the path to rebuilding America’s standing in our region, it would be necessary, but not sufficient, to reverse all of these decisions. What it would really take is a dramatic course correction.