Why Australians are cool with spying
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Why Australians are cool with spying

Why Australians are cool with spying

Michael Fullilove

Foreign Policy

11 June 2014

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Executive Summary

The security leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden -- now safely snug in the bosom of Russian intelligence in Moscow -- may have damaged America's national security and irritated some of its partners. But the effects of these revelations have also reverberated out to complicate the foreign relations of U.S. allies -- namely, Australia.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was offended that the NSA tapped her mobile phone. But Berlin was never going to exact a high price from Washington. The United States is just too important. For Australia and its allies, it's been a different story.

Last November, the newly elected government in Canberra was rocked by Snowden's allegations that Australia's signals intelligence service had monitored the cell phones of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife. This did great damage to the bilateral relationship between Canberra and Jakarta -- one of Australia's most important connections. Indonesia's ambassador to Australia was recalled the same day. Indonesia suspended vital intelligence and military cooperation with Australia, which is critical to fighting drug syndicates and people-smugglers. Relations have not yet fully returned to normal.

Yet, despite all this,

Australians remain remarkably sanguine about their government's espionage activities.




Australians remain remarkably sanguine about their government's espionage activities. In the 2014 Lowy Institute Poll, which was released last week, seven out of 10 Australians say that it is acceptable for the Australian government to spy on countries with which Australia does not have good relations. And five out of 10 Australians say that spying is acceptable even against countries with which it has good relations.

A majority believes it is fine for Australia to spy on China (65 percent), Indonesia (62 percent), East Timor (60 percent), Japan (58 percent), France (53 percent), and even its close neighbor New Zealand (51 percent). More than half of Australians think it's okay for the government to spy on its great ally, the United States! (Don't take it personally.)

Australians are much more partial to spying, it seems, than are Americans or Europeans.

Surveys by the Pew Research Center in late 2013 found that 56 percent of Americans say it is unacceptable "for the U.S. to monitor the phone calls of the leaders of allied nations." The German Marshall Fund found in September 2013 that only one-third or less of the British, French, German, Swedish, and U.S. populations think governments "are justified in collecting the telephone and Internet data of citizens in other allied countries as part of the effort to protect national security." In Germany, a full 72 percent said that such intelligence activities are not justified.

Why are Australians so laid-back when it comes to spying? The answer flows partly from the country's national character: Having built a successful society on an unforgiving continent, Australians are laconic in humor and pragmatic by disposition.

This tendency is reinforced by its geopolitical circumstances.

For most of its history, the world was run by countries friendly to Australia. When the world map was painted pink, it was a member in good standing of the British Empire. Throughout the Pax Americana, Australia has been a highly reliable treaty ally of the United States. But now, its great and powerful friends are becoming less great and powerful. And wealth and power are moving eastward.

The economic outlook in Asia is strong, but the security outlook is unclear. A number of regional powers, including Japan, South Korea, India, Indonesia, and Vietnam, are vying for advantage. There are troubling tensions on the Korean peninsula and in the East and South China Seas.

The international behavior of China is increasingly unpredictable and aggressive, and there are worrying signs about America's readiness to face the China challenge. Australians noticed that in his big foreign-policy speech at West Point, President Barack Obama did not even mention his much-ballyhooed "rebalance" towards Asia. How seriously can Australians take a doctrine that the president has barely explained at home?

Australia would hate to see a new Cold War between the United States and China. But there are even more worrisome scenarios. What if America retreats while China advances? What if we face the worst possible combination: a feckless America and a reckless China?

Australia also faces non-state threats, including the persistent problem of Islamist terrorism. Australians have been the targets and victims of terrorism on a number of occasions since 9/11, including in several major bombings in Indonesia. According to the 2014 Lowy Institute Poll, "international terrorism" is one of the foremost threats in the minds of the Australian public. Sixty-five percent of Australians see it as a critical threat to the nation's vital interests.

Australians may live on an island -- but it's in a sketchy neighborhood. Asia is gentrifying, but the increased wealth is magnifying threats and tensions rather than ameliorating them. Australians are closer to the world's most pressing crisis, and closer to the world's developing crises -- less isolated, but also less insulated.

Is it any wonder, then, that Australians are comfortable with their government using all possible means to understand what is happening in the world around them?

Areas of expertise: Australian foreign policy; US politics and foreign policy; Asia and the Pacific; Global institutions