Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Young Australians turn from the US towards Asia. And it isn’t Trump

Millennials don’t remember Washington behaving as a great power or helpful ally, so support for the alliance is waning.

Painted grain silos in the Victorian town of Rupanyup, part of the Wimmera Silo Art Trail (denisbin/Flickr)
Painted grain silos in the Victorian town of Rupanyup, part of the Wimmera Silo Art Trail (denisbin/Flickr)

The recent 2020 Lowy Poll revealed that a mere 25% of young Australians aged 18–29 see the US-Australia alliance as “very important”. This is a stark contrast to the 43% across all age brackets with such high regard for the alliance.

The reluctance by this section of the “millennials” generation to embrace the United States as a global power and ally in Australia’s region is not necessarily rooted in issues of the moment nor any “Trump Factor”. The data from successive Lowy Polls shows no clear trend among 18-29-year-olds about their support for the United States since Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017 . Instead it appears to reflect a broader trend among millennials to question the role of the US alliance and to be increasingly sceptical about American power abroad.

For the oldest of those aged 18–29, the Cold War is something which occurred entirely outside their lifetimes, the great unipolar moment of the 1990s when they were young children, and the September 11 attacks before entering high school. For the youngest of them, this is all ancient history.

Instead, what this generation knows is the unmitigated disaster of the “Global War on Terror”, disgust at the global financial crisis (with its roots in US markets), and US failings or obstruction in key international crises of the last decade, from the Arab uprising and Syrian civil war to climate change. This generation does not harbour greater “anti-US sentiment” – it simply has no experience where Washington behaved as a great power or even a helpful ally.

The United States has failed to address its role in climate change over decades, and will likely continue to fail, even with what seems like a likely Joe Biden victory and Democratic sweep of the Senate come November. The same can be said of other more progressive causes such as achieving racial justice or reducing US foreign adventurism – leaving a United States out of step with the aspirations of this generation.

Millennials are more multipolar in outlook, and an alliance with a unipolar United States is not one that holds appeal. Growing up in a time of accelerating mass communication, their engagement with the world has seen them interact more with media and culture in our region. They have experienced a wide range of international content, from K-Pop to international shows on television streaming services, and engaging with their favourite content creators on social media. They are more connected now than ever, and particularly with Asia.

Not only are millennials shifting away from the US, but they also increasingly trust Asian leaders over their own.

Many millennials, particularly those undertaking international affairs careers, have had access to Asia through education, particularly under the Australian government’s New Colombo Plan, with more than 40,000 young Australians receiving this scholarship since it was established in 2014. The aim, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, is for “study and work-based experiences in the Indo-Pacific to become a rite of passage for young Australian undergraduate students”, and no similar Australian-led program like this exists for Australians seeking to study in the United States. While before Covid-19, the US had remained a popular destination, a shift in the preference of millennials was evident. More than half of Australian students studying abroad were in the Asia-Pacific region ,and 14% in China alone, while in 2018, only 10% of Australian university students participated in foreign exchange in the United States.

The Lowy Poll data reflects the millennial shift towards Asia. It shows Japan as the country people aged 18–29 trust the most to act responsibility, whereas the United States ranks fifth of seven. This pattern is not repeated across other age groups – for all Australians polled, the United Kingdom is the most trusted nation in the global system.

When asked directly about Australian bilateral relations with China and the US, 55% of people aged 18–29 were in favour of building relations with China, even if it harms our relationship with the United States. This is in contrast to the overall result which saw 50% in favour of the US, even if it damages relations with China.

On individual leaders, while New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is the most trusted to do the right thing regarding world affairs among all age groups, Japan’s Prime Minsiter Shinzo Abe ranks second for millennials, and Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison second in the overall result. What is interesting about the results of 18–29 year olds is that they increasingly trust Asian leaders over their own. Among millennials, 35% have “some confidence” in India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whereas only 34% have “some confidence” in Morrison. 28% of millennials have “some confidence” in China’s President Xi Jinping and 34% in Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo. Morrison is only one point ahead Jokowi in the “some confidence” and “a lot of confidence” categories. Only 16% have “some confidence” in US President Donald Trump. Not only are millennials shifting away from the US, but they also increasingly trust Asian leaders over their own.

Looking to future Lowy Polls, with the rise of TikTok and other forms of social and educational engagement between young Australians and Asia, it will be interesting to see the results for younger millennials, the so-called Generation Z. Even if a ban on TikTok is extended following recent scrutiny, the popularity of the Chinese-made app is an example of the challenge to the US-dominated technology landscape and unlikely to be the last, leaving Facebook increasingly unpopular among younger generations. If the present trends continue, Generation Z are likely to be even more disconnected from the heyday of the US alliance than millennials, and are even more engaged with the wider region.

In that, support for the US alliance will continue to wane.

Image via Flickr user denisbin

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