Despite repeated assertions from the Biden administration that “America is back”, questions persist in Australia and around the world.
How inwardly focused is the United States? Is US support for Australia and its allies truly bipartisan? What about American views on trade? Is Washington willing to commit the necessary resources for long-term competition with Beijing?
The answers to these questions have enormous strategic consequences for Australia’s future – to say nothing of its foreign policy, or the shape and size of its defence budget. Undoubtedly, an insular, withdrawn US would present a very different future than a fully engaged and committed US.
Research provides some provisional answers to those critical questions.
A study by the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs suggests that the American public remains overwhelmingly supportive of the US playing a leading role in world affairs and staying deeply engaged in Asia.
Moreover, competition with an increasingly assertive China has now become central to how most Americans think about their own country’s future and what types of policies they are willing to support.
In line with this, Americans’ support for their allies has grown. And, perhaps most surprisingly, support for trade has increased.
Much of Canberra’s attention has rightly been focused on understanding the Biden administration’s position on these questions. And what they should be seeing, is that across the Pentagon, the State Department, the CIA, and the White House, the message has been clear: competition is the theme, the Indo-Pacific region is the focus, and co-ordinating with allies will be a higher priority than co-operating with Beijing. There is also, to a certain extent, bipartisan congressional support for those impulses.
Just as important to these questions is public opinion. Fatigue and dismay with the US’ long involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with the America First approach championed by Donald Trump, led many observers to conclude that the American public was abandoning its support for the country’s traditional role of international leadership.
Yet, the numbers tell a different story. Nearly two-thirds of Americans supported leaving Afghanistan, but beyond that, there does not seem to be much appetite for a diminished global role.
Sixty-four per cent of Americans believe it is in the country’s interest to play an active part in world affairs, and 69 per cent support a global leadership role.
In line with this, Americans’ support for their allies has grown. That should not come as much of a surprise considering that US support for its alliance commitments has remained consistent over the years and, in fact, increased during Trump’s presidency despite his consistent public attacks on allies.
What does seems to be driving much of this sentiment is across the board concern over China.
A growing number of Americans support more punitive policies aimed at limiting China’s global influence by ramping up US investment in technology, limiting trade with China, even if it results in harm to the US economy, and increasing the country’s military presence in the Indo-Pacific region.
A majority of Americans (58 per cent) also believe that trade between the US and China weakens US national security. That represents a stark reversal from just two years ago, when two-thirds of Americans believed US-China trade strengthened national security.
This dramatic shift helps explain why there is growing support for increasing tariffs on China, restricting scientific exchange between the two countries, and prohibiting US companies from selling high-tech products to China.
Moreover, 78 per cent of Americans wanted to maintain or increase the US military presence in Asia, while public support for using the US military to defend allies or partners has increased.
Conventional wisdom holds that Americans no longer support international trade, following the US’ failure to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (now, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership), and that lack of support is shared by Democrats and Republicans alike.
Yet more than 75 per cent of Americans say trade is good for consumers, the overall economy, and their standard of living. Upwards of 60 per cent believe trade is good for manufacturing and creating jobs. Moreover, support for international trade spans the political spectrum. That support, however, comes with a large caveat; Americans want to further restrict commerce with China and support a more robust industrial policy that can help companies outpace foreign rivals.
It is important not to overinterpret these numbers, nor to minimise Washington’s legislative gridlock or downplay the US’ intense – and intensifying – internal divisions. Yet, such data indicates robust support for several significant changes in US policy that would likely be positive developments for Australia.
Australian policymakers have long encouraged greater US involvement in Asia, believing that doing so would increase Australia’s prosperity and strengthen its security.
These numbers indicate a wellspring of US public support for the government’s China policy getting tougher, further governmental investments into R&D, and restrictions on technological transfers, greater US military presence in the Indo-Pacific, and a growing willingness to defend allies and partners, including Taiwan. It also suggests there is scope for a more ambitious trade agenda.
While Australia and other US allies can easily get distracted by dramatic swings in US political leadership, they should not overlook the increasingly consistent and bipartisan views of those electing that leadership.