As ANZUS turns 70 – and as the focus of the Australia-US alliance turns to challenges in the Indo-Pacific – Australians see the American alliance as a vital and dependable foundation of Australia’s security.
Yet our views about its relationship are tinged by wariness about Australia’s independence and realism about the nature and limits of US power.
The US Studies Centre regularly measures Australian sentiment towards the United States and the alliance. Our most recent polling (1004 respondents, July 2021) finds some of the most positive evaluations of the alliance we’ve seen: 85 per cent of Australians think it is “very” or “somewhat” likely that the US would “substantially assist” Australia if we faced a military threat.
Asked if the US alliance decreases or increases the risk of an attack on Australia, “decrease” outpolled “increase” by 38 per cent to 23 per cent.
Decades of public opinion polling generally show Coalition voters to be the most bullish on the US alliance, slightly outpacing Labor voters, with both groups of major party supporters more positive than the Greens about the US alliance.
But our July 2021 data shows these variations to be smaller than is usually the case.
On whether the US would assist Australia in the face of a military threat, “likely” trounces “unlikely” by 90 points among Coalition voters, by 70 points among Labor voters and by 54 points among Greens voters.
On whether the alliance decreases or increases the risk of attack on Australia, “decrease” led “increase” by 28 points among Coalition voters, by 13 points among Labor voters and seven points among Greens voters.
It was not always so. In 2007 – six years into the global war on terror and after bitter partisan debate about Australia joining the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq – one of the first surveys to be conducted by the US Studies Centre found Australians assessing that the alliance made Australia more likely to be attacked, 46 per cent to 19 per cent.
Even Coalition voters were evenly divided on this question, 32 per cent to 31 per cent, with clear majorities of Labor (54 per cent ) and Greens voters (56 per cent ) reporting that the alliance made Australia less safe.
Our latest results mirror the fact that the US alliance has largely been above the partisan fray in recent years.
Donald Trump’s presidency injected urgency and vigour into a perennial question for Australia’s strategic affairs community – surfacing regularly in the nation’s op-ed pages – as to the trajectory of US power and resolve, the strategic importance of Australia and the Indo-Pacific for the United States, and the implications for Australia’s national interests.
In 2017 we found that simply referring to Trump’s presidency could shift Australian sentiment on the US relationship by 20 points.
But Trump’s presidency coincided with vivid reminders of the rapid change in Australia’s strategic outlook that our geography and economic circumstances expose us to threats as wide-ranging and serious as at any time in the 70-year history of the alliance.
This view – widely shared across the Australian political spectrum – has bolstered assessments of the value of US alliance.
At the same time, there is no great appetite for deepening our defence ties with the United States. Just 15 per cent of Australians say that “closer co-operation with the United States” is better for Australia’s national interests than the status quo, preferred by 47 per cent.
Only 18 per cent of Australians prefer increasing US access to Australian defence facilities, while the status quo is preferred by 65 per cent.
Today’s alliance agenda is broad, a reflection of its Indo-Pacific focus and the breadth of what is entailed by strategic competition with China.
Pandemic response and recovery, infrastructure provision in the Indo-Pacific, cyber security, countering economic coercion, developing strategic technologies and securing critical supply chains join defence and intelligence co-operation on the alliance agenda.
But of these issues, which do Australians rate as important?
Our survey respondents were asked to select the most pressing threats to Australia, the top five being COVID-19, “China’s growing power”, climate change, a “severe global economic downturn” and cyber attacks.
Then, on the question whether “Australia’s relationship with the US helps or harms Australia’s ability to deal with” each selected threat, “help” responses trailed “harm” responses by 1 percentage point on COVID-19, by 13 points on China’s growing power, by six points on climate change, and by seven points on “a severe global economic downturn”. Only with respect to cyber attacks did “help” lead “harm”, by six points.
“Self-reliance in the context of the alliance” has long been an aspiration of Australian governments and policymakers, but would also be an apt summary of mass opinion about the ANZUS alliance at 70.