The Aussies Who Doubt Us

Pew published a thought provoking piece of research this week.[1] Included in the report were the two graphics below:

You can read the full report on the Pew website. There are many interesting threads to pull at here (for example: what country is missing from South Koreans’ perceived sense of threat?), but what caught my attention are the opinions of the Australian public. There are five countries on this list that America has signed some sort of mutual defense treaty with; of the five, none are less confident in the Americans than the Australians. Australian doubts should not be too surprising: America’s ability to fulfill its defense guarantees in the West Pacific is a actively debated topic in both the Australian press and the Australian think tank world. Arguments that Australia needs to prepare now to go it alone, that Americans would be unreliable in event of war, that American military capabilities are incapable of defending Australia (or America’s own forward operating bases) against Chinese aggression, and that so-called Chinese ‘aggression’ is mostly an American plot anyway are easy to find.

Some of these claims are stronger than others, but given how common these sentiments are it is not surprising to see them leak down into general public opinion surveys. My question is not “why do the Australians doubt us?” but “why is everybody else so much more confident than they are?” Why are the Filipinos so confident in their American alliance when by any measure you might choose—American troops stationed in the country, shared military experience, cooperation between the armed forces or security services and the Americans, the strength of the bilateral relationship as a whole, the American public’s fondness for the country in question—the Aussies have it so much better, yet still doubt? What assurances do the Canadians, Japanese, South Koreans, Filipinos, and Israelis (who are not even party to a mutual defense pact) have that the Australians do not?

I do not have an answer to this question, but I am interested in finding one. If you have a good hypothesis to explain what makes Australia different, sound off in the comments below.

If you found these observations on international affairs worth reading, you might also find the posts “Chinese Are Partisan Too,” “Why Taiwanese Leaders Put Political Symbolism over Military Power” or “At What Point is Defending Japan No Longer Worth It?,” of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Laura Silver, “U.S. is seen as a top ally in many countries – but others view it as a threat,” Pew Research Center (5 December 2019).

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(1) Geographic isolation.
(2) Awareness of being largely ignored within the US.
(3) Flood of information about the US which naturally makes cultural difference disproportionately more salient than cultural similarity. (Though that does not seem particularly distinctive a factor.)

The commitment of the parties to the US-NZ-Aus treaty is only for the parties to consult. There is no commitment to action. I'm an Australian.

Australia used to be an white dominion of the British Empire, it has never been a part of the American orbit to the same extent as the other places you mention, while originally being a lot more centred on the UK and perhaps the feelings of Anglo-Saxon superiority that come with that.

Canada is also not as high as Israel and the East Asian allies of the US, though not as low as the Aussies. So maybe it is an "is there an immediate threat that I'm feeling the US is protecting me against" thing.

Lacking an immediate "enemy of my enemy" feeling like with Israel, and the East Asian nations where the US is more salient bulwark against neighbors who are military threats, I can see why Western nations like Canada or Australia (or European countries) are more willing to be critical of the US, but then with Australia much closer to China and thus more at risk, you'd think that would have some effect.

What Lorenzo and Evan said.

But also,

1. America's political and strategic imperative in the region (basically, do everything possible to screw China), is completely against Australia's national economic interest (basically, keep China as happy as possible – China is our major trading partner, and our trade balance is in the black with them, versus in the red with the USA).

2. the only thing we really get from the US alliance is a big red bulls-eye first-strike target painted on us. North-West cape and Pine Gap are the trigger-finger for US submarines in the hemisphere and the C4I and SIGINT for the hemisphere. In any hot war on this side of the planet, they are the first things an enemy of the USA must take out.

3. The US keeps dragging us into dodgy war after dodgy war, on dodgy dossiers. Weapons of mass deception, anyone? I'm old enough to remember all the vietnam BS. About the only one you didn't drag us into was invading Grenada – because getting us to invade a commonwealth country with a democratically elected government would have been a bit far, even for you. We don't actually have a foreign policy, we are a damn client state, a sidekick, although increasingly on the world stage, "minion" would be the better term – not on the side of the angels.

(Not that we aren't a bully too – we should be more like the kiwis.)


(4) Bitter experience of big brother Great Britain proving unable to offer much help the last time the sh*t hit the fan

As an Australian, you should know that the "obligation to consult" is not a solidly agreed upon interpretation. In 2017 your PM said it was an obligation to defend, and your FM said the obligation to consult. Given that it seems like it is your PM who usually sends off the troops, presumably it is whatever your current PM says it means.

But really, it is very hard to see how Australia gets attacked by a major player and the U.S. doesn't get involved. Any aggressor toward Australia would likely attack U.S. forces in the area, simply on the principal that you don't leave large hostile forces on your flank: similar to Japanese thinking in WW2.

ANZUS (or maybe A-US as the NZ part is a bit up in the air) is a fuzzy treaty for sure. But that is generally the case with defense treaties. With the same general type of treaty, you can have the "blank check" the Germans gave to the Austrians in the run up to WW1, or you can get whatever you call what France (who had the Treaty of Mutual Guarantee with Czechoslovakia) did in the run up to Munich in 1938.


But really, is that so different from Canada? They have been dragged into the same wars, they suffer the same blowback (see the Meng saga). I find this explanation unconvincing.

@Sense – If that was true it would be true for Canada as well, a country that has defined itself against America since its inception.

@Lorenzo- For 1) and 2) – Canada?

Australia is in a uniquely precarious position as a colonialist regional power that has always relied on the superpower of the day for (at least the reassuring guarantee of) its continued existence.

The empire was good for Australia because we just *were* subjects, and there was little difference in *our* minds between Britain and us. The Americans are, in our minds, more precarious allies for a number of reasons. Firstly, whatever shared identity we have is from a language bestowed by a coloniser whom we have viewed very differently (as tyrants vs mother). Else, pop culture and a frontier. However, U.S. pop culture arrived at the same time that immigration gave us a multitude of non-Anglo traditional cultures that have always sat tenuously with the universality of U.S pop culture. Especially tenuously since we don't really assimilate immigrants into some standard Anglo/pop culture like what the U.S. seems to do.

These two points in conjunction begin to explain why the Australians (and new Zealanders) are quick to revert to either a) sad dreams of rekindling some pre fall of Singapore British friendship, or else b) keeping an eye out for the next top dog. Furthermore any sign of weakness in the U.S. Alliance will be seen as a reason to swap to China. Controversially, I'd hazard that this is in part due to the fact that we really don't have a very strong cultural link to America. In fact, the ideological inconsistency involved with a move to a Chinese alliance has only recently come to the fore, since it was the U.S. that in recent years was seen as the great destabilising and corrosive influence on our democracy. To a lesser extent this has also been true of the uk. Now it is China that appears so, thank heavens.

I speak only as a young Australian citizen.

@T. Greer

Speaking for the Canadians, I would say there's a lot less resentment over being dragged into wars than I would expect there to be in Australia (in theory, I've never visited Australia to check). I think this is mostly because we avoided ground-level involvement the most hard and controversial wars (thinking Gulf War 2 and Vietnam here).
Of the wars we did participate in, the Korean War is generally viewed as a 'good' war by 70+% of Canadians today, though I'm not sure what opinions were like at the time. I haven't seen any polling on the Balkans wars but my general sense is that most people view them similarly, though this may be skewed by me living in an area with a large Croatian-Canadian population and a Family with armed forces connections.
Afghanistan was a genuine source of strain in the relationship but even there most Canadians didn't resent getting involved in the first place- we were largely on-board with avenging 9/11- it was only when it turned from 'Avenge 9/11' to 'Rebuild Afghanistan in our own image with a decade-long occupation' that we felt we'd gotten more than we'd bargained for.
It's true that Canada was involved in Vietnam and Gulf War 2 in other ways but since we didn't have troops on the ground that's pretty much out of sight out of mind for the average man in the street.

I think it's fair to say that Canada and Australia should not be treated identically in this case. Canada has far stronger ties to the US than Australia does and also a fundamentally stronger sense of geopolitical security (no Asian power has ever tried to invade them).

Also, how have these opinions changed over time? That would answer a large part of the question, namely is this something new (and therefore likely related to either Trump foreign policy and/or the rise of China) or is this a longstanding situation (and therefore likely related to general cultural/economic distance)?


Completely off topic question, but: Are you going to be in the San Francisco area this week or next week? I remember you mentioning something to that line several months ago, but unfortunately can't pinpoint the source of that info anymore. I'll be traveling in the SF Bay Area during this time and would like to attend your meetup.

Thank you,

This post is now almost three months old, but when it was new nobody suggested the explanation that seems most likely to me; so it may still be useful to suggest it. The key is in the question being asked. Nobody is being asked how dependable an ally the US are in absolute terms. Everyone is being asked which country is their most dependable ally in relative terms.

Australians have three allies plausibly competing for the top spot: the US (38%), New Zealand (19%) and the UK (17%). Canadians are a little more likely to pick the US (46%) because they have only one plausible alternative: the UK (14%).

Who else could the Japanese think of? If not the US (63%), they must go for "Don't know" (16%) or the bleak "None" (11%).

That's 27% of Japanese respondents not naming any dependable ally, compared to 11% of Canadians and 12% of Australians. These figures cannot prove anything about a question that wasn't asked, but they're certainly consistent with the hypothesis that the Australians doubt their US allies less than the Japanese. It's just that they also have a couple others trusted allies, while the Japanese don't.