Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Joining the weasels? 

There's some consternation about a foreign policy survey released in Australia early this week. "Australians say U.S. policies as threatening as Islamic fundamentalism," thunders "USA Today". "A majority of Australians ranked the United States near the bottom of their list of favored allied." (hat tip: Jeffery A Norris)

While the survey's results are somewhat ambiguous, it's important to put them in some perspective.

1) The Lowy Institute for International Policy is a left-wing think-tank, which goes unnoted in press reports (one gets the impression that if a similar study was conducted by one of Australia's right-wing think-tanks like the Centre for Independent Studies or the Institute of Public Affairs, the media would certainly alert us to the political inclinations of the study's creators). Now, whether the Lowy Institute is or isn't left-wing ideally shouldn't matter in this context...

2) ...except, as Greg Sheridan, the foreign affairs editor at the "Australian" comments, "public opinion is a wonderfully plastic commodity. In the hands of academic interpreters it can be bent and shaped to prove almost anything. The Lowy Institute poll on Australians' attitudes to international issues shows how the narrow sets of views held by foreign policy academics in Australia will inevitably replicate themselves in answers to questions designed by such folk. In other words, this poll tells us little about public opinion but a great deal about think-tank opinion."

Here's some examples that Sheridan quotes for the Institute's "you get out what you put in" approach to the survey:
"On international law, respondents were asked to choose between these alternatives: 'Australia should rely on international law even though decisions may go against us OR Australia should do whatever benefits us the most in any given situation regardless of what international law says.'

"Not surprisingly, the first alternative gets the majority vote. But what would the answer be to a question phrased: If a group of officials from non-democratic countries with appalling human rights records operating in a UN committee directed Australia to do something the majority of its people thought was wrong, should Australia follow international law even though it involves doing wrong or should it do what it believes is right? ...

"The pollsters' question on Taiwan is even more loaded. Respondents were asked to agree or disagree with the proposition: 'Australia should act in accordance with our security alliance with the US even if it means following them to war with China over the independence of Taiwan.'

"Not surprisingly, a majority would not sign a blank cheque for a hypothetical war. A more realistic question would have been: Do you think China is justified in mounting a military invasion of Taiwan, even if it causes tens of thousands dead, in order to reunify it with mainland China?"
3) other questions are not as blatantly skewed, but even then it pays to be careful (you can download the 26-page study in PDF from the Institute's website), if only because polling on foreign policy tends to produce rather schizophrenic results.

Take for instance the "fact" that the United States is towards the bottom of the list of countries Australians have positive feelings about. Forgetting that "towards the bottom" still gives you 58% of Australians with positive feelings towards America, if you select a list of 15 countries and regions, majority of which enjoy very cordial and long-standing - not to mention relatively uncontroversial - relations and historic ties with Australia (such as New Zealand, the UK, or Singapore) and include only a handful of problematic entries (such as Iran and Iraq), you are quite likely in the current heated political climate to end up with the United States towards the bottom of the list.

And while 68% think that Australia takes too much notice of the views of the US in making its foreign policy, 72% think that the US-Australian alliance in either very of fairly important for Australia's security (curiously, even 53% of those with negative attitude towards the US agree).

The survey also - sadly - reflects some highly romanticized views of the United Nations. 65% of Australians have positive feelings about the UN, and 33% think that Australia takes too little into account of the UN's views when conducting its foreign policy. Yet when asked about Australia's right to use armed forces outside its territory, 84% agreed it should be done "to prevent genocide and gross abuse of human rights on the scale of Rwanda, Kosovo or Sudan" - disregarding the fact that in the first two instances the UN did nothing and in the third it is doing nothing - thus creating a major moral quandary for the pro-UN, anti-genocide majority. In defense of Australia, I should note that opinion polls in the US also show substantial, almost religious, faith in and support for the United Nations (see for example here and here).

In the end, there's a lot about those sorts of surveys that's quite meaningless. Of course people prefer peace to war, would rather have international consensus than unilateralism, and think we should do more to improve the environment or eliminate poverty. But when it comes to the crunch, reality tends to be the enemy of the abstract.

As Poles say, situation is critical but not serious.


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