June 12, 2020 | By Craig Kafura

International Relations and COVID-19: Views from Australia

Much has been made of the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on the state of global affairs and even the future of international politics. The virus has also affected public attitudes and behaviors around the world, as the Council has tracked since February (link to most recent brief here). Beyond views of the coronavirus itself, the pandemic will change how ordinary people think about international exchange and foreign relations. Australia provides a good case study of these changes in public thinking, thanks to Lowy Institute polling conducted April 14-27.

Handling the Outbreak

Compared to other major countries, Australia has seen relatively few coronavirus cases – just over 7,000 since the beginning of the pandemic. At this point, public health officials believe they will “see coronavirus largely disappearing from the country” by July. Given their experience of the pandemic, it may be no surprise that Australians are very confident in their own country’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, with nine in ten Australians (93%) saying they have handled it either very or fairly well. Of the other countries the Lowy poll asks about, Australians see only Singapore as handling the outbreak well (79%). Australians give far worse marks to other countries, with a large majority of saying they have handled the outbreak very or fairly badly, including China (69%), the UK (70%), Italy (84%), and the US (90%).

International Power After the Crisis

International commentators see the crisis as deeply challenging to the United States and Europe, with the high death tolls in both raising alarms that the governments of these countries may not be capable of managing domestic or international problems, both now and after the pandemic. The Australian public broadly shares that assessment, with half saying that the US (53%) and Europe (48%) will emerge from the health and economic crisis less powerful than before. Australians are less pessimistic about Chinese power, with similar proportions expecting China to emerge more powerful (37%) or just as powerful (36%) than beforehand. These results are also less clear-cut than in 2009, when Lowy asked Australians about the effects of the international economic crisis then underway. At the time, most Australians (72%) saw China as emerging from the crisis more powerful than before.

The view that Chinese power is more resilient to the crisis than that of the US or Europe has not made Australians more favorable towards China’s system of government. Quite the opposite: two-thirds (68%) say the way China has handled the COVID-19 outbreak has made them less favorable towards the Chinese system of government; only five percent say it has made them view the Chinese system more favorably. That view may have been reinforced recently by the growing dispute between Beijing and Canberra. An April 26 interview by China’s ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, called Australia’s push for an international investigation of the coronavirus outbreak “dangerous.” Three weeks later, in a move widely seen by commentators as retaliation, Beijing imposed restrictions on Australian exports of beef and barley.

Globalization and International Cooperation

In addition to international politics, the pandemic is likely to impact how nations—both publics and leaders—think about the risks and benefits of globalization. In Australia, support for globalization remains high, with seven in ten (70%) saying that globalization is mostly good for Australia. However, there is a growing minority of Australians who say it has been bad for the country (29%, up from 15% in 2017). For Australians, the COVID-19 pandemic has also reinforced the need for international cooperation. A majority (53%) say the outbreak shows we need more global cooperation, rather than every country putting their own interests first. Only 16 percent say that we need less global cooperation, and that every country should put their own interests first.

Learning from Australia

For those of us looking to understand how the pandemic crisis will shape public attitudes towards international relations, what can we learn from the example of the Australian public? For one, while the United States and Europe are perceived to have done poorly in handling the coronavirus pandemic, China’s handling of the initial outbreak has produced lingering skepticism of Beijing’s behavior, both in Australia and in other nations. That view may limit any reputational gains by China, compared to the benefits the PRC won following the 2008 financial crisis. Additionally, while the crisis has clearly thrown a wrench into the gears of global trade, it’s not clear that the crisis has caused the public to turn against globalization writ large. Still, it is possible that lack of backlash in the Australian example is caused by their strong performance in the crisis, and that countries hit harder by COVID-19 will see larger swings in public opinion. The United States will be a key test of that question. The 2020 Chicago Council Survey, fielding this summer, will aim to provide answers.

About

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.

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