ONE WINTER'S DAY at the end of the '50s, in the Melbourne suburbs of my childhood, I received in the mail an official-looking certificate on thick paper with impressive calligraphy announcing, grandly, that I had been accepted as a member of the National Geographic Society. It was signed by "Melville Bell Grosvenor, President and Editor". The main (indeed the only practical) benefit of my membership was that I was eligible to receive each month, in its familiar black and yellow binding, theNational Geographic magazine. My grandfather, the author of this birthday gift, believed firmly in the educational benefits of exposure to the wonders of the planet.
But, as each new issue arrived, it was soon clear that what really fired my imagination were not the exotic descriptions of "My Life with Africa's Little People", or "Deep Diving by Bathyscape off Japan", or even "Russia as I Saw it by Vice President Richard M. Nixon (also a Member of the National Geographic Society)". No – sadly, shallowly – the pages to which I turned as soon as the magazine hit the letterbox, the landscape in which my mind mostly wandered, were the advertisements framing the articles.
In that pre-globalised world, these showed astonishing wonders: the finned glories of the Lincoln Continentals, the Cadillacs and the Ford Thunderbirds (so much more desirable than our family's black FJ Holden); refrigerators that made their own ice; 23-inch Picture Window Zenith Colour Televisions, shown in elegant apartments that looked out at New York skyscrapers; Frigidaire Dishwashers (who had heard of such a thing? "New for 1960 to sparkle, wash and sanitise your dishes"); and the Bell Telephones that were available, unimaginably, not just in black but in pink, blue, white and red.
These advertisements reinforced a new image of America seeping into my pre-adolescent mind from the recently arrived television shows – Leave it to Beaver, the Mickey Mouse Club – and edging out the primal images of cowboys and indians from the radio serials of a few years before. The people depicted were more or less like us, but they lived in a world that was bigger, brighter and much more generously endowed – a world, in other words, like paradise. Paradise was clearly different from heaven (or certainly from the heaven of my Summerhill Road Methodist Sunday School theology). Heaven was calm, pensive, slightly tedious, shrouded in a pale mist. But paradise was like us, only more so. On a grander scale, and in richer abundance. The idea of paradise always has a foundation in reality, and America was sufficiently like us to qualify. So my first America was not the America of Lincoln or FDR, but the America of postwar plenitude. The America of the Springfield Ride-on Mower ("Makes Mowing Fun!" I could only dream).
Mine was probably the last generation of Australians for whom the vision of the United States as a paradise in this sense was possible. Never again would America so dominate the global economy. Soon enough I was a teenager, and reality intervened. The '60s were upon us, and with them the world of the civil rights movement and assassinations and the Vietnam War. Serpents had entered the garden. My views of the United States became more complicated. You could admire the people, be energised by the music and envy the society that delivered such dynamism, but it was no longer paradise.
And the complications continued – as they always will for anyone who looks carefully at the United States. I didn't get to America for many years, but then I lived in Washington, at the heart of it all, and experienced how much more complex the reality was from the imagined America of the Australian mind. I loved the openness and friendliness of the people (even in the tightly buttoned Washington suburbs), the dynamism and optimism of the country and the expansive freedom of the debate. But an Australian friend who lives in the United States comments perceptively that the reason Americans are so friendly to foreigners is that they assume that the rest of the world is in the process of becoming American. That's true – and it is, of course, precisely part of the problem for the rest of us.
THE HISTORY OF Australia's relations with America reflects these complications. It has by no means been smooth sailing – misjudgements, misunderstandings and misreadings have been part of it from the beginning. (A fine short history of the relationship can be found in Peter Edwards' Lowy Institute Paper "Permanent friends: historical reflections on the Australia-American alliance", available at www.lowyinstitute.org.)
Early European settlers arrived on this continent expecting their experience to mirror that of the United States – with a fertile continent opening up in profusion before them. But it wasn't like that. Instead of the Great Lakes and the Great Plains, they found the Great Sandy Desert. One result was to ensure that there was no room in our national character for the "romantic", establishing the central cultural difference between our two societies.
But our uncertainty about our capacity to hold the continent to which we staked claim gave us a great interest from the beginning in what the United States could do for us. When, at Prime Minister Alfred Deakin's invitation, the US Navy – the Great White Fleet – visited the new Commonwealth in 1908, crowds of half a million cheering spectators lined the shores of Sydney Harbour. As the Sydney Morning Herald commented at the time: "It is likely enough that America may be the first line of defence against Asia." The experience of the Second World War – when Curtin turned to Washington for help, "free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom" – and the negotiation of the ANZUS treaty cemented the alliance.
Ever since, one important strand in Australian foreign policy – on the part of both major parties – has been a continuing tension between a fear of the implications for us if the United States loses interest in this part of the world and associated efforts to make sure this does not happen, and a nervous concern about how to manage the US and its expectations of us when it does start paying attention.
The ambivalence is reflected in public attitudes. In February 2005 and June 2006, the Lowy Institute conducted the first two of an annual series of public opinion surveys of Australians' views of the world (details of which can be found on the Lowy Institute website). The Australian public, it turns out, sees the United States with a mixture of dependency, respect, disenchantment and in some cases resentment.
In 2005, we asked respondents to say whether they had positive or negative feelings towards a list of fifteen countries, without being more specific. The United States scored 58 per cent positive feelings (and 39 per cent negative), placing it below ten others on the list, including Japan (84 per cent), China (69 per cent), Malaysia (62 per cent) and Papua New Guinea (60 per cent).
We changed the form of the question in 2006 (largely to conform to the practice of our partners in an international survey) and asked people to give each listed country a score out of 100. We took the mean figure as the overall result, with a score of 50 considered neither positive nor negative. Because the question and the list of countries were slightly different, the two sets of responses are not directly comparable, but this time the United States was out-rated only by Great Britain, Singapore, Japan and Papua New Guinea. Even so, the US score of 62 per cent was, within the margin of error, effectively the same as China's (61 per cent).
These findings match those of other surveys. In 2003, the US-based Pew Research Center conducted a multi-country study of views of the United States. In that survey, 60 per cent of Australian respondents had very favourable (16 per cent) or somewhat favourable (44 per cent) opinions of the US.
The story gets more complicated, however, when you ask Australians about the degree of influence the United States exercises over us. In both Lowy Institute surveys, we asked whether Australia takes too much, too little or the right amount of notice of the views of the US in its foreign policies. About two-thirds of Australians (68 per cent and 69 per cent respectively) thought that, on the whole, we take too much notice, and 29 per cent that we take the right amount of notice.
Those results are consistent with another result from the 2005 survey, which asked respondents to rate a series of potential threats to our vital interests. One of the ten options was "US foreign policies", which rated sixth overall – only marginally less worrying than Islamic fundamentalism and ahead of world population growth, illegal immigration and refugees, and failing countries in our region, with China's growing power coming in last place. (It's hard to get a good "yellow peril" scare going in Australia these days.)
In 2006, a strong majority of Australians (79 per cent) agreed that the United States is playing the role of world policeman more than it should be, and almost as many (69 per cent) thought it did not have the responsibility to play that role at all. This finding is consistent with the 2003 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, which showed that nearly three-quarters of respondents either strongly agreed (38 per cent) or agreed (35 per cent) with the statement that "the United States has too much power in world affairs".
Australian opinion is heavily divided on American trustworthiness. More Australians (19 per cent) lack trust in the United States' capacity to act responsibly in the world than in the potential of China (11 per cent), India (8 per cent) or Japan (7 per cent) to do so, although an equal number (19 per cent) also believe that the United States can be trusted a great deal – more than China and India, and equally with Japan. In general, older respondents are more likely to trust the United States a great deal, and eighteen– to twenty-nine-year-olds are more likely not to trust the United States at all.
A BIG QUESTION, of course, is how much these attitudes are shaped by perceptions of President George W. Bush and his administration. Leaving aside the impact of particular US international policies, President Bush's political style is deeply culturally specific to the United States. He represents a certain form of American exceptionalism to which outsiders can find it hard to relate – a fact that has been reflected in worldwide polling trends. It seems likely that the Bush impact is significant. The Pew poll referred to earlier found that, of the minority of Australians who felt unfavourably about the United States, 53 per cent did so because of President Bush and 40 per cent because of America in general. The same poll found that a significantly higher percentage of those surveyed expressed a favourable opinion of Americans (74 per cent) than of the United States (60 per cent).
But, while the tenor of Australian attitudes to the United States may be ambivalent, there is little doubt about our views of the alliance. When it comes to the question of security, Australians are much more positive about the relationship. In 2006, the alliance was seen either as very important or fairly important by 70 per cent of respondents (if those who think it is somewhat important are included, support for the alliance reaches a whopping 92 per cent). This is essentially the same result as in 2005. People aged fifty and over are 10 to 15 per cent more likely to think the alliance is very important.
These data agree broadly with other surveys conducted within Australia in recent years. The 2004 Australian Election Study found that 83 per cent of respondents saw the ANZUS alliance as either very or fairly important "for protecting Australia's security", and 72 per cent had either a great deal (33 per cent) or a fair amount (39 per cent) of trust in the United States to come to Australia's defence if we were threatened by another country. Switching tack, the same study found only a very small number of respondents – 13.5 per cent – who thought that the United States posed a threat to Australian security.
This may be why, despite their reservations, Australians prefer the United States above others to have global and regional influence. If you've got to have a great power, they seem to be saying, it might as well be this one. Asked in 2006 how influential Australians wanted certain countries to be in the world, Lowy poll respondents gave an average score of 6.1 out of 10 to the United States, ahead of Japan (5.7), China (5.5) and India (5.2). Only the European Union came out better, with a score of 6.6.
Like most Australians, my adult view of the United States is marked by complexity and weighed down by necessary nuance. I know so much more about the world and America than did my childhood self, poring over the product of those Madison Avenue hucksters in the pages of the National Geographic. That gleaming world, those grand streets, those giant, reckless cars are certainly not my idea of heaven. Not even my idea of paradise any longer. But, as a memory of what paradise once was, they reverberate still.