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After the Bell: Now for the good news on international relations — we live in an à la carte world

After the Bell: Now for the good news on international relations — we live in an à la carte world
From Left: US President Joe Biden. (Photo: David Paul Morris / Bloomberg) | Chinese head of state Xi Jinping. (Photo: Lintao Zhang / Getty Images)

Unsurprisingly, people around the world want Western values and security, but also Eastern trade. And they want the West and the East to damn well sort out their differences.

I don’t know why I’m so obsessed with polls; they are usually so inaccurate. The most recent political polls in the US show former president Donald Trump ahead in a race against current President Joe Biden, which reminds me of the day Biden won the election in 2020. And, as it happens, the day Trump won in 2016.

The imprecision of polls derives from well-known prejudices: people often don’t tell pollsters the truth even when they are assured their identity will not be revealed. And then there is the possibility of sampling error, non-response bias, response bias, correlation bias and coverage bias. It just goes on and on.

And yet somehow, polls are massively popular, in the sense that people are interested in their findings, like bets with bookies. I suspect that knowing some kind of truth is better than knowing no truth at all.

Anyway, we have two recent polls on different questions of international relations. The first was conducted by a company called Morning Consult, and it was drawn up in the run-up to the meeting this week between Biden and the Chinese head of state, Xi Jinping. The results seem to show that Chinese antipathy to the US is falling, which is good news. 

In April 2022, more than 80% of Chinese respondents said they viewed the US as an enemy, according to the poll. But by October 2023, that number had fallen to less than 50%, which the pollsters speculated was probably because of the lack of growth in the Chinese economy.

Worryingly, the proportion of Americans who share that view has not declined and is still around 60%. But the good news is that 75% of respondents on both sides said the leaders should work to resolve tensions.

A much wider and larger poll has just been conducted by the European Council on Foreign Relations — a survey of attitudes towards a future world order, including Chinese power, the condition of the West, and global support for Ukraine. Interestingly, SA was part of the survey.

On the broad question of whether respondents were “optimistic” about the future of their country, the differences are stunning. About 47% of Americans are “pessimistic” about the future of their country, but almost everywhere in developing countries, people are wildly positive: 86% in India, 74% in Indonesia, 70% in China. The standout pessimists in the developing world are Brazil with 40% optimistic and — you guessed it — SA, with only 30% optimistic.

Around the world, and even in most developing countries, most lean towards Western security and values. The giveaway question was, “Other than your own country, where would you like to live?” Just 5% of citizens from non-Western countries would choose to live in China, given the opportunity, compared to 56% selecting the US or a country within the EU.

When it comes to the push, Western values still rule, but not entirely. Large proportions of developing countries are pretty warm to the idea of more Chinese economic activity in their country: 74% in Russia, 60% in both Saudi Arabia and SA, and 53% in Indonesia.

According to a trio of foreign policy experts – Timothy Garton Ash, Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard – the findings suggest that Western dominance of the international system and the bipolar framing of major foreign policy from Washington and Brussels will not hold against a backdrop of stirring multipolarity.

Unsurprisingly, people around the world want Western values and security, but also Eastern trade. And they want the West and the East to damn well sort out their differences. We live in an à la carte world, the trio of experts exclaim, borrowing a phrase coined, I think, by FT’s Foreign Editor Alec Russell.

And that is wholly welcome and understandable. DM

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