What Europe Thinks ...

October 01, 2020

What Europe Thinks ... About the United States

The Trump presidency has led to an estrangement between the United States and Europe. It is particularly pronounced in Germany, with the younger generation turning away.

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A graph showing German public attitudes to the US and China

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It's probably fair to say that most Europeans have never really warmed to President Donald Trump and nowhere is that truer than Germany, long one of the United States' closest European allies but now probably more estranged from the US than it has been for decades. 

In fact, political relations between the US and Germany have essentially bifurcated. On the one hand, lower and medium-level officials in Berlin and Washington, DC, continue to work closely with each other on a broad range of issues. However, at the top, the diverging views on the value of alliances and multilateralism, combined with a litany of policy differences—including over trade and defense spending—and the seemingly mutual antipathy between President Donald Trump and Chancellor Angela Merkel have led to a breakdown of trust that reveals itself in tweets, speeches, and policy choices on both sides of the Atlantic.

However, there is another marker of transatlantic estrangement—one that has received far less attention: In a reflection of the political dynamics at hand, the turbulence of the past four years has led to a significant deterioration of German attitudes toward the US. Consider the following data: In October 2016, 35 percent of Germans thought that the US constituted Germany’s most important foreign policy partner. Four years later, that number has decreased to a mere 10 percent. In October 2016, only 7 percent of Germans thought of relations with the United States as a major foreign policy challenge. By mid-November, four weeks and one presidential election later, this number had risen to 30 percent, and has remained high on German minds ever since.

The President Matters…

To be sure, President Trump is a major factor. Data from the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes survey show that public opinion towards the US correlates with the image of a given US president: Accordingly, Germans’ attitude toward the US deteriorated in parallel to decreasing confidence in President George W. Bush, but bounced back under President Obama, in whom 93 percent of Germans expressed confidence when he entered into office in 2009.

It should not come as a surprise therefore that public sentiment toward the US once more deteriorated under President Trump: As part of a representative survey conducted for The Berlin Pulse in September 2019, 87 percent of Germans stated that a successful bid for re-election by President Trump would be negative for their country. And Germans are not alone: Confidence in the incumbent US president hit new lows across many European countries, a trend that was spurred by America’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

However, the fact that only 26 percent of Germans presently have a favorable view of the US, makes them among the most critical populations in Europe. In France (31 percent), Spain (40 percent), the United Kingdom (41 percent), and Italy (45 percent), Trump’s United States is faring better. And in Poland, the public seems unmoved by the events of the last four years, with 79 percent professing a positive view.

…But There Are Structural Issues

There are a number of structural causes driving German estrangement from the US in particular:

To start with, Germans appear to have little appreciation for the transatlantic relationship as a strategic asset. While the foreign policy community keeps emphasizing the importance of NATO, for instance, Germans by and large remain somewhat unconvinced. In September 2019, merely 52 percent of Germans considered US troops stationed in Germany as an asset to their national security—in contrast to 85 percent of US citizens. Similarly, only one in five respondents thought that Germany should continue to rely on the US nuclear umbrella, with a plurality favoring the highly unrealistic option of seeking nuclear protection from France and the UK (40 percent) or the rather dangerous idea of foregoing nuclear protection altogether (31 percent). In other words, the security partnership between the US and Germany—a long-standing and, for the time being, indispensable pillar of Berlin’s foreign and security policy—cannot rely on steadfast support from the German population.

In addition, there is some evidence that Germans are wondering whether or not they wish to continue forming part of a political “West.” In late 2019, only a slight majority of 55 percent preferred that Germany remain anchored in the “West,” with 31 percent supporting a neutral foreign policy. Strikingly, at 47 percent support for a “Western” foreign policy was lowest among those aged 18-34. A similar pattern became visible in the context of a survey conducted in April 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 crisis, with Germans being nearly evenly split on whether close relations with the US (37 percent) or China (36 percent) were more important. While a striking result in itself—in September 2019, responses had come in at 50 percent in favor of close relations with the US—again it was the younger generation that stood out as least attached to the US: Among the cohort of 18-34-year-olds, only 35 percent leaned toward Washington, with 46 percent viewing close relations to Beijing as more important.

A Biden Jump?

With the US election approaching, how will the result affect public opinion in Germany?

To be sure, as in 2009, the transition from a deeply unpopular Republican president to a Democrat more in tune with European attitudes would likely lead to a more positive attitude. Simultaneously, a Biden presidency would have little impact on the structural factors mentioned above. In addition, the fact that it is the younger generation, i.e. those traditionally more sympathetic to the Democratic Party, that feels least positive about relations with the US, suggests that this rebound effect could be less pronounced.

President Trump winning re-election, meanwhile, would take transatlantic relations into truly uncharted waters. German policy-makers would likely accelerate efforts to strengthen European security. However, given the long-term nature of such an undertaking, in the short- to medium-term the gap between public opinion and foreign policy would likely persist, if not increase. There is a real danger that calls for a loosening of transatlantic ties, presently articulated by the populist fringes, could reach the center of German politics.

Ronja Scheler is Program Director International Affairs at Körber Stiftung.

Joshua Webb is the former editor of Körber Stiftung’s The Berlin Pulse.

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