What Europe Thinks ...

Sep 29, 2022

What Europe Thinks ... About the United States and Vice Versa

Public opinion on both sides of the Atlantic about transatlantic relations is warmer since Joe Biden won the US presidency. But a return of a Republican to the White House could end this with a bang.

A graph showing Amercians and Germans judging their countries' bilateral relations as good/bad.
Attribution CC BY

In June 2018, the then French Ambassador to the United States Gerard Araud made a counterintuitive prediction about transatlantic relations: if someone other than Donald Trump were US president, then the relationship between the United States and Europe would not be the same as before his election. “The impression is: if we have a crisis in transatlantic relations, it is because of one person, the president, and at the end of his mandate, everything will come back to a happy normalcy. It is something I do not believe to be true,” he told an audience at the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace.

Four years later—after Trump’s attempts to stay in power despite losing the 2020 election fair and square, the US Capitol insurrection, and the largest war in European since World War II—was he right? In some ways, yes. Public opinion indicates that the relationship is back to normal —just not in quite the same way.

In some respects, things are have returned to the pre-Trump era. According to the Pew Research Center, in Germany, favorability ratings of the United States rose dramatically from 30 percent in 2020 to 57 percent in 2021—about what it was during the presidency of Barack Obama. Between Trump and Biden, the percentage of those saying relations were good rose from 18 to 71 points. Support for the United States is strong across the political spectrum in Germany. According to a recent Forsa poll commissioned by our German edition Internationale Politik, 58 percent think it is a good partner for Germany, and 34 percent do not. Majorities of Germany’s mainstream political parties agree that the United States is a good partner, whereas the far-right (Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD) and far-left (Die Linke) do not.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Americans have had nothing but positive feelings about the relationship with Germany, with 68 percent saying the relationship was “good” in 2017 to 85 percent in 2021, according to Pew. Donald Trump’s claim that there were too many German cars on American roads and his criticism of former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s trade policies as “so protectionist” appears not to have registered at all with the US public. (Merkel didn’t even have an independent trade policy as that is handled at the European Union level.)

However, in other ways, European public opinion toward the United States is more hesitant. In June 2022, when asked whether the United States was a reliable ally, 83 percent said yes. However, 53 percent said the United States was only a “somewhat” reliable ally—much more than the 30 percent who said the United States was “very” reliable. That finding was similar in a number of European countries. Germans—and many Europeans—also have concerns about US democracy. According to Pew, across 16 Western countries, just 17 percent of the public think US democracy is a good model to follow, whereas 57 percent think it used to work, but not anymore, and 30 percent think it was never good. In Germany, 49 percent think the United States democracy works well, and 48 percent think it works “not too well” or “not too well at all.”

America’s Declining Global Role

Europeans have reason to worry about US foreign policy. Despite having vastly different personalities and policies, the foreign policies of Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden have all shared one common theme: how to manage a decline in America’s role in the world. Obama announced the end to the Iraq War. Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreements and began the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Biden rejoined Paris, but went ahead with the Afghanistan withdrawal, despite obvious signs that the Afghan central government couldn't withstand the Taliban alone, who promptly retook power. Europe has benefitted from a muscular American security umbrella in the form of NATO—which Trump threatened to withdraw from. To be sure, Biden’s decision to arm Ukraine to the teeth—to the tune of €25 billion and counting—flies somewhat in the face of this trend. Still, the Biden administration has said that the Ukrainians cannot use its weapons inside Russia and is clear that it does not want to become a party to the conflict.

That decline would play out sharply if Trump returns to the presidency in 2025. If he does, he could withdraw from NATO, as former National Security Adviser John Bolton has predicted. Bolton, like the other so-called adults in the room who attempted to steer Trump away from impulsive and emotional foreign policy decisions, will likely not be there. With the United States out of NATO, Europeans would not be able to count on a massive nuclear umbrella or ground forces to defend against Russia. Despite significantly increasing their defenses in recent years, that would leave many Eastern European countries vulnerable to the kind of military invasions from Russia unleashed on Ukraine.

But even if Biden—or another Democrat—is reelected in 2024, it seems that the domestic appetite for US engagement around the world is waning. The United States is distracted at home by intense political polarization, which affects foreign policy. Foreign policy used to be mostly bipartisan, but now, even the seemingly the least controversial issues have become partisan. For example, the vote approving Finland and Sweden joining NATO drew the “no” votes of 18 House Republicans and Republican Senator Josh Hawley, who subsequently went on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show to explain his position.

In 2017, then Chancellor Angela Merkel proclaimed that the days of Europe relying on the United States and the United Kingdom were mostly gone. “The times in which we could completely depend on others are somewhat over,” she told a crowd at a Munich election rally. “We Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands.” Always careful about her words, she added the caveat “to some extent” (“ein Stück weit”). Still, her sentiment seems to have been prescient. If Trump is elected in 2024, it seems possible that the transatlantic alliance will end with a bang. If Biden or another Democrat continues in power, it won’t end, but given a rising China and a possible confrontation over Taiwan, it seems possible that it could be relegated to the back burner. (That is, if the war in Ukraine draws to a close, which is completely unpredictable.) Still, that prospect is far-off, and in the meantime, feelings are good—just maybe not as warm as they once were, and the prospect of a total break looms.

Luke Johnson is IPQ’s social media editor and a freelance reporter living in Berlin, frequently writing about Eastern Europe. 

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