The Real Trans-Atlantic Gap
Americans and Europeans see eye to eye on more issues than one would expect from reading the New York Times or Le Monde. But while elites on both sides of the Atlantic bemoan a largely illusory gap over the use of military force, biotechnology, and global warming, a survey of U.S. and European public opinion highlights sharp differences over global leadership, defense spending, and the Middle East that threaten the future of the last century's most successful alliance.
Periodic angst about the state of trans-Atlantic ties is perhaps as old as the relationship itself. But the stresses unleashed by the September 11 attacks and their aftermath have brought anxieties about relations between the United States and Europe to a remarkably fevered pitch. Witness the intellectual uproar on both sides of the Atlantic caused by commentator Robert Kagan's article "Power and Weakness," published in the June/July 2002 issue of Policy Review. Drawing on growing European complaints about U.S. unilateralism and American countercharges of European unreliability and weakness, Kagan struck a trans-Atlantic nerve with his assertion that "on major strategic and international questions today, Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus: They agree on little and understand one another less and less."
Periodic angst about the state of trans-Atlantic ties is perhaps as old as the relationship itself. But the stresses unleashed by the September 11 attacks and their aftermath have brought anxieties about relations between the United States and Europe to a remarkably fevered pitch. Witness the intellectual uproar on both sides of the Atlantic caused by commentator Robert Kagan’s article "Power and Weakness," published in the June/July 2002 issue of Policy Review. Drawing on growing European complaints about U.S. unilateralism and American countercharges of European unreliability and weakness, Kagan struck a trans-Atlantic nerve with his assertion that "on major strategic and international questions today, Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus: They agree on little and understand one another less and less."
For the most part, this fierce rhetorical battle has been waged among elites. But these elites reside in democracies and, in the end, the opinions of regular citizens do have some influence on the course of grand policy. What do the American and European publics think about the roles of their respective nations? Do they see a growing trans-Atlantic breach on basic issues of security and terrorism? Are European publics as critical of the United States as are their intellectuals and politicians? Do American voters view Europe as a reliable and favored ally or, like some in Washington would argue, as a barrier and restraint on U.S. efforts to stop terrorism?
To answer these and other questions, the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (CCFR) and the German Marshall Fund of the United States undertook a detailed study of U.S. and European public opinion on foreign affairs. For the last 28 years, CCFR has conducted a quadrennial survey of U.S. opinion and published the results in Foreign Policy. For the first time, six European countries — Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Poland — were added this year to provide comparative data on European attitudes.
Based on the bitter harvest of op-ed pieces and news articles during the last year, one would expect dramatically differing views on the goals and means of foreign policy, as well as on specific hot-button issues such as globalization, biotechnology, and the Middle East. For those who fear a permanent split between the United States and Europe, there is good news: Americans and Europeans see eye to eye on more issues than one would expect from reading the New York Times or Le Monde.
At the same time, areas of disagreement between the European and American publics are significant. On four crucial issues — threat perception, leadership, defense spending, and the Arab-Israeli conflict — both Europeans and Americans harbor the mutual acrimony of their respective elite commentators. Americans and Europeans have always disagreed on these four issues. However, the trans-Atlantic alliance held together during the Cold War because these differences in perception and priorities were subordinated to the fight against a common enemy. Now, these points of conflict have moved from the background to center stage and could potentially imperil future cooperation on major strategic challenges in Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere.
WARM FEELINGS, GOOD INTENTIONS
By almost any standard, the results of our study should soothe the nerves of committed Atlanticists and perhaps deflate the rhetorical excesses of those who have thrived on forecasting a fundamental split between Europe and the United States. First, and most important, Americans and Europeans seem to like each other. When asked to measure their warmth toward various countries on a 100-point thermometer, Americans give Germany a 61 rating and Great Britain a 76. In both cases, American warmth toward these leading European countries is significantly higher than for all other countries except Canada. Europeans give equally warm ratings to the United States, with a high of 68 from Great Britain and a low of 59 from the Netherlands. Even French respondents rate the United States above most of their European neighbors (though below the European Union).
Moreover, Americans and Europeans want their governments to work together as much as possible. Almost 80 percent of Americans want Europeans to exert strong leadership in the world. When asked whether the United States should share more decision making with Europe, even if it means the United States will have to compromise at times, 70 percent of Americans say yes. On the European side, a comfortable majority want to see the European Union (EU) become a superpower like the United States. When asked if the purpose of superpower status should be to compete or cooperate with the United States, 84 percent opt for cooperation. In similar questions, Americans and Europeans almost always choose trans-Atlantic collaboration over the alternatives.
European critics of the United States have often argued that the United States is isolationist. We asked both sides whether their country should take an active part in the world or stay out of world affairs. A large majority of Americans (71 percent) and Europeans (78 percent) chose an active role. But the United States does have its isolationists. According to this survey, 25 percent would stay out of world affairs. However, that response is only slightly greater than the numbers for Germany (23 percent) and the Netherlands (24 percent).
Americans and Europeans also have a broadly shared understanding of global threats and countries where they have critical interests. Not surprisingly, terrorism ranks high for both sides, as does Islamic fundamentalism. But other threats, such as global warming, elicit very similar reactions from Americans and Europeans. There are exceptions to this general agreement, however. For example, 56 percent of Americans believe that China’s rise as a world power poses a critical or extremely important threat, compared with 18 percent of Europeans.
How about support for multilateral institutions? Again, American and European views are quite similar. When asked if the United Nations should be strengthened, 77 percent of Americans say yes, compared with 75 percent of Europeans. On other questions related to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, NATO, and other international institutions, no sharp trans-Atlantic differences were evident.
One of the most interesting results of this study concerns attitudes about the use of military power. When asked a series of hypothetical questions about the use of military force, Americans and Europeans respond in very similar ways, belying the argument of Kagan and others that Europe has become a pacifist’s paradise. Strong majorities in both the United States and Europe support using force in many situations. For example, 80 percent of Europeans and 76 percent of Americans agree that military force should be used to uphold international law. Some scenarios concerning the use of force do produce different results. Americans are more supportive of using military action to destroy terrorist camps, while Europeans are much more willing to use force to quell civil wars.
Does that general agreement on the use of force extend to an invasion of Iraq? Yes. Both Americans and Europeans strongly endorse a U.N.-approved invasion that is supported by allies. Absolute opposition to an American invasion is greater in Europe (26 percent) than in the United States (13 percent) but is still modest.
Other data uphold this finding. For Europe, we experimented with eight scenarios for an American invasion of Iraq. One variable in this comparison proved to be very robust. As long as the United Nations supports U.S. actions, Europeans are willing to participate. In Great Britain, support increases by 30 percentage points when we include the United Nations in the formulation. However, no European country gives majority support for an Iraq invasion without U.N. sanction. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s opposition to U.S. intervention in Iraq makes sense if one looks at the weak German support for military action against Saddam Hussein. In our experiment, German support for military action never rises above 41 percent, while opposition figures range from 49 percent to 72 percent, depending on the scenario.
Other, more troubling data counterbalance this good-news story and suggest that trans-Atlantic cooperation could become much more difficult. First, Americans and Europeans may have a shared understanding of global threats, but they disagree on their severity. Second, Americans and Europeans have yet to agree on a formula for sharing global leadership. Third, Americans and Europeans have different ideas of appropriate levels of defense spending. And fourth, Americans and Europeans have starkly dissonant views on the Middle East conflict. Each of these areas is critical to the formation, operation, and focus of an effective trans-Atlantic alliance. Disagreement across all four is cause for significant concern.
Americans and Europeans do rank threats, more or less, in the same order. But Americans find the world much more threatening than do their European counterparts. In particular, Americans believe that terrorism and related threats are much more important than do Europeans. Explanations for these pronounced differences start with the impact of September 11 on the American sense of security. Yet whatever their source, these contrasting perspectives do have direct consequences for policymaking. For at least the last year, U.S. foreign policy has been driven by the belief that serious threats require immediate action. By contrast, European policymakers have argued that the United States is acting precipitously and may be overestimating the risks posed by terrorism and other threats. Europeans may think that Saddam Hussein is a threat because he is developing weapons of mass destruction, but they may not have the same sense of urgency about overthrowing his regime as do Americans.
Not only do Europeans feel relatively more secure and less threatened than Americans, they also feel that the United States is in part to blame for its current vulnerability. One of the most disturbing findings of our survey is that a small majority (55 percent) of Europeans think that U.S. policies contributed to the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.
The Cold War alliance held together for more than 40 years because its members largely agreed on the extent and critical nature of the threats posed by the Soviet Union. Given the current differences in public perceptions of the world, it may be much harder to sustain a long-lasting coalition against a broad set of risks — especially those centered outside Europe and the Mediterranean — as long as Europeans do not feel as exposed as Americans.
Resistance to sharing leadership with Europe, as well as European ambivalence toward a subordinate role, may also stymie a sustainable alliance against terrorism. This issue of joint decision making in the trans-Atlantic relationship has been a persistent concern. But especially since September 11, European policymakers and commentators have criticized U.S. "unilateralism" and a perceived American unwillingness to consult with allies before making major decisions. European elites have a pervasive feeling that they are junior partners who are expected to follow without asking a lot of questions. U.S. officials do not completely disavow this position. Driven by a sense of urgency, U.S. policymakers have less patience for the extended consultations and negotiations that Europeans desire. Even before September 11, U.S. officials were tiring of European criticism on the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court, and other matters.
Europeans would like to do something about the influence gap. When asked whether the United States should remain the sole superpower or if the EU should be a superpower also, 65 percent of Europeans say they would like to see the EU become a peer of the United States. The vast majority of that group believes that EU superpower status will enable Europe to cooperate more effectively, rather than compete, with the United States. The differences within Europe are striking. More than 90 percent of French respondents support EU superpower status (though even in this case, an overwhelming majority see that status as a means for working more closely with the United States). By contrast, only 48 percent of Germans want a European superpower, while 25 percent said that no country, including the United States, should be a dominant force in the world.
Americans, on the other hand, are not interested in sharing their unique position in the world with the EU. In answer to the same question, 52 percent want the United States to be the only major force in the world, and only 33 percent welcome the idea of EU superpower status. As mentioned earlier, Americans want to keep a lock on superpower status, but they are willing to share some decision making with Europeans. Still, it may be easier to agree with the idea of joint decision making when one side perceives the other as weaker and less influential.
This perceived weakness becomes real when one looks at military spending and capabilities. For many years, European governments have reduced or maintained low budgets for the military and defense, arguing that the post–Cold War world poses lesser threats that can be handled more effectively by means other than brute military force. Americans, on the other hand, have argued that Europeans are making a unilateral decision to forgo extensive military cooperation with the United States. Our findings suggest that this tension will not disappear anytime soon.
Europeans may be willing to support the use of force in theory, but they are less interested in spending real money for military purposes. When asked whether defense spending should be expanded, cut, or kept the same, 19 percent of Europeans want to boost military funding, 33 percent want to cut it back, and another 42 percent want to maintain current low defense budgets. By contrast, 44 percent of Americans are willing to spend more on defense, and another 38 percent support current levels of spending, which are already significantly higher than European expenditures.
European proposals for a new form of burden sharing between Europe and the United States have offered new solutions to discrepancies in military power and capabilities. Under this framework, the United States would do the heavy lifting on military matters, while Europe would handle reconstruction, peacekeeping, and other duties that fit European capabilities. We asked Americans and Europeans if they support this division of labor. A majority of Europeans (52 percent) do support it, as opposed to 39 percent of Americans.
The hesitancy to spend money on defense is so strong in Europe that it dampens the European desire for the EU to become a superpower. As noted, a large majority of Europeans would like to see the EU become a superpower like the United States. However, when we asked those who support that position whether they are willing to spend more on their country’s military to achieve that end, public backing for superpower status decreases significantly.
This startling result can be interpreted two ways. Europeans might say they want to be a superpower, but one that uses means other than military force to influence the world. Other data in our survey support this interpretation. Europeans are quite willing to spend money on foreign aid, for example, and a large majority sees economic aid to poor nations as a key tool in combating terrorism. On the other hand, many Americans might look at these data and conclude that Europe will not be a serious partner in overcoming the biggest challenges facing the world. While some American analysts would disagree, most would argue that this resistance to defense spending consigns Europe to a secondary role in U.S. strategic considerations.
The interplay of these three issues and their corrosive effect on trans-Atlantic cooperation comes to the fore when one looks at the Arab-Israeli conflict. For many years, this issue has been a source of tension. European elites criticize Americans for exaggerating threats to Israel’s security and turning their backs on Palestinian suffering. Americans blast European leaders for ignoring the terrorist threats to Israel and for their seeming unwillingness to apply greater accountability to the millions of euros given to Chairman Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian National Authority. European elites express discomfort with American leadership, and Americans wonder why Europe cannot be more supportive of concrete proposals for peace.
When asked to register their "warmth" toward Israel on a 100-point scale, the American response is 55, and the European average is 38. Public support for a Palestinian state indicates another gap in this policy area. A strong majority (72 percent) of Europeans favor such a state, and only 40 percent of Americans do. The European response is fairly consistent among countries, with Italians the most supportive and Poles the least. American respondents also registered the strongest opposition to a Palestinian state by a significant margin, with only Germany coming at all close to the U.S. figure.
Americans have not only quite different opinions about Israel and a proposed Palestinian state but also much stronger feelings about the importance of this conflict to their own security. In our examination of threats, 67 percent of U.S. respondents see military conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors as a critical threat, while only 42 percent of Europeans share this opinion. These results, in fact, parallel a common U.S. charge that Europeans do not have as much at stake in this conflict as the United States and, hence, can afford to propose strategies that could put Israel at risk.
In this concrete case, one can see the basic problems that plague the trans-Atlantic alliance in many other areas. Americans come to the issues with strong loyalties, a keen sense of the threats posed by the situation, and a willingness to support the use of force if other means prove inadequate. Europeans approach issues with less urgency, a commitment to being evenhanded, and a commitment to exhausting all nonmilitary means for solving the problem. Given these differences, U.S. resistance to the idea of sharing leadership with Europeans on this politically and, to Americans, morally, important issue is logical. How can a country work closely with an ally when these significant divisions affect how each analyzes and addresses such a fundamental problem?
CONTAINING THE DAMAGE
Taken together, these four issues have the potential to make the trans-Atlantic alliance much weaker and less effective. Unlike many other issues, they also represent areas where the opinions of policy elites and regular citizens are largely similar. We cannot argue that elites are out of touch with their publics, nor can we hope that those in power will try to shield us from populist opinions.
Moreover, the September 11 attacks and the changes they produced in the United States have heightened the significance of this trans-Atlantic divergence in perceptions. Americans do feel more at risk now than they did before the attacks. They are more willing now to support military action and defense spending. And Americans may have a stronger appreciation for Israel and its challenges in confronting terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism. Europeans have not responded the same way for understandable reasons. Nonetheless, American expectations for its closest allies have been altered. Europeans also have changed expectations. Many expected the United States to be more demanding of its allies but also more willing to consult and engage in truly joint planning. When it became clear that the United States was on a mission that did not provide much room for consultation on strategic objectives and means, Europeans stepped up their criticisms of U.S. unilateralism and hegemony.
These major disagreements are not easily resolved. Threat perceptions will not change in Europe unless some sort of catastrophic terrorist attack hits Berlin, Paris, or London. Without a greater sense of risk, Europeans will unlikely feel compelled to increase defense spending. But without greater European defense capabilities, Americans will not likely be willing to treat Europe as an equal. Nor do we hold out much hope that attitudes — elite or otherwise — on the Arab-Israeli conflict will change any time soon.
Based on the findings of our survey, significant differences within Europe will also threaten trans-Atlantic cooperation. French aspirations for a stronger European Union with superpower status will almost certainly clash with Germany’s and Great Britain’s more limited vision of Europe.
Britain’s willingness to follow the American lead in applying military power will meet resistance from both the French, who are less enamored with U.S. leadership, and the Dutch and Germans, who have a weaker appetite for armed conflict.
These strains, however, need not lead to a gradual dissolution of the trans-Atlantic alliance. As we have emphasized several times, Americans and Europeans want to work together. Americans view Europe as relatively more important than Asia and as a potential ally in addressing a wide range of challenges. Europeans, for their part, show few signs of anti-Americanism. They increasingly question U.S. strategies, as Chancellor Schroeder demonstrated during the recent German electoral campaign. But, based on our data, this questioning comes from a desire for a more equal relationship rather than a desire to cease cooperation.
An ever stronger set of trans-Atlantic economic and cultural ties also supports this commitment to cooperation on both sides. The rise of the U.S.-European corporation formed out of mergers like Daimler and Chrysler is only one sign of how integrated the two business communities are becoming. Trade disputes arise frequently, but these conflicts are small compared with the overall commercial traffic across the Atlantic. On a range of social and cultural issues, Americans and Europeans are also growing closer together. In our study, we found a remarkable degree of agreement, even on controversial issues like global warming and biotechnology.
These common economic interests and shared values may be enough to preserve a strong trans-Atlantic relationship in the face of the differences we have highlighted. Americans and Europeans are not from different planets. Their worldviews differ in important ways, but they also stand on the same ground in many other areas. The challenge for political leaders in the United States and Europe will be to find areas where shared perspectives are strong enough to offset their few — but very strong — differences.
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