Argument

In the Post-Pandemic Cold War, America Is Losing Europe

In the growing confrontation with China, Europe is starting to take sides—just not America’s.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.S. President Donald Trump, and Chinese President  Xi Jinping at the first session of the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7, 2017.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.S. President Donald Trump, and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the first session of the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7, 2017. Pool/Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic has opened the world’s eyes to the true nature of the Chinese regime, countless articles have told us in recent weeks. And perhaps they are right. But in Europe, it is the U.S. response to the virus, even more so than China’s, that is deeply unsettling politicians and the wider public.

A new poll from the Körber Foundation, released on Monday, is the latest evidence of this. The results are astonishing—and should give pause to anyone in Washington who sees a robust, united U.S.-led front against China emerging in the wake of this crisis.

The survey shows that Germans are now almost equally divided on whether Washington or Beijing is the more important partner, with 37 percent choosing the United States and 36 percent China. This represents a significant shift compared with Körber’s last survey in September 2019, when Germans gave the United States a commanding 26 percentage-point edge over China.

This doesn’t mean that Germans are giving China a free pass. As many as 71 percent agree that more transparency from the Chinese government would have reduced the impact or even prevented the pandemic from spreading. Yet only 36 percent say their opinion of China has worsened, compared with 73 percent whose view of the United States has deteriorated in the crisis.

What does this mean? First, some caveats. Few people expect transparency from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). They hold the United States to a higher standard and are thus more easily disappointed when Washington fails.

Moreover, German views of the United States have been among the most negative in all of Europe ever since President Donald Trump entered the White House. That was also the case under President George W. Bush, only for opinions to swing back sharply into positive territory as soon as Barack Obama replaced him. The German public is fickle, and—rightly or wrongly—its views of the United States are heavily influenced by the person sitting in the Oval Office.

“German attitudes towards the U.S. were in free fall before the corona crisis,” Nora Müller, the executive director for international affairs at Körber, told Foreign Policy. “Doubts about the Trump administration’s management of the pandemic and a perceived absence of U.S. global leadership have obviously aggravated the alienation.”

German politicians, on the other hand, must take broader considerations into account when balancing the relationship with Washington and Beijing. The United States is a democracy that shares essential values with Europe. China is not. The United States has guaranteed the security of Germany and other European countries for 75 years. China spent a large part of that period preoccupied with itself.

But the world is changing. We may be at the dawn of an Asian century. Politicians in Germany and elsewhere in Europe see the geopolitical arc shifting, and this affects their calculations. They see a CCP that covered up the virus in its early weeks and then, after it spread around the world, employed an aggressive propaganda and disinformation campaign to try to shift the narrative in its favor. They also see how the CCP successfully contained the virus at home—albeit with tactics that would not be acceptable in liberal democracies—once it set its mind to it. Because of that, the Chinese economy is likely to bounce back faster.

When they look to the United States, they see chaos—a country where even in the face of a disease that has killed more than 91,000 Americans, politicians are unable to put aside partisan sniping and come together. They see an administration that eschews science and global cooperation when they are needed most. And they see a president who seems ready to take a scorched-earth approach to the U.S.-China relationship if that’s what it takes to rescue his flagging reelection hopes.

Importantly, Trump is not seen in Europe as the cause of U.S. dysfunction but rather a symptom or accelerator of it. If Joe Biden is sitting in the White House come January, the crippling partisan divide will still be there. And so will the economic devastation left by a crisis that Americans—after decades of ever smaller government—seem totally unprepared to cope with. Working with the United States may be easier once Trump is gone. But for how long? The U.S. response to the coronavirus has deepened these doubts in Germany and other European countries.

According to a survey by the British Foreign Policy Group this month, just 28 percent of Britons said they trusted the United States to act responsibly in the world, a fall of 13 percentage points since January. Conservative voters, who previously expressed outsized levels of trust in the United States, are responsible for the largest loss of confidence.

A survey by the Ifop polling group asked French people this month which countries were best placed to confront the challenges of the coming decades. Just 3 percent chose the United States. An April poll by the SWG research institute showed that 36 percent of Italians surveyed believed their country should focus on developing close ties with China, compared with 30 percent who chose the United States.

In the Körber poll, a younger generation raised on the Iraq War, tales of NSA spying, and now Trump showed the most skepticism toward the United States. Among Germans in the 18-34 age group, 46 percent said it was important to have close ties to China against 35 percent who picked the United States.

This does not mean that Europe is heading toward a policy of equidistance between the United States and China. Concern about the direction in which President Xi Jinping is taking China—more state control, more surveillance, more intimidation abroad—has been building for years. But it does mean that Europe will continue to be wary about siding with Washington against Beijing.

Do you agree to take on the school bully together with your old friend if that friend is unreliable? What if the friend has started bullying you himself—as the United States has done with Europe on the 5G question and appears to be doing now with the United Kingdom by insisting it choose between a trade deal with Washington and one with Beijing. You probably don’t want to take on the bully with this friend.

Instead, Europe is hedging. It is currently in negotiations with Beijing on a comprehensive investment agreement and joint measures to combat climate change. Clinching these deals is a long shot. But if it does come together, just as the U.S. election is taking place, it will send another signal that the United States is losing Europe on its No. 1 foreign-policy priority: China.

Senior Visiting Fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

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