Analysis

Europeans Want to Stay Out of the New Cold War

New polling shows that Europeans think a struggle between Washington and Beijing is unavoidable—but want no part of it.

By , the chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria, and , the co-founder and director of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
French President Emmanuel Macron gestures next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese President Xi Jinping following their meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris on March 26, 2019.
French President Emmanuel Macron gestures next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese President Xi Jinping following their meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris on March 26, 2019. LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images

The new Indo-Pacific security alliance dubbed AUKUS—announced last week among the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia—is a clear sign of a new cold war, pitting the free world against an axis of authoritarianism centered on China. As in the last cold war, the democracies of Europe are coordinating their efforts in response to the confrontation. This time, however, Europeans’ priority seems to be to stay out of it.

That’s what a new survey by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) in 12 European Union member states appears to indicate. Nearly two-thirds of respondents expressed the view that there is a new cold war developing between China and the United States. Only 15 percent disagreed. But this new confrontation has a twist: Most Europeans do not feel that their own states are part of the new cold war. This reveals significant disparities of opinion between political leaders and their citizens.

In fact, only 15 percent of respondents to ECFR’s survey in Europe indicated that they felt that their country is definitely or probably in a cold war with China, while 59 percent believe their country is uninvolved. There are nuances between different member states, but the same broad picture emerges: In every country polled, more people deny that a new cold war is taking place between their country and China than agree it might be happening.

The new Indo-Pacific security alliance dubbed AUKUS—announced last week among the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia—is a clear sign of a new cold war, pitting the free world against an axis of authoritarianism centered on China. As in the last cold war, the democracies of Europe are coordinating their efforts in response to the confrontation. This time, however, Europeans’ priority seems to be to stay out of it.

That’s what a new survey by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) in 12 European Union member states appears to indicate. Nearly two-thirds of respondents expressed the view that there is a new cold war developing between China and the United States. Only 15 percent disagreed. But this new confrontation has a twist: Most Europeans do not feel that their own states are part of the new cold war. This reveals significant disparities of opinion between political leaders and their citizens.

In fact, only 15 percent of respondents to ECFR’s survey in Europe indicated that they felt that their country is definitely or probably in a cold war with China, while 59 percent believe their country is uninvolved. There are nuances between different member states, but the same broad picture emerges: In every country polled, more people deny that a new cold war is taking place between their country and China than agree it might be happening.

Just as striking is the fact that, when it comes to a confrontation with Russia or China, Europeans tend to see Brussels and not their own countries as part of the new cold war—and therefore could potentially see it as the United States’ ally in this conflict. Across the EU as a whole, 31 percent believe that the bloc is probably or definitely in a cold war with China—meaning that twice as many people think the EU is in a cold war with China than think this of their own country. And, on Russia, a plurality say that the EU is engaged in a cold war: 44 percent agree that it is taking place, while only 26 percent disagree. The remainder are unsure whether there is a cold war between the EU and China or Russia.

While it is too early to know what the long-term consequences of these dynamics will be, it is clear that, in the short term, any portrayal of EU-U.S. relations as being somehow aligned vis-à-vis China and Russia is not consistent with public opinion. And, from our polling, it appears that four visible cleavages are now responsible for dividing Europe and the traditional trans-Atlantic alliance.

The first of these is Washington, and the Biden administration’s framing of the challenges posed by China and Russia. Their depiction of a “cold war” scenario, in which the West stands united against autocracy, does not reflect European views. Firstly, ECFR’s dataset reveals that a majority of Europeans do not see China as a threat to their way of life. In 1948, ahead of the power struggle between the United States and Soviet Union, the philosopher Hannah Arendt identified “the most essential political criterion for judging the events of our time: will it lead to totalitarian rule or will it not?” This is not the way most Europeans judge political events today. They do not believe that the distinction between democracies and autocracies is one that structures the world. The largest share of respondents to ECFR’s poll think that the nature of a particular political regime does not sufficiently explain governments’ failure or success to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic or climate change. Even on the issue of contributing to global security, only 50 percent agree that democracies do more than autocracies, while 36 percent believe that the regime type does not make a difference.

The next division facing policymakers, hoping for public backing in the event of conflict, is the lack of agreement among Europeans over whether an existential threat even exists. During the 20th-century Cold War, people were willing to rearrange their priorities for the sake of protection from Soviet tanks or a nuclear holocaust. Few Europeans think China has the power to pose such a threat: Only 5 percent of Europeans of the opinion that China “rules the world.” Possibly as a result, a survey carried out by ECFR last year showed that just 1 in 10 citizens in Germany and France thought that their country depended strongly on the American security guarantee, and that almost one-third of people in both those countries thought they did not need the guarantee “at all.”

ECFR’s latest survey provides fresh detail on the drivers behind these perceptions. It shows that when European respondents are asked who has the most power in the world, most do not focus on the great powers. In fact, the European public seems to have fully internalized the idea that power is much more diffuse. For instance, the survey found that only 13 percent of Europeans think that the U.S. government has the most impact on the way the world is run, and that only 6 percent think this way about China. In the main, it revealed that citizens tend to believe that nonstate actors, companies, and super-rich individuals together form the most influential groups in the world today. 

A third issue in such a struggle comes from geography, rather than history. It is telling that Europeans perceive conflict with Russia as more real than that with China. As already noted, only 31 percent think that a cold war between the EU and China is taking place, but a plurality of 44 percent think this is true for the EU and Russia. This particular geographical focus suggests an important difference in comparison with the previous cold war: The U.S.-China clash has a global dimension, but it is not local to Europe, and the major theater of the confrontation is likely to be in Asia. In this new scenario, Europe has a comparable position to that of Japan before 1989: a reliable American ally, but one outside the main field of confrontation.

Given the absence of a disciplining ideological unity between the United States and Europe, and of an existential threat in Europe’s neighborhood, it is not altogether surprising that Europeans are thinking differently about alliances, which is the fourth area of divergence.

In the Cold War and in the post-Cold War period, sovereignty—particularly for Eastern Europeans—meant the possibility to join any political and military alliance that you want. But in today’s world, at least some EU member states are trying to prove their capacity for sovereign power by dissenting from their partners in the EU or NATO rather than by following a common line. Some European citizens now find it more tempting to stand apart from joint activity with the United States and other allies, rather than align with the Americans—as previous ECFR research found.

In ECFR’s 2019 pan-European poll, a large majority of respondents said that they would prefer to remain neutral (rather than align with Washington) in a conflict between the United States and China or Russia. Since Joe Biden’s election as U.S. president, at least half of the electorate in every surveyed country would still like their government to remain neutral in a conflict between the United States and China. Confirming this reluctance, our polling this April showed that Europeans see a world of “necessary partners” rather than fixed alliances.

If this new polling has captured a lasting trend, it reveals the risk inherent in any effort by foreign policymakers in Washington and Brussels to prepare for an “all of society” generational struggle against autocracies in Beijing and Moscow. European and American leaders could well come up short when they discover that they do not have a societal consensus behind them.

Ivan Krastev is the chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria, and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.

Mark Leonard is the co-founder and director of the European Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Age of Unpeace.

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