BY: William Holmes
PEJOURNAL – Most Europeans rejoiced in Biden’s victory in the November US presidential election, but did not think he could help the United States return as a leading world leader.
Europeans’ attitudes toward the United States have changed. The majority of major member states now think that the US political system is broken and that Europe cannot rely on the United States alone to defend it.
They value the systems of the EU and/or their countries much more positively than the United States – and look to Berlin, not Washington, as their most important partner.
America’s weakness has geopolitical consequences. The majority of Europeans believe that China will be stronger than the United States in the next decade and want their country to remain neutral in the conflict between the two superpowers. Two-thirds of respondents to the poll conducted by Datapraxis and YouGov thought that the EU should develop its defense capabilities.
There is a great opportunity to revitalize the Atlantic, but Washington cannot accept Europe’s alignment with China. Public opinion will be more influential than previous relationships and should be taken into account.
Americans have a new president but no new country.
While most Europeans are happy with Joe Biden’s victory in the November US presidential election, they do not think he can help the United States return to power as a world leader. The key finding is a pan-European survey of more than 15,000 people in 11 countries commissioned by the Council on Foreign Relations conducted in November and December by Datapraxis and YouGov.
Their study showed that Europeans’ attitudes toward the United States have changed. The majority of major EU member states now think that the US political system is broken, that China will be more powerful than the US in the next decade, and that Europeans cannot trust the US to defend themselves. Many people think that Europeans should invest in self-defense and look to Berlin as their most important partner instead of Washington. They want to be tougher on economic issues with the United States. And instead of aligning with Washington, they want their countries to remain neutral in the conflict between the United States and Russia or China.
On the eve of the Iraq war in 2003, European countries disagreed on whether to align themselves with George W. Bush’s America (in Robert Kagan’s famous formula, Americans were from Mars, Europeans were from Venus), but few Europeans now look at Joe Biden. Many Europeans believe in his promise of international cooperation again, but – after seeing the US response to COVID-19 and the multipolarity within the US, they doubt Washington’s capacity to shape the world.
These divisions flow through European countries rather than between them. Instead of dividing Europe into “new” and “old” divisions in 2003, we can identify four new categories based on their views on power in the 21st century.
During the Cold War, public opinion played only a minor role in inter-Atlantic relations, a major factor for political elites.
But transatlantic relations are much less common in Europe and the United States in the 2020s and therefore politicized. It is enough to look at the performance of the US stock market in a year when the US economy is in a coma to conclude that “in the time of the plague” it controls the emotions of the world. We can see that the general situation has political consequences.
In the 11 countries surveyed by the ECFR, 53% of respondents believe that Biden’s victory will make a positive difference for their countries, and 57% for the European Union. Even in Hungary and Poland, where Trump’s supporters are in Europe, most people say his election defeat is better for their country than vice versa.
But while the majority of Europeans are happy with Biden’s election, many do not trust American voters not to vote for Donald Trump in four years. Looking at the results of the whole of Europe, 32% of respondents to the ECFR poll agree that, after voting for Trump in 2016, Americans can no longer be trusted – and only 27% disagree with this statement (the rest do not) Surprisingly, 53% of German respondents say that after Trump, Americans can no longer be trusted. Only in Hungary and Poland do a significant number of people disagree with this statement rather than agree with it.
While European countries used to be divided between old and new Europe in terms of cooperation with the United States, our poll shows that there has been a great deal of convergence on key issues in public opinion. There is still disagreement about Europeans’ view of the United States, but they are more concerned with understanding its relative strength than worrying about values. While at the time of the invasion of Iraq, most Europeans thought their continent was weak and the United States was strong, the reality is that Europeans are now more positive about themselves and more pessimistic about American power and political system.
Let’s start with how Europeans see themselves. The ECFR poll shows that, contrary to expectations, over the past two years, despite the failure of the Old Continent to control the COVID-19 crisis, they have become slightly more positive about the EU. In Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and Sweden – countries polled by the ECFR two years ago, the average number of people who say the EU political system works very well or relatively well has increased from 46 to 48 percent since January 2019.
Meanwhile, those who say the system is somewhat broken have dropped from 45% to 43% during this period. Understanding of the EU has improved everywhere except in Hungary, the Netherlands and Spain.
There is a contradiction between the climate of the European regions. In southern Europe, the majority say the EU political system is broken. In contrast, most respondents in Northern Europe (Denmark, Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands) and in Central Europe (Poland and Hungary) say that the EU system works. People’s attitudes towards the EU political system often seem to be related to their views on their country’s system.
In northern Europe, most people are convinced that their national political system works, and many respondents believe this is linked to their belief in the success of the European Union. In contrast, the majority in Spain, Italy and France see both their own political system and that of the European Union as broken. Poland, Portugal and Hungary are exceptions to this rule: the majority in these countries think their national political system is broken, but they seem to see Brussels as their way out.
But while Europeans are more positive about the EU, they are very pessimistic about the United States. More than six out of ten respondents in the 11 countries surveyed believe that the US political system is completely or partially broken, and that this is also the opinion of the majority in each country apart from Hungary and Poland (where 56% of Hungarians and 58% of Hungarians are Polish).
They believe that the US political system works well, or at least to some extent.
Many Europeans seem skeptical of the U.S. political system as a flawed system, whether the United States will be able to return to world-led leadership the way Biden promised a “U.S. return”. In the 11 countries surveyed, 51 percent of respondents disagree and believe that under Biden, the United States is likely to correct the problems of its internal disputes and will not care much about international issues such as climate change and peace in the Middle East, relations with China and European security.
Of the 11 countries surveyed, six out of 10 respondents think China will be stronger than the United States in the next ten years. The idea that China will overtake the United States is held by 79% of the people of Spain and 72% of Portugal and Italy. Citizens of Hungary and Denmark are optimistic about the future of American power, but even in those two countries, 48% of respondents are confident that China will overtake the United States in the next decade.
While, at the turn of the century, European public opinion about the United States was divided along “old” and “new” Europe, the current poll shows a great deal of convergence.
There are still many differences between European societies, but no clear dividing lines. Europe today is populated by four new geopolitical categories that feel very differently about the performance of their national political models, the effectiveness of the American political model, and the constellations of political, economic, and military power in the world. Each group has representatives in all countries surveyed by the ECFR.
Consequences of US Weakness Policy
Most Europeans seem to have changed their views on US policy, believing that they are likely to be conquered by China as a world power soon. The poll shows four major changes in Europeans’ thinking.
First: move towards more confidence. One of the most striking findings of the ECFR survey is that at least 60% of respondents in each country are surveyed, and an average of 67 people in all of these countries believe that they cannot always trust the United States to defend them, and therefore need to invest in self-defense. Interestingly, 74% of English respondents share this view and share more than any other national group.
Second: the big surprise is the issue of geopolitical alignment. Biden has called for the United States and Europe to form a united front against China and for its emergence. But the ECFR poll shows that in Europe today, it is not a dream to return to a bipolar world in which the West aligns itself with its allies against China, as it did in the Cold War, and the United States and Europeans. They were confronting the Soviet Union.
Third: the shift in perceptions of power tends to be less emotional in relations with the United States. One negative effect of the Trump era in power is that, by brutally focusing on national interests, he has encouraged other players, including Europeans, to do more to protect their interests. This is reflected in the willingness of many Europeans to invest in self-defense.
There has also been a dramatic change in the way people view transnational economic relations. Among the eight countries polled by the ECFR, Germany (37%), France (48%), the United Kingdom (37%) and Italy (42%) think their country needs tough policies. Adopt more lectures with the United States on economic issues such as international trade, multinational corporate taxes, and digital operating systems. Poland is only slightly different, with only one in ten voters saying their country should be tougher on economic issues with the United States.
Fourth: This prevailing distrust is also changing the way Europeans relate to each other. The fourth consequence of the big policy that emerges from this poll. Because they no longer see Washington as a trusted partner, Europeans are looking for each other more than ever.
This raises the question of whether Berlin will replace Washington. Given the size and importance of the “We Trust Europe” group, it is not surprising that respondents in France, Spain, Denmark, the Netherlands, Portugal and Hungary are likely to choose Germany as the most important country to build a good country. (Meanwhile, 38% of Germans chose France as their most important ally, and only 35% preferred the United States). Only respondents in the United Kingdom (55%), Poland (45%), Italy (36%) and Sweden (36%) are likely to rank first in the United States over Germany.
Towards a New Atlantis
Bill Clinton made a statement in the early 21st century when he left the presidency. “The main task of Americans is to create a world in which every human being would like to live, while we are no longer the only superpower in the world,” he said. It is fair to say that the United States and Europe have failed to do so. With Biden in the White House, the United States is no longer the only superpower. And the world in which he wants to rule is accompanied by the rise of authoritarian powers and the spread of nationalism and inequality. This is not a world Americans or Europeans would prefer to live in.
Since the catastrophic 2003 war in Iraq and the global financial crisis of 2008, Washington has faced a unipolar world to the last. Trump and his predecessor, Barack Obama, are probably the most different American presidents imaginable. But their analysis of America’s position in the world had much more in common than people think. They both realized that the United States’ desire to remain the world’s only superpower was unsustainable, and they both recognized the need to work with political regimes that did not share American values and norms.
The main lesson of the ECFR survey is for the Biden team. The new US administration has a clear idea of how Trump’s four-year change in the United States, but they need to be aware of Trump’s impact on the geopolitics of European sentiment. Although Europeans rejoiced at Trump’s election defeat, his legacy will last long after he leaves the White House. Biden is even trying to undo the isolation and unpredictability of the Trump administration, but policies that make the United States shaky, selfish, and weak will run into trouble.
There is now a unique opportunity to revitalize and transform the Atlantic, but this polarization cannot be repaired with unacceptable promises. A new Trans Atlantis is needed.
An alliance based on the common understanding that an alliance between the United States and Europe is not enough to shape the world. Leonard Cohen read a poem entitled “Dust does not leave scars / on a dark green hill”, but polls show that Trump is not dust and has scars, and Biden will be seen with these scars.