REVIEW: Article

The United States and Europe: Rebuilding Political Capital

Opinions of and support for the United States have fallen to all-time lows in Europe among what have in recent history been our closest allies.  Repairing these relationships is not impossible, but will take concerted engagement on the part of the United States.

When Chancellor Gerhard Schröder announced to his Social Democratic Party of Germany in October that he would not serve in the new federal cabinet coalition under Angela Merkel, he could not stop himself from launching yet a few more parting broadsides at the United States (US). In his emotional speech, Schröder repeated his well-worn attack on both the United Kingdom and the United States for their decentralized, free-market, “Anglo-Saxon” economies. But he reserved special criticism for the United States.  Piling onto the voluminous critiques of America’s handling of the response to Hurricane Katrina, Schröder pulled off the gloves to let his supporters know what he thought of the American economic model: “I don’t want to name any examples of catastrophes, where you can see what happens when there is no organized state. I could name countries, but the office I still hold forbids that—but everyone knows I mean America.”

The fact that Schröder would accuse the world’s only superpower of having “no organized state” and that this criticism would not seem out-of-place comes, of course, as a surprise to no one who has followed the chancellor’s career. After all, this is the same Schröder who had built his reelection campaign in 2002 at least in part around criticism of any number of perceived evils on the part of the United States and the Administration of President George W. Bush. In foreign policy, economic policy and environmental policy —to name just a few—Schröder had positioned himself as the anti-American, attempting to build coalitions with other like-minded powers (most significantly France and sometimes the Russian Federation) that could serve as counterweights to the United States on a range of policy issues.

But the fact that such criticisms of the United States—note that it is not only of the Bush Administration—should be coming from a German chancellor shows us just how much has changed over the last 20 years in Europe. Needless to say, there have been numerous ups and downs in the European-American relationship since the end of the Second World War, but the breadth and depth of suspicion about America in Europe today exceeds even such tense times as the much-criticized North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) decision to deploy medium-range missiles in Western Europe in the 1980s. 

Sadly, the data have become all too familiar:

  • The German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Trends survey for 2005 showed that 72 percent of the Spanish, 69 percent of the French, 62 percent of Italians, and 60 percent of Germans believe that US global leadership is “undesirable.”


  • A survey of opinion in 21 countries around the world in 2005 by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy showed that 64 percent of Germans, 63 percent of Russians, and 62 percent of Turks, view US influence in the world as mostly negative. Among young people (ages 18-29) in Germany, the figure is actually 70 percent.


  • The Pew Global Attitudes Project in 2005 showed that over 60 percent of people in the Netherlands, Great Britain, Canada and Russia view Americans as “greedy;” over 60 percent in Canada, France, Spain and the Netherlands view Americans as “violent,” and majorities in France and the Netherlands view Americans as “too religious.”

And this sampling of data focuses only on views held abroad of America and Americans, in general; if we were to sample responses around the world to the policies of the Bush Administration, we would see even wider and deeper negative opinions. As just one illustration of a widely-held view in Europe, one need only remember the cover-page headline on the British Daily Mirror on the day after President Bush’s reelection in 2004 that trumpeted “How Can 59,054,087 People Be So Dumb?”

What is happening? How is it possible that the relationship between the United States and Europe has come to this?  Certainly the end of the Cold War was bound to mean that the relationship would change in fundamental ways. The intensity of collaboration between Americans and their British, French, German and other Western European counterparts that so defined the era of Europe’s division into two camps could not possibly have been expected to survive the total collapse of the one side. With Soviet-style Communism removed from government from the Fulda Gap to Vladivostok, the sense of immediacy of the need for aligning policies between Washington and Western Europe began to fall away. At the same time, the United States and the Western Europeans began to develop a new sort of relationship with the countries that had made up the Warsaw Pact.  Moreover, the process of European integration—begun as a way to strengthen cooperation and ensure peace in Western Europe after the horrors of the Second World War—now moved to encompass a “Europe Whole and Free.” In short, the entire playing field had changed, with Germany concentrating on the huge challenge of reintegrating the former German Democratic Republic into a newly unified nation, and Europe focused on the broader challenge of integrating the former Soviet satellites into the evolving European Union. 

The role of the United States on the continent was, of course, also fundamentally changed by this evolution. The expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to include the Poles, Czechs and Hungarians in 1999, and then the Baltic States, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Romania in 2002, broadened America’s palate of European relationships and demanded commitment of resources to development of ties on a number of levels across the continent. At the same time, American military and diplomatic engagement in the Balkan crises of the 1990s showed that the United States was still to a large extent the key player in the resolution of crises and the reestablishment of stability in this crucially important part of Europe. 

Thus, the decade of the 1990s in many ways showed an evolutionary change in the relationship between Europe and America—the Cold War was over, but change proved manageable. The first decade of this century, however, has altered that pattern. Following an initial flush of unity after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, much of the European popular view of the response of the United States has become increasingly negative. Seeds of this change began to be seen as early as the Allied intervention to remove the Taliban in Afghanistan, and criticism of US policy reached full bloom in the run-up to the war in Iraq. The data above show little abatement even today.

To the American observer living abroad, it was clear that almost no amount of US resources spent on trying to convince European publics to support US policy on the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Agreement, or—even less so—in Iraq and the broader Middle East would magically reverse the trend against US policy. Political expediency for Schröder in Germany and for Jacques Chirac in France, coupled with a Europe-wide tendency to side with the Palestinians in their conflict with the Israelis and a widespread belief in a shadowy neoconservative conspiracy that has hijacked the world’s only superpower among the elite classes, primarily in Western Europe and the Western European media, all mitigated against the possible success of a more aggressive US public diplomacy campaign.

Still, the United States in the first few years of this decade had a number of distinct advantages, to which it could have played and may be able to play still. Across Western Europe, many leading opinonmakers, admittedly usually on the conservative side of the political spectrum, remain willing and able to take a position in support of US policy, if provided with sufficient backing. I am reminded of a conversation with a Dutch conservative politician who told me that he supported the coalition intervention in Iraq against withering questioning from the public in the Netherlands, and would support it again today, but felt throughout the height of the crisis that the US side was not giving him enough arguments with which to work. Our Dutch friend represents, I think, a class of political figures in Western Europe who are looking to the United States for more support and guidance in understanding—and then being able to argue for—the objectives of US foreign policy, not only in the Middle East.

US efforts to help develop stable democracies in Central and Eastern Europe have also built up a reservoir of political capital among governments in this region that can be drawn upon by American policymakers, provided we replenish it occasionally. Poland is the most obvious exception to all the trends that show Europeans drifting away from the United States, as such surveys in Poland almost always demonstrate, and the US has been careful to repay outgoing President Alexander Kwasniewski with political access. Poland’s neighbor Slovakia, too, has been among the staunchest supporters in Europe of American foreign policy—also in the face of significant domestic opposition—and Slovak Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda hosted the February 2005 US-Russian Summit in Bratislava.  Slovakia’s positive perspectives on the United States are a close second to Poland’s in various polls.

But in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, this political capital is a finite resource that was built up in the 1990s, when hundreds of young people who are now leaders in government, media and business went to the US as part of numerous study-visit programs funded by the US government. With resources for such exchanges now much less available, it is becoming increasingly typical to find the best and the brightest of the next generation’s leaders never having been to the United States. Surely, this is not the only measure of whether a future leader will be inclined to lean toward specific US policies, but it seems clear that without personal experience examining the US system future leaders around the region will be less likely to understand the roots of and thinking behind US policy. 

Numerous conversations with colleagues in and around the institutions of the European Union throughout 2005 suggest that the visits by President Bush and Secretary Rice in February in Brussels went some way to softening the harder edges of the conflicts between Europe and America of the previous two years. The conversations also show that while there are significant policy differences that are likely to continue between Europe and America in a number of areas, there is also a great number of areas—including on the promotion of democracy and human rights in such places as the Middle East—in which the two sides can find common ground, if we invest in developing approaches together. To develop these areas of commonality, and ultimately to take the wind out of the sails of lingering anti-US sentiment among publics across Europe, the US—and we as individual Americans—need to engage in much more deliberate dialogue and organized exchange with our counterparts at all levels of government and society in Western and Eastern Europe.  When we do so, we find that, despite the accusations and criticisms, there is much more that unites us than that divides us. 

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Resident Director, Europe, International Republican Institute