Our survey showed that Europeans’ attitudes towards the United States have undergone a massive change.
Americans have a new president but not a new country. While most Europeans rejoiced at Joe Biden’s victory in the November US presidential election, they do not think he can help America make a comeback as the pre-eminent global leader. This is the key finding of a pan-European survey of more than 15,000 people in 11 countries commissioned by the European Council on Foreign Relations, and conducted in November and December by Datapraxis and YouGov.
Our survey showed that Europeans’ attitudes towards the United States have undergone a massive change. Majorities in key member states now think the US political system is broken, that China will be more powerful than the US within a decade, and that Europeans cannot rely on the US to defend them. They are drawing radical consequences from these lessons. Large numbers think Europeans should invest in their own defence and look to Berlin rather than Washington as their most important partner. They want to be tougher with the US on economic issues. And, rather than aligning with Washington, they want their countries to stay neutral in a conflict between the US and Russia or China.
In the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003, European countries were divided on whether to align with George Bush’s America over values (in Robert Kagan’s famous formulation, Americans were from Mars, Europeans from Venus) but few doubted his power to shape the world. The opposite is true with Biden. Many Europeans believe in his promise to re-engage internationally but – after witnessing America’s response to covid-19 and domestic polarisation – most doubt Washington’s capacity to shape the world.
These divisions run through European countries rather than between them. Rather than splitting Europe into its ‘new’ and ‘old’ parts as in 2003, we can identify four new tribes based on their views of power in the twenty-first century.
During the cold war, public opinion only played a secondary role in the transatlantic relationship, which was considered a raison d’état by policy elites. But the transatlantic relationship in the 2020s is seen as much less existential in both Europe and America – and has for that reason been politicised. It is enough to look at the mind-blowing performance of the American stock market in a year when the American economy is in a coma to conclude that, in a time of plague, sentiments are running the world. We can see that public moods have policy consequences.
Across the 11 countries covered by ECFR’s poll, 53 per cent of respondents believe that Biden’s victory makes a positive difference to their countries, and 57 per cent believe it is beneficial for the EU. Even in Hungary and Poland, whose populations have been among the most pro-Trump in Europe, more people say that his electoral defeat is good for their countries than the opposite.
But, although a majority of Europeans are happy with Biden’s election, many do not trust the American electorate not to vote for another Donald Trump in four years.
Looking at the results for Europe as a whole, 32 per cent of all respondents to ECFR’s poll agree that, after voting for Trump in 2016, Americans cannot be trusted – and only 27 per cent disagree with this statement (the rest do not have an opinion on the issue). Most strikingly, 53 per cent of German respondents say that, after Trump, Americans can no longer be trusted – making them clear outliers on this point. Only in Hungary and Poland do significantly more people disagree with that statement than agree with it.
Many Europeans’ perception of the US political system as broken seems to make them doubt whether America will be able to return to global leadership in the manner that Biden promised when he said “America is back”. Across the 11 surveyed countries, 51 per cent of respondents do not subscribe to the view that, under Biden, the US is likely to repair its internal divisions and invest in solving international issues such as climate change, peace in the Middle East, relations with China, and European security.
Across the 11 surveyed countries, six out of ten respondents think that China will become more powerful than the US within the next ten years. The view that China will overtake the US is shared by 79 per cent of the public in Spain, and by 72 per cent in Portugal and Italy. Citizens of Hungary and Denmark are the most optimistic about the future of American power but, even in these two states, 48 per cent of respondents are convinced that China will overtake America in the next decade.
Most Europeans’ view of America as politically broken and likely to soon be overtaken by China as a global power appears to affect public perceptions of the value of the transatlantic alliance in ways that could have a significant impact on the Biden team. We noticed four profound changes.
One of the most striking findings of ECFR’s survey is that at least 60 per cent of respondents in every surveyed country – and an average of 67 per across all these countries – believe that they cannot always rely on the US to defend them and, therefore, need to invest in European defence. Interestingly, 74 per cent of British respondents hold this view – a higher share than in any other national group.
ECFR’s opinion poll also reveals a change in threat perceptions across Europe, most dramatically in Germany. During the cold war, Germany felt threatened by invasion and was, therefore, wedded to the Atlantic alliance. But, nowadays, Germans seem to have caught up with the French (whose country has the strongest military in the EU and is a long-time proponent of European defence integration) in feeling less of a need than other Europeans for the US security guarantee. Currently, only 10 per cent of respondents in France and Germany say that their country needs the American security guarantee “a great deal” to be safe from military invasion. Only in Poland do a substantial number of respondents (44 per cent) believe that they need this guarantee “a great deal”.
The second big surprise is around the question of geopolitical alignment. Biden has called for the US and Europe to form a united front against China and thereby shape its rise. But ECFR’s poll shows that, in today’s Europe, there is no dream of a return to a bipolar world in which the West would face off against China and its allies as it once did against the Soviet Union.
Troubled by doubts about America and influenced by Trump’s focus on narrowly defined national interests, European voters have started to think differently about the nature of the transatlantic alliance. In 2019 ECFR conducted a pan-European poll that indicated that a large majority of respondents in all surveyed countries wanted to remain neutral (rather than align with Washington) in a conflict between the US and China or Russia.
However, ECFR’s latest poll shows that political change in Washington does not appear to have fundamentally altered respondents’ calculus about geopolitical alignment. At least half of the electorate in every surveyed country would like their government to remain neutral in a conflict between the US and China. This even applies in Denmark and Poland, the two countries with the highest proportions of people who would like to take the United States’ side – 35 per cent and 30 per cent respectively. This may reflect the fact that, although both Europeans and Americans are toughening up their approaches to China, their long-term goals are somewhat different.
While Americans want to do so to decouple from and contain China, Europeans (above all Germans) still hope to bring China back into the rules-based system.
Europe’s unwillingness to side with the US also comes out in respondents’ views on a conflict between the US and Russia: in no surveyed country would a majority want to take Washington’s side. Amazingly, only 36 per cent of respondents in Poland and 40 per cent in Denmark say that their country should side with the US in such a scenario. Across the 11 surveyed countries, just 23 per cent of respondents hold this view – while 59 per cent want their country to remain neutral. In Denmark and Poland, neutrality is the preferred option of 47 per cent and 45 per cent of voters respectively.
This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in ecfr.eu