The dirty little secret of the partnership between the United States and Europe is that it is essentially boring. It is not foreign policy and world affairs that make for the largest chunk of the transatlantic relationship (even though newspaper headlines and media pundits seem to suggest that it is) but the much less publicly intriguing issues of trade and foreign direct investment. The volume of both is enormous, and the high degree of mutual dependency in both areas is illustrated by the fact that frequent transatlantic tiffs over market access, regulations and tariffs are, for the most part, resolved silently and with relaxed routine.
It is against this rock-solid backdrop of economic exchange that foreign policy delivers the drama that most professional transatlanticists like to obsess about. Libya, Afghanistan, the Arab Spring, the future of NATO, Guantanamo, Iraq, terrorism, Iran, nuclear weapons, missile defense—the list of traditional “high-politics” issues that dominate the transatlantic debate is long and hot. Both sides are acutely aware of the fact that they need each other for every single one of these items. However, interests and policy approaches on these problems can be strikingly different on both sides of the pond (and, naturally, also within Europe). This is why the element of trust between the Atlantic cousins becomes so very important. And so it should not come as a surprise that one of the transatlanticist’s favorite pastimes is conducting opinion polls on how Europeans look at America and vice versa.
On the American side, the question that has dominated this ritualized soul-search over the last few years was whether the United States has managed to regain some of its erstwhile popularity after the election of President Obama. Even some of the most hard-boiled American patriots understood that two terms of George W. Bush in the White House had done damage to the U.S. reputation abroad. And even though the concept of “soft power” has often been criticized as being indefinable, fuzzy and irrelevant, even the biggest skeptics realized that some things are easier when you are well liked. The answer to the question whether America is better liked today than it was three years ago is very clear: yes, absolutely.
Poll after poll shows a steep increase of favorability for the United States between 2008 and 2011. In its most recent “Transatlantic Trends Survey,” the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), an American think tank, found that an average of 75 percent of those polled in twelve European countries believe that President Obama handles U.S. foreign policy well. During President Bush’s last year in office in 2008, the number was 20 percent. And even though President Obama has lost some ground since he took office (an inevitable development given the enormous expectations attached to him), the GMF data show that his approval ratings in Europe remain exceptionally high, with 81 percent of Germans, 76 percent of French and 74 percent of Britons approving of him in 2011. The Obama effect also had an impact on the reputation of the United States as a whole. In a Pew Global Attitudes poll conducted in 2009, U.S. favorability rose by 33 percent between 2008 and 2009 in both Germany and France. It rose 25 percent in Spain and 16 percent in Britain. Here, too, numbers remain high today. In short: there is no doubt that in terms of international image management, no better thing could have happened to the United States than the election of Barack Obama. This is doubly true in Europe where positive attitudes vis-à-vis the current U.S. president are more prevalent than anywhere else in the world.
For the internal psychology of the transatlantic relationship, this is undoubtedly good news. The more interesting question, however, seems to be whether all this new love translates into a more meaningful partnership on shared foreign-policy challenges. Here the answer is less clear. While cooperation on issues such as the Middle East, Iran and terrorism was and is constructive, one of the most crucial items on the Euro-American agenda remains untouched by the improved atmosphere: transatlantic burden sharing in the field of security and defense. Here, Europeans have for the last sixty years been in a position of utter dependence on the Washington’s willingness and ability to guarantee their security. And even though the global strategic framework has drastically changed since the beginning of this transatlantic bargain in the 1950s, Europeans still conduct their defense planning as if American generosity were the most naturally abundant and easily accessible political commodity. By doing so, they increase their reliance on U.S. guarantees, and they become less and less interesting as an ally for their American counterparts. All attempts to wake Europeans up and make them rethink their priorities have died away without much impact.
It would be easy to blame President Obama for not using his popularity with allies intelligently enough to induce them to get their act together. But the European passivity on security and defense issues goes far beyond the reach of even the most popular American president. By and large, Europeans are unaware of their utter dependency; they don’t feel particularly threatened, they hold a deep mistrust in all things military, and they have learned to look at the world without regard to strategic considerations. Despite Libya, their willingness for an active approach to the world around them and for intervention on behalf of values and interests is small. Their political leaders—to the extent that they are aware of today’s realities—shy away from the enormous budgetary and political costs that a realistic security and defense posture would create.
The dirty little secret of transatlantic relations is that, under these circumstances, they will undoubtedly become a whole lot less boring very soon. Both America and Europe are broke. Their ability to shape the world around them is getting weaker. The global center of gravity is shifting towards the Pacific. Americans are ultimately better suited to master this process of relative decline. But it is in Washington’s fundamental interest to keep Europe safe and stable, to keep its best allies strong and to defend the enormous economic investments it has placed in the old world. Obsessing about perceptions and sympathy ratings will soon look like frivolous luxury. The ball is in the European court. For Americans, a Europe with a grown-up strategic culture will be more important than one that produces high approval ratings for the United States. For Europeans, investing in a relevant and workable transatlantic future will be more important than an American president they find easy to like.
Jan Techau is the Director of Carnegie Europe in Brussels.