While European approval of U.S. leadership has surged with Biden's victory, most Europeans now believe the U.S. political system is "broken." New data show that Europeans are turning away from their traditional transatlantic security ties and, in the event of a conflict between America and China or Russia, would prefer to remain neutral. (The Washington Post)
NH: Let's deal with the least surprising news first: Most Europeans are hugely relieved that Biden is succeeding Trump.
In a pattern that goes back decades, at least since President Ronald Reagan, Europeans have generally been happier with Democrats than Republicans in the White House. And over time, from G.W. Bush to Barack Obama to Donald Trump, this oscillating pattern of hot and cold has gotten more extreme.
Here are the just-released Pew survey results.
These numbers are consistent with other polls reflecting Europeans' extreme dislike of Trump. Their negative perception began almost as soon as Trump took office (see "The Falling Stars and Stripes"), but it certainly got worse after they witnessed America's response to the pandemic in 2020. Pew reports that the European preference for Biden crosses all demographic and partisan groups. While center-left voters are the most pleased, even a majority of right-wing Euroskeptics favor Biden over Trump.
What exactly do Europeans think will improve with President Biden? Nearly three-quarters expect improvement in "response to the coronavirus outbreak." And about two-thirds cite improvements in foreign policy and climate change policies.
Most Europeans are optimistic about the future of U.S.-Europe relations. So are most Americans, though clearly Democratic voters are more optimistic than Republican voters. It is also fair to say that the two groups differ in how they explain Trump's unpopularity.
For Democrats, the explanation is simple: Trump was ill-informed, insensitive, and could not grasp the basic concept of collective security. For Republicans, the Europeans' problem was not so much Trump as Trump's message: that America is tired of Europe's endless freeloading off America's security establishment--even for conflicts in the Balkans, Syria, or Turkey that are literally in Europe's backyard. (See "U.S. Global Image in Steep Decline.")
So much for opinions about Trump. Now that the Biden administration is taking over, is the relationship between America and Europe going to return to what it once was?
Maybe not. According to a new in-depth survey released by the European Council on Foreign Relations, most Europeans--while rejoicing in Biden's victory--"do not think he can help America make a comeback as the pre-eminent global leader." The reason, in brief, is that Europeans now regard the American political system as "broken" and that they cannot therefore rely on America to defend them. This means, in turn, that Europeans feel they need to depend more on themselves, bargain harder economically with America, and stay neutral in conflicts between America and its global rivals like China and Russia.
Let's unpack these findings one by one.
On whether the American political system is broken, a surprisingly large share of Europeans agree, especially northern Europeans. Overall, 61% agree that it's broken. In Germany, it's 71%. In the UK, it's 81%.
In Poland and Hungary, where voters lean more populist and where the threat of Russia looms larger, the share who think the American political system still works is much larger. (That's the familiar "new Europe" versus "old Europe" divide.)
Consequently, while most Europeans agree by a large majority that American voters can still be trusted "to make the right choices for their country," a slight majority also agree that "Americans can't be trusted" after voting for Trump in 2016--presumably, this means that Europeans can't trust them.
In Germany, the Americans-can't-be-trusted share is now 53%.
It follows that only a very small share of Europeans any longer believe the U.S. will always protect them. Two-thirds say Europe needs "to look after our own defense capabilities." That doesn't mean Europe no longer wants any security guarantee from America "to be safe from military invasion."
A sizeable majority of Europeans say they still need such a guarantee. And, as always, a large share of central Europeans say they need the guarantee "a great deal."
So if America enters some sort of conflict with China or Russia, how would Europeans like their countries to react? Most would like them to stay neutral. Less than one-quarter would like their countries to take the U.S. side.
Perhaps in keeping with this new spirit of geopolitical independence, Europeans decisively want their countries to "be tougher" with America when negotiating economic issues. Google, Facebook, Apple--heads up!
There are many ways to interpret these findings. A pro-Biden take would be to say that, while Europe understandably feels disrespected after Trump, better global leadership by the White House can renew the traditional U.S.-Europe alliance.
A pro-Trump take would say, well, it looks like the Europeans are finally getting the message: They are waking up to the need to do more for their own defense. Not even Biden will want to undo Trump's success in prodding the EU to amp up its defense spending as a share of GDP (after reaching an all-time low in 2015).
Yet there may be still another view--a darker view--that neither camp will welcome. This is the view that Europe no longer believes in America's long-term future.
As such, Europe figures it's prudent to start adjusting to a newly configured world order. 61% of Europeans agree that "in ten years' time, China will be a stronger power than the U.S." In Spain, Portugal, and Italy, over 75% agree. Only 19% of all Europeans disagree.
Driving this expectation of China's rise is not European approval of Xi Jinping's policies or any special optimism about China's global aspirations. Like America and most of the rest of the world, Europe's opinion of China has shifted in a sharply negative direction over the last decade.
Unfortunately, Europe's opinion of America has declined even faster--not so much because Europe thinks less of America's ideals than because it doubts America's political stability and institutional competence.
These growing doubts were reinforced by perceptions of the two countries' responses to the 2020 pandemic: China's was seen as brutal but reasonably effective, America's as histrionic, haphazard, and stunningly ineffective.
At the same time, while the pandemic has served to disunite America, it has persuaded most Europeans that their member nations need to cooperate more, not less. In every surveyed country, according to another ECFR survey, Europeans during the pandemic were more likely to say their view of China had improved than their view of the US.
Reflecting this growing spirit of pragmatic accommodation, EU negotiators just completed a large new trade-and-investment deal with China that pretty much ignores security or humans rights issues--a big win for President Xi Jinping and a setback for incoming President Biden. A headline in the London Daily Express sums up the new reality: "Joe Biden can't push us around! EU issues warning to US with China deal as tensions grow."
So much for Biden's initial effort to improve America's image in Europe. Trump may have tutored Europe in "the art of the deal" all too well.
The ECFR report comes up with an intriguing way to describe Europe's new global outlook. They divide all European respondents into four "tribes": those who mainly trust America; those who mainly trust Europe and the EU; those who trust both ("the West") and don't trust Russia or China; and those who see both America and the EU as broken ("Decline") and are most fatalistic about the rise of Russia and China. Here's how these tribes sort out as a share of adults in these eleven countries.
The largest tribe is "In Europe We Trust" at 35%. Their members mainly belong to mainstream left and center-left parties (like the SDU, En Marche, Green) and some populist left parties.
They live mostly in northern Protestant Europe (here: Germany, Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden). They are generally satisfied with how their countries are doing economically and how they have responded to the pandemic.
The second largest tribe is "In Decline We Trust" at 29%. Their members have the highest average age. Their older members belong to center-right parties (like the CDU/CSU, Républicains, Cuidadanos, Conservatives).
Their younger members tend to belong to populist right parties. They live mostly in the UK (now out of the EU) and in southern Catholic Europe (here: France, Spain, Italy) where political views are most polarized, economic performance has lagged, and the power of the EU and northern Europe is often resented.
The third-largest tribe is "In the West We Trust" at 20%. Their members have the lowest average age. They belong to centrist parties (left or right) or sometimes to populist parties (left or right). They are most prevalent in "new Europe" (here: Poland and Hungary).
The smallest tribe is "In America We Trust" at 9%. Their members disproportionately belong to populist right parties (PIS, Swedish Democrats, Vox, Lega) around the periphery of Europe.
Some, especially in Italy, back America just to spite all the EU Commissioners who think they stand for "Europe." Others believe that the world needs a strong leader and that only America, not Europe, has what it takes to stand up to China or Russia.
Here's how the ECFR sorts the size of these tribes in each country and which tribe is dominant in each country. Note that the "In America We Trust" tribe is not dominant in any country--least of all in the UK.
"Without the Cold War, what's the point of being an American?" So asks Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, the fictional Joe Citizen created by novelist John Updike in one of his later novels. Harry Angstrom, like Joe Biden, belonged to the Silent Generation.
In America, his generation just assumed that America would always lead, while in Europe the same generation equally assumed that Europe would always follow.
These assumptions are shifting. Xers are now the rising generation of leaders in both America and Europe. And as they look around, rescramble their political allegiances, and assess the geopolitical landscape, the future seems much less certain.
For Americans, the open question is whether America still wants to lead. And for Europeans, it's whether America is still able to lead.
* * *
ABOUT NEIL HOWE
Neil Howe is a renowned authority on generations and social change in America. An acclaimed bestselling author and speaker, he is the nation's leading thinker on today's generations—who they are, what motivates them, and how they will shape America's future.
A historian, economist, and demographer, Howe is also a recognized authority on global aging, long-term fiscal policy, and migration. He is a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he helps direct the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.
Howe has written over a dozen books on generations, demographic change, and fiscal policy, many of them with William Strauss. Howe and Strauss' first book, Generations is a history of America told as a sequence of generational biographies. Vice President Al Gore called it "the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read" and sent a copy to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Of their book, The Fourth Turning, The Boston Globe wrote, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets."
Howe and Strauss originally coined the term "Millennial Generation" in 1991, and wrote the pioneering book on this generation, Millennials Rising. His work has been featured frequently in the media, including USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, and CBS' 60 Minutes.
Previously, with Peter G. Peterson, Howe co-authored On Borrowed Time, a pioneering call for budgetary reform and The Graying of the Great Powers with Richard Jackson.
Howe received his B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and later earned graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University.