Europe vs. America: An Opinion Poll

Foreign reactions to President Bush’s speech to the nation of yesterday evening, requesting $87 billion more from Congress for Iraq and Afghanistan, are trickling in. Sure, they all report the speech, and it’s true that the subtle ins and outs of what they report, and how they report it, can be interesting and valuable in deciphering the trans-Atlantic point-of-view, but I prefer the “Analysis” or “Commentary” articles, and those aren’t there yet. I’ll check again tomorrow whether there is enough such material to report and comment on, from a major country (i.e. France or Germany – or the UK, if the commentary there is interesting enough to make it worth ducking the cat-calls and flying objects coming my way for “copping-out” with the English-language press).

Today, though, we prep that issue with some background, namely a recent survey on European attitudes towards the US, reported in L’Express in an article entitled Les Européens jugent l’Amérique (which of course means “(The) Europeans Judge America).

Sponsored by the German Marshall Fund and the Italian Compagnia di San Paolo of Torino, but actually carried out by the French public-opinion company TNS Sofres, this survey was conducted between last June 10 and 25 among 8,004 respondents from seven European countries (France, Germany, the UK, Poland, Portugal, the Netherlands, and Italy) and the United States.

This is basically a cut-and-dried article; writer Jean-Michel Demetz handily summarizes the survey’s results into four major conclusions. But let me pass on to you the one uncategorizable tidbit he couldn’t resist throwing out first to his readers: When asked to name the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, respondents in each of those countries overwhelmingly named France first – even the Brits and the Americans! Obviously, this is the fruit of the major role which France undertook for itself last spring in opposing at that very Security Council the American push for war with Iraq.

But now to Demetz’ four conclusions:

1) The image of the US in Europe has degraded. The survey’s main tool was to ask people to grade countries on a scale of 100 (best) to 0 (worst), and that rating for the US has gone down lately, by seven points compared to a year ago, from 64 to 57 on a Europe-wide basis. (But the US is still ahead of Russia, at 51.) Viewed by individual countries, in France the US gets only 50 (10 points down from last year), in Germany 56 (loss of 7), and in the UK 61 (also a loss of 7). Interestingly, the percentage of Germans asserting that the EU is more important to their country’s interests than the US has climbed dramatically, from 55% a year ago to 81% now. The problem, of course, is Iraq; solid majorities of Europeans told the pollsters that the war there was unjustified (84% in France; 81% in Germany; even 51% in the UK), while 55% of Americans still see it as justified.

2) Still, Americans and Europeans largely share the same hopes and fears, mainly (among the latter) terrorism, Muslim fundamentalism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the development of weapons of mass destruction by Iran and North Korea. The UN is regarded favorably on both sides of the Atlantic (by 76% of Europeans, 66% of Americans); majorities on both sides would also resort first to economic sanctions against a state that sheltered terrorists or threatened its neighbors with WMD.

3) But, if those economic sanctions failed, Europeans and Americans have rather different ideas about what to do next. Americans would resort to a preventative war against, say, a nuclear-armed North Korea (58% of Americans for, 64% of Europeans against). Americans consider that “under certain conditions, war is necessary to reestablish justice” (84%); only 48% of Europeans agree. (Or more properly, the Continental Europeans; 74% of the British also agree with the possible necessity for war.) One thing everyone everywhere does agree on: that they disagree. 83% of Americans, and 79% of Europeans (of which 85% of the French) were willing to state that “their social and cultural values are different,” i.e. on the different sides of the Atlantic.

4) Otherwise, European opinions are often divided. Should Europe aspire to be an equal partner on the world stage to the Americans? 89% of the French and 70% of the Germans say “yes,” but only 52% of the British. But when the prospect of having to pay for this is added to the question (e.g. through higher military expenditures), majorities in France, the UK, Italy, and Portugal are willing, but majorities in Germany, Poland, and the Netherlands are not. Should the US exercise “strong leadership” in world affairs? 55% of the British say “yes,” as do 57% of the Dutch and 53% of the Poles, while 70% of the French say “non.” (For their part, the Germans seem divided more-or-less down the middle on this question.) Yet, should it come to a showdown with North Korea, or Iran, the French, Poles, and British are most likely to consider that they have a responsibility to join in with the Americans.

So what do we think? Well, there’s a lot there to consider: confirmations of the obvious (e.g. that the US has been falling in the estimation of Europeans lately), warnings against facile wishful thinking (apparently many differences do separate the American and European cultures), and surprising expressions of support (e.g. in the European countries, including France, which seem to feel that if American picks a fight then it’s their duty to also be there – although we saw this actually play out in Iraq only in the cases of the British and the Poles. Remember that we did see the French Foreign Legion in action on the far left flank in the Gulf War, but that was apparently a “good war.”). Frankly, what jumps out at me are the persistent differences between the European countries themselves, perhaps an indication that, to get what it wants, the Bush administration should prefer continued European disunity so that it can continue to peel off allies for “coalitions of the willing.”

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