Transatlantic Trends 2009
After his first half-year in office, U.S. President Barack Obama had nearly reversed the collapse in public support for the United States witnessed across much of Europe under his predecessor, President George W. Bush. In the wake of the Iraq War, the Bush years were marked by record low European backing for America. But the Obama era started out with an unprecedented surge in popularity for the new U.S. president and for American global leadership. Indeed, in mid 2009, Obama enjoyed far more support in Germany, Britain, and even France, than he did in the United States. Such sentiments provide a popular foundation for a revitalization of U.S.-European ties.
There are two important caveats to this story, however. The Obama bounce was largely a Western European phenomenon, according to Transatlantic Trends 2009. Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, enthusiasm for Obama, for American leadership, and for the United States in general is far more subdued in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and Turkey. And Obama’s popularity has not done much to bridge continuing transatlantic differences on important policy issues such as Afghanistan, Iran, and the response to climate change and the ongoing global economic crisis.
U.S.-European relations have rebounded from their historic low point early this decade. How long the Obama honeymoon will last is anything but certain. A popular American president is clearly an asset in transatlantic relations. But the future trajectory of U.S.-European ties will also depend on the successful management of divergent public views and ongoing policy differences.
In 2009, three-in-four people in the European Union and Turkey supported Obama’s handling of international affairs, a quadrupling of such approval compared with their judgment of President Bush in 2008. This reversal in sentiment is unprecedented in the eight years of Transatlantic Trends. Backing for Obama also buoyed favorable opinion of the United States, which returned to levels last seen in the 1990s. And desire for strong American global leadership was up in every country surveyed.
But populations in Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Turkey were markedly less enthusiastic about Obama and the United States than were their West European counterparts. Significantly fewer people in Central and Eastern Europe saw American global leadership as desirable. They also believed there had been less improvement in U.S.-European relations over the last year, possibly because their relations with the Bush administration had been quite good. Support for NATO was weaker than in Western Europe. And fewer people had confidence in Obama’s ability to handle international challenges. Nevertheless, more Central and East Europeans than West Europeans backed closer security, diplomatic, and economic ties with the United States. They seemed to desire a better relationship with Washington, even though they had some reservations about the new American president.
Transatlantic Trends also revealed fault lines in European public opinion. Generalized European disquiet about Russia masked a divergent intensity of concern about dependence on Russian energy supplies, Moscow’s treatment of its neighbors, and the fate of Russian democracy. West Europeans were often more willing to stand up to the Russians than Central and East Europeans and the Turks. This toughness did not apply to the issue of NATO enlargement, however, where support for defying Moscow was strongest in Central and Eastern Europe. And, in the face of the worst economic conditions in two generations, fewer people in Central and Eastern Europe supported free markets, and more backed protectionism than their counterparts did in Western Europe.
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