Transatlantic Trends: The United States Is Back, Where Is Europe?
Europeans and Americans overwhelmingly share views on transatlantic issues—notably about China, climate change, and international security—as the 2021 Transatlantic Trends survey reveals. However, the United States and Europe must still identify and align their interests to meet strategic challenges together.
The overwhelming majority, 81% of those polled from the 11 countries, rank the United States as the most influential actor in global affairs. President Joe Biden has tapped that support for U.S. global leadership since taking office. The United States has rejoined the Paris Climate Accord and the World Health Organization (WHO), extended the New START agreement, engaged the six-party talks on the nuclear agreement with Iran, increased U.S. forces in NATO, and began withdrawing from Afghanistan.
Biden also labeled his foreign policy as one for the middle class. It prioritizes jobs for American workers and not expanded trade liberalization. Some trading partners have expressed concern that the United States will not pursue new trade agreements, but U.S. respondents support international trade (63%). Respondents in France (54%) and Germany (72%) also agree international trade benefits their country.
A majority of Americans support multilateralism as shown in support for NATO (64%), the United Nations (67%), and the WHO (65%). All respondents want the United Nations to be much more active in addressing global challenges. Four issues scored the highest: peace and security (73%), human rights (73%), public health (72%) and climate change (70%).
Those polled see China as the most significant challenge. It is considered “more a rival than a partner” by a majority of the populations in the 11 countries. Some 54% see China’s influence on global affairs as unfavorable. Americans support a tougher stance toward the country on cybersecurity (61%) and human rights issues (55%). France and Germany support a tougher stance on China, especially on cybersecurity and digital innovation, which increased by 10% over the 2020 polling results.
Despite a widespread consensus among transatlantic partners on these critical issues, European political leaders seem reluctant to take the initiative and launch policies that would have the support of public opinion. Is it that the Cold War shaped current policymakers? Perhaps European leaders who were young then are clinging to policies that brought German and European unification. But the end of history was a question, not a mandate. Reaching a mutual understanding with Russia or China, which transatlantic leaders expected after the Cold War, is an empty hope by now. Moscow and Beijing are cynically dividing Germany from the EU and the United States with impunity.
Transatlantic elites seem to be taking their time looking for any obstacles to excuse their hesitancy, while publics see the world more realistically as it is. Perhaps there are no obstacles to be found, except the lack of political will to act.
With a bit of strategic foresight, fewer accommodationist policies might have led President Vladimir Putin to seek respect for European sovereignty and democracy. But after the poisoning of Alexey Navalny and the systematic repression of any form of political opposition, it is evidently too late. Putin has lost all respect for the West as a factor for Russian self-restraint internationally. He has no democratic stance at home. Under those circumstances, the hope for warm future relations still embraced by political elites in Germany has become unrealistic.
The survey respondents’ transatlantic consensus supports a renewed alliance. Biden has also shown he is a strong ally of Europe and NATO. Now greater responsibility for dealing with Russia has shifted to Europe. That shift is also a natural consequence of Europe’s claim to more self-reliance. It also suggests that Germany and Europe could leverage their influence to delay certifying the Nord Stream 2 pipeline’s operations and open the opportunity for a more strategic approach to Russia.
One idea for transatlantic coordination could be a U.S.-EU working group for aligning interests and creating common policies toward Russia, led by the European side. Such a joint approach could go a long way in demonstrating more German responsibility, European self-reliance, and equitable burden-sharing. It would also contribute to developing a European strategy for its foreign policy.
Similarly, given the shared views shown in Transatlantic Trends regarding China, the United States and Europe could tap this consensus for a tougher stance toward the country on several issues. Aligning their interests and engaging China together promises more significant success. The controversy surrounding the EU’s Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with China shows the difficulty in going alone.
The Transatlantic Trends respondents show they understand that Europe and the United States must identify their interests, define their roles with and in Europe, and approach Russia, China, and other strategic challenges together. The survey is a confirmation of the alliance; now the leadership should step up. We should not wait for millennials to replace the current leadership before the transatlantic partnership reformulates strategies, reevaluates its capabilities, and aligns interests.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.