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Perceptions of Democracy and Governance in the West

7 min read
Photo Credit: Lisa S. / Shutterstock
On both sides of the Atlantic, recent elections and referenda reflect a groundswell of populist sentiment, highlighting public dissatisfaction with the status quo, rejection of the establishment, and a desire to “take back control.” GMF

On both sides of the Atlantic, recent elections and referenda reflect a groundswell of populist sentiment, highlighting public dissatisfaction with the status quo, rejection of the establishment, and a desire to “take back control.” GMF experts offer their analysis on the recently released report from Pew Research Center, “Transatlantic Dialogues: In Europe and North America, Publics More Supportive Than Experts of Direct Democracy,” to shed light on public perceptions in Europe and North America of the state of democracy and governance in the West in the era of President Donald Trump.

Experts and Publics Concerned About Trump

Many American presidents have provoked emotional responses from Europeans. More than 120,000 Berliners assembled to listen to President Kennedy in 1963.  Hundreds of thousands protested President Reagan on his first trip to Europe in 1981.

More recently, over the last fifteen years, the transatlantic democracies emotionally debated the Iraq war, U.S. counterterrorism policies, climate policy, Iran, American intelligence programs, and now the election of Donald Trump.

Americans were divided on all of these issues as well, just as they are now polarized about Donald Trump.

Donald Trump is unpopular in Europe. Many Europeans undoubtedly are concerned about his withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, his threatening of the Iran nuclear deal, and his hectoring regarding European defense spending.

Yet these are all issues that Americans and Europeans have been debating for decades.  Despite our shared values, we often have fundamental differences in outlook regarding how to tackle shared challenges, especially when the European focus on multilateralism and consensus based decision-making clashes with Americans' proclivity for unilateralism. This is not even a post-1989 phenomenon. Europeans and Americans intensely disagreed throughout the Cold War about how to handle the Soviets.

International relations is not a popularity contest. Good will and the soft power it enables can go a long way toward easing coalition building and burden-sharing, but it should not be an end in and of itself. President Barack Obama had consistently high approval ratings in Western Europe, and was able to generate adoring crowds in the hundreds of thousands, yet it was under his tenure that the United States began the very turn toward an inward-focused American program of "nation-building at home" that Europeans are so concerned about under Trump.

Americans are distracted right now, but so are Europeans. Populist political parties making historic gains, Brexit, migration, economic challenges, and the reordering of European integration all dominate debates in European capitals.

Meanwhile, threats to the transatlantic community loom. Even as the self-proclaimed Islamic State has lost most of its territory, the Middle East is increasingly chaotic. The bloodshed in Syria, perhaps the greatest transatlantic failure since World War II, continues.  The transatlantic allies have essentially ceded the future of this conflict on the doorstep of Europe to Moscow, Damascus, and Tehran. Iran has only expanded its aggressive ambitions since the supposed transatlantic success, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Russia continues to fuel violence in Ukraine and is now intervening directly in transatlantic democracies and some Europeans continue to focus more on making a profit than on European security. In Asia, Xi Jinping is consolidating control over his country and making China's global ambitions clear.

These are all current challenges that Americans and Europeans are failing to adequately address. Not to mention the next generation challenges on the horizon that are not yet fully apparent, from disruptive technologies to economic and societal changes that could reshape the global landscape.

Just as in the past, we will have different perspectives on both sides of the Atlantic about how to tackle these issues. Yet the stakes for the free world are too high to let these differences prevent us from working together. If we don't, the fate of the 21st century will not be in our hands but of those who fundamentally do not share our values. Donald Trump needs to understand this but so do many of his European critics.

  • Jamie Fly, Senior Fellow and Director, Future of Geopolitics, Asia Program, Washington, DC

Publics on both Sides More Open to Direct Democracy

The people in America and in Europe are said to have turned against elites and technocratic government. Last year they elected the decidedly non-expert Donald Trump and voted for various anti-establishment parties, as well as for Brexit against the overwhelming weight of expert opinion that said this was a terrible idea.

It is therefore not surprising to see in the latest Pew data that members of the public and foreign policy experts polled have diametrically opposed views about direct democracy, with 68 percent of the former thinking it would be a good way of governing and 60 percent of the latter thinking it bad. What is ironic is that the public is also more favorable toward government by experts than the experts themselves (42 percent versus 30 percent). Together, these results suggest that when citizens on both sides of the Atlantic say they are unhappy with democracy, they are not so much angry with their existing systems as with the politicians of all stripes who are supposed to represent their interests.

Transatlantic publics still like representative democracy: in the 12 countries surveyed, positive opinions about it range from 74 percent to 92 percent. But dig a little deeper and it is less reassuring that only in Sweden does a majority say representative democracy is a very good system. Meanwhile, citizens in the southern and central European countries give it a particularly tepid endorsement, with less than a third taking the same view. That only 23 percent of French respondents, for example, think representative democracy is a very good system is a worrying indictment of the political class, one in line with other recent polls.

Similarly, on average citizens strongly reject the idea of rule by a strong, unfettered leader or by the military, but looking at countries individually reveals worrying levels of support for these options in some cases. While nowhere is there a large percentage saying that either would be very good, in several countries between 10 percent and 20 percent of citizens say that government by the military or a strong leader would be somewhat good. What is particularly of concern is that these feelings are present in major, long-established democracies like France, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. In light of the debates since Trump’s election, it is also important to note that on these issues the United States is not an outlier but in line with many European countries. This is a reminder that the real doubts and discontents about the state of democracy should not be seen in too personalized a way.

  • Nicolas Bouchet, Non-Resident Fellow, Berlin

Persisting Skepticism about U.S. Commitment to Article 5

While the public image of NATO has steadily improved over the past years on both sides of the Atlantic, it is the foreign policy experts that are the biggest doubters in NATO’s Article 5 according to the recent Pew report. In the United States, public support for defending Allies has risen by 6 percent to 62 percent since the spring 2015. Overall, 64 percent of the European publics expect the United States to use military force in case of an armed aggression against one of NATO members. Among some Europeans, the level of confidence has risen since 2015 — for example in Poland by 8 percent, while in others it has fallen — for example in France by 5 percent, but at a public level the overall feeling of transatlantic solidarity is healthy and stable.

This picture is however very different, when we look at the opinion of foreign policy experts. While 50 percent believes the United States would fulfill its Article 5 obligations in case of an armed attack on one of NATO’s Allies, a staggering 46 percent of experts think that the United States would fail to use military force to defend allies. This survey was conducted after the inauguration, but before President Trump supported U.S. commitment to Article 5 after months of heated presidential debates where NATO was often discussed. The fact that the transatlantic strategic community is so divided on the core subject of American commitment to European security is a worrying sign and shows how deeply the transatlantic trust has been strained. Since the survey among foreign policy experts has been conducted for the first time, there is no historical data to compare.

Yet, one could conclude that the experts’ skepticism regarding the U.S. is closely connected to President Trump, given that they are also much more likely than the public to think that relations with the United States will worsen under President Trump. Only 8 percent of experts believe that over the coming 12 months security relations with the U.S. will get better — and 63 percent of them believe that they will get worse. These results show the depth of the damage to transatlantic trust at the elite level across Europe. NATO’s biggest strength has always been its unity and deep conviction in the strength of the transatlantic bond — the survey’s results shows how much work lies ahead of the Trump’s administration in winning strategic community’s hearts and minds.

  • Michal Baranowski, Director, GMF Warsaw