State of the Transatlantic Relationship

June 30, 2020
Bertelsmann Foundation
The German Marshall Fund of the United States
Institut Montaigne
7 min read

Despite focus on China's global influence in recent years, it still fails to rival the United States—even after a significant pandemic bump. Nonetheless, it would seem that China and Germany are on the rise, while the European Union, France, and the United States are slipping.

Even in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, climate change is the top priority for transatlantic cooperation for the French, Germans, and Americans aligned with the Democratic party.

Which actor is currently the most influential in global affairs?

Before the pandemic, there was a consensus that the United States was the most influential country globally. China and the EU were nearly tied in second place. After the crisis, the United States is still deemed most influential, but China’s influence has risen significantly.

It is notable—while not surprising—that the coronavirus crisis seems to have elevated China’s perceived influence in global affairs across all three countries. The proportion of respondents who said China was the most influential doubled between January and May 2020: from 13% to 28% in France, from 12% to 20% in Germany, and from 6% to 14% in the United States.

Before the coronavirus crisis, super majorities agreed on U.S. global influence (85% of Americans, 62% of Germans, and 67% of French). Among Americans, China and the European Union were tied for second, with only 6% of Americans considering them most influential. Germans and French had a slightly more multipolar view of the global influence, but for both the European Union came in second (ranked most influential by 17% of French and 20% of Germans) with China following, deemed most influential by 13% of French and 12% of Germans.

Original question: "Rank the following in order of which you think is most influential to least influential in global affairs currently." Depicted are responses for rank 1, most influential.


Sample: France 1004; Germany 1001; USA 1001. Expressed in % rounded up to the next unit for decimals .5 and higher.

Opinions diverged over Russia's influence. Twice as many Germans thought Russia was the world's most influential power than the Americans or French: 6% of Germans said it was most influential and 36% thought it was first or second most influential, while in France and the United States only 3% ranked it first and only 20% of Americans or 22% of French thought it was most or second-most influential, placing it a distant fourth to the European Union and China.

After the coronavirus outbreak, Americans, French, and Germans still place the United States at the top of the influence chart, but with an 8-12 point drop from four months earlier (falling 12 points in France and 8-9 in Germany and the United States). These points and more have gone to China, which now clearly takes second place for French and American respondents, ranked most influential by 28% of French and 14% of Americans. China is ranked first or second most influential by 64% of French (up 17 percentage points) and 59% of Americans (up 12 points).

Germany’s distinct view of the balance of power remains: although China’s perceived influence has increased (from 12%  to 20% seeing it most influential), more Germans, barely, still think the EU is more influential than China (21% of Germans rank EU first, a 1 point increase since January).

While all respondents’ perception of China’s influence has increased during the pandemic, in France, the shift is strongest.


Sample: France 1000; Germany 1001; USA 1000. Expressed in % rounded up to the next unit for decimals .5 and higher

Which country is most influential in Europe?

Americans have an outlier view, believing the UK to be the most influential country in Europe (both before and after the pandemic), whereas in both Germany and France, Germany is the clear leader. Germany's influence has risen across the board since January.

Perceptions of influence in Europe have not changed markedly with the coronavirus crisis. However, the gap between France and Germany’s perceived influence has grown since the COVID crisis began, with France sinking and Germany rising across the board.

In January, Germany was clearly perceived as the most influential European power in both Germany (63%) and France (64%), with dramatic generational differences. Older French respondents were twice as likely to see Germany as more influential than their compatriots ages 18 to 24 (80% of 55+ respondents vs. 39% of 18-24 year olds). Younger French respondents perceived their country to be more influential in Europe (41% of those ages 18-24). Similarly, younger Germans think Germany is more influential: 72% of those ages 18-24, compared to 57% of Germans 55 and older.

In contrast, slightly more than half of Americans viewed the UK as the most influential country in Europe (53%), a perception only shared by 8% of German and 6% of French respondents. Clearly, the U.S.–UK special relationship is still shaping Americans' view of Europe.

Which of these countries would you say is the most influential in Europe?


Sample: France 1004; Germany 1001; USA 1001. Expressed in % rounded up to the next unit for decimals .5 and higher.

The general views did not drastically change with the pandemic. Germany is still deemed most influential by French and Germans. But the perception of Germany’s influence has risen in all three countries (+8 points in France, +13 points in Germany, and +4 points in the United States) while France has slipped, by six points for French, seven for Germans, and four for Americans. The generational gap among French respondents is still present: 50% of French ages 18-24 believe that France is the most influential country in Europe, whereas 90% of French 55 and older think Germany leads Europe. Americans’ perception of the UK’s influence in Europe has not evolved with the crisis; it is still perceived as most influential by 52% of Americans, while over a quarter see Germany as Europe's leader (up 4 points since January).

It appears that President Macron’s efforts to reassert French leadership in Europe have not convinced the French, especially the older ones, nor Germans or Americans. The fact that Germany is widely thought to have managed the coronavirus crisis well may have boosted its standing among respondents.


Sample: France 1000; Germany 1001; USA 1000. Expressed in % rounded up to the next unit for decimals .5 and higher.

Which issues are most important for transatlantic cooperation?

Before COVID-19, French and Germans prioritized cooperation on climate change, while Americans were split between climate change and counterterrorism intelligence sharing. After the pandemic, cooperation on health crises is most important for Americans.

The pandemic changed priorities for Americans more than its partners. Far fewer French and German respondents see health cooperation with the United States as a priority, and Germans’ priorities for transatlantic cooperation are almost unchanged by the coronavirus crisis. With economic downturn looming, respondents from all three countries now place increased importance on trade.

In January, a plurality of French (34%) and German (29%) respondents believed that climate change was the most important issue for the United States and the EU to cooperate on. Counterterrorism intelligence sharing was a distant second, named top priority by 14% of French and 11% of Germans. In contrast, Americans' priorities for cooperation were more divided, with climate change (19%) and counterterrorism intelligence sharing (16%) at the top.

Younger Americans were more interested in cooperation on climate change than older Americans (25% of 18-24 year olds vs. 19% of those ages 55+). There was also a partisan divide, with Democrats three-times more likely to prioritize climate change than Republicans (33% D vs. 11% R).

Which of the following issues do you think it is most important for the U.S. and the EU to cooperate on?


Sample: France 1004; Germany 1001; USA 1001. Expressed in % rounded up to the next unit for decimals .5 and higher.

In the second wave of this survey conducted in May, cooperation on health crises was added to the list of issues, yet a plurality of French (26%) and German (28%) respondents still rank cooperation on climate change as the top priority. Health crises come second in France (18%). In contrast, only 8% of Germans believe that health crises are the main issue requiring transatlantic cooperation.

Results changed more dramatically in the United States between January and May. A third of Americans (29%) now consider health crises the main issue for transatlantic cooperation. In the United States and Germany, the second most important issue for transatlantic cooperation is now trade (at 12% and 13%), having risen 4 percentage points in both countries since January. In France, trade cooperation climbs up the list, with 8% now higher-priority than migration or human rights protection.

Notably, this question asks which issues the allies should work together on, not what issues are most important in general, with interesting consequences. Amid the coronavirus crisis, Americans are looking to cooperate with Europeans, but German and French respondents seem to see less incentive to work with Washington on health issues. The pandemic has not distracted French and German publics from the need for transatlantic cooperation on climate change.


Sample: France 1000; Germany 1001; USA 1000. Expressed in % rounded up to the next unit for decimals .5 and higher.


 (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)