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Transatlantic Trends 2021: Newly Published Polling Data from the U.S., Canada, Key European Allies, Turkey Reveals Shifting Dynamics in Post-Trump Transatlantic Relationship Ahead of Biden’s First Trip to Europe

June 07, 2021
Survey of 11 countries shows mixed views of U.S. reliability, but growing support for U.S.

Survey of 11 countries shows mixed views of U.S. reliability, but growing support for U.S. involvement in Europe’s security; increased desire for a tougher line on China; differing national perceptions of security threats and state of democracy.

Washington, D.C., and Paris (June 7, 2021) — As world leaders prepare to convene at the G7 and NATO summits, new polling published today by the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Bertelsmann Foundation paints a picture of strong alignment on fundamental issues like defense, climate change, public health, and China. However, significant cracks in trust and reliability remain, and issues like the state of democracy, China’s influence in global affairs, and the ability to keep up with new technologies spark concern among the public.

With data from Canada, the U.S., France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, and the UK, “Transatlantic Trends 2021” provides the most comprehensive overview of the major trends for the future of transatlantic relations.

Among the countries surveyed, there is a strong consensus that the U.S. remains the most influential power in global affairs (62%). But while confidence of Americans in their own country’s global influence grew 5 points to 81% since 2020, the early months of the Biden administration seem to have little impact on French and German public opinion. Just over half of the French (56%) and Germans (55%) view the U.S. as most influential—largely unchanging since polling was conducted last year. The European Union as a bloc is viewed as having relatively modest influence, ranking third out of the four options (14%), and coming in well behind China (20%). British respondents were the most likely to rank the EU as the most influential actor among all respondents (22%).

With an election fast-approaching, Germany is overwhelmingly viewed by European respondents as the most influential country in Europe (60%), followed distantly by the UK (19%) and France (7%). The low share of respondents perceiving France as the most influential country in Europe mirrors a continuous decline in the perception of France’s influence in Europe, given that these perceptions had already dropped from 16% (perception of Germans, French and Americans only) in March 2020 to 11% in May 2020. In contrast, a plurality of Americans and Canadians consider the United Kingdom to be the most influential European power (48% and 44% respectively).

While the U.S. is seen as most influential, it is not seen as the most reliable partner. Instead, Canada is viewed as most reliable, with Germany and Sweden tied in second place.  Perceptions of U.S. reliability are also mixed across Europe: In contrast to a strikingly low 51% in Germany, Poland has the most trust in the U.S. (76%).

The results show a mutual crisis of trust between Turkey and its partners in Europe and across the Atlantic: Two out of five Americans (42%) and almost two-thirds of EU member states’ respondents say Turkey is unreliable (76% in Germany and the Netherlands, 74% in Sweden, 73% in Italy, 72% in France). The Turks are also particularly skeptical of their partners, with only half trusting their most trusted partner (Germany, 54%) and around one-quarter trusting France (26%) and the United States (23%).

China’s influence in global affairs is a concern for respondents across countries: With almost two-thirds of respondents on average considering China’s influence generally or very negative, Germans (67%), Canadians (62%), and Swedes (62%) have the most critical stance vis-à-vis China. And while Beijing is primarily perceived as a rival in the U.S. (70%), France (62%), UK (60%), and Canada (58%), it enjoys more favorable views as a partner in Spain, Poland, Italy, and Turkey, where 49%, 45%, 36%, and 34% respectively, view China as “mainly a partner” or “more partner than rival.”

Respondents in all countries show strong support for their country to adopt a tougher stance on China, particularly on human rights (62%), cybersecurity (57%), and climate change (56%). On subjects of human rights, cybersecurity and digital innovation, support for a tougher approach vis-à-vis China increased year over year by more than 10 points in France, Germany, and the U.S. While a positive image of China prevails particularly in the age group of respondents between 18 and 24 years old, negative views of China increase with age. This might indicate a long-term change in public opinion on China over time across the Atlantic.

Additional Key Findings:

State of Democracy:

  • Two thirds of respondents in Sweden, Canada, and the UK think their democracy is somewhat good or excellent.
  • In contrast, two thirds of Italians (65%), Turks (63%), and Poles (61%) have negative views of the state of their democracies. 39% of the Turkish, 30% of the Polish, and 27% of Italian respondents think that their democracy is in danger.
  • Views in Spain and France are nearly evenly split. 50% of the French and 52% of Spaniards are satisfied with the state of their democracy, compared with 45% and 46% who are not. In the aftermath of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, a slim majority of Americans have positive views of the state of their democracy (55%), although with a partisan divide. Within this group, 21% of Americans think their democracy is in an excellent state—the highest proportion in the survey, along with Canada (21%). On the other hand, 20% of U.S. respondents consider U.S. democracy “in danger.”
Security, Defense, and NATO:
  • In the midst of the ongoing coronavirus crisis, pandemics emerge as the most important or second most important security challenge on both sides of the Atlantic. The results, however, also show that the pandemic has not overshadowed all other concerns, notably climate change and terrorism.
  • The results reveal a variety of national threat perceptions. While 56% of Poles, 43% of Spaniards, and 42% of Italians see pandemics as the most important security challenge, only around 20% of Britons, Americans, and French share the same view. A significant proportion of people in France (30%), Turkey (24%), the UK (23%), and the United States (22%) appear to be concerned by the threat of terrorism, whereas very few Poles or Spaniards (6% and 7%, respectively) view terrorism as an important challenge.
  • Concern over climate change as a security issue is highest in Germany and Canada, where nearly one-third (29% and 28% respectively) see it as the most important issue, whereas only 15% of Poles and only 10% of Turks place high importance on climate change.
  • The populations in the countries covered by the survey remain widely convinced that NATO is either somewhat or very important to the security of their country, with more than three out of five respondents (63%) across countries expressing this opinion. With very few minor exceptions, the importance of NATO sparks consensus in the respective public independent from age, party affiliation, education, region, or income.
  • A majority of people think that the U.S. should be somewhat or very involved in the defense and security of Europe, except in Turkey and Sweden. There is a notable increase from 2020 in French and German (10 points each) support for a U.S. role in Europe’s defense and security.
  • The French population is the most skeptical of the military involvement of their country in the Middle East, with 41% in favor of a decrease. Overall, the public on both sides of the Atlantic show war fatigue in the Middle East, and is not in favor of stepping up military engagement in the region—each one third of the respondents ask for decreasing military engagement (37%) or keeping it at the same level (33%).
Relations with China:
  • In all 11 countries covered by the survey, people feel generally negative about China’s influence in global affairs. Yet, there are signs this could change as Beijing’s influence is viewed more positively among younger respondents.
  • A majority of respondents in most of the countries surveyed label China “more a rival than a partner.” However, there is an important east-west and north-south divide on respondents’ perception of China: While China is primarily perceived as a rival in the U.S. (70%), France (62%), the UK (60%), and Canada (58%), China enjoys most favorable views as a partner in Spain (49%), Poland (45%), and Italy (36%).
  • Across policy areas, France scores above average in terms of support for a tougher stance on China. This is most striking on the subject of trade, where 56% of French respondents compared to 39% of respondents across countries—a difference of 17 points—want a tougher stance, followed by climate change (+9 points) and technological innovation (+8 points). Overall, Germans and French are closely aligned on a tougher approach, leading the call in four of the six issues and close behind Americans in also wanting a more robust approach on technological innovation.
Trade and Technology:
  • There is strong support for more economic cooperation among the U.S. and the EU: almost three quarters of the respondents in the U.S. (74%) and in EU member states (72%) are in favor of strengthening economic ties across the Atlantic.
  • Perceptions of whether countries are keeping pace with technological development vary importantly across countries: While an overwhelming majority of the Swedish (74%) and British respondents (71%) give a good assessment to their government, a majority of Germans (50%) and Italians (60%) think that their countries are not keeping pace with technological developments
Notable Generational Gaps:
  • In Canada, the U.S., Germany, and the UK, younger respondents hold a remarkably cooperative view on their country’s relationship with China. While the perception of China as a partner prevails among two out of five (42%) Canadians and Germans between 18 and 24, this is not even the case for one third of the entire public (27% in Canada, 28% in Germany). This generational trend is also found in the U.S. and the UK: One fourth of young respondents in the U.S. (25%) and UK (29%) consider China as a partner, an increased percentage compared to the national average (15% in the U.S., 20% in the UK).
  • Across most countries surveyed, younger generations (18-24 years-old) see the United States as less influential than older respondents. Striking generational gaps can be found in Turkey (50% vs 75% among 55+), the UK (47% vs 74% among 65+), Poland (45% vs 81% among 65+), Sweden (43% vs 70% among 55+), and Germany (42% vs 62% among 65+).  
  • The youngest American respondents find EU countries less reliable than their older compatriots do, especially Americans aged 55 and older. Some of the most notable examples include Americans’ perceptions of the Netherlands (44% of the youngest vs. 79% of 65+ respondents), Sweden (49% vs. 80% for 55+), and Germany (53% vs. 79% for 65+). Views of cross-country reliability within EU countries also experience a similar generational divide, with more older respondents trusting other EU member states than younger respondents, especially in the cases of France, Germany, and the UK.
  • The youngest respondents (18-24 years) diverge significantly from their older compatriots with regard to the state of democracy in their countries. In France and Germany, respondents in this generation share a particularly positive assessment of the state of democracy, half of the young French (51%, compared to 44% of the French on national average) and three out of five young Germans (60%, compared to 52% on national average) describe the state of their democracy as “somewhat good.” In contrast, young people (18-24 years old) in Poland are more pessimistic, with two out of five (40%) describing the state of democracy as “somewhat bad,” compared to 31% on average.

The 2021 edition of Transatlantic Trends is a comparative study of public opinion in 11 countries on both sides of the Atlantic. It sheds a light on perceptions of the major issues for the transatlantic partnership in the upcoming years: the state of the transatlantic relationship, security and defense, China, international trade, economics and technology, and global challenges like climate change. The expanded 2021 report builds off of the 2020 survey, which polled public opinion in the U.S., France, and Germany.

For more information on the data or to speak with the project leads in the U.S. or Europe, please respond directly to this email or reach out to the media relations contacts below.

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Methodology: 

Fieldwork was conducted by Kantar Public online between March 29 and April 13, 2021. In each of the 11 countries surveyed, the sample consisted of 1,000 persons aged 18 and above. The data was collected through online access panels with self-completion, and then weighted to match population totals for the following factors: age, gender (in all countries), region (in all countries, according to local standards), income (in Canada, the U.S., Germany, Italy, Poland, and Spain), and occupation (only in the UK and France).

About the German Marshall Fund:

The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a non-partisan policy organization committed to the idea that the United States and Europe are stronger together. GMF works on issues critical to transatlantic interests in the 21st century, including the future of democracy, security and defense, geopolitics and the rise of China, and technology and innovation. By drawing on and fostering a community of people with diverse life experiences and political perspectives, GMF pursues its mission by driving the policy debate through cutting-edge analysis and convening, fortifying civil society, and cultivating the next generation of leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany as a tribute to the Marshall Plan, GMF is headquartered in Washington, DC, with offices in Berlin, Brussels, Ankara, Belgrade, Bucharest, Paris, and Warsaw. Learn more about GMF’s work at www.gmfus.org

About the Bertelsmann Foundation:

The Bertelsmann Foundation, established in 2008, was created to promote and strengthen the transatlantic relationship. Through research, analysis, forums, and audiovisual and multimedia content, we seek to educate and engage our audience on the most pressing economic, political, and social challenges facing the United States and Europe. www.bfna.org

Media Relations Contacts:

The German Marshall Fund:
Sydney Simon
Press Officer (Washington, DC)
[email protected]

Angelina Sutalo
Press Officer (Brussels)
[email protected]

The Bertelsmann Foundation:
Nathan Crist
Project Manager, Transatlantic Projects and Digital Communications (Germany)
[email protected]