August 15, 2001

Bush Unpopular in Europe, Seen As Unilateralist

Introduction and Summary

George W. Bush is highly unpopular with the publics of the major nations of Western Europe. By wide margins, people in Germany, France, Great Britain and Italy all disapprove of his handling of international policy, and the American president does not inspire much more confidence in these countries than does Russian President Vladimir Putin.

More than seven-in-ten of those in each country say Bush makes decisions based entirely on U.S. interests, and most think he understands less about Europe than other American presidents. In that regard, Bush’s foreign policy approval rating runs 40-60 percentage points below former President Bill Clinton’s, when judged in retrospect.

These are the principal findings of a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, in a unique partnership with the International Herald Tribune and in association with the Council on Foreign Relations. Nearly 4,000 adults in four major European nations were polled. Respondents in the four nations ­ France, Germany, Italy and Great Britain ­ were fairly consistent in their appraisals of Bush, and there were few notable differences among major demographic groups.

In addition to the European survey, a subset of questions was asked in a nationwide U.S. poll of 1,277 adults. This survey found a 45%-32% plurality approving of the way Bush is handling foreign policy, only slightly below his overall job approval rating (50%-32%).

At the same time, Americans on balance disapprove of Bush’s decision to abandon the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (44%-29%). However, Americans were not nearly as opposed to this decision as Europeans, who disagree with Bush’s stance by approximately an eight-to-one margin.

Some of Bush’s positions win broad acceptance in Europe. Majorities in all four nations agree with his support of free trade, and Bush’s decision to maintain U.S. forces in Kosovo is actually more popular with Europeans than it is with Americans. But on the issues that have stirred the most controversy on his recent visits to Europe ­ Bush’s rejection of the Kyoto pact and his vow to go ahead with a missile defense plan even if that means withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty ­ Europeans come down firmly against the president.

By better than eight-to-one (83%-10%), Germans disapprove of Bush’s plan to develop a missile defense program if it means abandoning the ABM pact. The opposition to Bush’s stance is nearly as large in France, Italy and Great Britain. Americans, who have consistently backed development of a missile defense system in principle, are evenly divided (42% opposed, 39% in favor) when the possibility of withdrawing from the ABM treaty is mentioned.1

Significantly, the sharp rejection of Bush and his key policies in Europe has not opened a more fundamental divide among the allies. If there is a bright light in the poll results for US-European relations, it is that most reject the idea that the U.S. and Europe are drifting apart. Only about one-in-five in all four countries see a broader rift developing, and sizable minorities in Germany (40%) and Italy (34%) see a growing coalescence of U.S. and European interests.

Little Confidence

Not only do most Europeans oppose key elements of Bush’s foreign policy, they express little confidence in the president. Indeed, only 20% of the French respondents and somewhat higher proportions of British (30%) and Italians (33%) say they have even a fair amount of confidence in Bush’s handling of world affairs. Germans, who tend to express more confidence in all the leaders tested, give Bush better marks, with about half (51%) voicing at least some confidence in his abilities.

Surprisingly, Europeans express only slightly more confidence in Bush than they do in Putin. Just 14% of the French and about a quarter of the Italians and British (23% and 26%, respectively) voice much confidence in the Russian leader, as do 41% of the Germans. Understandably, Europeans have much more confidence in their own national leaders than in either the Russian or American leader. The confidence ratings range from a high of 78% in Germany for Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to 53% in Italy for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Policy Divide

Clearly, the deep policy differences between the Bush administration and Europe are a major factor in the lack of confidence Europeans express in the president. And Bush’s decision to abandon the Kyoto protocol draws the most intense opposition among Europeans. Just one-in-ten British, French and Germans, and 12% of Italians, back Bush’s decision.

There is more division over this issue in the United States. Although a 44% plurality opposes Bush’s policy, many more Americans than Europeans (29%) back the president on this issue. Underscoring the higher level of interest in the Kyoto matter in Europe than the United States, relatively few respondents in Europe declined to answer this question; better than one-quarter of Americans had no opinion or declined to respond.

Europeans are somewhat less opposed to Bush’s stance on missile defense and the ABM treaty. Only 10% of Germans and 14% of the French back Bush, while slightly more people support the president’s position in Great Britain (20%) and Italy (24%). Americans are evenly divided, with 39% in favor of the president’s position and 42% opposed.

Bush’s policies on the Balkans and free trade win broad favor among the Europeans. Publics in all four European nations strongly back Bush’s decision to maintain U.S. troops in the multinational peacekeeping forces in Bosnia and Kosovo, with the policy drawing weakest support in Italy (54% approve 33% disapprove). Americans also support this policy, but by a relatively narrow margin (47%-38%).

Bush’s backing for free trade is also popular, with about two-thirds of the British and German respondents supporting the president on this matter. The Italians and French are less supportive, with fewer than six-in-ten approving of Bush’s approach on trade.

While the president’s support for the death penalty in the United States was roundly criticized during his recent visits to Europe, he finds modest support for his position in Great Britain. There is broad opposition to the death penalty in France, Germany and Italy, but the British are split over Bush’s backing of capital punishment.

Still Much in Common

A solid majority of Europeans believe that, whatever their view of Bush, the United States and Europe have not grown apart in recent years. Germans and Italians were most likely to see more common ground among the allies, but even among the British and French fewer than a quarter (24% and 20% respectively) believe differences between the United States and Europe have widened.

Those who see trans-Atlantic differences as increasing do not attribute the rift to any single factor. Rather, solid majorities in this group point to the growing power of the European Union, the resentment stirred by U.S. multinationals, the lack of a common security threat, and differences over culture as reasons for a growing gap between the United States and Europe.

  1. See "Modest Support for Missile Defense, No Panic on China," June 11, 2001.