August 15, 2001

Bush Unpopular in Europe, Seen As Unilateralist

Commentary by Morton H. Halperin, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Commentary by Morton H. Halperin, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

What the Poll Means

The poll released today by the Pew Research Center, the International Herald Tribune, and the Council on Foreign Relations removes any doubt that large majorities in the major nations of Western Europe have concerns about President George W. Bush’s policies.

Respondents in Great Britain, France, Italy and Germany do not express knee-jerk opposition to all the policies of the Bush administration. They applaud Bush’s support for free trade and his willingness to keep American troops in Bosnia and Kosovo, reversing a campaign promise to begin taking those troops out. However, echoing the views of their governments, they express concern about his overall approach as well as his positions on National Missile Defense (NMD), the Kyoto Protocol and the death penalty.

The poll results on National Missile Defense may pose the greatest challenge for the Bush administration. European publics may or may not favor the principle of missile defense, but overwhelming majorities disapprove of a deployment that requires withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. More than seven-in-ten German and French respondents and about two-thirds of the Italian and British respondents share this view. This means that European governments are unlikely to yield to administration pressure to go ahead with a missile defense system if it leads to terminating the ABM Treaty. And it suggests that, if any of these governments do go along, the long dormant European anti-nuclear movement might come to life with a vengeance.

Missile defense deployment is the quintessential post-Cold war issue because, as powerful and as rich as the United States is, it simply cannot proceed on its own. An effective layered national missile defense ­ of the kind favored by the administration ­ will require the cooperation of many other countries in providing bases for radar and intelligence-gathering systems, as well as for the deployment of anti-missile launchers or the support for ship-based systems. Moreover, the cooperation of other countries, including Russia and China, is necessary if states such as North Korea, Iraq, and Iran are to be prevented from developing relatively simple decoys which would neutralize any small missile defense system.

This may help explain why Bush administration officials who favor giving early notice to Russia that the United States is withdrawing from the ABM Treaty have not yet prevailed. Those who give priority to negotiating an agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin should have their hands strengthened by these poll results, which suggest serious difficulties for U.S.-European relations, and for an effective anti-missile deployment, if the administration is seen as cavalierly rejecting the treaty.

These problems can only be overcome by reaching agreement with Russia both on substantially lower levels of nuclear warheads and on amendments to the ABM treaty which permit the deployment of a modest NMD against potential small missile threats.

Global warming also poses a serious challenge for the Bush administration. The majorities concerned about the American policy in this area are even larger than on missile defense,
and nothing can be accomplished without the cooperation of other states. To reduce tensions over the Kyoto Protocol, the Bush administration will have to fulfill its commitment to present a proposal on global warming at the next international meeting. Proponents of this position within the administration should also be strengthened by this poll, which leaves no doubt that a continuing rift over this issue will have a profound impact on the overall relationship between the United States and Europe.

Criticism of Bush’s support for the death penalty are the least problematic for the administration. Disapproval ratings are somewhat lower than for Bush’s stance on missile defense and Kyoto. Moreover, this is purely a domestic issue that has only symbolic importance for U.S.-European relations.

If one steps back from the most dramatic results of this poll, there are numbers which point the way to effective U.S.-European cooperation in solving major global problems. The European publics polled are unhappy with George W. Bush because they believe, in overwhelming numbers, that he makes decisions based only on U.S. interests and that he does not understand Europe or take its views into account.

That is the bad news. But the good news is that Europeans do not believe their interests and those of the United States are drifting apart. Moreover, American and European publics agree in their support of some Bush administration positions (free trade and Balkan policy) and a plurality of U.S. respondents also reject Bush’s policy on the Kyoto pact.

Anyone who believes in the importance of U.S.-European relations can only hope that the Bush administration will take these poll results to heart and return to the principle ­ articulated by the president during last fall’s campaign ­ that the United States can accomplish its goals in the world only if it takes into account the interests of others. If it does, the administration can attract broad public support for policies on global warming, missile defense and other issues which advance the interests of people living on both sides of the Atlantic. If it does not, the poll results being released today suggest that we might well be facing a serious deterioration in trans-Atlantic relations which cannot be ameliorated by traditional diplomacy.

Morton H. Halperin is a senior fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations. He served in the Johnson, Nixon and Clinton administrations, most recently as Director of the Policy Planning Staff in the State Department.