April 17, 2002

Americans and Europeans Differ Widely on Foreign Policy Issues

Commentary by Kenneth M. Pollack Director, National Security Studies, The Council on Foreign Relations

The Atlantic Grows Wider

The gap between the United States and European public opinion on dealing with terrorism continues to grow, according to the latest Pew Research Center public opinion survey of the United States and four leading European countries (Germany, Italy, France, and Britain). The poll was conducted in association with the Council on Foreign Relations and the International Herald Tribune.

An American War

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Bush Administration has stressed the importance of Allied contributions to the war on terrorism. In particular, the Administration has made clear the need for help from scores of countries around the world to hunt down terrorists, cut their communications, eradicate their financial networks, eliminate their bases of operations, and dry up their recruiting pools. The Pew/CFR/IHT findings suggest that while the Administration’s public diplomacy campaign may be playing well in Peoria, it isn’t doing as well in Paris.

Perhaps the greatest problem for the Administration is that it does not appear to have convinced European publics that the war on terrorism is their war. On the other side of the Atlantic, the view appears to be that September 11 changed the United States, but not the world, and Washington is waging the war on terrorism for its own good and not necessarily for the good of the Atlantic alliance, let alone humanity in general. The view from the Old World seems to be that this is an American war on American enemies, not a universal struggle against evil, as the White House likes to define it. Large majorities in all four European countries–73 percent in Britain, 68 percent in Italy, 85 percent in Germany, and 80 percent in France–believe that the U.S. is acting mainly on its own interests in pursuing the war on terrorism rather than taking into account the interests of its allies. Likewise, the Pew/CFR/IHT numbers indicate that Europeans strongly believe that President Bush is a “unilateralist” who makes decisions based entirely on U.S. interests and without taking into account European interests.

Further evidence of this trend can be seen in the weak levels of European support for the Bush Administration’s international policies, although they are noticeably stronger than before September 11, 2001. The Administration’s international policies garnered approval ratings of between 44 and 32 percent, while disapproval ratings ranged from 61 to 37 percent and, with the exception of Britain, disapproval ratings exceeded approval ratings in every case. There are also considerable gaps between American and European views of the approval of specific U.S. actions as part of the war on terrorism. Although Europeans generally support the U.S. military campaign against Afghanistan, the gap between approval ratings in the United States and in France, Italy and Germany range from 19 to 24 points, and even in Britain there is a 10-point gap with U.S. ratings. Beyond this, all of the European countries are unhappy with the President’s “Axis of Evil” remarks with even a majority in Britain disapproving.

These findings are particularly troublesome because the polls do not suggest that European dissatisfaction with the U.S. war on terrorism is derived from a heightened sense of threat created by U.S. actions against Afghanistan or elsewhere. The poll indicates that most Europeans believe that the threat of terrorist attack is about the same now as it was before the start of the U.S. war on terrorism. Nor is it the case that the Europeans feel no sense of threat from terrorism–the poll indicates that Europeans generally feel only slightly less threatened by terrorist attacks than do Americans.

Related findings in the poll suggest that the European sentiment that Washington is determined to pursue an American agenda without regard for European interests could have real consequences for U.S. foreign policy. For example, with the exception of the Italians, the European publics believe that their governments are doing fine in fighting terrorism–57 percent of Britons, 61 percent of Germans, and 70 percent of the French believe that their governments are doing either a good or very good job combating international terrorism. Some American officials continue to complain in private about the support the U.S. is receiving from Europe in the war on terrorism and these findings suggest that the European governments are not feeling much heat from their publics to do more to help what they consider an American war on terrorism.

Worlds Apart on Iraq

The other issue of obvious concern is a possible military operation against Iraq, where the latest poll suggests that the Administration will have to do more if it wants to sell such a campaign to European publics. Despite official insinuations that we could “go it alone” on Iraq, consistent findings in previous polls demonstrate that the U.S. public remains loathe to embark on a campaign against Iraq without the support of European allies, making this a matter of more than academic concern. In France and Britain, support for a war to overthrow Saddam is lukewarm, with about as many supporting as opposing. In Germany and Italy on the other hand, sentiment is decidedly opposed with only 34 percent favoring and 57-59 percent opposing. In the U.S., Iraqi development of weapons of mass destruction is considered a very important reason for a military operation by 81 percent (up from 77 percent) compared with 83 percent for linking Iraq to the 9/11 attacks. In contrast, all four of the European publics surveyed felt that Iraqi development of weapons of mass destruction was the more important reason for war with Iraq: 67 to 55 percent in Britain, 49 to 45 percent in Italy, 57 to 44 percent in Germany, and 54 to 47 percent in France.

Differing Perspectives on the Middle East

Finally, Europeans and Americans take an increasingly different view of the violence in the Middle East. At the most obvious level, Americans are generally more supportive of Israel than Europeans. 41 percent of Americans sympathize with Israel, and only 13 percent sympathize with the Palestinians. Among Europeans, that sentiment is nearly reversed with sentiments running in favor the Israelis ranging from 24 percent in Germany to only 14 percent in Italy, while support for the Palestinians ranges from 36 percent in France to 26 percent in Germany. Likewise, the Europeans appear to blame the U.S., at least in part, for the escalating violence. By a margin of two to one in all of the European countries except Britain (and nearly two-to-one there), Europeans believe that the U.S. is not doing as much as it can to bring about a peace settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians. This stands in stark contrast with the 53 percent of Americans who believe otherwise. Taken together, these two sets of numbers suggest that Europeans tend to blame the Israelis more than the Palestinians for the violence, and in turn, blame Washington for not placing more pressure on Israel to back down in its confrontation with the Palestinians.