Academic journal article Policy Review

Power, War, and Public Opinion: Looking Behind the Transatlantic Divide

Academic journal article Policy Review

Power, War, and Public Opinion: Looking Behind the Transatlantic Divide

Article excerpt

IN RECENT YEARS, the transatlantic relationship has witnessed some of the greatest debates and differences recorded in U.S.-European relations, most recently concerning the war in Iraq. Not surprisingly, this turbulence has also generated a growing debate over the nature and causes of such differences. A number of different views have been advanced. One explanation suggests that such differences are largely attributable to the policies of the Bush administration. Another argues that the advent of the Bush administration is not a major factor and that the two sides have grown increasingly incompatible as a result of the growing asymmetry in power across the Atlantic. Yet another argues that current differences are essentially rooted in widely differing threat perceptions in the United States and Europe after 9-11.

It is perhaps inevitable that proponents of each of these views will look for--and sometimes find--public opinion research results that tend to confirm their own differing hypotheses. At the same time, the core issue of where and why American and European publics differ on questions of war and peace has not yet been adequately addressed. Here, drawing on the 2002 and 2003 Transatlantic Trends survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, we attempt to dig a bit deeper into the nature and structure of the transatlantic divide.

SEVERAL CONCLUSIONS CAN be drawn from what we have learned from the Transatlantic Trends results. For one, fears about American or European isolationism are misplaced. The American public is more willing to play an active role in world affairs than at any time in recent memory. Similarly, there is clear support in principle across Europe for the European Union to take on global responsibility, though that support is tempered by a limited willingness to spend resources.

Americans and Europeans basically still like each other, although such warmth has recently waned in the wake of the Iraq war. This drop in fellow-feeling, however, begins from an historically very high level. While the Iraq war has led to a backlash, it is noteworthy that the backlash has remained modest. To some degree it appears focused mainly on the Bush administration as opposed to the United States more generally. (1) Anti-American and anti-European sentiments may exist, but they are not dominant views. Americans and Europeans continue to have clear, shared views of their friends and enemies, and each side still clearly sees the other as a friend. All of this testifies to the continued durability of traditional transatlantic ties.

Americans and Europeans continue to regard each other as potential partners. While European support for America's global role under President Bush has fallen, such slippage also takes place at a high level. Americans are strongly supportive of the European Union becoming a more equal partner, and both sides of the Atlantic continue to see their relations as cooperative and not competitive.

Nor do the problems across the Atlantic appear rooted in radically different threat perceptions following September 11, 2001. On the contrary, Transatlantic Trends suggests that when Americans and Europeans look out at the world, they by and large assess the threats they face in similar terms. Americans and Europeans do not live on different planets when it comes to viewing the threats around them. Both sides of the Atlantic clearly do have different impulses when it comes to how to respond to such threats, however, concerning the efficacy and legitimacy of military versus economic power and the role of the United Nations. Yet even here it is not entirely clear to what degree transatlantic differences on the use of force reflect fundamental moral principles, more transient attitudes contingent on specific events, or an overall European skepticism about policies publicly associated with the Bush administration.

So what is going on? If Americans and Europeans both want to be engaged in the world, still basically like one another, would like to work together as partners, and also see the threats facing both sides of the Atlantic in similar ways, how and why did we end up with such a dramatic divergence in public opinion over the war in Iraq? …

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