How the U.S. Could Improve Its Image in Europe-Wide Opinion

By Grapin, Jacqueline | European Affairs, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

How the U.S. Could Improve Its Image in Europe-Wide Opinion


Grapin, Jacqueline, European Affairs


One of the most important changes taking place in Europe in recent years has been the birth of a European public opinion. Although this is among the continent's most spectacular developments, it is one of the least studied and most underestimated phenomena on the political scene. It is also ironic that the reasons for the emergence of this new European public opinion have nothing to do with Europe per se, and it is worth reflecting on them as Europe undergoes a new kind of identity crisis following the rejection of the proposed EU constitution in the French and Dutch referendums.

The first stirrings of Europe-wide opinion followed the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. Across the entire continent a chill ran through the spines of all Europeans. Even the rather anti-American French newspaper Le Monde carried an editorial declaring: "We are all Americans."

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In an unprecedented, collective expression of sympathy, a minute of silence was observed from the West of Ireland to the Eastern border of Poland and from the Arctic to the Mediterranean. That was an event that had never happened in thousands of years of history. And yet, as if it had already become a tradition, another Europe-wide minute of silence was held the day after the terrorist bombing of the Madrid transit system on March 11, 2004.

The second trigger for the emergence of an overall European public opinion was the war in Iraq. Although not unanimously, the vast majority of the European public was united for the first time - against the war. Europe was divided in two, not into the New and Old Europe as identified by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, but between the Europe of the people, which was massively opposed to the war, and the Europe of the governments, which was divided. Even in countries where governments officially supported military intervention (the majority of the 25 EU member states), large sections of public opinion disagreed.

It is important to remember the sources of European public opinion in order to understand where it now stands. If European opinion is to be interpreted correctly, it must also be recognized that Europeans and Americans often have opposite perceptions of the same situation and different spontaneous reactions to it. The wave of European sympathy for the United States after 9/11, for instance, is now considered to have led to such a misunderstanding, with relatively serious consequences. Most Europeans felt so close to America in their grief that they saw the terrorist attacks as a universal crime. As a result, the United States was perceived as an integral part of a universe encompassing all peaceful nations.

It seemed natural, therefore, rapidly to activate Article 5 of the NATO Charter which stipulates that an armed attack against one or more of the Allies "shall be considered an attack against them all" From their vantage point, by contrast, U.S. leaders and a large part of the American public saw 9/11 as a unique act of modern warfare on the territory of the United States and an unprecedented demonstration of American vulnerability. To Americans, these extraordinary circumstances justified exceptional responses, with regard both to military action and to the administration of justice on terrorists.

While Europeans continue to see the United States as part of the world, the United States tends to see itself as special. This difference explains why Europeans so deeply resented Washington's disregard of their act of solidarity in NATO. Europeans found it hard to understand that the U.S. government considered the attacks a singular threat to America's national existence that had to be handled by the United States itself. Now that Europeans use this misunderstanding to explain the difficulties with Washington encountered over the last two years, they find themselves thrown off balance by the argument advanced by the second Bush Administration - that Europe is targeted by the same threat and should therefore share the burden of the war on terrorism. …

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