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The US will never be as great again

Americans have a new president but not a new country. While most Europeans rejoiced at Joe Biden’s victory in the November US presidential election, they do not think he can help America make a comeback as the pre-eminent global leader. This is the key finding of a pan-European survey of more than 15,000 people in 11 countries commissioned by the European Council on Foreign Relations and conducted in November and December by Datapraxis and YouGov. A survey shows that Europeans’ attitudes towards the United States have undergone a massive change. Majorities in key member states now think the US political system is broken, that China will be more powerful than the US within a decade, and that Europeans cannot rely on the US to defend them. They are drawing radical consequences from these lessons. Large numbers think Europeans should invest in their own defence and look to Berlin rather than Washington as their most important partner. They want to be tougher with the US on economic issues. And, rather than aligning with Washington, they want their countries to stay neutral in a conflict between the US and Russia or China.

The problem is not the president, but the system

Something has broken

In the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003, European countries were divided on whether to align with George Bush’s America over values (in Robert Kagan’s famous formulation, Americans were from Mars, Europeans from Venus) but few doubted his power to shape the world. The opposite is true with Biden. Many Europeans believe in his promise to re-engage internationally but – after witnessing America’s response to covid-19 and domestic polarisation – most doubt Washington’s capacity to shape the world. These divisions run through European countries rather than between them. Rather than splitting Europe into its ‘new’ and ‘old’ parts as in 2003, we can identify four new tribes based on their views of power in the twenty-first century. During the cold war, public opinion only played a secondary role in the transatlantic relationship, which was considered a raison d’état by policy elites. But the transatlantic relationship in the 2020s is seen as much less existential in both Europe and America – and has for that reason been politicised. It is enough to look at the mind-blowing performance of the American stock market in a year when American the economy is in a coma to conclude that, in a time of plague, sentiments are running the world. We can see that public moods have policy consequences. Across the 11 countries covered by ECFR’s poll, 53 per cent of respondents believe that Biden’s victory makes a positive difference to their countries, and 57 per cent that it is beneficial for the EU. Even in Hungary and Poland, whose populations have been among the most pro-Trump in Europe, more people say that his electoral defeat is good for their countries than the opposite.
But, although a majority of Europeans are happy with Biden’s election, many do not trust the American electorate not to vote for another Donald Trump in four years. Looking at the results for Europe as a whole, 32 per cent of all respondents to ECFR’s poll agree that, after voting for Trump in 2016, Americans cannot be trusted – and only 27 per cent disagree with this statement (the rest do not have an opinion on the issue). Most strikingly, 53 per cent of German respondents say that, after Trump, Americans can no longer be trusted – making them clear outliers on this point. Only in Hungary and Poland do significantly more people disagree with that statement than agree with it.
Let’s start with how Europeans see themselves. ECFR’s poll shows that, contrary to expectations, they have become slightly more positive about the EU in the past two years, despite the old continent’s failure to handle the covid-19 crisis. In Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and Sweden – countries in which ECFR conducted a poll two years ago – the average share of people who say that the EU’s political system works very well or fairly well has increased from 46 per cent to 48 per cent since January 2019. Meanwhile, those who say that the system is somewhat or completely broken has decreased from 45 per cent to 43 per cent during this period. Perceptions of the EU have improved everywhere apart from Hungary, the Netherlands, and Spain. But while Europeans are more positive about the EU, they are very pessimistic about the US. Over six in ten respondents across the 11 surveyed countries believe that the US political system is completely or somewhat broken, and this is also the view of majorities in every country aside from Hungary and Poland (where 56 per cent of Hungarians and 58 per cent of Poles believe that the US political system works well or, at least, somewhat well).
Many Europeans’ perception of the US political system as broken seems to make them doubt whether America will be able to return to global leadership in the manner that Biden promised when he said “America is back”. Across the 11 surveyed countries, 51 per cent of respondents do not subscribe to the view that, under Biden, the US is likely to repair its internal divisions and invest in solving international issues such as climate change, peace in the Middle East, relations with China, and European security.
Across the 11 surveyed countries, six out of ten respondents think that China will become more powerful than the US within the next ten years. The view that China will overtake the US is shared by 79 per cent of the public in Spain, and by 72 per cent in Portugal and Italy. Citizens of Hungary and Denmark are the most optimistic about the future of American power but, even in these two states, 48 per cent of respondents are convinced that China will overtake America in the next decade.
Whereas, at the beginning of the century, European public opinion on the US used to be divided along the lines of Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘old’ and ‘new’ Europe, the current poll shows a great deal of convergence. Many differences between European societies remain, but the clear dividing lines have been blurred. Today’s Europe is populated by four new geopolitical tribes that feel very differently about the functionality of their national political models, the effectiveness of the American political model, and the constellations of political, economic, and military power in the world. Each tribe has representatives in all the countries covered by ECFR’s survey.
In America We Trust’ is the smallest tribe, comprising 9 per cent of all respondents. Its members believe that America is strong and working, whereas the EU is broken and declining. One is most likely to run into members of this tribe in Italy, Poland, and France, where 22 per cent, 12 per cent, and 12 per cent of respondents hold this view respectively. Members of this tribe are likely aware of the problems America is experiencing but know that, historically, the US has always bounced back after a crisis. They may have taken to heart Otto von Bismarck’s remark that “God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America”; in any case, they believe that America is better positioned than Europe to preserve its influence in the world. Members of this tribe tend to vote for right-wing populist parties. In Italy, they tend to vote for the League, the Brothers of Italy, or Forza Italia; in France, they tend to vote for Marine Le Pen’s National Rally or other right-wing parties and candidates. In the Netherlands, the majority of this tribe is formed of those who vote for the Party for Freedom (PVV) of Geert Wilders or the populist, right-wing Forum for Democracy. In Sweden, most of them vote for the Sweden Democrats. In Denmark, they mostly choose the New Right or the Danish People’s Party. The second-smallest tribe is ‘In the West We Trust’, comprising 20 per cent of respondents. This tribe is composed of people who say that both the US and the EU are thriving. They are most likely to be convinced of the superiority of the Western political and economic system, and somewhat less likely than other tribes to fear that China will be in the geopolitical driving seat in the future (although, even among this group, 53 per cent think it is likely that China will surpass the US in the next ten years). If one wants to meet these people, the best place to go is central Europe: they constitute almost half of all voters in Poland and Hungary. This tribe is most likely to vote for La République En Marche! or Les Républicains in France; the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) in Germany; the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) or the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) in the Netherlands; the Social Democrats or the conservative-liberal Venstre in Denmark; the Socialists (PSOE), Vox, or the People’s Party in Spain; the Social Democratic Party, the Centre Party, or the Moderates in Sweden; Fidesz in Hungary; Law and Justice in Poland; and the Socialist Party or the Social Democratic Party in Portugal. These believers in the current power of the West make up the youngest tribe across all surveyed countries (58 per cent of them are under 50). However, their distribution across age groups varies between countries. For example, in Hungary, one is as likely to find members of this tribe among those aged 70 or above as among those aged 18-29. In Decline We Trust’ comprises 29 per cent of respondents, making them the second-largest group. Members of this tribe believe that both Europe and America are broken and declining. They are most likely to believe that China will overtake the West as a shaper of international politics (68 per cent believe that China is likely to be more powerful than the US within ten years, and 32 per cent say the same about Russia). These geopolitical fatalists make up the largest tribe in four countries: France (43 per cent of respondents), Great Britain (42 per cent), Spain (38 per cent), and Italy (36 per cent). They tend to be older, with 53 per cent of them over the age of 50. Members of this group are quite widely spread in their voting behaviour, but are more likely to support National Rally or Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise in France; Alternative for Germany or the Left in Germany; the New Right, the Conservative People’s Party, or the Social Democrats in Denmark; Fidesz in Hungary; the PVV, the VVD, or the Socialist Party in the Netherlands; and the Sweden Democrats or the Moderates in Sweden. This tribe also counts among its members many more disengaged or disillusioned citizens, such as those who do not know who they will vote for (particularly in France, Italy, and Portugal) or who say that they will abstain from voting (especially in Spain and Poland). Across all surveyed countries, this tribe accounts for 36 per cent of voters who are undecided or plan not to vote in the next election, and for 36 per cent of those who intend to vote for a populist party – a larger share than that of any other tribe in both cases. The biggest tribe is ‘In Europe We Trust’, comprising 35 per cent of all respondents. It is made up of people who think that, politically, Europe is healthy while the US is broken. Its members mostly come from more prosperous countries, and it is the largest tribe in Denmark (where it makes up 60 per cent of respondents), Germany (53 per cent), Sweden (51 per cent), the Netherlands (50 per cent), and Portugal (37 per cent). This tribe tends to be better educated than average, and its members are most likely to vote for the CDU/CSU, the Greens, or the Social Democrats in Germany; La République En Marche!, Les Républicains, or the Greens in France; the Democratic Party, the Five Star Movement, or one of the small pro-European centrist lists in Italy; opposition parties such as Civic Coalition, Poland 2050, and the Left in Poland; the Social Democrats or Venstre in Denmark; and governing coalition parties such as the VVD, CDA, and D66, or the centre-left Labour and Green Left parties, in the Netherlands. Across all surveyed countries, 47 per cent of respondents who intend to vote for non-populist parties are in the ‘In Europe We Trust’ grouping.
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