26th Apr 2019


Germans and Americans differ over Russia

  • Disagreement over how tough to be with Russia potentially foreshadows new stress in the US-German relationship (Photo: Bundesregierung/Kugler)

May 8 was VE Day, the 70th anniversary of the end of the bloodiest war in modern European history. The anniversary marked a moment to assess the role that tragic conflict plays in public consciousness. But it was also an opportunity to look forward to assess how the public sees the challenges that lie ahead.

Germany and the United States, adversaries in WWII, allies during and after the Cold War, are now the two pillars of the transatlantic alliance.

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  • Differences over the Iraq war or US monitoring of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s communications play a minor role (Photo: Valentina Pop)

Their views of each other are complicated by recent disagreements over the Iraq war and US National Security Agency spying, and how they both see a re-assertive Russia. Nevertheless, their attitudes will shape the future of Europe’s ties with America for years to come.

No single event dominates public memory in either Germany or the US, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center. World War II and the Holocaust loom large for Americans. Nearly half say those events more than seven decades ago are still the most important in the US-German relationship.

One slightly discordant note in this memory, a separate Pew Research survey found that fewer Americans believe Germany has apologised sufficiently for WWII than feel Japan has apologised sufficiently.

In the eyes of Americans, the second-most memorable event in the recent relationship has been the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Few mention the contretemps over the Iraq war or US monitoring of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s communications.

For Germans, the most important event in bilateral relations over the past 75 years has been the fall of the Berlin Wall. Roughly a third of Germans surveyed cites that incident. A fifth of Germans say it was WWII and the Holocaust or the Marshall Plan.

Only about one-in-eight mention the NSA listening in on Merkel’s phone conversations and nearly one-in-twelve reference the US-German disagreement over the Iraq War.

The relatively minor role recent disagreements play in historical memory, despite the attention they receive in the press and public discourse, help explain the strength of the bilateral US-German relationship today.

Brits most reliable to Americans

A strong majority of Americans (72%) see Germany as a reliable ally. About six-in-ten Germans (61%) similarly believe the US is a dependable ally. Notably, however, Germans trust France (78%) as an ally more than the US.

Americans are more likely to see Britain as a reliable ally: 85% say Britain is dependable, an affirmation of the “special relationship.” Only 55% of Germans view Britain as a reliable ally.

The Pew Research survey was conducted before recent revelations alleging that the NSA worked with Germany's intelligence agency, the BND, to spy on European firms, French officials and the EU's headquarters in Brussels.

The potential impact of such activities on the US-German relationship is unknown, but the low importance Germans place on past NSA revelations suggest it may prove less abiding than immediate headlines might suggest.

Looking forward, not since the end of the Cold War have German-American-Russian issues loomed so large in international affairs. This is in large part because of recent developments in Ukraine, where Russian activities have led to US and European economic sanctions against Moscow.

Germans less tough on Russia

But Germany’s geographic proximity and economic ties to Russia give Berlin and Washington different stakes in the current and in any future confrontation with Moscow.

Nevertheless, a majority of Germans (57%) believe it is more important for Germany to have strong ties with the US than with Russia. Just 15% prefer strong ties with Russia, and another 21% volunteer that it is best to have an equally close relationship with both.

On the issue of Ukraine, when asked if it is more important to be tough with Russia or to have a strong economic relationship with her, half of Germans voice the view it is more important to be tough.

In spite of Germany’s long-standing economic and energy ties with Russia, only about a third (35%) expresses the opinion that it is better to have a strong economic relationship with Moscow.

Americans and Germans disagree, however, about whether the current US and EU posture toward Russia over Ukraine is too tough, not tough enough or about right. Americans want to ratchet up the pressure, while most Germans do not support a tougher stance.

More than half of Americans (54%) believe that US policy toward Russia is not tough enough. And 59% say the EU is not being strong enough. At the same time, only 23% of Germans think Washington is not tough enough. And just 26% believe the EU is not aggressive enough.

This latter disagreement over how tough to be with Russia potentially foreshadows new stress in the US-German relationship and, by extension, transatlantic solidarity over what to do about Ukraine.

To date Washington and Berlin have worked hard to minimise any alliance differences over sanctions on Russia. The success of this effort can be seen in the continued belief among both Germans and Americans that the other is a reliable ally.

But public differences over Russia, potentially complicated if there are even more revelations about NSA activities in Germany, suggest sustaining the strength of the US-German relationship will be an ongoing challenge.

Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center.


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