22nd Mar 2018


A US dream, or nightmare, for Europeans?

  • A Trump presidency could win favor among Europe’s growing swell of populists. (Photo: Matt Johnson)

"America," wrote Hannah Arendt in 1954, "has been both the dream and the nightmare of Europe."

The dream was the United States ability to inspire Europeans to rebuild a war-torn continent and embrace liberal democracy; the nightmare was the envy and fear generated by an America that possessed unprecedented economic and military clout.

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  • Following his election, Obama was remarkably popular in Europe. In 2009, 91 percent gave him positive marks. (Photo:

In the decades since, Europeans have continued to project hopes and fears across the Atlantic, seeing at times a dynamic, optimistic America, while at other moments worrying deeply about the US as hegemon, the "hyperpower" that has too much influence on what happens worldwide.

For many Europeans, Barack Obama represented the dream. After the transatlantic tensions of the George W. Bush years, Europeans were hopeful Obama would pursue a more multilateral approach to world affairs, fixing the deeply strained Western alliances after the Iraq war and end the most unpopular elements of the "war on terror."

Even as a candidate, Obama generated stunning enthusiasm. More than 200,000 people famously turned out in Berlin in July 2008 to listen to a speech by the newly minted Democratic nominee. Describing Americans and Europeans as "heirs to a struggle for freedom," Obama called for a renewed partnership that would "once again engage in that noble struggle to bring justice and peace to our world."

Following his election, Obama was remarkably popular in Europe. A poll we conducted by the Pew Research Center in spring 2009 found 93 percent of Germans confident in his ability to do the right thing in world affairs, compared with just 14 percent for president Bush in 2008.

Political honeymoons are often temporary

In France, 91 percent gave Obama positive marks; a year earlier, only 13 percent had given Bush a favourable review. Across Europe, there was widespread support for many of Obama’s policies, such as withdrawing US combat troops from Iraq.

Of course, political honeymoons are often temporary, and European "Obamamania" didn’t last. The new president won the Nobel Peace Prize, but he also showed a willingness to use American military power in ways Europeans did not always like, especially the increased use of drones to target terrorists in places like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

The Edward Snowden revelations about NSA eavesdropping rekindled European fears about the tremendous reach of American power, this time in the new sphere of cyberspace. Europeans had high hopes Obama would close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, but this never happened.

Still, Obama’s ratings remained high. Across 10 European countries we polled in 2016, a median of 77 percent said they had confidence in him to do the right thing in world affairs.

As he leaves office, America’s overall image in Europe is significantly more positive than it was at the end of the Bush era. In Spain, for instance, 59 percent expressed a favourable opinion of the US last year, compared to 33 percent in 2008.

Similarly, American attitudes toward Europe are mostly positive: 53 percent said they had a favourable opinion of the EU in a 2016 poll, nearly double the share with an unfavourable opinion, 27 percent.

9-percent confidence in Trump

Yet despite the rise of China and the Obama administration’s "pivot" toward Asia, Americans still see Europe as central to US interests abroad. When asked which is more important, strong political, economic, and military ties with Europe or Asia, Americans choose the former by a 52-32 percent margin.

What lies ahead for US-European relations?

Many Europeans express concern. In our 2016 survey, a median of just 9 percent across the 10 European nations polled said they had confidence in Donald Trump to do the right thing when it comes to international affairs; fully 85 percent said they lacked confidence.

When Trump calls NATO "obsolete", threatens to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, and says he will pursue an "America first" foreign policy, many Europeans hear echoes of the Bush years, and fear another period of American unilateralism.

In fairness, however, Trump hasn’t taken office yet and it is not clear what his foreign policy will look like. And he is also not universally feared: in several European countries we polled in 2016, people on the right side of the ideological spectrum expressed somewhat more positive views of Trump.

For instance, 30 percent of Ukip supporters had confidence in Trump, compared with 13 percent of the Conservatives and 8 percent of those who back Labour. So, a Trump presidency could win favor among Europe’s growing swell of populists.

America can mean many things

It should also be kept in mind that while presidents and their foreign policies may be an important driver of US image abroad, other factors matter too, such as America’s political ideals, popular culture, scientific and technological achievements, and world famous colleges and universities.

In addition, Europeans often like the American people more than they like American foreign policies. Despite George W. Bush’s unpopularity, and widespread opposition to his foreign policies, majorities in countries like France, Germany, Poland, and the UK continued to express favorable opinions of Americans throughout his presidency.

As one of our nation’s most famous poets, Walt Whitman, might have written, America is large, it contains multitudes. A big, diverse, complex society, with an unprecedented global reach, America can mean many things to many people.

Whether Europe will see America as more dream or more nightmare in the years ahead remains to be seen.

Richard Wike is Director of Global Attitudes Research at the Pew Research Center.

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