NEW YORK — With regard to Europe, at least, everything old may be new again.
Donald Rumsfeld stirred a hornet’s nest ahead of the Iraq War in 2003 when he dismissed “Old Europe” as irrelevant, referring to American allies like France and Germany who warned us not to invade. The insult hit home, and Europeans never forgave him or the administration he rode in on.
European opinion about the U.S. plumetted as a result. Yet only one year later, President Barack Obama appears to have reversed that negative opinion and restored European faith in American foreign policy, according to the latest annual survey of European attitudes by the German Marshall Fund known as “Transatlantic Trends.”
Craig Kennedy, president of the German Marshall Fund, which released the survey Wednesday, called the results “a remarkable shift in transatlantic opinion from the previous administration.” The latest edition of the survey showed that three out of four people (77 percent) asked in European Union nations plus Turkey expressed a favorable view of Obama’s handling of foreign affairs. A year earlier, Europe’s opinion of American leadership had deteriorated to the point where only one out of five (19 percent) surveyed expressed approval for American foreign policy.
Too often, they said, the Yanks are arrogant, bullying — and in some cases — reckless. As many have pointed out, this was a very long fall from the days just following the 9/11 attacks, when the French daily Le Monde ran a Sept. 12, 2001, headline declaring: “We Are All Americans!”
The Transatlantic Trends survey questioned more than 13,000 people across the continent from June to late July this year.
Generally speaking, Western Europe — the old NATO countries of the U.K., France, Germany and Italy — were more favorable to U.S. leadership, while Eastern Europe and Turkey were slightly more skeptical.
Still, as the survey noted, even in Turkey, where the Iraq war next door has had very real consequences, Obama scores a 50 percent favorable rating, compared with just 8 percent last year for Bush.
Some of the upswing likely resulted from a simple change at the top after eight years of often controversial and confrontational policies. Still, Obama has taken steps experts long advocated for to mend the badly frayed transatlantic relationship.
While Obama has found some promises — notably the transformation of America’s health care system — much easier to make than to keep, on foreign policy the record is more positive, and Europeans appear to appreciate that.
These include moves to close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, to pull out of Iraq within 16 months, to re-engage in climate change talks and to attempt a more diplomatic approach to regimes from Syria to Cuba to Iran.
It’s not all wine and roses in Europe, of course. The same survey, sponsored by the German Marshall Fund of the United States and Italy's Compagnia di San Paolo, along with other institutes in Europe, confirms the downward trend in support for the Afghan war.
More than half of those surveyed in Western Europe (55 percent) — “old NATO” in Rumsfeld-speak — want to reduce or withdraw from Afghanistan. Ironically, the trend for ending the Afghan mission is even stronger in Eastern Europe (Rumsfeld’s supposedly more pro-American “New Europe”), where 69 percent would like to get out now. Nor is it clear at all whether this Obama bounce is any more sustainable than the surge was in Iraq. Many of the longstanding wedge issues remain. U.S. support for Israel, which many Europeans view as overly indulgent, is one, as is Washington’s more hawkish stance on Iran. Both sides of the Atlantic, judging from the survey, agree a nuclear Iran is something they’d prefer not to see. But in Europe, the idea of a military option should diplomacy fail draws less support.
Still, gone is the blatantly anti-American tone of responses typical of European attitudes to the U.S. post-Iraq War. And for all the talk of a permanent shift in the transatlantic dynamic in recent years, the survey found that a majority of Europeans want the United States to play a strong role in managing the global economic collapse. And, incredibly, far more Europeans approve of Obama’s handling of the financial crisis (79 percent) than his own citizens (54 percent).
Look for Obama’s domestic opponents to make hay of that last fact.