'Transatlantic Trends' Survey 2008: Europeans Back Obama but Not Necessarily His Policies

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According to a major survey, Europeans want the Democrats to win back the White House this year. But Barack Obama's positions on Iran's nuclear program and Afghanistan are not widely supported in Europe, and the huge European interest in the election may not translate into closer trans-Atlantic ties.

Senator Barack Obama greets supporters in Berlin this July. Europeans like him but do they agree with him?
REUTERS

Senator Barack Obama greets supporters in Berlin this July. Europeans like him but do they agree with him?

Europe's citizens are hoping for a new beginning in trans-Atlantic relations following a victory by the Democratic candidate Barack Obama. According to the latest "Transatlantic Trends," 47 percent of those polled across 12 European countries agree that there would be an improvement in relations between Europe and the US if Obama moved into the White House. By contrast, just 11 percent of those surveyed thought there would be a similar improvement under a President John McCain.

There is also a huge difference in the popularity of the two candidates. While 69 percent of Europeans would like to see a President Obama, only 26 percent say that about McCain. In Germany this sympathy is particular marked with 83 percent of those polled supporting the Democrats.

The "Transatlantic Trends" survey is conducted every year by the German Marshall Fund (GMF) and the Compagnia di San Paolo and is regarded as an important indicator of the state of trans-Atlantic relations.

These figures clearly do not back up the assumption that relations between Europe and the US have already relaxed -- something some experts have been hoping in the light of the European fascination with the US election campaign.

The image of the US in Europe has remained almost unaltered during the second Bush administration. Then as now, only 36 percent of Europeans view America's role as a superpower positively (before the Iraq War that figure was still 64 percent.)

A paltry 19 percent agree with the Bush administration's policies. "The American image in the world has basically flatlined since 2004," says John Glenn, who is responsible for the survey at GMF.

Neither Bush's charm offensive to improve relations with Washington's European partners in recent years nor the exciting election campaign have led to any marked improvement. "Europeans seem to take a wait-and-see approach till Election Day in November," says Glenn.

Furthermore the enthusiasm for Obama cannot be equated with an automatic approval of his political agenda. It is true that there is a consensus about the fears facing people on both sides of the Atlantic, with citizens concerned above all about the economic situation, energy supplies and terrorism.

However, there is an obvious trans-Atlantic gulf when it comes to estimating the danger an Iranian nuclear bomb would pose. This is where Obama has a similarly rigid stance to both John McCain and even the Bush administration.

"The threat assessment for Iran's nuclear program has significantly decreased in Europe," says Glenn. According to the survey, 69 percent of Americans are worried about an Iranian nuclear bomb, compared to around one in two Europeans. This is largely to due to the latest assessments by the international nuclear authorities and intelligence agencies about the current state of Iran's nuclear program.

There are equally marked differences over the mission in Afghanistan, for which Obama has repeatedly requested a deeper European commitment. While Europeans wants to see more commitment to reconstruction, police training and the fight against drugs, only 43 percent support the operations against the Taliban. In contrast, 76 percent in the US support them.

On the issue of tackling climate change, although both sides are increasingly aware of the problem, 41 percent of Europeans say cooperation in this area should be a trans-Atlantic priority compared to just 18 percent of Americans.

This year "Transatlantic Trends," asked specifically about an assessment of Russia's policies on both sides of the Atlantic. However, the questions were asked in June, before the recent Georgia crisis.

Nevertheless, a growing concern about Russian unilateralism is already discernible -- particularly about its role as an energy supplier. A slightly higher percentage of Europeans (64 percent) is now anxious about this role than Americans (61 percent). In the summary of all the fears about Russia -- its relationship with its neighbors, democratic development, weapons sales in the Middle East and energy supply -- it is the Germans who are the most worried. On a scale of 1 (lowest) to 100 (highest) their fear of Russia's policies comes in at 64.

The Europeans also show more willingness than the Americans surveyed to support Russia's neighbors like Georgia and Ukraine or to back democracy movements in Russia. However, there is less appetite in Europe than in the US for isolating Russia internationally.

Europe's support for NATO had waned for years but is now increasing -- particularly in Germany. There, the number of those agreeing that the defense alliance was needed went up by 7 points to 62 percent. A possible reason may be that the NATO mission in Afghanistan is regarded much more positively than the Iraq War. In addition, the NATO summit in Romania which saw US expansion plans modified due to, in part, German doubts could have been seen as an example of a more open culture of discussion within the alliance.

The relationship that Turkey has with both the US and the European Union was another focus of the survey. And there are grounds for optimism here. On a scale of 1 (particularly negative) to 100 (particularly positive), the Turkish stance towards the EU has risen 7 percentage points to 33. The relations with the US are only at 14 points, an improvement of 3. Both those figures indicate an improvement of relations which had been deteriorating since 2004.

Nevertheless, almost ever second Turkish person who was surveyed said Turkey should act unilaterally in international affairs. And Turkish people remain pessimistic about their prospects for joining the EU. While 60 percent of Europeans and 48 percent of Americans assume Turkey will eventual become a member, only one in four Turks feels the same.

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