The GOP’s Problem with Europe

This week the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) released its annual Transatlantic Trends survey of public attitudes on both sides of the Atlantic.

This week the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) released its annual Transatlantic Trends survey of public attitudes on both sides of the Atlantic. Those who needed proof that the old bipartisan consensus on how the United States should approach Europe is crumbling and that American conservatives increasingly have a problem with Europe can find it in these numbers.

That problem is threefold. First, Republicans are in denial over the scope of the opposition they face in Europe. Conservatives’ claims that the rift across the Atlantic on Iraq was temporary and that relations were on the mend have proven false. The GMF results show that Europe’s opposition to the Bush administration is growing and that confidence in American leadership is collapsing. For the first time, a majority of Europeans – 58 percent – believe that U.S. global leadership is undesirable, and 76 percent disapprove of Bush’s handling of foreign policy. Europeans have overwhelmingly rejected President Bush’s handling of terrorism, with 73 percent of those polled believing that the Iraq war has increased, not decreased, the threat of terrorism.

Moreover, the administration’s assertions that opposition in Europe is limited to “a few” countries like France or Germany is simply wishful thinking. The collapse of support for American leadership is deep and widespread, from the United Kingdom in the North to Turkey in the South, and encompasses both new and old Europe. In a historically pro-American country like Poland, for example, opposition to American leadership has risen from 22 percent to 47 percent over the past two years. In some ways, the most anti-American country in Europe today is not France but our traditional ally Turkey, where the public harbors the coldest feelings toward the United States and opposition to President Bush and his policy toward Iraq is most intense.

Second, while Republicans today are keen to invoke the legacy of FDR, Churchill or Truman, the reality is that they are walking away from a core part of what these leaders believed in: the need to use American power to strengthen the United Nations (UN) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and to support a strong and unified Europe. Although Republican opposition to the UN is hardly new, it has reached a new extreme: 56 percent of Republicans have an unfavorable view of the UN, and 84 percent indicated a willingness to bypass the institution in a crisis.

Equally, if not more worrying, is the drop in Republican support for NATO, an alliance that the United States created and has led for more than fifty years. There now exists a 17-percent gap between Democrats and Republicans on support for NATO. Republicans are also less supportive than Democrats of the European Union (EU), and less willing to see the EU assume the kind of global role where it could relieve the United States of some international burdens.

The GMF poll shows that Republicans still like allies in principle – they just do not support international institutions and formal alliances. The problem with this view is that it does not work in practice. As the events in Iraq have shown, without working through the institutions, it is more difficult to secure allies. And without having European partners on board, it is much harder to gain support for U.S. policies from elsewhere around the world. There was a time when American presidents – Republicans and Democrats alike – demonstrated foreign policy acumen and measured success in their ability to get along with allies and to work through these institutions. But listening to some of the speeches at the recent GOP convention was an almost Orwellian experience in which old allies have been turned into enemies, and the virtue of working with partners through international institutions has suddenly become a vice.

The third part of the GOP’s problem with Europe is that it has no counterparts. The party’s attitudes toward power and the use of force are now so extreme that they are not shared by any meaningful political force, not even among European conservative parties. Now when it comes to power and the use of force, Democrats are slightly more hawkish than the European norm and line up with center-right parties in Europe. But in true Wilsonian fashion, they are also more idealistic when it comes to support for the UN and NATO, placing them closer to the European left. On some of these issues, one might wonder whether Democratic voters are perhaps a bit too idealistic.

Some Republicans are already claiming that none of these numbers matter, and that Europeans will have no choice but to accommodate themselves to and work with President Bush if he is re-elected. Yet that was precisely the argument that one heard from the White House and State Department in the run-up to the Iraq war. It turned out to be wrong, and the consequences for the United States were disastrous.

Dr. Ronald D. Asmus is a senior trans-Atlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He served as deputy assistant secretary of state for European affairs from 1997 to 2000. The views expressed here are his own.

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