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Welcome back. Whisper it quietly but in Europe, the historical birthplace of anti-Americanism, attitudes towards the US among politicians and the general public are becoming more positive. Is this just a short-term trend linked to Russia’s war on Ukraine, or will it last? I’m at [email protected].
Almost five years ago, during Donald Trump’s presidency, the Brookings Institution published a commentary under the arresting headline: “Europeans want to break up with America. They’d do so at their peril.”
Its author, James Kirchick, wrote of “the withering of transatlantic relations” and pinned part of the blame on the erratic, convention-busting occupant of the White House. “A demagogic nationalist, Trump seems to confirm every negative stereotype Europeans hold about Americans,” Kirchick maintained.
His allusion to stereotypes touched on an important feature of European anti-Americanism. It is often not about the specific policies of US administrations in our times, but about a pile of negative images and impressions, stacked up since at least the 19th century, of the American national character — if such a term has any meaning — and way of life.
In other words, you can change who’s in the White House, but certain more deep-rooted feelings about the US are likely to persist. This is because such feelings are to a considerable extent about how many Europeans define their own societies, cultures and values, sometimes in opposition to those of America.
That said, Joe Biden’s arrival in the White House undoubtedly healed much of the damage of the Trump years — though not all, as we see in the US-European frictions over the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, which contains huge subsidies for US-based green technology projects.
What really improved European perceptions of the US was the Russian invasion of Ukraine a year ago. One public opinion survey after another reaches the same conclusion: Europeans feel closer to the US, and their views of Russia (and to a lesser extent, China) have turned sharply negative. Much of this transformation in opinion looks as if it may endure, because it derives from a strengthening sense that Europe and the US do, in fact, share common values such as political pluralism and personal liberty.
Take this report, prepared by the Bennett Institute of Public Policy at the UK’s Cambridge university. Using data culled from 137 countries, including 75 studied since the Kremlin’s invasion, the researchers state: “Russia’s war has led people in the west to feel ever greater allegiance to both the US and Nato.”
They add that, over the past decade, positive public attitudes towards Russia in once-sympathetic countries have plummeted: Greece (down to 30 per cent from 69 per cent), Hungary (25 per cent from 45 per cent) and Italy (14 per cent from 38 per cent).
On the other hand, favourable views of Russia and China prevail in much of the non-western world, in countries such as Malaysia, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the researchers say and as the chart above suggests.
“Democratic societies are far more negative towards Russia and China, whereas the reverse is true for more authoritarian societies. This association did not exist a decade ago, yet it is quite clear today,” says Xavier Romero-Vidal, one of the report’s authors.
Russia and Europe’s rightwing populists
A similar observation appears in this analysis for the London School of Economics’ European politics blog. Based on data from the European Social Survey, one of the most authoritative measures of public opinion in Europe, Margaryta Klymak and Tim Vlandas say Russia’s war has strengthened the support of Europeans for democracy and freedom and has even raised trust in politicians and political parties.
Meanwhile, the European Commission’s public opinion monitoring unit reports that the desire for US involvement in Europe’s defence has gone up since the start of the Ukraine war. Some 72 per cent of Europeans now want the US somewhat or very involved, and only 19 per cent want it to keep out. The largest increases in support are in Sweden (72 per cent, up from 45 per cent in 2021), Hungary (71 per cent, up from 60 per cent) and the Netherlands (75 per cent, up from 66 per cent).
Even among Europeans voting for rightwing populists, who have been enthusiastically pro-Moscow during Vladimir Putin’s 23-year reign, positive views of Russia have fallen, according to this survey by the Pew Research Center.
Oddballs in central Europe
Naturally, none of this means that European anti-Americanism has completely faded away. Taking the temperature in Germany, columnist Tanit Koch wrote in The New European in October of her dismay that “anti-Americanism has reached middle-class liberal conservatives . . . I’m stunned to hear usually US-friendly people say: ‘The US don’t have any interest in ending this war. We have to buy their gas, as they always wanted us to, and they can sell their weapons.’”
From 2015 to 2020, the UK’s opposition Labour party was led by Jeremy Corbyn, the radical leftist of whom the British historian Jeremy Black once wrote: “He has never seen an anti-American cause he did not want to embrace.” Such views have not disappeared on the British left, even though Keir Starmer and like-minded Atlanticist moderates now lead the Labour party.
In central Europe, a certain animosity towards the US has persisted among leaders such as Hungary’s premier Viktor Orbán, Croatia’s president Zoran Milanović and former Czech president Miloš Zeman. But it is notable that Czech voters last month elected a retired Nato commander, Petr Pavel, as Zeman’s successor.
Origins of European anti-Americanism
In The American Enemy, a landmark study of French anti-Americanism published in 2002 (and translated into English in 2005), the French historian Philippe Roger explained that the phenomenon didn’t begin with the Vietnam war or even in the 1930s, an era when, in his view, it was at its peak.
Rather, its foundations were laid more than 200 years ago in “the Enlightenment’s strange hostility to the New World”. It spread in the 19th century as Parisian intellectuals portrayed French civilisation as a universal ideal at odds with American mass democracy and rapacious, dehumanising capitalism.
Across Europe, anti-Americanism turned into a cultural critique of modernity — breakneck industrialisation, corporate power, urbanisation, the market-driven atomisation of society.
Such attitudes have left their mark. In a 2015 study, Colin Lawson and John Hudson sifted through the EU’s Eurobarometer data on public opinion and concluded: “Mistrust of big business . . . strongly suggests that a root cause of anti-American attitudes is anti-capitalism.”
This is coupled nowadays with harsh criticism from many Europeans of aspects of US life such as lax gun controls, the partial application of the death penalty, the Supreme Court’s turn against abortion rights and unequal access to healthcare.
Still, Russia’s war and the collective, US-led western response do seem to have drawn Americans and Europeans closer together. I leave you with this thought — what would happen if the Republicans were to win the presidency in 2024 with a candidate leaning to a Trumpian approach to world affairs?
Fireproofing US-European ties — a commentary by Bruce Stokes for the Washington-based Roll Call website
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