November 8, 2012

Transatlantic Relations in Obama’s Second Term

By Bruce Stokes, Director of Pew Global Economic Attitudes, Pew Research Center

Special to EuropeanVoice

The re-election of Barack Obama as the next president of the United States has ramifications—good, bad and indifferent—for transatlantic relations.

Whoever had emerged victorious November 6, the American pivot toward Asia was to continue because of China’s growing magnetic economic and geo-political appeal. But Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Russia, terrorism and trade are still likely to dominate the immediate transatlantic agenda. And differences in public perception on both sides of the Atlantic could pose new tests for the EU-U.S. alliance in the years ahead.

Iran is the most immediate challenge to transatlantic solidarity.

There is extremely strong American and European opposition to the Iranian nuclear weapons program, according to the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes survey in spring, 2012.

But among those who oppose Iran acquiring a nuclear arsenal, Americans’ support for the use of military force to halt the Iranian efforts exceeds that in any other country. About six-in-ten (63%) Americans would support military action, compared with 51% in France and Britain and 50% in Germany. Only 24% of Russians would back such a move.

The absence of strong international backing for a strike on Iran could complicate the new president’s ability to build and hold together a united diplomatic front in any effort to deny Tehran nuclear weapons.

Washington’s likely continued offensive against terrorists poses similar, if less threatening, alliance frictions. Europeans are generally supportive of U.S.-led efforts to fight terrorism. But they take a sharply negative view of the drone strikes that are likely to continue to be one of America’s principal methods of prosecuting that war. Drones have the overwhelming support of the American public (62%). But they are disapproved of by 76% of the Spanish, 63% of the French and 59% of the Germans.

Afghanistan, Syria and Russia are issues that may divide the alliance less than the campaign rhetoric in the United States presidential race might have suggested.

Obama has promised to get out of Afghanistan by 2014. Both American and European publics are clear, they want all troops out.

Obama has shown no stomach for military intervention in war-torn Syria. And neither the American nor the European publics support allied military involvement in Syria: 59% of Europeans and 55% of Americans say their governments should stay out completely, according to the 2012 German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Trends survey.

Obama’s promised reset of relations with Moscow was more of an ambition than a policy. Time will tell if it can be realized in his second term.

But European and American publics are clear. They don’t trust Russia: 55% of Europeans and 48% of Americans have an unfavorable view of Russia, according to the GMF survey. But they like the status quo. Half of Europeans (56%) and Americans (53%) approve of the way Obama has managed relations with Russia so far.

Trade promises to be a unifying transatlantic issue in the next administration. Later this year, the Obama administration is expected to announce plans to negotiate a free trade agreement with Europe. And Brussels is in agreement.

Overwhelming majorities on both sides of the Atlantic think trade is good for their countries, despite worries about its impact on jobs and incomes. France and American unions, both long skeptical of trade liberalization, have been largely silent about a transatlantic free trade deal, a positive sign. European and American farmers are likely to be wary. But prospects for completing such an agreement during the next U.S. administration are better than they have ever been.

Obama will continue the U.S. pivot toward Asia. Nevertheless, the European-American agenda will remain busy, with a number of issues that have to be properly managed to avoid alliance tensions. But with the re-election of Barack Obama, who is more popular across Europe than any other European leader and who most Europeans wanted to remain in the White House, there is no danger of a return of the transatlantic tensions that marked the Bush administration in the last decade.