American leadership contested

A first indicator is the desire for strong EU and US global leadership, measured for Americans and Europeans respectively. Over the years, many Americans definitely favored EU leadership next to their own (and increasingly so). On the other hand, Europeans became markedly more critical or skeptical about the leadership of the US during the Bush era. After a sudden jump in 2002, due to increased expectations about American assertiveness in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a sharp drop in support for strong US leadership occurred in 2003, and support never bounced back to the considerably higher pre-2002 levels until a new Administration took office in 2009 (Figure

3.3). However, as we saw in Figure 3.2, the trough of the 2000s was not the first we had since this data series recording began. Similar drops in desirability of US leadership occurred in the past, for instance during the Vietnam war and in the early 1980s, in connection with the controversy over the Euromissiles. As is the case with the favora- bility feelings toward the US, the Bush era produced also the deepest and longest dip in the data series on US leadership. In the early 1970s and 1980s, the slump was either shorter - net desirability went down to -9 in 1960, to turn up again to a positive +35 the year after - or milder. In the 1980s net desirability hovered around zero, with the public equally divided among those who desired a strong US leadership and those who did not desire this. In contrast, during the Bush era net desirability for US leadership not only went down deeply, with net favor negatively around -15, but also steadily, remaining negative

Confidence in US leadership (1960-2010) (average net confidence in US leadership in four European countries)

Figure 3.3 Confidence in US leadership (1960-2010) (average net confidence in US leadership in four European countries)

Sources: 1960-1963: 'How much confidence do you have in the ability of the US to provide wise leadership for the West in dealing with present world problems - very great, considerable, not very much, or very little?' (Merritt and Puchala, 1968: p. 259, table II.B.17). 19641989: ' How much confidence do you have in the United States to deal responsibly with world problems? Do you have a great deal of confidence, a fair amount, not very much or none at all?' (Smith and Wertman, 1992: pp. 267-272, tab. A.1). 1991-2001: 'How desirable is it that the United States exert strong leadership in world affairs? Very desirable, somewhat desirable, somewhat undesirable, or very undesirable?' (USIA; PIPA). 2002-2010: How desirable is it that the United States exert strong leadership in world affairs? Very desirable, somewhat desirable, somewhat undesirable, or very undesirable? (Transatlantic Trends). The horizontal line is the overall average for the entire.

throughout the Bush Jr years, from 2004 to 2008. Support for a strong US leadership jumped back again, however, in 2009 (see Figure 3.4). How permanent this recovery will be remains an open question at the time of writing.

The general decline in American prestige at the level of the general public has most probably much to do with the critical appreciation of US policies and the president who designed them. This appears from other indicators, such as the steep decline in the general approval of the way Bush was handling international policies and the bounce back after President Obama succeeded him. Despite efforts of the Bush administration to reverse this trend in its second term, approval of the foreign policies of the Bush administration remained at a very low level until the end of its time in office. This was a phenomenon that was not unique to Europe, because the growing disenchantment was equally evident in the US itself, as were (though in a more muted form) the expectations of change after 2008.

Desirability of US leadership in US and in EU (mass public and elites) (1982-2011)

Figure 3.4 Desirability of US leadership in US and in EU (mass public and elites) (1982-2011)

Sources: for EU - 1982-2001: USIA, 2002-2011: Transatlantic Trends; for US - 1981: PIPA, 2002, 2005-2008: Transatlantic Trends. EU includes: France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Poland, Slovakia, Spain and United Kingdom.

Whatever people on both sides felt about the causes of the transatlantic estrangement19 and about what might be done to remedy the situation, there was widespread agreement in the period 2002-2008 that the transatlantic relationship 'has suffered in recent years'. It is true that many felt over the years when this question was asked that relations had 'stayed the same' but those saying so may well have felt that the relations stayed the same because they could not get any worse.20

This issue provides another nice illustration of the atmospherics of the Obama bounce. In 2009, very many were seeing or expecting an improvement in the transatlantic relationship, of which there were already indications in 2008. This impression of improvement was widely shared across the Atlantic. Note also, however, that there will always be (a large number of) skeptics who see no change at all, whatever the circumstances.

 
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