The Nature and Structure of the Transatlantic Divide


It is perhaps inevitable that proponents of each of the various views on the causes and nature of the alleged transatlantic divide will look for - and sometimes find - arguments and data from public opinion research results that tend to confirm their own differing hypotheses. At the same time, the core issue of where and why American and European publics differ on questions of war and peace and the use of military force in particular - as has been shown in Chapter Three - has not yet been adequately addressed. Continuing the analysis, we now want to supplement more conventional presentations of results of surveys on this issue by digging a bit deeper into the nature and structure of the transatlantic divide by looking primarily at general attitudes, or the level of political ideology, and then systematically comparing the relative explanatory power of these different dimensions of the Atlantic community in accounting for support for the use of force in hypothetical and real situations.

So, what is going on, particularly where the use of force is at stake? If it is true that Americans and Europeans both want to be engaged in the world, want to still basically like one another, would like to work together as partners and also see the threats facing both sides of the Atlantic in similar ways - as was demonstrated in the previous chapter - how and why did we end up in recent years with such a dramatic divergence in debates and public opinion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and related issues, like dealing with the Israel-Palestine conflict and the question of what to do about the prospect of a nuclear Iran? Why did President Bush end up (at least initially) with a clear domestic majority supporting going to war in Iraq - with little political need to seek authorization from the United Nations Security Council? Why, on the other hand, was Tony Blair so keen on getting precisely such a UN resolution - and why was obtaining it really so crucial in terms of convincing British public opinion that this war was just? And why was and remained public opinion in most continental European countries so strongly opposed to the Iraq war and other recent interventions - and seemingly so different from the United States? Why did some leaders in the Alliance seem to have considerable leeway when it came to their public opinion while others faced very real and formidable constraints?

We are used to, and tend to regard as inevitable, the fact that a 28-nation European Union is sharply divided on many issues related to a whole range of foreign challenges to national interests, such as how to deal with the threat of terrorism and other matters of security. But the same logic may apply (and perhaps increasingly so) to the United States, because the results of the different polls show the extent to which America too has become a divided continent (e.g., Jacobson, 2008; Layman, 2001). It is noteworthy, to say the least, that, as will be shown below, the gap between Republicans and Democrats in the United States has become at least as wide on many issues as is the case among and within European countries. While partisan foreign policy differences are certainly not new in the United States, policy toward Europe has been an area that has historically enjoyed wide bipartisan support, at least for most of the second half of the 20th century.1 However, particularly in the post-September 11 world, this seems to be less and less the case. Indeed, today one should perhaps talk about the two gaps or a double divide in the US-European relationship - the transatlantic gap between the US and Europe and the partisan gap between Republicans and Democrats in the United States.

The American Presidential election of November 2008 was particularly interesting in this connection. One of the more specific questions was, of course, what consequences the outcome of the election would have for transatlantic relations, given the differences that had already roiled the US-European relationship in the years before, as was also the case in the presidential elections of 2004, when Democratic candidate John Kerry was much more popular in Europe than the incumbent president Bush, and commentators on both sides of the Atlantic had speculated whether the outcome was yet likely to have a major impact on the US-European relationship. Some had pointed out that whoever the next President would be, he would face the same problems, constraints and differences that had bedeviled relations in recent years irrespective of his name or party affiliation. Others suggested at the time that the outcome of the election could have a very real impact given the different stances each candidate had staked out on foreign policy issues. Likewise, in 2008, and even more so, Barack Obama had suggested that he would break with many of the policies of the outgoing Bush administration in the area of foreign policy and seek a rapprochement with the European partners. Also, the evidence of a considerable gap between the potential supporters of both major political parties in the United States - as shown below - suggested that the incoming Obama administration would, at a minimum, approach the problems of transatlantic relations with a core political constituency holding very different views on issues of power, alliances and use of force and legitimacy than the incumbent administration. It would have a daunting task, however to (re)build a new consensus reaching out beyond the narrow confines of the coalition that had brought Obama into office.

Whatever the efforts of the Obama administration, it remained to be seen, however, whether the gap that existed not only between the American and many European governments, but also at the level of mass public opinion, could be bridged. As shown in the previous chapter, we find on the one hand indeed a huge sympathy in Europe for Obama (even stronger than in the US itself) and a restoration of favorable views of the United States to the historical average of the last fifty years, but on the other hand also considerable reluctance to follow his administration on specific foreign policy issues, especially as far as the use of military force is concerned, and the continuing debate over the merits of the various military strategies to deal with the problems in Afghanistan confirmed this.

This chapter explores some of these questions in greater detail. In essence it does two things. First, it looks more closely at the 'patterns of distribution' of opinions (Kay, 1961) on the four dimensions along which we have assessed the state of Atlantic community - threat perceptions, sense of we-feeling, institutional cooperation and general orientation toward the role of force in world politics - and, in particular, it explores to what extent these different dimensions are related to another potentially important source of differences, this time not between Europe and the US but within each area and each single country. We refer to the Left-Right divide on international issues and the extent to which it can contribute to shedding light on the differences between Europeans and Americans on the use of force.

Second, we examine these different dimensions in a combined way, looking at how they help, together with political ideology and some standard socio-demographic factors, to explain attitudes toward the use of force in general and in more specific circumstances.

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