Though its steps are halting, the European Union continues to move toward becoming a unified and independent actor on the world scene. Eleven countries have committed to unifying their currencies and Europeans increasingly aim to unify their foreign and defense policies. Europe has also shown greater independence from the US, persisting in trading with Iran and Cuba despite overt US pressures and pursuing its own policies in the Middle East. Unanimously, the EU countries stood together against the US in endorsing the formation of the International Criminal Court.
This poses new questions for Americans. Do they see a stronger and more unified Europe as a potential competitor? Are they ready to see the US have its preeminent position diluted by an aspiring superpower? Are they ready for the US to truly share power with Europe?
The political climate for these questions will be significantly affected by how they play with the American public. A new study by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) posed these questions in a poll of 2,747 American adults. It also coordinated its questions with polls conducted in Europe by the United States Information Agency (USIA).
The American public was quite unequivocal in their support for a stronger Europe. An overwhelming 80 percent said that "it is desirable ... that the European Union exert strong leadership in world affairs" - nearly as many as those who said it was desirable for the US to do so.
Americans are also quite supportive of European unification - interestingly, more supportive than Europeans. For example 60 percent of Americans endorsed European economic unification as a "good thing" while just 50 percent of the German, 55 percent of the French, and 39 percent of the British felt this way (all European data is from USIA). Only 41 percent of Americans worried that a more unified Europe "may become more of a competitor with the US" while 82 percent were hopeful that it would "be able to share more of the burden of keeping peace in Europe."
Americans seem to be seeking a new balance in the European-American relationship. Asked what "the relationship should be between the US and the European Union," 80 percent said that the US and Europe should be "equal partners" while only 13 percent said the US should take the lead. Perhaps most striking, 53 percent agreed that, "it is possible for the US to become too powerful. Sometimes it may be better if European countries are more unified, because this could help balance American power in the world."
Most Americans would prefer to see more cooperation, even when it is pointed out that this might require compromises. Seventy-two percent agreed that, "When dealing with common problems, the US and the European Union should be more willing to make decisions jointly, even if this means that the US, as well as Europe, will sometimes have to go along with a policy that is not its first choice."
PIPA also posed the question of power-sharing in a number of specific instances. One difficult case for Americans was the prospect of having a European command US troops in Bosnia. In an initial question a 47 percent plurality found it unacceptable, while just 44 percent found it acceptable. However, other questions revealed that most Americans mistakenly assume that the US is contributing more troops in Bosnia - in fact, the Europeans contribute three times as many. Asked how they would feel if the US contributed a minority of the troops, then 62 percent said they would accept a European commander.
This points to a key problem in the European-American relationship. Americans overwhelmingly feel that the Europeans do not carry their fair share in efforts to promote peace and stability in the world. While some of this feeling seems to be derived from correct perceptions - Americans correctly perceive that the US spends nearly twice as much as Europe on defense - in most cases it is based on misperceptions. Take, for example, UN dues. Americans assume that the US and the EU contribute about the same, while in fact the EU contributes 50 percent more.
On the European side, though they are somewhat divided about unification, publics are unequivocal about wanting a more balanced relationship with the US. Overwhelming majorities want the EU to play a strong leadership role in the world. Most Europeans feel that the US has too much influence in Europe, and many complain that the US does not treat Europe as an equal partner.
Overall, what is most striking is that American and European public preferences seem to be pointing in a convergent and sensible direction. While European leaders often seem to be seeking to gain more power in European-American affairs without taking on more responsibility, and American leaders seek to get Europeans to carry more of the burdens without sharing power, the publics on both sides seem to favor a more balanced relationship in the realm of responsibility as well as power.
* Steven Kull is director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland in College Park, Md.