On one side of the Atlantic, Americans are more and more anxious for Europe to help them run the world. On the other side, though, Europeans are increasingly turning their backs and hoping to carve out an independent role for themselves.
More than a year after the Iraq war, that conflict's preparation and its aftermath continue to weigh heavily on Washington's relationship with its European allies and on popular attitudes here, finds a major study of transatlantic opinion released Thursday by the German Marshall Fund.
Seventy-six percent of Europeans disapprove of current US foreign policy, and 58 percent of them want Europe to take a more independent approach to foreign affairs, according to the poll. That is bad news for the 60 percent of Americans who say they would like the US to strengthen its partnership with the European Union.
"If this trend continues, we may be looking at a redefinition of the fundamentals of the transatlantic relationship from a first-choice partnership to an optional alliance when mutually convenient," says Craig Kennedy, president of the German Marshall Fund.
On both sides of the Atlantic, events in Iraq over the past 12 months have set public opinion on diverging paths. The spiraling violence in Baghdad since the war leads 79 percent of Americans to support strong EU leadership in world affairs; a clear majority of Europeans (58 percent), however, finds strong US leadership undesirable, a 9 percent increase from last year.
"The majority of Europeans are very concerned about the way American foreign policy has been handled recently, so they want to create some distance," says Guillaume Parmentier, head of the French Center on the US, a think tank in Paris. "Europeans did not want to be led by the United States into this war, and the narrower the US view of its national interest, the more independent Europeans will want to be," he adds.
The past year in Iraq has taught a very different lesson to many Americans, says William Drozdiak, head of the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund. "The expense and the agony of what has happened in Iraq has proved to a lot of Americans that you are better off with more friends in the world to help you out," he suggests. "Americans realize they cannot do everything on their own."
Still, the poll reveals divisions within American opinion about this and other issues, highlighting how often and how strongly Democrats agree with Europeans.
While 69 percent of Republicans said they did not think a United Nations mandate would be necessary for future Iraq-style operations, 81 percent of Democrats said they thought it would be essential - as did 80 percent of Europeans.
The same pattern emerges in attitudes about the war in Iraq: 79 percent of Republicans say the results were worth the loss of life and other costs, while 81 percent of Democrats and 80 percent of Europeans disagree. Democrats and Europeans also harbor the same sorts of doubts about whether military action is the most appropriate tool to fight terrorism. While 86 percent of Republicans believe so, only 49 percent of Europeans and 52 percent of US Democrats agree, the poll finds.
That suggests that if John Kerry wins the presidency, and if his policies reflect his supporters' attitudes, the rift that has widened between the US and Europe in recent years could narrow again.
Certainly "a Kerry presidency would mean definite changes in tone for the better," says Mr. Drozdiak. "He would make a big effort to reach out to the Europeans" who have felt snubbed by the current US administration's reluctance to listen to dissenting opinions from allied capitals.
At the same time, Drozdiak warns, a President Kerry "would expect Europeans to reciprocate" and he "could put the Europeans on the spot" by asking them to send troops to back US forces in Iraq.
The Marshall Fund poll suggests that European voters might not object as strongly as many of their leaders have to such a proposal. Majorities in France (63 percent) Germany (57 percent) and Spain (66 percent) support the idea of sending their soldiers to Iraq if the UN approved a multinational force to help secure and rebuild the country.
And though a majority of Europeans are uneasy with the way Washington has dealt with the world over the past three years, those reservations have not undermined what the poll calls their "moderately favorable feelings" toward the US, nor the 60 percent majority who feel that the US and the EU have enough common values to be able to cooperate on the world scene.
At the same time, the survey reveals the limitations of European ambitions for an independent global role. Though 71 percent of Europeans say they would like the EU to become a superpower like the US, nearly half of them drop the idea if it requires increased military spending.
Nor should Washington see Europe's superpower aspirations as particularly threatening, the poll suggests: 30 percent of respondents said they wanted to boost Europe's political clout to compete with the US. Sixty-three percent said they wanted a bigger EU role in the world to cooperate more effectively with the US.