Efforts by European leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron to reform global trade rules are hitting a snag as the U.S. rattles trans-Atlantic relations with its “America First” approach to foreign policy.
Whether it’s Iran, trade, climate change, or calling into question the value of long-standing alliances such as NATO, Europeans now regularly lament U.S. disengagement rather than an overreach of American power. Many see an America pulling away from the world order it shaped, the colossus at twilight, turning inward as other powers rise.
With the Trump administration’s recent withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, the already rocky relationship between the United States and its European allies has become even more tenuous. For many Europeans, Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Iran accord crystallizes what they dislike about his approach to world affairs: Instead of multilateralism, it’s America First.
Across much of Europe, anti-Americanism appears to be on the rise. Polls show plunging ratings for America, and European leaders are once again critical of Washington’s foreign policies. Commentators are issuing dark warnings about the fate of the transatlantic alliance. Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, has said that Europe can no longer rely on the United States and that it must “take destiny into its own hands.”
The Trump presidency evokes memories of the George W. Bush era,when opposition to the Iraq War and U.S. foreign policy was strong, and transatlantic tensions ran high. After the interlude of the Obama years, European public opinion about the occupant of the White House is once again strikingly negative. Trump’s ratings in Europe look a lot like those of Bush at the end of his presidency, as the 2017 Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Survey illustrated. In France, for example, just 14 percent said they had confidence in Trump’s international leadership, essentially the same as the 13 percent Bush registered in 2008. (During his presidency, Obama never dipped below 80 percent confidence among the French.) And just as in the Bush years, many Europeans are critical of a U.S. foreign policy that seems to disdain international cooperation.
But there are also some important differences between the Trump and Bush eras. The current round of anti-Americanism is taking place at a moment of anxiety about the fate of the U.S.-led world order and the relative decline of American power. Anti-American sentiments in Europe have often been linked to fears about expanding U.S. military power, economic clout, or the pervasiveness of American culture. These days, by contrast, Europeans seem less concerned about an unrestrained “hyperpower” flexing its muscles around the world, and more worried about an America withdrawing from the transatlantic relationship.
After World War II, Washington exerted its outsize power on the world stage to build that relationship. In 1947, the British writer and politician Harold Laski said that “America bestrides the world like a colossus; neither Rome at the height of its power nor Great Britain in the period of economic supremacy enjoyed an influence so direct, so profound, or so pervasive.” A year later, the United States would launch the Marshall Plan and work with its European allies to shape the liberal world order. Of course, even during the Cold War, there were rifts between the America and its European allies: the 1956 Suez crisis, the Vietnam War, and the debate over deploying intermediate-range missiles in Germany during the Reagan presidency. But the Soviet threat offered a terrifying incentive for the nations of the Western alliance to get over their differences.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. power was essentially unrivaled, and after 9/11 the extraordinary reach of U.S. military might worried many Europeans. There was widespread opposition to the Iraq War, plus a widely shared view that the Bush administration was pursuing the broader war on terror unilaterally. Majorities in most of the European countries polled by Pew during the Bush years believed that the United States was looking out for its own interests and not taking into account the interests of other nations. Back then, America’s poor global standing was linked to fears of unconstrained U.S. power and its disregard for international norms or multilateral cooperation.
Obama was much more popular in Europe than Bush, but even his administration occasionally bred fear and resentment. His increased use of drone strikes against terrorists in places like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia was widely unpopular. Meanwhile, Edward Snowden’s revelations about U.S. surveillance around the world highlighted what many saw as a troubling new dimension of American power: the capacity to reach through cyberspace and monitor the communications of almost anyone, anywhere. And the Snowden story had serious effects on American soft power. Pew surveys found that the share of the public who believed the U.S. government respected personal liberty declined in many nations following the disclosures. This issue was particularly important in Germany, where the United States reportedly eavesdropped on Merkel.
In contrast, Trump-era European anxieties are driven less by fears of unchecked American power, and more by a sense that the United States is stepping back from the world order it helped design.
The fate of that order has been the subject of considerable debate since Brexit and Trump’s election. Facing external pressure from the rise of China and other emerging powers, and internal stress from surging populism, the Western nations that shaped the international system for seven decades appear wobbly. And many Europeans believe the hegemon of the U.S.-led order is in decline. Pluralities of those Pew surveyed last year in France, Germany, and Britain, said China—not America—is the world’s leading economic power. A less-powerful America means uncertainty for the international system that has brought relative peace and prosperity to Europe for seven decades.
In addition to decline, many see disengagement. European publics have reacted negatively to some of Trump’s key policies, especially those that pull the United States back from its international commitments. Most of those in the European nations we polled opposed U.S. withdrawal from climate change accords, trade agreements, and the Iran nuclear deal. Trump’s proposed wall on the Mexican border meets with strong opposition from most Europeans, and to a lesser extent so does the idea of preventing people from certain majority-Muslim nations from entering America.
European leaders have often complained about what they see as Trump’s lack of commitment to the transatlantic partnership, and to the values that undergird the system built by the Western powers. Without criticizing Trump directly during his recent address to the U.S. Congress, French President Emmanuel Macron nonetheless encapsulated European critiques of the American leader’s worldview: “We can choose isolationism, withdrawal, and nationalism. It can be tempting to us as a temporary relief to our fears. But closing the door to the world will not stop the evolution of the world.”
So while Trump’s ratings resemble Bush’s from a decade ago, the tone of Europe’s critique is somewhat different. Whether it’s Iran, trade, climate change, or calling into question the value of long-standing alliances such as NATO, Europeans now regularly lament U.S. disengagement rather than an overreach of American power. Many see an America pulling away from the world order it shaped, the colossus at twilight, turning inward as other powers rise.