As Europe looks West, the United States gazes across the Pacific

WASHINGTON—Despite economic worries and domestic political preoccupations, perceptions in the United States and Europe of each other appear to be in better shape now than they were during the presidency of George W. Bush. Americans and Europeans have generally favorable opinions of one another and majorities on both continents believe they share enough common values to be able to cooperate effectively on international problems.


But this year’s annual Transatlantic Trends survey also finds that while many of those polled in 12 member states of the European Union (Bulgaria, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom) still believe the United States is most important for their national interests, Americans see Asia as important. When asked which was more important in terms of their country’s national interests in the most recent Transatlantic Trends survey, 52% of those polled in the European Union picked the United States over the countries of Asia such as China, Japan, and South Korea, while about 51% of Americans polled chose the countries of Asia over the European Union.


For several years, policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic have been speculating on how the transatlantic community will react to the rise of Asia. Would Asian competition move the United States and Europe — currently the two largest economic centers — closer together or pull them apart? At a time when U.S. unemployment remains high, the eurozone continues to suffer, and China’s growth is over 9%, this question is timelier than ever. Based on the results of this year’s Transatlantic Trends, it seems Americans have made up their minds to orient toward the Orient.


Asia is especially important in the minds of young Americans. Around three-in-four Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 feel that Asia is the more important region for U.S. national interests. With each older age cohort, the importance of Asia decreases, so that only about one-in-three Americans over 64 think of Asia as the more important region for U.S. national interests. Younger Americans are also more likely to see China as an economic opportunity rather than as an economic threat. Fifty-two percent of those aged 18-24 consider China an economic opportunity for new markets and investments, while 72% of those between the ages of 55 and 64 see China as threatening their jobs and economic security. Similarly, more than half of Americans older than 54 perceive China as a military threat, but only one-third of those between the ages of 25 and 34 and 40% of those younger than 25 do.


The rise of Asia divides Europeans too — but by nationality rather than by age. While over half of those polled in Italy, Romania, Germany, Britain, and Poland name the United States as more important than Asia, half of those surveyed in France and more than half of the respondents in Spain and Sweden see Asia as more important for their national interests. Europeans are also more likely than Americans in general to see China as an economic opportunity. The majority of Germans, Dutch, Romanians, Swedes, and British see China as an opportunity. On the other hand, majorities in France and Portugal still see China as an economic threat, though their numbers have decreased over the past year.


What does all of this mean? Although Barack Obama rehabilitated the image of the United States in Europe, Europe has so far failed to reinvigorate its image in the United States, particularly among younger Americans who do not necessarily have strong links to European ancestry or positive memories of Cold War-era alliances. For transatlantic relations to thrive in the future, Europe needs to do a lot more to capture the imagination of a new generation of Americans.


Zsolt Nyiri is Director of Transatlantic Trends at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington.

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