Survey Hints Europeans Are Turning Inward

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

BERLIN -- This week, Transatlantic Trends publishes the annual public opinion survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

The trends are always fascinating because they give a sense of public opinion attitudes on both sides of the Atlantic and how wide, or narrow, those differences are over certain foreign policy issues.

This year, the survey focused mostly on the war in Syria and other issues concerning the Middle East. According to a preview of the data, it is clear that in Europe, the public is highly skeptical of any military intervention in Syria. On average, 70 percent of those asked in 10 European countries and Turkey opposed intervention.

"The trends show that European publics do not trust the use of force," said Ian Lesser, director of the German Marshall Fund's Brussels office. "This has serious implications for European foreign, defense and security policy," he added.

Europe's ambitions to develop a coherent foreign and security policy recently took a battering when the leaders of the European Union's two most important military powers, Britain and France, failed to win public support for a military strike against Syria.

David Cameron, the British prime minister, suffered a humiliating defeat by lawmakers during a vote on British participation in a possible airstrike led by the United States against Syria.

Conservative lawmakers said the vote showed not only that Mr. Cameron was unable to control his own backbenchers but also that he had underestimated the increasing tendency toward isolationism, including anti-Americanism, in his own political camp.

The British public reacted to the vote with enormous relief. In a country that lost hundreds of troops in Afghanistan, every public opinion poll has shown that Britain is not prepared to back the United States with troops again -- especially as the Obama administration seemed prepared to bypass the United Nations Security Council.

François Hollande, the French president, has remained committed to the possibility of military action, even as the United States and Russia negotiated how to persuade Syria to relinquish its chemical arsenal. When Mr. Hollande intervened in Mali this year, he had wide public support. But Syria is a different matter. The Transatlantic Trends report shows that 65 percent of those polled in France oppose any intervention.

"It is becoming much more difficult to get public support for the use of force," said Henrik Heidenkamp, security expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

In the foreseeable future, no British leader will dare commit the country to using force before taking public opinion into account. Analysts wonder whether Mr. Hollande would indeed take the risk in intervening in Syria without public support. Bypassing the public could turn into too much of a political risk.

What seems to be happening is that voters across Europe are beginning to resemble the Germans in their attitudes toward the military. They are becoming more cautious, inward looking and reluctant to use force. This is heightened by a sharp sense of disappointment with President Obama's foreign policy, as the Transatlantic Trends report suggests.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who is seeking re-election for a third term on Sunday, at no time allowed herself to be drawn into any debate about the use of force. She knows full well that German public opinion is strongly against any military action. Even the chemical weapons attacks did not seem to shock Germans all that much -- despite their abhorrence over how the Nazis used such deadly weapons during World War II.

Not only did the Europeans not back any military effort, they did not seem all that engaged in the diplomatic efforts, either. With few exceptions, there was no push by European Union member states or Catherine Ashton, the union's foreign policy chief, to pursue the diplomatic channel or to propose that Syria's chemical weapons stockpile be brought under international inspection.

"Europe was not pursuing all the diplomatic and political options," said Marcin Terlikowski, security expert at the Polish Institute of International Affairs.

In the end, it was President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, harshly criticized by the United States for supporting the Syrian president, who took center stage by proposing international supervision of the chemical weapons.

These trends may be pointing to a "new" Europe in which the political resolve for serious diplomacy is lacking among the European Union's 28 member states, and the conviction to enforce international weapons conventions is largely absent.

These trends are not comforting to the Obama administration. Over the past several years, U.S. defense secretaries have repeatedly criticized their European allies for being unwilling to spend more on defense, share scarce military resources or make tough decisions about the use of force.

Yet, if Europe as a whole is becoming more skeptical of the military, the latest Transatlantic Trends report shows that the American public also increasingly opposes the use of force, at least when it comes to Syria.

According to the survey, 62 percent of Americans polled oppose military intervention, compared to 55 percent a year ago. Given this war weariness, it is hardly surprising that Mr. Obama postponed seeking a vote from Congress.

This aversion to force, say analysts, may reflect a growing realization that military force carries a very high price, though it often yields only limited results. Force can overthrow dictators, as in the case of Iraq and Libya, or the Taliban in Afghanistan. But the instability now in all three countries has, as the Transatlantic Trends report shows, encouraged skepticism among Europeans and Americans about the use of force.

If Europeans refuse to consider force as a last option to support diplomatic efforts, analysts believe that the European Union's foreign policy will be toothless.

Judy Dempsey is editor in chief of Strategic Europe at Carnegie Europe. (www.carnegieeurope.eu)

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here