As political, media and public attention increasingly focus on the 2024 U.S. election, America’s stature in the world in the Biden era will be a subtext. How Europeans view the United States will be of particular salience in congressional and presidential debates over aid for Ukraine, America’s ongoing commitment to NATO and will reflect on President Joe Biden’s international stewardship in these turbulent times.
A spring 2023 Pew survey showed that a median of 56 percent of Europeans hold a favorable view of the United States. A more recent German Marshall Fund survey released Tuesday similarly found that 6 in 10 (61 percent) Europeans think the U.S. is the most influential actor in global affairs. And they judge this influence to be positive.
While Europeans’ collective opinion of the U.S. is down a statistically insignificant 4 percentage points in the Pew study from 2022, it is down 6 percentage points in Germany and 11 percentage points in Sweden and Hungary. More strikingly, in the new GMF survey, Europeans express little faith in America’s future influence. A median of only 35 percent in EU countries think the U.S. will be the most influential global actor in five years.
Notably, there is a transatlantic disconnect in public perception that could not be starker. Six in 10 Americans (59 percent) think Uncle Sam will lead the world in 2028. But our leading European allies do not share that view. Only a third of the British (35 percent), less than a third of the Germans (31 percent) and only a quarter of the French (25 percent) express faith in future U.S. leadership.
Nevertheless, a median of two-thirds (65 percent) of European respondents judge Uncle Sam to be a reliable ally today, hardly surprising given the support Washington has shown in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But this snapshot obscures some underlying doubts. Perception of American reliability is down 5 percentage points in Germany and Spain, and 15 percentage points in Romania since 2021.
So, what explains some Europeans’ disturbingly feckless attitudes toward the United States? Some, especially those on the far right and far left harbor deeply rooted anti-Americanism, thanks to long-standing disagreements on the Vietnam and Iraq wars, guns, the death penalty, climate change and an European inferiority complex in the face of American technological, military and diplomatic dominance.
Moreover, support for Biden’s handling of international affairs has tapered off. While most Europeans back his efforts, Biden’s numbers are down 9 percentage points in Romania and 7 percentage points in Germany, Spain and Sweden in the last year. Today, less than half the French, British, Spanish and Italians approve of the president’s record in the GMF poll.
But disillusionment with U.S. global leadership may be better explained by widespread European public anxiety about a return of Donald Trump and the implications of his presidency for Europe.
Overwhelmingly, Europeans do not trust American democracy. A 2021 Pew survey found that a median of only 1 in 6 (18 percent) believe that the U.S. is a model democracy. No wonder they fear what the next election may produce. A majority (56 percent) believe that the transatlantic security alliance would be weaker if Trump is elected president next year, according to a spring 2023 European Council on Foreign Relations survey. And given Trump’s past cozy relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, his refusal to say he would back Ukraine in its war with Russia and his ongoing criticism of NATO, such fears seem justified.
Upcoming congressional debates on Ukraine and in the 2024 presidential election will not turn on foreign perceptions of the United States or Biden. But they will fuel an unease among Republican voters, and even some disgruntled Democrats, that U.S. international leadership, especially in Ukraine, is underappreciated, especially by Europeans, that foreign entanglements are a distraction from domestic concerns and that, at the very least, a more assertive international leadership style is needed by a different U.S. president. Gone are the days when Americans can ignore what others think of us. The irony is that European fears of a return of Trump may actually fuel his supporters’ arguments for why he should return.
Bruce Stokes is a visiting senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.