Europeans Grow Tired of the U.S.-Led Alliance

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As the U.S.-led world order continues to fall apart, second-tier powers are trying to salvage what they can. But in Germany and France, at least, voters don’t really want the U.S. to be part of the process, even if leaders do.

The annual Munich Security Report, which provides the starting point for discussion at the important annual security forum in the German city, is often a good indication of the Western security community’s current mood. The 2019 report, titled “The Great Puzzle: Who Will Pick Up the Pieces?,” is somewhat less anxious in tone than the 2018 version, which raised the specter of a large-scale conflict. That danger appears to have devolved into a competition as the U.S. takes on a long-term challenge from China and a more immediate one from Russia. 

The way the U.S. is handling these tests, though, doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in its long-time allies. Its effort to rally them around the liberal Western values “would be far more credible if President Trump and his administration did not display an irritating enthusiasm for strongmen across the globe” while showing “disdain for international institutions and agreements,” the report says. According to the authors, European policy makers hoped the “adults in the room” in Donald Trump’s White House would steer the president in the right direction. But the allies have grown disillusioned, focusing instead on attempts to shore up the liberal world order by taking on more of a global role and trying to form what German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has called an “alliance of multilateralists” for which they remain ill-prepared. 

The lack of a security and economic infrastructure that doesn’t include the U.S. makes it difficult for the second-tier powers – Germany, France, the U.K., Japan – to pursue any kind of independent policy. The result is a balancing act between a U.S. that acts like a competitor with a tendency toward bullying and and a security architecture that depends on the U.S. being an ally. The report warns:

Although most strategic thinkers in Europe agree that a strong transatlantic partnership will remain the best security guarantee for Europe, this preferred option may not be available in the future. At the same time, a realistic Option B does not exist yet. As a result, many European governments have been walking a thin line, trying to preserve Option A, while hedging and investing in Option B without making Option A less likely.

For the public in countries whose leaders walk this thin line, however, preserving the transatlantic partnership doesn't appear particularly important. The report’s poll data, especially from France and Germany, are perhaps its most striking feature.

Europeans Grow Tired of the U.S.-Led Alliance

In all the second-tier powers except Japan, pluralities consider the U.S. a major threat, and even in Japan the American threat appears to worry more people than the Russian one. That perception appears to be linked to Trump’s policies: According to Pew Research data cited in the Munich report, in the U.K., Canada, Germany and France people trust Chinese President Xi Jinping to do the right thing in world affairs more than they do Trump. Even more damningly, more French and Germans say they trust Russian President Vladimir Putin more than Trump, and Canadians trust the two leaders equally.

I wouldn’t, however, write off the concern about a U.S. threat simply as a reaction to Trump that will go away once he’s left the White House. Other polling data in the Munich report, from the Bonn-based Friedrich Ebert Foundation, contain an important finding: While large majorities in France and Germany want their countries to pursue a more active foreign policy and take on a bigger role in solving crises, 59 percent of Germans and 42 percent of French would like them to do so as neutral countries. In both France and Germany, only minorities approve of military interventions outside their borders.

It’s difficult to see how a change of power in Washington could undermine this pacifism and strong support for neutrality. Large numbers of people in countries of critical importance to the Western alliance simply don’t want to take sides in the new iteration of superpower competition. 

Of course, all the usual caveats about polls, the phrasing of questions and the influence of the daily news flow on specific opinions should apply. But Western leaders trying to salvage the transatlantic alliance without becoming Trump’s pawns should still take the data seriously. Even if many of their voters’ apparent belief that neutrality isn’t just desirable but possible is only an illusion, they may well back politicians who reinforce it. In many cases, those will be populists and nationalists who insist that Germany and France could survive and thrive without following a leader. 

The apparent mood shift requires a coherent “Option B”; intellectuals used to the old paradigm of U.S. dominance need to give serious thought to different scenarios for the second-tier powers as potential guarantors of sanity while the bigger players face off.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website

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