Obama slipping, but not sliding, in Europe’s eyes

NEW YORK — Back in 2008, arguably a recent nadir in the world’s estimation of the United States, President George W. Bush’s public diplomacy czar, James Glassman, conceded that the election of an African-American with ties to Kenya, Indonesia and Islam would be a transformative event in terms of America’s image, and particularly, with regard to Europe.

In the time since Obama’s election, surveys largely bore this out. Indeed, the 2009 edition of Transatlantic Trends, the German Marshall Fund’s authoritative annual look at ties between the United States and Europe, suggested Obama’s election had precisely that effect on Europe: “The ‘Obama bounce’ is biggest jump in eight-year history of GMF survey.”

This year’s edition of the survey provides no reason for panic in the White House. European approval remains high at 78 percent, but that’s down from 83 percent last year — a reflection, the report suggests, of discontent with Washington’s resolve to continue the fight in Afghanistan as well as a significant proportion (50 percent) expressing uneasiness with the administration’s policies in the greater Middle East, particularly toward Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.

The survey — now in its ninth year — polled more than 1,000 people in each of 13 different countries, including the largest countries in the European Union, plus Turkey and the United States itself.

Perspective, by definition, implies subjectivity. The line of sight Europe gains on the world’s pressing problems differs from the view an American attains. Not surprisingly, some of the world’s major issues looked quite different from either side of the Atlantic, and from individual countries.

For instance, Turks, presumably reacting to the cold shoulder consistently offered by the European Union (and lingering unhappiness with the U.S.-led Iraq War), have shown consistently less interest in both NATO and EU membership in recent years — a trend borne out by the Marshall Fund’s pollsters.

Similarly, the Poles, traditionally the most pro-American of the EU’s “new” members, expressed a marked disapproval of U.S. treatment of their country, likely a backlash against the hastily rescinded “missile shield” the Bush administration had agreed to build in Poland but Obama canceled in favor of a “reset” in relations with Russia.

Broader trends in which European views broadly differ from those of Americans exist, too. Afghanistan is the clearest example — 49 percent of Europeans approve of Obama’s handling of Afghanistan and Iran, while American support for his policies on those issues ranks at 52 and 54 percent, respectively. Insignificant statistically, perhaps, but in political terms, the ability to cite “majority” support still matters.

With regard to the rise of India, Brazil, China and Russia (the so-called “BRICs”), Europeans took projections of their imminent attainment of first-class power status with a great deal of skepticism when compared to their American counterparts. Fewer Europeans, for instance, regard India’s bid for global influence as seriously as Americans. Indeed, Americans appeared far more bullish about Europe’s own prospects for maintaining its status in world bodies than Europeans themselves.

However, Europeans also reacted more negatively to the idea that China could become a responsible player in global affairs.

Around half of Americans (53 percent) agreed that the United States has enough common values with China to be able to cooperate on international problems,” the report said. “In stark contrast, almost two-thirds of European respondents (63 percent) agreed that China and Europe have such different values that cooperating on international problems is impossible.”

The polls were taken during June in the United States and 12 European countries: Bulgaria, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Turkey and Britain.