July 6, 2017

On his Europe trip, Trump will be crossing into hostile territory

By Karen Whisler

Donald Trump kicked off his second official foreign tour today in Warsaw, Poland, giving a speech condemning Russian aggression amid a crowd enthusiastic about its government’s show of friendship with the US leader.

For Trump, this first stop will likely be the easy part.

The tour centers around the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany on July 7-8, a gathering of the countries whose combined economies make up 85 percent of the world’s GDP. Also on the agenda for Trump is participation in Bastille Day celebrations in Paris on July 14.

He seems to be in for a less-than-warm reception. In fact, the Pew Global Attitudes survey released last month reveals that almost across the board, Europeans hold less confidence in American leadership now that Trump is the president, with views back to levels last seen at the end of the George W. Bush administration.

The decline in confidence is especially stark in Germany, the most prominent player in the European Union. Last year 86 percent of Germans expressed confidence that Barack Obama would “do the right thing” with regard to international affairs; only 11 percent feel the same way about Donald Trump today. A similar decline has occurred in France, with Trump’s election resulting in a 70 percent drop in confidence in the US president. 

Europeans also question Trump’s personality, temperament, and qualifications for his role as leader of the free world. Throughout the European Union, among the countries the United States counts on to be some of its closest allies, the top three adjectives respondents used to describe the president were “arrogant”, “intolerant”, and “dangerous”. Just one in five of those surveyed believed he was “well-qualified to be president”.

Trump’s poor reputation is bleeding into attitudes towards the US as a whole as well. Only 35 percent of Germans and 46 percent of French hold a favorable view of America today, and more respondents said they thought relations between their country and the US would decline going forward than said they would improve. While Europeans’ views haven’t quite reached the lows of 2007/2008 under George W. Bush, they are well on their way. 

Yet a security alliance with the US still holds important strategic significance for most Europeans. Support for NATO has surged in Europe this year: a Pew poll in April saw strong majorities in France, Germany, the UK, and Poland holding a favorable view of the organization. Further, among those surveyed, faith that the US would indeed act to defend a NATO ally in the event of a conflict with Russia has not wavered much, even in the face of Donald Trump hesitating to officially commit to its common defense article. It seems that despite general distaste for the sitting president, Europeans still heavily trust and rely on the United States for their defense.

Still, outlook towards the United States and its leader remains dim, and it seems unlikely that this official trip will do much to mend it: Trump’s policy agenda is nearly as unpopular in Europe as he is.

Across Europe, publics express opposition to Trump's "America First" policies. A median of 77 percent of Europeans disapprove of US withdrawal from trade agreements in the Pew survey, and 86 percent oppose him on backing out of climate agreements. In his efforts to “make America great again”, Donald Trump appears to be distancing the US from its traditional allies. 

Tensions could come to a head at the G-20 summit in Germany. Angela Merkel has set the agenda to center around climate, immigration, and trade, all areas where the Trump administration and the Chancellor have clashed. She seems poised to emphasize the lack of US leadership on these fronts. If the US continues to disengage in these areas, Merkel has stated that Europe “must really take [its] fate into [its] own hands.” Polls indicate that the EU public is now more willing to follow her lead on that, with large majorities of Europeans expressing confidence that Merkel will  “do the right thing regarding world affairs” (81% in Germany, 79% in France, 68% in the UK and 89% in Sweden). 

Official statements from the White House stated that President Trump “looks forward to reaffirming America’s strong ties of friendship” with France and “America’s steadfast commitment” to Poland. However, given the scrutiny he will face in Hamburg as he meets with world leaders such as Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin, his history of rivalry with French President Emmanuel Macron, and of course negative public opinion, this tour through Europe is shaping up to be a steep uphill climb. 


Dina Smeltz joined The Chicago Council on Global Affairs in February 2012 as a senior fellow in public opinion and foreign policy, and directed the Council’s 2012 survey of American public opinion (see Foreign Policy in the New Millennium).  She has nearly 20 years of experience in designing and fielding international social, political and foreign policy surveys.

As the director of research in the Middle East and South Asia division (2001-2007) and analyst/director of the European division (1992-2004) in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the US State Department’s Office of Research, Dina conducted over a hundred surveys in these regions and regularly briefed senior government officials on key research findings. Her experience includes mass public and elite surveys as well as qualitative research.  She has written numerous policy-relevant reports on Arab, Muslim and South Asian regional attitudes toward political, economic, social and foreign policy issues.  Her writing also includes policy briefs and reports on the post-1989 political transitions in Central and Eastern Europe, and European attitudes toward a wide range foreign policy issues including globalization, European integration, immigration, NATO, and European security.

With a special emphasis research in post-conflict situations (informally referred to as a “combat pollster”), Dina has worked with research teams in Bosnia, Kosovo, Cyprus, Israel-Palestinian Territories and in Iraq (2003-2005), where she was one of the few people on the ground who could accurately report average Iraqis impressions of the postwar situation.  In the past three years, Dina has consulted for several NGOs and research organizations on projects spanning women’s development in Afghanistan, civil society in Egypt and evaluating voter education efforts in Iraq.

Dina has an MA from the University of Michigan and a BS from Pennsylvania State University.

Feel free to email Dina with comments or questions at dsmeltz@thechicagocouncil.org


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