June 19, 2013 | By Dina Smeltz

Obama in Germany

President Obama spoke at the Brandenburg Gate today, fifty years after JFK made his illustrious declaration “Ich bin ein Berliner.” He touched on a wide range of topics - including poverty, climate change and nuclear disarmament - and echoed Kennedy's theme of  "peace with  justice."

Many of the headlines leading up to Obama’s German visit have underscored German disappointment with the United States over the recent PRISM revelations, US drone policy and other US anti-terrorism tactics. These types of ledes include “Obama’s German Storm” (Roger Cohen, NYT), “Obama Faces Germans’ Disillusionment on Berlin Visit” (WSJ.com), “Obama loses hearts and minds ahead of German visit” (Yahoo News) and “Obama Stasi Scandal in the Spotlight” (AJE). Last week’s cover of Der Speigel featured Obama with the headline “The Lost Friend.”

Creeping Anti-Americanism?

Another Frankfurter Allgemeine article discussing “creeping anti-Americanism” (if Google translated correctly) appeared well before the recent surveillance scandal. The article was based on survey results from a January 2013 Allensbach poll, conducted among a nationwide sample of German adults. This survey found that favorability ratings of President Obama had dropped since 2009 – from 87% to 78% in 2012. It also showed that many fewer Germans now than in previous surveys choose the US as their BFF: Compared to the time period covering 1977-1995, at least half considered the Unites States to be the best friend to Germany, compared to no more than two in ten who chose France. A steep drop in those choosing the United States occurred in 2003, plummeting from 48% to 11%.  In 2013, about as many say both the US (22%) and France (24%) are Germany’s best friends.

The Frankfurter Allgemeine article also pointed to a drop in the percentage of Germans who said that Germany should be very close with the United States, from around 80 percent between the years 1953 and 2000; in 2003, this dropped to 64 percent (63% say Germany should be very close with France). And when asked which country in ten years will be Germany’s most important partner – only 20 percent said the United States, and 36 percent named China.

While these drops are notable, they should be digested within the context of the opinion landscape over the past several decades, including changing international dynamics and an evolving role for the US in Germany and in Europe. Our own surveys among Americans show that older generations feel more of an affinity toward Europe than younger generations do, so we might expect the same type of generational difference among European publics. And of course, there may be an influence due to the collapse of the US economy in 2008. It is not too surprising that the Allensbach data showed that only 11 percent of Germans consider the US a model for Germany today compared to 30 percent in 1997, and that Pew surveys found that more Germans say that China than the United States is the world’s greatest economic power (62% China, 17% EU, 13% US).

Election of Obama Helped Repair German Image of US

The PRISM story has likely cast a shadow on this visit, especially given Germans' strong views on privacy. But fairly recent (2012-2013) data on German attitudes toward the United States and American presidents demonstrate a reservoir of support for US ties since President Obama took office. This President, in particular, has a clear fan base that any international leader would covet – his 2009 ratings of 87% were even higher than JFK’s, according to Allensbach surveys.

Obama's popularity has clear knock-on effects for the US image. In both Pew and German Marshall Fund 2012 surveys, nine in ten Germans said they would have liked to see him reelected. Pew just released results from a March 2013 survey that showed nine in ten continue to express confidence in President Obama to do the right thing in world affairs (at least in 2012, this was an even higher portion than expressed confidence in German PM Merkel to do the same).

According to the German Marshall Fund 2012 survey, eight in ten (79%) Germans rated Obama’s handling of international policies positively. With numbers these high, there may be some some slippage in polls in the wake of the latest news revelations. But certainly we would not expect any declines close to the extent reported in 2003, when the US invaded Iraq.

Pew surveys since 2002 showed that German opinion of the United States immediately after the September 11 attacks was majority positive (60%), but in 2003 (during the contentious run-up to the Iraq war) slid precipitously downward to 25 percent favorable. It took until Spring 2009 and Obama’s election to return to positive readings. However, favorable attitudes are about ten points lower now than they were two years ago (53% in 2013 from 62% in 2011).

In their most recent survey, the German Marshall Fund found that more Germans said the US is most important for their “national interests” than Asia (25%), and a majority of Germans support US leadership in international affairs (60%). Several surveys also show enduring support for Germany’s membership in NATO (Allensbach, Pew, and GMF), the most tangible symbol of our cooperation with Europe.

Three in four Germans (75%) also believe the US and Europe have enough common values to cooperate, according to German Marshall Fund results. Yet, there is a clear difference in values on at least one issue, and that is the use of drones. While Pew 2012 surveys show German support for US anti-terrorism efforts since Obama was elected, 59 percent of Germans disapprove of the United States “conducting missile strikes from pilotless aircraft called drones to target extremists in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.” (In fact, of all the countries where Pew has asked this question, only the American public gave majority support). Pew findings also show that President Obama been disappointing for Germans on the issues of climate change and in considering the views of other countries.

But for the most part, the big story line here is that Germans are once again positive toward US leadership and seem to be relieved that the tenor of US international leadership has changed.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.


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