AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
When George W. Bush was rallying support for his 2003 invasion of Iraq, he contrasted the opposition of “Old Europe” – in other words, France and Germany – with the pro-American enthusiasm of “New Europe” – Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic states. When it comes to the question of the People’s Republic of China, similar phrases are once more being heard in the corridors of power in Washington.
Emmanuel Macron’s recent trip to Beijing already caused jitters about the reliability of Europe in a Sino-American conflict. A series of recent surveys of European public opinion have seemed to confirm those fears, as they have shown a distinct lack of enthusiasm for European involvement in a potential U.S.-China war. Those findings have now also provoked calls for the U.S. to abandon an “ungrateful Europe” in order to focus on Asia.
But these calls misread the data. It shows not a lack of support for the U.S. or trust of China, but rather a lack of faith in the current American leadership to prevail in a conflict. As with Iraq, discretion is functioning as the better part of valor when European leaders lack faith not in America, but in its current leaders.
In April, the European Council on Foreign Relations conducted an opinion poll across 11 European states – Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and Sweden – and the results are deeply worrying. When faced with the decisive question, what Europe should do if China attacked Taiwan, a mere 23 percent suggested Europe should get involved. More than 63 percent favored neutrality.
Equally worrying were views on what relationship Europe should pursue with China. When asked what China was to Europe, there were few delusions that China was an ally which “shares our interests and values.” A mere 3 percent of respondents answered in the affirmative to that question, with even Hungary and Bulgaria only having 8 percent answer in the affirmative.
Yet there was also a hesitancy to accept the alternative views. Only 24 percent viewed China as a “rival with which we must compete” and a mere 11 percent said China was an “adversary, with which we are in conflict,” for a combined 35 percent, with only Sweden and Germany registering bare majorities.
By contrast, 43 percent of respondents defined China’s relationship to Europe as “A necessary partner, with which we must strategically cooperate.”
A combined 46 percent of surveyed Europeans therefore defined China either as an ally or a necessary partner, with counterintuitively greater distrust of China in France and Germany than in Eastern Europe.
Even in Poland, the assumed heartland of Pro-American “New Europe,” 45 percent saw China as a foe or rival of their own country, compared with 21 percent who saw it as a rival and a mere 10 percent who saw it as a foe with which they were in conflict.
These numbers are still far worse than those for the United States. America at least has a constituency within Europe who see the U.S. as an ally that shares Europe’s values. Nearly a third of respondents in Europe, 32 percent, said the U.S. was an ally, while less than 5 percent called it an adversary and only 7 percent a rival.
But 32 percent is far from a majority, and the largest group, 43 percent, see the U.S. as a partner with whom Europe must cooperate.
In effect, while 75 percent of Europeans see the US as a partner or ally, 46 percent also see China as at least a necessary (if perhaps evil) partner.
This goes a long way toward explaining the almost schizophrenic tone of European policy. Emmanual Macron and other Europeans will in one moment intone about the common values of the West and the importance of alliances, while in the next travel to Beijing and talk about the need for cooperation. They are reflecting the mixed feelings of their population.
If the United States is now locked firmly in a conflict with China, then the European public as a whole is far from convinced that they are part of the conflict.
What, then, should we make of European opinion? Analysts, especially those linked to the D.C. think tanks, and politicians pushing an “Asian pivot” toward confronting China and who argue aid to Ukraine is undermining the defense of Taiwan, have been quick to cite these numbers as vindication. It proves there is nothing for America in Europe, they say – any investments the U.S. makes in European security against Russia will be unreciprocated when it comes to the Pacific.
This seems an oversimplification. The numbers do not show a European public with no preference between the United States and China. Europeans genuinely like the former, and intensely dislike the latter.
The same survey, for instance, found that every form of Chinese investment was seen as unacceptable from a security standpoint. 39 percent of respondents said it was acceptable for Chinese companies to build infrastructure like bridges or ports in Europe, while 43 percent said it was unacceptable. Just 17 percent said it was acceptable for Chinese companies to own that infrastructure, while 65 percent said it was unacceptable.
Those numbers were 37 percent and 42 percent for Chinese ownership of sports teams, 31 percent and 51 percent for ownership of tech companies, and 22 percent and 59 percent for ownership of newspapers.
This distrust may explain why Macron, while having called for partnership with China internationally a mere month ago, spent the last week demanding the European Union launch a different kind of war against China, namely a full-on trade war over China’s efforts to flood the global electric vehicle market.
In May, a week away from his visit to Beijing where he suggested Europe must resist U.S. pressure to become “America’s follower” in Asia, he lashed out in terms which could have been uttered by an American China hawk: “We must not repeat in the electric car market the mistakes we made with photovoltaics, where we created a dependency on Chinese industry and made its manufacturers prosper,” he declared.
Views of China itself are uniformly negative. Pew Research found in late 2022 that Europeans view the People’s Republic of China almost uniformly negatively. Beijing was viewed unfavorably in every country in Europe.
Of particular note in the Pew survey, every country surveyed preferred economic ties with the United States over those with China, and large majorities saw China’s military buildup as a problem.
Why, then, is Europe reluctant to support the U.S. in the Pacific? Here is where the Biden administration is scared to face the truth, because it involves them.
It is not that Europe does not want the U.S. to prevail. Rather, it is that Europe is less than confident that the U.S. will be able to do so. At least as far back as 2020, majorities throughout Europe saw China as the world’s dominant economic power.
Large majorities of Europeans, surveyed in 2023, suggested that the withdrawal from Afghanistan was botched, and majorities lacked confidence in America’s ability to respond to threats around the world. The desire for neutrality is driven not by trust of China, but by a belief the U.S. cannot win in a conflict with China.
The reality is that the Biden administration’s conduct of the war in Ukraine has failed to restore the credibility lost in Afghanistan. While it has done some good, it has reinforced rather than silenced suspicions that, at least under Biden, American policy is unable to “walk and chew gum at the same time.”
While Ukraine has held its own, U.S. influence in other regions has all but collapsed. Europeans have watched the Chinese entry into the Middle East, the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, and the collapse of American influence in the region with deep apprehension.
For the United States, the Middle East is important. For Europe, it is a matter of life and death. It is the primary source of energy with Russian sources cut off, and instability there can trigger migrant influxes as happened in the last decade when the U.S. started chaotic civil wars in Libya and Syria and then departed.
A Middle East where the U.S. cannot even secure the allegiance of Israel, much less Saudi Arabia or the Gulf states, is not one where Europe can fully align with America against China and Russia. What would happen to Europe if the U.S. treated them with the same hostile disdain it treats Netanyahu? What if Biden resumes treating America’s Polish “allies” the way he treats Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman? His administration spent much of 2021 trying to oust them.
America has not “lost” Europe – at least not any more than it has lost Israel. But if America wants global allies, it needs global credibility. Europeans may like America better than China and wish it well, but if America wants support, it needs a president and team which can reassure allies it is playing to win.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.