printable banner

U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

The Transatlantic Trends 2011

Philip H. Gordon
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
German Marshall Fund
Washington, DC
September 14, 2011


Assistant Secretary Gordon: Thanks very much, and thanks to Thomas for the introduction and thanks to GMF for having me back. As Thomas said, this is not my first opportunity to comment on the trends, which I’ve done before, both here and in Paris, and it’s always interesting to us to see the degree to which our day to day interactions with Europeans correspond to what you’re finding out in the field. It’s also nice for me to see a number of friends and diplomatic colleagues in the room. I look forward to a conversation. 

I would like to just share some reactions to what we’ve seen in the data and some thoughts on our approach to some of the issues touched on in the poll, and then I’ll very much look forward to your questions.

Overall I would say that we’re encouraged by the numbers that we see in this polling. I think it confirms over the three years of the Obama administration consistent and strong support by Europeans for the President’s handling of international affairs. You look at the numbers -- 83 percent, 78 percent, 75 -- that is consistent and it’s consistently very high, as is the desire for U.S. leadership in the world by Europeans. To me that is a reflection of and maybe even in some ways a reward for the President’s approach to the relationship with Europeans.

As I have said here and elsewhere before, the administration’s general philosophy about the relationship with Europe, as we came into office, was a realization that the world that we were facing was extremely challenging, that we needed strong partners to help deal with that world, and that nowhere around the world were there stronger, better, more like-minded partners who share our values than in Europe. So it’s encouraging to see reflected in these numbers what we believe, which is that we think very much like Europeans about these international challenges, and that on the whole they support the way the President and the administration are handling these questions.

Some, I suspect, will note or comment that while high, the numbers of EU support for the President’s policy has declined. I said 83 percent, 78, 75. The fact is, 75 percent approval rating for anything in this world right now is extraordinarily high. I would note for those of you tempted to observe that they are falling, our experience last year -- when approval for the President’s handling of international policies fell from 83 percent to 78 percent -- one of the headlines we saw the next day, it’s not worth saying whose headline it was, but you can Google it, was “Europe cools toward Obama.”

When cooling is falling down to an approval rating in the upper 70s, I think, again, most leaders around the world would accept that. And therefore to see now that three-fourths of Europeans polled approve of the President’s handling of international affairs is pretty darn good.

The numbers do suggest that there are some enduring philosophical differences between Europeans and Americans. The most striking is the one that Zsolt pointed to on whether war is necessary to promote justice, with 75 percent of Americans and 32 percent in the EU saying that. So that [inaudible] underscore, and I would concede that there are some differences in strategic culture that last. But I think that’s, first of all when you look at the numbers, more the exception that proves the rule; but I think more importantly, whatever the differences in theory in a sort of general question like that, it seems to us to be having little effect in the real world. And as we saw most recently in Libya, there’s actually little divergence when it comes to deciding [inaudible] policies, and in that case, to the degree that this intervention was about using force for justice, which I think the numbers also show most people on both sides of the Atlantic thought it was, there really wasn’t much of a difference.

I think, again, if you look at the numbers on support for Libya, for a specific case of using force to protect civilians and promote justice, I think those were the U.S. around 59 and Europe 48. So again, not a huge difference in practice, even if as a conceptual theoretical matter maybe they still see it in somewhat different ways. And if you look at the numbers on why do you support the intervention in Libya or what should the mission be, the numbers struck me, again, as very similar across the Atlantic.

So indeed, our experience is not just that Americans and Europeans are largely thinking alike about these issues and that this notion that emerged from the Transatlantic Trends surveys in the past about Mars and Venus and Europeans and Americans diverging, on the contrary I would actually assert that the strategic alignment between Europe and the United States today has never been greater. That is what we feel as we deal together with Europeans on Libya, on Syria, on Afghanistan, on Russia, on the Balkans, and without asserting that there’s not a single nuanced difference across the Atlantic on these questions, the fact is we essentially have the same policies and we’re working on them together.

I think it might be worth a specific couple of words on Libya where [inaudible], which is sort of the most recent big challenge that we have tackled together, and it’s one in which the United States and Europe together, using NATO, came together behind U.S. leadership to protect civilians and confront a violent dictatorship in an action that ultimately led to the end of Qadhafi’s rule. I think this Libya operation actually says a lot about the transatlantic relationship and the President’s vision for handling it.

When it was clear in March that Qadhafi was not heeding the international community’s call to stop attacking civilians, the President led the international community, went to the UN, went to the NATO allies and insisted that we together stop this massacre. He called on NATO to take action -- supported a no-fly zone, an arms embargo, and action to protect civilians-- then deployed very unique American capabilities in the first couple of weeks that nobody else could provide to take out Libyan air defenses, make it possible for others to lead in enforcing the no-fly zone; and then to expect other allies to fly the bulk of the strike missions as NATO partners, as the operation went on. That is precisely how it evolved and I would argue it was in many ways a model for how the United States can lead and in a way that allows allies to support.

Some have criticized this approach from one direction or another, but I think that the criticism we’ve heard about an approach in which we use NATO and count on Europeans to play the role that they play misses the mark in a number of important ways. If you just think about what took place here, again, I think you see the merits of it.

First of all, it was the entire alliance that supported and participated in one way or another in this operation. The North Atlantic Council met, all allies supported it, NATO command and control was used, and all of the allies -- even those not participating in strikes -- participated in the command and control operation. That wasn’t a given. There were plenty who thought this should have been a coalition of the willing, or the United States should have just done it, but the President believed there was value to using NATO backed by a UN Security Council mandate to do this. In the end the NATO air operation destroyed over 5,000 targets and had zero casualties.

The U.S., as I said, led in the operation in many diplomatic and military ways, but it did so in a way that allowed others to contribute in the ways that they were able to. So we saw the strike missions, once the United States had done its job in suppressing air defenses in Libya, you saw the strike mission carried out in the lead by other allies -- the UK, France, Italy, Norway, Denmark, Canada, Belgium -- all of them sustained over many months, even as many were questioning and criticizing whether this could be done. The President expressed confidence that these NATO allies could sustain it and they did, including with cooperation on munitions and so on from other allies, even those who were not actually participating in the strikes.

Other partners made absolutely critical contributions. Sweden was one. There were many others, both in Europe and beyond -- Jordan, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Romania and Bulgaria -- deploying ships and a number of allies contributed basing rights -- Greece, Italy.

So it was really a collective effort and I think another sort of telling statistic that says a lot, putting this in context with other operations. As our Ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder has pointed out in the Kosovo operation, which was sometimes criticized on different grounds, the United States provided 95 percent of the precision-guided munitions that were used. In Libya it was exactly the other way around. The United States continued to do refueling, intelligence, surveilling, reconnaissance and particularly unique capabilities that we could offer, but the allies provided the bulk of the strikes and the precision guided munitions. The bottom line on that is we think the approach that we followed that has proven successful was better than either of the alternatives that have sometimes been presented which is not doing anything about Libya at all, or the United States just taking over and saying we’re going to do this all, we’ll bear the bulk of the costs and the risks and do it ourselves.

In all of those senses Libya was really a model for how the United States and Europeans are both thinking alike and acting alike on big international challenges.

Just a couple of other things in the data I think might be worth commenting on. One, the numbers on Asia. I think a lot of people, maybe this is your experience, are pulling out of this year’s data more than anything. Zsolt pointed out that U.S. publics are more focused on Asia than are European publics. In a way that doesn’t come as a surprise to me and I think it shouldn’t be misunderstood.

I will state on the record here today that the United States is interested in Asia. In the past couple of years there have been some expressions of concern in Europe that somehow this is a problem. I would submit that Europeans should be more concerned if we weren’t focusing on the importance of the rise of China and India and some of the great challenges we face in that region as are Europeans, but I think the essential thing to say about it is it doesn’t come at the expense of Europe. As I’ve already said, the way we think about the world and the President thinks about the world is: we know there are huge challenges out there including some in Asia, and to deal with those challenges we need strong and like-minded partners who think very much like us. I think the Transatlantic Trends underscores where a lot of those partners are. So I don’t think in any way seeing that a number of Americans, and especially there was an interesting generational thing where younger Americans are focused on Asia, I don’t think that should be misunderstood when it comes to our policies.

Turkey, as always, has been a feature of the Transatlantic Trends and we’ve commented on that here before. Maybe I’ll just make a couple of comments on that and somehow I’m going to guess that there will be a question on Turkey when we get to that point.

Turkey, for the United States, remains a critical ally across a whole range of issues including almost every one presented in the data. A couple of things that struck me in the data that was presented.

First, 30 percent favorable rate and I think you flagged that in your sort of advertisement about this, which is low. I think that’s the context in which you flagged it. Obviously we’d like to see it be higher. But it’s also higher than in a lot of other polls that one has seen on views in Turkey of the United States, so it’s something we continue to work on. It’s important to us. But even that number I think reflects what we believe which is that there is still a very strong basis for U.S.-Turkish partnership and cooperation and that is actually improving rather than declining. There, too, the numbers on Turkey for approval of the President’s handling of international affairs, I think first of all, jumped very much from the mid 2000’s to 50 percent in President Obama’s first year; then they fell off last year; but then they rose again this year to 30 percent, right? So that too reflects what our experience is which his over the past year this relationship is strengthening.

We were encouraged to see that the numbers on support for European Union membership in Turkey have also gone up over the past year. As we’ve said many times, this is an issue for Europeans to decide, but we believe that Turkey’s ultimate entry into the EU when it meets the criteria would be good for Turkey and good for Europe, and so we’re encouraged to see that. And the number of Turks who believe NATO is essential also remains low but is rising.

So I think all of those points underscore what I would say in general about the U.S. relationship with Turkey. It’s not only that it’s essential, but the cooperation continues to grow. I think probably last year when we discussed this it was a time of big questions about Turkey and it was no secret that the United States was disappointed over Turkey’s vote on Iran and the Security Council. The United States was concerned about the flotilla clash with Israel. And there were all sorts of questions about whether the U.S. and Turkey would cooperate. I think what we’ve seen over the past year is an intensification of that relationship. We’re working very closely together not only on those issues, but on Libya and on Syria and on Afghanistan and in the region, and we intend to continue to do so.

I would just sum up by saying really what I began with. Well first of all, congratulations again to GMF and to Transatlantic Trends for another interesting and important product. And again, I think the bottom line take-away for us is that in contrast to previous years’ suggestions that somehow the U.S. and Europe were again living on different planets or diverging, the numbers that we see here today seem to me to underscore what we’ve believed all along which is that Europeans and Americans think very much alike about international challenges; that there’s significant support in Europe for the way the United States is handling them, and that corresponds to what we feel as we go about our diplomatic business every day.

Thank you, and I look forward to your questions.

Moderator: Thank you, Phil, and thank you, Zsolt. We’re going to start Q&A. We want to start it, I’d like to start it by taking moderator’s privilege to ask the first question because we’ll use my microphone from then on as the room microphone.

Phil, what do you make of the transatlantic divide on democracy promotion? Europeans see themselves more in the business of democracy promotion than Americans with regard to the [inaudible] question. One theory that we’ve played around with is, do they simply understand different things by that? Is it because Europeans want to [inaudible] political foundations? And whether Americans hear the undertone of the use of force when somebody says democracy promotion? Or is there a deeper, maybe a philosophical divide reflected in these numbers?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: It’s a good question. Those numbers struck me as well. I thought you were going to ask me about Sweden’s support for democracy regardless of whether it leads to instability, but others can maybe take that question.

I was struck by that divide because I think people would have guessed the reversal of those numbers, that the Americans are the ones who want to be out there promoting democracy and putting our resources to bear, and Europeans are more inward-focused. That was sort of the narrative of past years.

To the extent that that’s what it reflects, I would also, and maybe Zsolt will comment on this and other questions can be directed to him as well.

I think the question you actually asked, it was about supporting democracy as opposed to promoting. That may also affect the answer, because Europeans were, in their mind, playing a supporting role through the European Union and the European foundations, leading to very high numbers. And promoting still has this aura of the Iraq war and neo-conservativism, so it may be eliciting different things in people’s minds and it’s important to focus on the actual question asked.

It may also, and I’m really just speculating to the extent that it actually reflects increasing American caution on that issue. It could reflect the burdens that Americans feel they’ve carried over the past decade of expending so many resources on promoting and supporting democracy around the world. It may reflect some weariness about that project.

Question: Thank you very much for the very interesting trends.

I have been 20 years, more than 20 years now in Europe and I couldn’t agree more that the transatlantic relations have been intensified during the past years very strongly. But I have a very simple question here. If you had to choose three most potential areas where we should do more jointly, what would they be? I think this applies to both you, Mr. Assistant Secretary, and Mr. Nyiri.

Moderator: Let’s take a couple so we can bundle them.

Question: Phil, my question to you is, there’s only one thing the Democrats and Republicans seem to agree on in this city and it’s cuts in foreign aid and cuts in defense spending to some extent. So how is the next couple of years of austerity, how are they going to affect your work and America’s effectiveness in promoting its interest in the rest of the world?

Question: First of all, thank you very much for this very interesting report. The pictures they are speaking for themselves. We still need time to examine them, to absorb all this information.

My question is to Assistant Secretary, Mr. Gordon. What will be the U.S. reaction in case Turkey decides to transfer some of his naval entities, forces from Black Sea to the Mediterranean as Prime Minster Erdogan stated several times that he wants to strengthen his forces in the Mediterranean in order to defend Gaza Strip. Thank you.

Assistant Secretary Gordon: Thank you. I’ll take them in order.

I’m not going to choose three areas from our cooperation. I would say, I would again underscore the degree to which that list is already long and I mentioned a couple. Just think about how we and the Europeans are cooperating on Afghanistan, where we have the same policy, we have the same strategy. There is a somewhat disproportionate number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but when you add all the Europeans and NATO allies and non-U.S. troops together you get to 47,000 which we value and appreciate and just about every single country in Europe, every NATO member has troops in one form or another. That’s really high on our list. It’s hugely important to the United States. So I’m not going to put it on a list of what we need to do because I think we’re already doing it. Obviously what we need to do is sustain it. And the run-up to the NATO Summit next year, but it’s a huge priority and one that we’re working very well together.

I already talked about Libya so I won’t repeat that case there. I would say about it, though, that it’s an example of how sometimes it’s not just a question of us sitting around and deciding our three priorities, but the way they choose us. I can tell you that a year ago as we thought about where might we be cooperating intensively with Europeans, and certainly where might we be doing a NATO operation, I wouldn’t have had Libya on that list. But things develop in the world and that’s, again, one of the merits of this alliance and NATO in particular, which has proven to be adaptable.

No one originally imagined NATO would be doing Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan halfway around the world, or Libya, but we’ve shown that because we have the same interests and values we can come together on that.

Syria with the sanctions and measures the European Union has adopted very much together with us, and I don’t need to tell you because you’re part of it, but I can’t tell others how intensive has been our engagement on these issues together as we figure out the way forward.

I can give you a much longer list. I actually think the list of where we are doing it is greater than the list of like three new things that require it.

Just to mention economic cooperation as looking forward, we always get wrong what we think the biggest, the most dominant issue might be, but clearly that’s going to be another huge matter for Transatlantic cooperation is dealing with what is obviously a great economic challenge that we all face together.

I’m glad you raised cuts in foreign aid. I don’t know if it’s the only thing that Democrats and Republicans agree on, but it’s something that we all are grappling with as a result of the economic challenges that I just mentioned, and it’s a serious issue because we continue to believe profoundly that the economic aid that we provide to other countries promotes our interests and our values. It’s not just a humanitarian thing, although it’s also that because there are a lot of people who need assistance and benefit enormously from it, but it’s also in our interest because it can help promote stability and development and democracy and prosperity, and helping countries get to a level where they can start generating economic growth and become a source for American markets and American goods and it benefits us in the long run. We profoundly believe that and that’s why we’ve defended foreign assistance for a long time.

The other point about it, which to take it back into the political context in which you raised it is, that’s not where the money is. If you’re trying to solve the deficit and debt problems that this country clearly faces, I’m afraid to say that the State Department’s foreign assistance budget is a drop in the bucket. We think it would be penny wise and pound foolish to target that as the place for the money.

Then there was a question on Turkey and the Mediterranean. I talked in general about our extensive cooperation with Turkey that has included the issue of Turkish-Israeli relations which I think is the context in which you’re alluding to some Turkish comments about increasing its presence in the Mediterranean. We have made clear that we regret the deterioration in that relationship. It’s one that had been a real example for the region of Israel and a majority Muslim country cooperating extensively in defense, intelligence, tourism, trade, and we regret that they weren’t able to overcome their differences. We will continue to encourage both sides to do so. They’re both very close partners of the United States, very close friends of the United States, and we continue to urge both to exercise restraint and find ways to work better together.

Director Nyiri: Let me just say a few words about Madame Ambassador’s question about what else to do with the Transatlantic alliance. I would like to remind everyone that this was really just the highlights of the findings of our surveys. Our survey is around 20-25 minutes, so there is a lot more topics and a lot more issues in our key findings report and I hope you will take one home and read it.

In terms of what to do and what is out there that is important. One thing that I didn’t talk about but I probably should have if I had more time is Iran. The perceptions on Iran are remarkably similar between Americans and Europeans. Both Americans and Europeans see Iran as a threat to their security and also in terms of what to do with Iran, there is an understanding that Americans and Europeans as well prefer economic type policy solutions to solve the problem in Iran.

Moderator: Let’s take one more round of questions.

Question: Hi, Phil. Thank you for joining us and thank you for doing this first of all.

I’m wondering what is the position of U.S. in post Arab Spring period? What is your position in the region? And I’m wondering, your assessment about the last trip of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan to the region, for example, because there are some comments arguing that the new emerging power --

Assistant Secretary Gordon: I’m sorry, speak up if you would.

Question: There are some comments arguing that the new emerging power in the region will be [inaudible]. I am wondering your assessment. What is your position in the region after Arab Spring, and what is your assessment about this trip?

Question: You said the intervention in Libya is a model for future cooperation between the USA and Europe within NATO. Do you expect the NATO summit in Chicago will take stock of this new model and translate it into a kind of new doctrine?

Question: A question also to the model that you cited, Phil. To what extent is that model actually useable? In what other countries? A model that you can’t apply in Syria or in any other country because there will be no UN vote, so what is it worth apart from entertaining good feelings about Transatlantic relations?

And one small question to the Trends itself, there used to be a question always how do Europeans see foreign policy in different areas? And that always included climate change. Why did you cut it out? Because there is no American action on climate change, or what happened?

Moderator: Zsolt, do you want to take that one before --

Director Nyiri: No special reason. It’s not on people’s minds right now. We might ask those questions later, some other time. We didn’t ask this year. There are some trend questions that we ask every other year or three or four years, and that’s one of those.

Assistant Secretary Gordon: Arab Spring, again, we’ve said from the start nobody underestimates the potential risks in the change that is going on throughout that region, but we’ve also tried to focus on the opportunities. And as so many have pointed out, there was far too much stagnation, absence of democracy, absence of economic growth, and we were inspired, like may around the world, with people taking things into their own hands and standing up to autocratic leaders and saying that they wanted a say in their own future, in their own fate. That’s something the United States under different administrations for years has supported.

So while having no doubt that this is a tremendous challenge and things can go wrong and things will be difficult inevitably, it’s also an opportunity for people to take control of their own fate. Ultimately it really is in their hands. It will be decisions of people in the region. But we want to help to the degree that we can. It’s one more thing on my long list of areas in which we cooperate with Europeans and the European Union and it’s an intensive topic of conversations among us, how we can together, through advice -- a lot of European countries have gone through democratic transitions themselves -- and through financial assistance and through more open trade, how can we support this so that it [inaudible].

We all know there are uncertainties and these transitions can go in very different directions, but it’s a huge aspect of U.S.-European cooperation to see how we can sustain it and help support prosperous democracies throughout that region.

In terms of Turkey’s role, I think there’s no doubt that Turkey is a major player in the region. It has interests in all of those countries. The Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, have been very dynamic in their activities. On that I would just say they’ve done that together with us. We have very extensive consultations with Turkey on the Arab Spring in general and on particular cases, and as I alluded to when I was discussing Turkey and Transatlantic Trends, I think our cooperation on some of these cases has been very good. On Libya, there were some questions at the start about which direction Turkish and U.S. policy would go in, but Turkey’s been a strong partner within NATO and bilaterally, and on Syria and throughout the region.

Secretary Clinton speaks and meets very often with Foreign Minister Davutoglu; President Obama speaks regularly with Prime Minister Erdogan; and they both know that both of our countries have a huge stake in this part of the world. I would just be careful to avoid any suggestion that it’s a zero sum game. That there’s one leader and that would come at the expense of someone else. I think we have mutual interests in seeing democracy, prosperity and stability throughout that region and we’re going to continue to work intensively together to promote it.

The next two questions are about Libya as a model. One should always be careful with the word model, and I take it back if you’re going to over-read it. Everyone knows that no case is exactly the same, especially when it comes to something as complex as an intervention. So no one should ever think or suggest that we now have a template and we’ll try to use that exactly.

As I said before, NATO has continued to face such different and unpredictable circumstances that, let’s just be clear, there’s not a single model to apply. What I was suggesting about Libya and what is new about Libya was the approach that I described where the United States would do in the initial phase what only the United States could do; and then that Europeans would play a leading role in certain aspects, moving forward. That really is different from previous NATO interventions.

I think part of the question, the first question on that which is a good one is will we study this for the Chicago Summit? I think the answer is yes. And I think that is what lessons can we draw from this experience? We don’t fully know yet. It will require study. What did it tell us about European military’s capabilities, were they able to do this? I said that I thought it was pretty impressive that over six months -- remember in those first weeks people started to say well, you see, the United States should have done this and flown all the strike missions because the Europeans don’t have the capabilities, they don’t have the precision-guided munitions, or their publics can’t sustain it for X amount of time. Well, they were saying that already in April and then May and then June, and as it turns out they were able to.

So I do think it revealed some deficiencies and gaps and underscored the need for defense spending in certain areas, so there’s no doubt that those lessons need to be learned; but it also showed that it is possible to successfully conduct a NATO operation in which the United States doesn’t have to, to cite an example, provide 95 percent of the precision guided munitions. Kosovo was a different model, one in which the United States flew the overwhelming majority of sorties. A couple of other allies contributed as well, then after that, very little. So in that sense maybe model is the wrong word, but it’s a new template to consider and absolutely, it’s something we need to study for the Chicago Summit, both what went right in terms of the way we did Libya, but also what gaps and deficiencies need to be filled moving forward.

Thank you very much.

Back to Top

Do you already have an account on one of these sites? Click the logo to sign in and create your own customized State Department page. Want to learn more? Check out our FAQ!

OpenID is a service that allows you to sign in to many different websites using a single identity. Find out more about OpenID and how to get an OpenID-enabled account.