Trans-Pacific View

Transatlantic Views on US Rebalance: Perceptions Of Power

Insight from Linda Basile and Pierangelo Isernia

Transatlantic Views on US Rebalance: Perceptions Of Power
Credit: U.S. Department of State

The Rebalance authors Mercy Kuo and Angie Tang regularly engage subject-matter experts, policy practitioners and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. rebalance to Asia. This conversation with Dr. Linda Basile and Professor Pierangelo Isernia Research Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Political Change and Director of the Department of Social, Political and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Siena, Italy, respectively, are co-authors of “US Rebalancing to Asia: Transatlantic Public Opinion,” The International Spectator (Volume 50, Issue 3, 2015) is the 30th in “The Rebalance Insight Series.” 

Briefly highlight the three key findings of your research on transatlantic public opinion toward U.S. rebalance to Asia.

Exploring transatlantic survey data from 2011 through 2013, we report three main findings. First, U.S. public opinion and elites give greater priority to Asia Pacific in foreign policy than does the European public and its leaders. When Americans are asked about the most important actors for U.S. vital foreign policy interests, half of them answered that Asia is more important than Europe, with percentages ranging from 51 percent in 2011 to 45 percent in 2013. This focus on Asia is even greater among U.S. elites, with the exception of political leaders, whose opinions mirror more closely those of the general public. For Europeans, survey data reveals a firm and stable majority of the general public that still considers the U.S. its main partner. Only less than one-third of the sample looks towards Asia as more important than the U.S. to their own country’s vital interests. The same can be said about the European elites; only business leaders show a greater attention to the East than to the West.

Second, we explored the role of China in shaping attitudes towards the rebalancing policy to Asia. Our data in fact reveal that when people are informed about China, they are less favorable to shift national interests toward Asia. This is true both in the EU and the U.S. Furthermore, those who have negative attitudes toward China are also less likely to prefer Asia over their transatlantic allies. Third, and related to the previous one, our data show that those who feel threatened by Beijing, both economically and militarily, are also less likely to support a shift in interests to the Far East. Nevertheless, those U.S. respondents who perceive China as an economic opportunity favor policies aimed at engaging China and its neighbors in a partnership effort in order to take advantage of their rise.

What is the role and impact, if any, of transatlantic public opinion in the context of United States’ efforts to forge the Trans-pacific Partnership (TPP) with Asia and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the European Union?

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Public opinion does not determine policies, but it remains important in constraining foreign policy strategies. Public opinion is a latent force that sometimes gets activated and transforms itself into a powerful resource to propel or constrain foreign policy decisions. As far as the TTIP and TPP are concerned, given the technical nature of the issue and the secretive nature of much of the discussion so far, we register a “permissive” support for any measure that promotes economic interdependence. However, there are a couple of fault lines to consider if and when the issue might become politicized – something that is not unlikely given the electoral timing in the U.S. and the economic crisis in Europe.

Both our data and the Eurobarometer and Pew surveys reveal an overall support for these two treaties in most of the countries involved, with the notable exception of countries such as Germany and Austria. We can also observe some interesting divisions within each of them, such as partisan differences – in the U.S., more Democrats than Republicans back the two deals and, in the EU, the right is generally more favorable than the left to the TTIP – generational and gender gaps with men and younger generations generally more favorable to these treaties. Much of this support, however, is afforded with insubstantial information and much ignorance surrounds both the terms of the agreements and their implications for our own lives. There are already pockets of opposition of which are found among business leaders of small and medium size enterprises both in Europe and the U.S., concerned with the impact of a more globalized market on their own life. This might be a potential source of politicization, once the agreement comes to the ratification process and beyond.

Please compare and contrast your data with that of a Pew Research 2015 report on American and European public perceptions of the United States as a stronger economic power than China. 

Pew data reveal an interesting picture of the current geopolitical landscape. The impressive Chinese economic growth, which seemed unstoppable until quite recently, is now facing a slowdown. On the other hand, the American economy seems to be recovering from years of recession. This shifting balance of economic powers is mirrored in the public’s perceptions of the leading world economic power. We cannot ascertain, however, to what extent a renewed trust in American economic strength would be likely to change people’s attitudes about the relative priority of the Asia-Pacific region in foreign policy, especially in Europe. A majority of Europeans, as pointed out also in our data, already preferred the U.S. to Asia in which Beijing seemed to be the leading economic actor. A stronger U.S. might strengthen this trend. The impact of this reasserted U.S. economic dominance might, on the other hand, further shift Americans’ attention to Asia. One could also expect that a stronger U.S. might change, to a certain extent, the way in which Americans look at China. They may come to perceive China as less of an economic threat and seize the opportunity to engage constructively with China, having an upper bargaining hand. 

How is Asia increasingly an integral factor in shaping the future of transatlantic relations?

Asia is increasingly becoming a linchpin for the relationship between the EU and the U.S. The U.S. has shrunk its presence in Europe over the last two decades. In years of financial constraints and limited resources, an increase in investments and a greater military engagement in East Asia have inevitably implied a reassessment of American commitment to Europe. Whether a U.S. rebalancing strategy implies a “pivot away” from the EU is still an open question. One cannot deny, however, the fact that there is now “a third wheel” in the long-lasting U.S.-EU relationship, which neither Europeans nor Americans can ignore. The recent Transatlantic tensions over joining the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) is just one example of how the rise of Asian actors in the global order might put U.S.-EU relations under strain.

The most obvious way to come to terms with this new global scenario seems to be a joint transatlantic strategy towards the Asia-Pacific. As EU High Representative of Foreign Affairs and Security Federica Mogherini argued in a speech delivered in 2014 at the German Marshall Fund, “We should together pivot to Asia, the U.S. and the EU, otherwise, we will pay the consequences in the coming decades”. Since the Asia-Pacific region is going to become, in the near future, a testing ground for transatlantic partners and public opinion must be accounted for when developing a strategy that enjoys enough support to be viable, it is crucial to begin discussions early on whether a coherent and cooperative approach to face these challenges can be built among partners on the two sides of the Atlantic.

How might the U.S. rebalance to Asia evolve under a new U.S. president and what are implications for European public perceptions? 

Answering this question a few days after the Iowa caucus, we can only guess who the next presidential candidate will be. In both camps, it would make a difference whether a mainstream candidate or a more populist one emerges as the winner. Whoever wins the American elections and on which platform is going to be an issue regardless for the European public and their leaders. Aside from candidates’ opinions on economic issues related to Asia, a consequential factor is whether a Democratic or Republican candidate gets elected.

To develop an argument made elsewhere, the election of a Democratic president would make less of a difference over transatlantic relations than if a Republican candidate is elected. Based on a systematic analysis of transatlantic public opinion in the last decades, one can argue that European public opinion is, in general, more congenial to a Democratic than a Republican president. This is due, in particular, to the fundamentally different attitudes Europeans and Americans have on the use of military force (and in the future, similar differences might occur also on environmental and trade issues) and the different domestic coalitions Republican and Democratic presidents can build domestically in order to deal with transatlantic issues. European public opinion is fundamentally in favor of multilateral cooperation and a diplomacy-first, military force-next kind of approach to international relations, irrespective of the political leaning of European leaders and public. In the U.S., the picture is quite different. While Democratic presidents rely upon much of the same coalition as European leaders, Republican presidents have more leverage and inclination to refer to a supporting coalition in which there is a strong minority in support of unilateralism and force-first options. Republican presidents, in other words, can run on platforms and get support for policies quite unpalatable to European tastes. In the past, these gaps have strongly constrained both the Republican presidents and the European leaders in hammering out a viable transatlantic partnership. Iraq is the most recent and evident historical case, but back in the 1980s Reagan faced the same dilemma and environmental issues, and an Iranian dilemma might loom large in the future.

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Clearly, the candidates still make a difference in both camps. In the democratic camp, Bernie Sanders is more protectionist, but also less hawkish than Hillary Clinton. Much more consequential would be a Republican candidate. On top of the structural asymmetry mentioned before, a Republican president elected on a platform of the kind Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have put forward about China in recent months spells for quite rough weather ahead over the transatlantic area.

Mercy A. Kuo is an advisory board member of CHINADebate and was previously director of the Southeast Asia Studies and Strategic Asia Programs at the National Bureau of Asian Research. Angie O. Tang is Senior Advisor of Asia Value Advisors, a leading venture philanthropy advisory firm based in Hong Kong.