America’s international standing has changed many times over since the turn of the millennium. Two wars, one recession, and several global crises have changed how Europeans think of the United States, and not necessarily for the better. In what follows, I have tried to break down the evolution of the European perspective on the United States since the turn of the century. While it's difficult to summarize 500 million opinions over 13 years, understanding our proximate history will help us understand our immediate future.
The fall of the Soviet Union had led to strong ties between a unifying Europe and a hegemonic America. The prosperity of the West seemed in jeopardy, and at the turn of the century, Europeans felt closer to Americans than they had in a very long time. The 9/11 attacks only brought Europe and the United States closer. In that moment, people felt that Europeans and Americans were joined in facing an irrational external threat.
That synergy faded away shortly thereafter. After former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell made scandalous claims before the United Nations Security Council, the United States embarked on a colossal mistake in Iraq, and did so at the expense of thousands of military and civilian lives. While only the United Kingdom and Poland participated in the initial invasion, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands joined the disastrous United States-led effort in an attempt to close Pandora’s box that had been opened. Slowly but surely, European opposition to the American presence in the Middle East grew. America once again looked like a global bully corrupted by oil interests and the desire for dominance.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, then candidate Barack Obama was greeted in Berlin by 200,000 people from all over Europe, who saw genuine opportunities in Obama’s election. His election promises, from the closure of Guantanamo, to active diplomatic engagement the Middle East, to the implementation of more European-like social policies, seemed like they could bring the two sides of the pond closer together. I remember watching his speeches and thinking, “this man speaks English, but he speaks my language.” The sentiment was shared by many young people, who once again looked to America for inspirational leadership. It seemed like America was about to reverse its mistakes, leaving space for better diplomacy and understanding. America was going to be more transparent to the rest of the world.
During the same period as Obama's election, the American market collapsed, thanks to years of irresponsible financial speculation in the housing market by banking institutions, and a lack of government oversight. This inevitably led to an economic crisis on both sides of the Atlantic, fostering European resentment, and leading to years of stagnation and double-dip recessions. The notion that an American economic crisis had harmed an already weak European fiscal environment inspired bitterness toward both Bush and Obama's administrations.
Where are we now?
Europe and the United States are facing similar employment, generational, trade, and budgetary challenges, and have no choice but to cooperate. The NSA scandal and differing policies over Syria, Palestine, and Libya can only harm current trade efforts that are meant to reinvigorate intercontinental relations.
The last time Obama spoke in Berlin, only 6,000 people showed up. However, the real challenge is not one of sympathy or diplomacy. The real challenge is historical.
Euro-American synergy will only be restored if the two forces realize that the prosperity to which we have all felt entitled is not to be taken for granted. The transatlantic political elite fail to understand that Europe and America are not the only major players in the world, and have not been for a very long time. Either we wake up and realize that our economic failures are pulling us back, and cooperate with one another, or we will find ourselves last in the world.