Germans love Obama – for now

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The Europeans love Obama, and all of the Europeans, the Germans love him the most. That is one of the not altogether surprising but nevertheless interesting findings of the 2009 edition of Transatlantic Trends, an annual survey by the German Marshall Fund that tracks attitudes to the transatlantic relationship in Europe and the United States. According to the poll, 92% of Germans approved of President Obama, compared to only 12% who approved of President Bush this time last year – in other words, a whopping 80-point “Obama bounce”, as the authors of the report call it. (In Britain, by contrast, support for the US president jumped from 17% to 82% – a mere 65-point difference.)

I’m not sure whether the even greater popularity of Obama in Germany than elsewhere in Europe says anything about attitudes to him or to the US in Germany. He did of course visit Berlin during the election campaign last summer, but even before that he was seen in Europe as a “saviour”, as Josef Joffe of Die Zeit put it. Germans do have a tendency to have particuarly intense attitudes to America – sometimes positive, sometimes negative. This may be partly to do with Germany’s history in the twentieth century, in which the US was both liberator and occupier. I think Germans also often project onto America – I recommend Dan Diner’s book Feindbild Amerika on this.

But the really interesting question, as Bronwen Maddox of the Times pointed out at the launch of the survey in London today, is what all this adulation of Obama means in policy terms. According to Ron Asmus of the German Marshall Fund, the two key foreign policy issues that could make or break Obama in his first term are Afghanistan and Iraq. These are the issues on which Obama is going to want European help. But Germans are certainly not willing to send more troops to Afghanistan – on the contrary, calls for German troops to be pulled out altogether are getting louder, especially since the air strike in Kunduz last Friday that killed dozens of civilians. Nor are Germans supportive of tougher economic sanctions on Iran – Germany is Iran’s largest trading partner and sanctions would hurt its export-driven economy.

All of this suggests that Europe and in particular Germany’s love of Obama is somewhat superficial and perhaps a little delusional. It is going to be interesting to see what happens to those high approval ratings if things get tough this autumn – for example if Obama demands larger troop contributions or greater flexibility in how they are deployed.

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