Remarks at the German Marshall Fund

James B. Steinberg
Deputy Secretary of State
Washington, DC
September 9, 2009

Well, thank you, Karen. It’s always good to be back at GMF. I’ve spent many happy hours here, and somewhat more leisurely in the past than now, but it is good to be here and to see so many good friends in the audience as well.

Thanks to Bruce and GMF for this incredibly valuable study. The work that Transatlantic Trends has been doing over the years has been enormously important not only to policymakers, but I think to the broader publics to try to understand the factors that are influencing these most important relationships. And I think it has been an important guide, and the fact that we’ve had it over a longer period of time also helps us understand some of the longer-term forces at work. So this is enormously invaluable to us in the Administration, as I’m sure it is to all of you who are out there in analysis-land.

I’m grateful to the funders, of course, who help support this – I know how important they are to this kind of work – and to my many friends and colleagues in the audience. I look forward to your comments. I’m sorry not to hear Bruce’s presentation, although I have, needless to say, read the findings. So I want to make a few observations about what I see in the numbers – I can’t resist my own kind of analytics on some of this – but then focus more on what it really means for policy going forward.

It won’t surprise you to hear from our perspective in the Obama Administration that this is very good news indeed. (Laughter.) I don’t think it’s a total surprise. I was with then Senator Obama in Berlin. I think we had a sense of what that – the spirit was out there. But it is important, and I’ll come back to why we think it’s important in the long run. And the numbers are pretty strong and it’s pretty startling, as you’ve no doubt heard from Bruce that we have more than three-quarters of Europeans and Turks approving of the President and his handling of international affairs, 50 percent or greater approval in every country concerned, with Turkey right at the bottom. And I’ll talk about that in second.

We see a fourfold increase in Western Europe and a doubling in Central and Eastern Europe, and an 80 percent increase in approval from the previous administration in Germany alone, and almost as high in the rest of Western Europe. So that’s quite a significant development, and for reasons that I’ll go into in a minute, it does provide an important opportunity for all of us.

And what’s particularly significant is that it’s not just popularity, but it’s the impressions of the United States and our policy that have improved dramatically. We’ve seen this as the report (inaudible) especially in Western Europe, where it goes from 15 percent to 43 percent. The increase is more modest in Central and Eastern Europe, from 20 to 25 percent, but from a much higher base.

The report pays a lot of attention to what it suggests is a divide between Central and Eastern Europe, on the one hand, and Western Europe on the other. But I think if you look at the numbers a little more carefully, there’s probably less to this than meets the eye. It’s true, as I said, that the improvement in attitudes towards the United States is smaller, but the base was obviously higher to begin with.

And the second reason, if you kind of dig into the numbers – I’m glad to know I have enough time to do this – is that although it’s true that the numbers are low on approval for U.S. policy in Central and Eastern Europe, in fact, a lot of that may be reflected in the fact that the refusal rates [those who declined to answer] are much higher. And so, for example, for Poland, which had a relatively low [approval] number, 55 percent, you have one-third refusal rate. And while we can’t necessarily project as to how those people might have [responded], if you look at the absolute number, it’s affected by the fact that 32 percent of the Poles did not answer the question, refused to answer, compared to 6 percent in France, 3 percent in Germany, and 9 percent in the UK.

If you look, on the other hand, at disapprovals, which is kind of another way of looking at the numbers, they are pretty comparable; that is, the disapproval rate in Poland was 13 percent compared with 7 percent in France, 4 percent in Germany, and 9 percent in the UK. It was only 16 percent in Slovakia, 10 percent in Bulgaria, and 14 percent in Romania.

So while I gather there are differences, and they are historical in a number of respects, I think that there is less of a divide perhaps than the report might suggest. And those changes are very dramatic. For example, in Poland, the disapproval rate in 2008 was 42 percent and now down to 13 percent. So again, while I think it’s – we don’t want to completely ignore the fact that there are differences and a different set of issues that affect different countries in Europe, the broad trend, I think, is one that transcends, shall we say, the old and the new Europe. And I think that it’s important to see that, because I think that trying to artificially magnify the differences may create somewhat of an artificial debate about the issues that we’re all facing in a transatlantic context.

The second big observation, I think, which is important for this audience and certainly important for us in the Administration, is that support for NATO remains very strong. I think it’s a quite significant finding. For those of us (inaudible) starting to write about these things in the early ‘90s, there’s been a long and deep sort of line of questioning about whether and how long NATO would remain relevant as we move past the Cold War. And I think it’s striking for all the changes that are taking place since the Soviet Union disappeared almost 20 years ago, that we have a very significant level of support in virtually every country for NATO. And the good news being that not only is it high, but there have been a significant rebound in support from recent lows. And indeed, most countries in Europe, including Turkey, are near the historic highs in support – Turkey, again, one where the numbers are somewhat lower, and it’s worth reflecting on a little bit about that. Although it’s true that even for Germany, the numbers whose view that NATO was no longer essential are really not significantly different from those numbers in France, Germany, and Italy. So again, across the board, despite the issues that are – that we now have to face in NATO, which I’ll come to again in a minute, the numbers are pretty good.

Another point that Bruce and the authors point out is that the expectations were somewhat higher than the delivery, which, of course, is often true. But I think that in all of these things, there was perhaps a sense of a little bit of unrealism in the level of expectations, and the overall level of sense of improvement in the relationships – actual improvement, as opposed to predictions – still remain quite high. So I think we recognize that there is a little bit of a day-after effect here, but nonetheless, I think we’re encouraged by the sense of delivery as well as expectation in most of Europe.

And what’s important about that is because, in the long run, we recognize that although who the President is and what he stands for personally and his own image to Europe is an important part of this, but in the long run, what’s going to matter is what we do. And I think the fact that although the reality has not fully met the expectations, the fact that there is still a strong sense of improved relationships is a reflection already in the first nine months of the Administration of actions that we’ve been able to take in a number of areas, ranging from the decision to close Guantanamo; new policies on detention, torture, and interrogation; our new approach to Iraq; climate change; and more generally, to multilateral engagement, I think all resonate fairly significantly in Europe. And so I think that that helps account for the fact that while the numbers may not be quite as high as the expectations, that nonetheless, there is a sense that there’s some delivery as well as hope here.

The report, I think, helpfully goes in to look at some of the policy issues that we have to look at going forward and recognizes that there are divergences between the United States and Europe – things that we’ve all, I think, recognized and debated in this room over the years. But there are some important points of convergence that I think are worth highlighting, beginning with the fact that the issues which most concern both Europeans and Americans are roughly similar.

And at the top of the list, as I’m sure Bruce has pointed out, are concerns for the international economy and terrorism are the top two, really pretty much across the board, which shows that these are issues that really do bring us together and provide at least a common subject matter for working together. And equally important, the study finds that 66 percent of Europeans say we have enough common values to cooperate. And that number – the fact that the number has gone up from 55 percent – is very encouraging too, because it clearly recognizes that although there’s inevitably a common (inaudible) with some of the new things that we’ve been trying to do in the Administration, that that sense of common values has been reinforced.

One area where there is some difference, and I think it is – it wouldn’t be a surprise to this audience – is the intensity focused around the climate change issue. But even there, I think that the positive news in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish is that the numbers are increasing in the United States. And while it’s still not at the same level of concern and willingness to sort of take on the hardships, as in many countries, particularly in Western Europe, there is a growing convergence between the United States publics in the United States and Europe on climate change.

Similarly, on Iran, which I will also talk about a little bit more in detail, although there is a vey notable difference about the use of force, and I’m sure Bob Kagan’s going to be pleased with the conclusions here on this respect. (Laughter.) Nonetheless, very few people in either the United States or – and Europe were prepared to accept an Iranian nuclear program. So that we may have some differences when push comes to shove, I think we are united in the fact that this is something which is (inaudible) very broadly understood as a serious danger and not acceptable to either. So there is a common basis to go there.

So that, I think, it raises the question, well, does any of this matter? Does it matter that the President’s approval ratings are significantly higher in Europe than his predecessor? Does it matter that America is held in higher regard now than it was in the past? And I think it’s important to recognize that as we’re all – as practitioners, policy practitioners recognize that this is not just a popularity contest, that we’re not in this just to be liked, but rather, because there’s a conviction that to some extent, the willingness to see the partners in a favorable light provides a context for making possible the kind of cooperation that we need on real policies.

And this is particularly true in cases of democracies for obvious reasons, that while leaders ultimately are elected to do the right thing, that we all recognize that the whole point of democracy is accountability and responsiveness, and to the extent that the governments see their partners as being well regarded by their publics, it becomes easier for them to cooperate and it becomes easier to collaborate on issues, more willing to both tolerate the differences and to seek common ground than when there are suspicions or doubts about the other party’s intentions.

And similarly, it is ultimately an element of soft power that when people have a positive view about another country, there’s more willingness to take seriously their viewpoints, to take their interests into account, and thus, our ability to achieve objectives and find common ground through persuasion rather than coercion. This is something that we also debated extensively over the last decade in this room about whether you have bandwagoning effects, to what extent it matters, in terms of gaining cooperation, to have people think – have positive opinions of the other. But I think the evidence, while ultimately not rising to the level of pure experimental science levels, is still pretty compelling that the environment in which each side trusts and respects each other does make it more possible to find common ground, to find compromise to achieve agreement.

So while I think it’s important to recognize that it would be not a particularly useful strategy of public policy to pursue policies that are popular just because they’re popular, that there’s no harm in having achieved a better regard across the transatlantic, and it now becomes a possibility for us to deal with the big problems that we have to deal with.

And the first case of that, I think, has been in our ability to handle the global economic crisis. There’s nobody better qualified to talk about this than Bruce, and I don’t know to what extent he had a chance to go into this. But I do think that the sense of wanting to work together, in the sense of “I’m seeing a better opportunity for transatlantic collaboration,” helped us deal with what could have been quite a contentious and quite damaging set of reactions to the economic crisis as it unfolded at the end of last year and the beginning of this year, not least of which the danger of the blame game becoming the dominant factor in how we dealt with it.

There was, I think, an anxiety in many quarters that rather than looking forward and talking about how we can work together to deal with this quite unprecedented financial and economic crisis, that there would be a lot of questions about whether this was made in America or made in the UK and who had responsibility for creating it.

And I think, although there was a healthy debate in the weeks leading up to the G-20 meeting in April, that what we found was this newfound willingness and commitment to transatlantic collaboration helped us find common ground to deal with issues about how to blend the different elements of the strategy, including stimulus, regulation and the like, to form a united front.

And I think, as in many things with the financial crisis, just the fact that we were able to forge common ground had perhaps as much impact as the substance of the policies, and that had we not been able to find this broad-based consensus, that it would have – already would have sapped what was already very weak confidence in the global financial system.

So while it was not just the United States and Europe, other countries, particularly China, played a critical role in helping to forge that consensus, nonetheless, I think there’s no question that the transatlantic coming together in (inaudible) subsequently, I think, had an enormous impact. And for this reason, we did have the dog that did not bark, as the report suggests.

So the question then becomes, as we face the big foreign policy challenges of the coming months, whether this renewed sense of confidence in the transatlantic relationship and each other can help us deal with the big issues in front of us. And the three that I want to touch on are Iran, Afghanistan-Pakistan, and climate change.

First on Afghanistan-Pakistan, this is obviously one where public opinion is especially important because we’re talking about the involvement of troops, and troops are – and military deployments are always issues that are close to home. And as I said, the report does recognize, I think, that the convictions about the use of force are somewhat different on both sides of the Atlantic.

But here, I think the fact that support for NATO remains very strong is an important element of the possibility of our working together. That there is a recognition and we need to highlight that, I think, is quite important on both sides of the Atlantic as we go forward in the Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy, that this is – it’s an arrow that points in both directions, that the fact that this is a NATO operation, I think, can help sustain public support for the effort. And conversely, the fact that this is something that we – if we don’t sustain our common effort, that it will help – it could hurt NATO in the long run, provides a motivation for the countries to come together, recognizing that in the long run, this is about – not just about our very serious national security interests in Afghanistan, but also the long-run credibility and efficacy of NATO.

So for those two reasons, I think we have a predicate for – that both sides of the Atlantic work – to work together as we move forward with the review of our military posture and our civilian strategy. I think it is going to be challenging, and it’s going to require quite a significant investment of energy and public diplomacy by leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s something that we are discussing very closely now with our transatlantic partners as we go into the fall and we come out of the Afghan elections, to have a higher profile transatlantic engagement over the strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, both formally at NATO and more generally in terms of our publics. And I think you will see, without my making some announcements prematurely, that there’s likely to be a series of events through the fall that will highlight this transatlantic dimension to make sure that we understand that we are all in this together, that there is a shared belief, both by us and our European partners, that this is – there are significant interests here and that we are pursuing a common strategy.

Similarly on Iran, although one can always hope for the best and imagine that we will soon be engaged in productive negotiations, if that doesn’t come off in the near future, I think we all recognize that we are going to be facing some very critical decisions in the coming months about how to handle the Iranian nuclear program if Iran is unwilling to come to the table, and the signs are not too good as we stand here today. Although we still have not had the delivery of the proposal which the Iranians had promised, I think none of us are holding out great hopes that this is going to provide a near-term solution to the problem.

Again, as I mentioned earlier, although there are some different views in the poll about the potential use of force in the context of the Iranian nuclear crisis, there does seem to be a broad consensus about the importance of this and the unacceptability of Iran having nuclear weapons, and clearly, at the government-to-government level, a very strong sense among the United States and the European partners in this that we simply cannot turn our back on this. I think the conversations that have taken place, the leadership that’s been shown by Germany, France, and the UK on this, really shows that there’s a common conviction that we need to take this very seriously. And I think in the course of the next few weeks, in conjunction with the leaders in New York, the P-5+1 will be meeting at a fairly high level to review where we are and where we need to go next. This is clearly a critical challenge for all of us, but I think there are very positive signs that the United States and Europe are in close harmony on the way forward. And whether that will produce a good result is uncertain. We certainly would benefit from greater cooperation from Russia and China on this, which I know we’ll all be working on together.

And then the third area that I wanted to mention, because it is highlighted in the study, is climate change. This has been an enormously high priority for this President. He’s made clear that he recognizes that the United States has a critical responsibility to play a meaningful role in the climate change challenge and that he’s not interested in treaties just for treaties’ sake, that he’s actually interested in making a difference when it comes to greenhouse gases and carbon emissions, which is why he’s invested so heavily in working with the Congress to try to develop a package of domestic proposals, not limited to cap-and-trade, although cap-and-trade is a critically important part of that, that shows a real determination on the part of the United States to make a difference in the way we use energy.

And that, in turn, I think will help us become a more productive partner working with Europe going into the Copenhagen negotiations. Again, nothing is guaranteed. We still have work to do here in our Congress, and we have a very big challenge together in persuading developing countries that they have to be part of the solution as well. And here, it’s critically important that the United States and Europe work together; that China and India, Brazil, and others have to understand that this is not just something that is a bilateral issue between the United States and them, but it’s something that the rest of the world is looking to.

We also need to make clear that we are prepared to take supportive actions in terms of helping these countries with technology and helping them deal with the inevitable challenges that they face in pursuing a development strategy consistent with a clean energy strategy. But nonetheless, if the developing world thinks that there’s divergences of views between the United States and Europe on what our expectations are of them, then it will become that much harder to come to an agreement in Copenhagen and much harder to persuade our own Congress to take the very difficult but important decisions that we need to do to bring this to a successful conclusion in Copenhagen and beyond.

Finally, let me just say a word about Russia, because it really goes to kind of the implicit issue that I think lies behind the interest in the question of whether there is a divide perhaps between Western Europe and Eastern Europe. The polling data that Bruce and others have presented, I think, are interesting in showing a much more nuanced view among Europeans about the question of the dangers and opportunities with Russia. But I just wanted to reiterate something because it never gets said enough in these audiences, that while we are quite convinced that it’s important to try to find a more productive way to move forward with Russia on areas of common interest as well as to manage areas of differences, that our efforts and our strategy are done in ways that are designed to benefit all of us, including all of our transatlantic partners, and are not trading off some interests against others. We are quite convinced that it’s possible to develop a more constructive relationship with Russia that will benefit our partners in Western, Central, Eastern and all other parts of Europe, and that – but we will not try to seek to improve that relationship at the expense of any of our partners in Europe. And I think our record is pretty clear on that, ranging from issues like Georgia and our steadfast efforts to make sure that the attempts to support secession have not been recognized there, to our strategy on energy, to diversify energy supplies and sources to Europe, to our engagement on issues of nuclear and conventional forces in Europe. And we can discuss that in more detail if people want to.

So all said and done, I think these are important times. Let me just say a word on Turkey because I think it was very important that this study did look at the question of Turkey. I just had a chance to meet with our ambassador, a very capable ambassador to Turkey, Jim Jeffrey, who had the excellent training before he became ambassador, as deputy national security advisor. (Laughter.)

But I was very struck by his own assessment about the fact that while this is a complex relationship, and I think we have often tried to oversimplify the way in which we deal with Turkey or how we think Turkey should see its own interests, we’ve seen in recent months some really important developments a more maturing and productive relationship with Turkey. And Turkey is a critical partner for all of us in dealing with many of the challenges that I just talked about, from Afghanistan-Pakistan, to Iran, to Russia, and to Iraq, which is another area that I spend a lot of my time working on, Middle East peace, energy, and the like. And I think that there is a sense that while we have more skepticism in Turkey, as is broadly true in Muslim countries around the world, that the positive trends there, too.

And so I say to my European friends as you go forward, we try and be humble in telling you about how to do your business, but I think that sustaining the sense of Europe’s collaboration with Turkey and its European vocation, as well as its role in the greater Middle East and Central Asia and the like, is really critical to all of our futures, and I hope that we keep that far-sighted perspective in view as we deal with some of the challenging issues that we will have to deal with in terms of Turkey’s relationship with the European Union in the months ahead.

So let me stop with that, and I’m happy to take your questions, comments, suggestions.