For the past eleven years, Germany’s Washington embassy has annually commissioned an international research firm, Frank N. Magid Associates, to poll Americans on their opinions about Germany. The most recent survey, in November 2013, shows 57 percent with a strong—positive—impression of Germany and only 6 percent with a poor one. This is the highest approval rating yet and far from the lowest, 27 percent, in April 2003, when Berlin’s government was refusing to support the American invasion of Iraq.
In a presentation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC on January 30, Magid released the other results of its survey. Sixty percent of respondents consider Germany a “forward-thinking economic and political power.” Americans also rank the country the third most important foreign partner, after Great Britain and Canada, the fourth ranking by common values, behind these two plus Australia, and the fifth most influential on U.S. politics, behind the two plus China and Israel.
The poll confirmed that Americans feel they do not know enough about the EU, with only 22 percent feeling informed—just a slight increase from 18 percent in 2005. They see Germany’s EU role as greatly strengthened in recent years (53 percent), and respondents viewed Germany as best suited to lead Europe out of its debt crisis (27 percent).
German Popularity and Strength
Both commentators at the CSIS presentation, Bruce Stokes of the Pew Research Center and Charles Lane with the Washington Post, stressed the high regard with which Chancellor Angela Merkel is viewed at home and abroad as a major factor helping make her country both powerful and liked at the same time. Merkel could be elected prime minister in almost any European country, except possibly Greece, ventured Stokes. Lane observed that her ability “to muddle through” was impressive and regarded her building of Europe as “businesslike.” He pointed out that recent worldwide BBC polling indicated that 54 percent viewed the chancellor positively. Americans like her, too; she has even been the subject of a “Saturday Night Live” skit.
In the United States, Germany is favorably regarded by progressives because of its extensive social welfare provisions and by tea party conservatives because of its unremitting fiscal discipline. Americans love a “winner,” Stokes commented, and at the moment, Germany looks like one, with its economic growth outstripping that of almost all EU states and its new Grand Coalition of Christian Democrats, Christian Socialists, and Social Democrats displaying a readiness to become more actively engaged abroad, even outside Europe, and even militarily.
Implications for the United States
At a time when President Barack Obama wants the United States to pivot to Asia and yet also finds the country ever more deeply involved with Iran, Israel-Palestinian disputes, and instabilities in many Arab countries, a greater willingness on Germany’s part to share international burdens will most certainly be welcome. The feeling in the White House has long been that the EU and Germany have not been doing their share. A consequence of the Asian pivot and Middle East involvement must surely be a declining engagement in Europe and growing reliance on Germany to play the chief role in handling difficulties there, as it has been doing in the euro crisis.
As rosy as a German-American partnership may appear at first glance, the obstacles ahead are numerous and serious. First, the willingness of Merkel’s Grand Coalition to become more active abroad is not shared by German voters. Four-fifths of them, surveys show, are unenthusiastic about foreign intervention. Second, outrage in Germany over the National Security Agency’s electronic surveillance on Germans, including intercepts of the cell phone conversations of both Merkel and SPD leader Gerhard Schröder dating back to 2002, has caused affinity with America to decline alongside confidence in its leadership. The most pro-American political party, the Free Democrats, are missing from Merkel’s government, having failed to reenter parliament after last fall’s elections. And Obama’s popularity, once very high, has slipped a good deal. Third, with Germany’s economy so dependent on exports, pursuit of its heavily commercial interests with countries like Russia, China, and Iran may easily lead to frictions with U.S. efforts to advance its own strategic aims.
Admiration for Germany in America has reached levels not seen since the late nineteenth century, when the booming Bismarckian Reich won plaudits everywhere for its science, engineering, technology, universities, and its respect for Bildung. The measure of disenchantment with America prevailing in Germany at the moment is likely to diminish with time. The nation’s record high approval rating among Americans constitutes a solid pillar for international cooperation over the next decade or two, which is as far as a prognosticating historian’s eye should try to see ahead.
A full summary of the Magid survey can be found on the web at: http://www.germany.info/perceptionssurvey