Seven decades after the end of World War II and a quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, roughly seven-in-ten Americans see Germany as a reliable ally, and about six-in-ten Germans trust the United States, according to a Pew Research Center survey. A majority of Germans believe it is more important for Germany to have strong ties with the United States than with Russia. Germans also give U.S. President Barack Obama high marks for his management of the U.S.-German relationship. And Germans and Americans are equally wary of international entanglements and want their countries to focus on domestic problems.
But Germans and Americans do not see eye-to-eye on salient points in the history of the postwar alliance, nor about some of the key issues in its future. For Americans, the most important event in U.S.-German relations over the past 75 years remains World War II and the Holocaust. Germans are less unanimous in their views of historical importance, but to the extent that one event stands out it is the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. In the eyes of most Americans, the “special relationship” with Britain is still stronger than that with Germany. Americans want Germany to play a more active military role in the world, but Germans emphatically disagree. Americans think that neither the European Union nor the U.S. is being tough enough in dealing with Russia on the issue of Ukraine. A plurality of Germans believes the handling of Russia is about right. And, while half of Americans voice the view that a free trade agreement between the EU and the U.S. would be a good thing, only about four-in-ten Germans agree.
These are among the main findings of Pew Research Center surveys conducted in the U.S. among 1,003 people from February 26 to March 1, 2015, and in Germany among 963 people February 24-25, 2015. All interviews were done by telephone. The survey was conducted in association with the Bertelsmann Foundation.
The Role of History in the U.S.-German Relationship
No single event in the recent history of U.S.-German relations dominates public memory in either Germany or the United States. And different events feature most prominently in Americans’ and Germans’ consciousness.
World War II and the Holocaust loom large for Americans. Nearly half (47%) say those events more than seven decades ago are still the most important in the U.S.-German relationship. Contrary to what might be expected, it is younger Americans, those ages 18 to 29 (51%) – not Americans ages 65 and older (40%) – who are most likely to cite the war and the Holocaust as the memory that first comes to mind when they think of the U.S. and Germany. Moreover, Republicans (56%) much more than Democrats (39%) mention WWII and the Holocaust.
In the eyes of Americans, the second-most memorable event in modern U.S.-German relations has been the fall of the Berlin Wall: 28% say that is their most significant memory. Other moments in postwar relations hardly register: 8% cite the disagreement between the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush and of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder over the Iraq War, 7% mention U.S. monitoring of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s communications, and just 3% name the postwar Marshall Plan.
For Germans, the most important event in bilateral relations over the past 75 years has been the fall of the Berlin Wall. Roughly a third (34%) of Germans surveyed cites that event. Notably, 43% of East Germans, but only 32% of West Germans, name the collapse of the Iron Curtain as the most significant event. (For more on German views about the end of the Cold War see The Pulse of Europe 2009.) A fifth of Germans say it was WWII and the Holocaust (20%) or the Marshall Plan (20%) that was the most important event in the relationship. Another 12% mention the controversial U.S. monitoring of Merkel’s communications. And only 8% reference the U.S.-German disagreement over the Iraq War.
The U.S.-German Relationship Today
Economically and geopolitically, the U.S.-German alliance has become the linchpin of the trans-Atlantic relationship in the 21st century. Despite their disagreements at the time over the Iraq War and U.S. National Security Agency spying, Americans and Germans view each other as reliable allies. But Germans are slightly more circumspect than Americans about the alliance.
A widespread majority of Americans (72%) see Germany as a reliable ally, including nearly a quarter (24%) who thinks of Germany as very reliable. Older Americans (77%) have more faith in Germany than younger ones do (66%).
About six-in-ten Germans (62%) believe the United States is a reliable ally. But only 13% see Washington as very reliable. German men (68%) are more likely than women (56%) to see the U.S. as a dependable strategic partner. Notably, 31% of Germans think the U.S. is not a reliable ally.
But Americans are more likely to see Britain as a reliable ally: 85% say Britain is dependable, including 54% who consider it very reliable. American men (60%) more than women (49%) are likely to voice the opinion that Britain is very dependable. Similarly, Americans 65 years of age and older (64%) are more likely than Americans ages 18 to 29 (39%) to express such strong confidence in the “special relationship.”
A majority of Germans (55%) also view Britain as a reliable ally. But they have less faith in their EU and NATO partner than do the Americans. Moreover, only 8% voice the view that London is very dependable.
And 32% of Germans see Britain as not too reliable or not at all reliable. Younger Germans, ages 18 to 29 (67%), are more likely to see Britain as reliable than are their elders, those ages 65 and older (44%).
France, meanwhile, is seen as a reliable ally by 69% of Americans, including 20% who say Paris is very reliable. However, there are some partisan divisions in intensity over France: While 26% of Democrats see the country as very reliable, only 15% of Republicans agree.
The Franco-German relationship – which endured three wars between 1870 and 1945 but has since been the driving force behind European integration – is today judged by the German public to be strong. More than three-quarters (78%) of Germans say France is a reliable ally, including 21% who see Paris as very reliable.
Despite their strong faith in France, there are some significant demographic differences in how Germans judge their neighbor. Men (85%) more than women (71%) are likely to see France as dependable. Older Germans (80%) have greater faith in Paris as an ally than do younger Germans (68%). Similarly, high-income Germans (87%) are more likely to look favorably on France than those with a low income (72%).
Relations between countries are often judged through the prism of national leadership. And Germans are far more likely than Americans to approve of how both U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are handling U.S.-German relations.
About seven-in-ten (71%) Germans think Merkel is doing a good job in her management of ties with the U.S. Older Germans (79%) are more approving than younger ones (64%). Most notably, Merkel gets high marks from adherents of both her own right-of-center party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and its ally the Christian Social Union (CSU) (89%), as well as from her ruling coalition left-of-center partner the Social Democratic Party (SPD) (77%).
A majority of Germans (59%) also give Obama a thumbs-up for his dealing with Germany. Again, it is older Germans (67%) rather than younger ones (43%) who are bigger fans of Obama’s management of the relationship.
Americans are divided over Obama’s handling of ties with Germany: 40% approve of the job he is doing, 36% disapprove. But nearly a quarter (23%) of Americans have no opinion about his stewardship of the relationship, a sign that Germany is not on the radar of many Americans. As might be expected, Democrats (67%) say Obama is doing a good job, while only 16% of Republicans agree, suggesting much of the American public’s lack of faith in Obama’s dealings with Germany may reflect a broader partisan criticism of his overall foreign policy performance.
Roughly four-in-ten Americans (38%) also approve of how Merkel is handling bilateral ties, while fewer disapprove (27%). Notably, men (44%) are more supportive than women (33%), as are those with a college degree (46%) compared with those with some college education (35%). The finding that 35% of Americans have no opinion of how Merkel is dealing with U.S.-German relations is further evidence that Americans are not paying much attention.
Germany and the World
In recent years, there has been much discussion among foreign policy elites and pundits about resurgent American isolationism and German reluctance to take on greater global responsibilities. The public appetite to engage with the rest of the world can wax and wane over time depending on circumstances. But by one broad measure – public willingness to assume greater international obligations – Germans and Americans see eye-to-eye: They would prefer to focus on domestic tasks.
Half of both the German and American public say their country should deal with its own problems and let other countries deal with their own challenges. Roughly comparable proportions of Germans (43%) and Americans (39%) believe that their nation should help other countries deal with their difficulties.
In particular, it is younger Germans and Americans who are more inward looking than their older counterparts. More than half of both Americans (57%) and Germans (54%) ages 18 to 29 hold the view that their country should deal with its own problems and let others deal with theirs. And only 36% of that age group in Germany and 31% in the United States believe that their country should help other nations deal with their difficulties. This stands in sharp contrast with the attitudes of their older countrymen: 46% of both Americans and Germans ages 65 and older are of the opinion that their countries should do more to help others.
In addition, low-income Germans (61%) are more likely than high-income Germans (40%) to be inward-looking. There is no significant difference in attitudes on this issue between high- and low-income Americans. In Germany, those living in the East (60%) are far more likely to want Berlin to focus on domestic problems than are people in the West (47%), who are divided on the issue.
German reticence about taking on more international burdens can be seen in public attitudes toward greater sharing of the global security burden. Asked if Germany should play a more active military role in helping to maintain peace and stability in the world, only 25% of Germans agree. Just over two-thirds (69%) believe that, given its history, Germany should limit its military role in world affairs.
German women (75%) are more likely than men (63%) to want to limit their country’s military activities, as are older Germans (90%) compared with their younger compatriots (58%). Notably, there is no partisan difference on this issue in Germany: 78% of CDU and CSU members are against a greater military role, as are 77% of SDP adherents. And East Germans (77%) are more likely than West Germans (68%) to want to limit Germany’s military role in world affairs.
Americans say they would welcome Germany taking on more strategic responsibilities. More than half (54%) think Berlin should play a more active military role in maintaining peace and stability, while only 37% say it should limit its role. Democrats (60%) are the most likely to back a more active German military.
Germans are also divided over deepening economic ties with the U.S. Just 41% think a U.S.-European Union free trade agreement called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which is now under negotiation, would be good for Germany; 36% say it would be a bad idea. That support is down 14 percentage points since a Pew Research Center survey in February-March 2014. High-income Germans (43%) are more likely to hold the view that TTIP is a bad thing than are low-income Germans (32%). While about half (51%) of CDU and CSU adherents think TTIP is a good thing, only 42% of SPD members support it. However, a significant portion of the German public is undecided: 23% volunteer they have not heard enough about the pact, think it is neither good nor bad or simply voice no opinion.
Half (50%) of the American public backs TTIP, largely unchanged from 2014. And only about two-in-ten (21%) think it would be bad for the United States. Democrats (59%) are more supportive than Republicans (45%). Nevertheless, as with Germans, much of the public is undecided. More than a quarter of Americans (28%) have not heard enough about the negotiation, think it is neither good nor bad or have no view on the topic.
Among the Germans and Americans who hold the view that TTIP would be a bad thing, their opposition is fueled by different concerns. Roughly six-in-ten (61%) of the Germans against TTIP say they fear the deal would lower German food, environmental and auto safety standards. Just 18% believe it would give foreign companies that invest in Germany unfair advantages. And only 17% worry it would lead to job losses or a decrease in workers’ wages. Older Germans (77%) and women (65%) are the most worried about TTIP undermining German standards.
Among those Americans who voice the opinion that TTIP would be bad for the U.S., fears focus on its potentially adverse impact on jobs and wages (50%).
Germany, America and Russia
Not since the end of the Cold War have German-American-Russian issues loomed so large in international affairs. This is in large part because of recent developments in Ukraine, where Russian activities have led to U.S. and European economic sanctions against Moscow. But Germany’s geographic proximity and economic ties to Russia give Berlin and Washington different stakes in the confrontation with Moscow.
Nevertheless, a majority of Germans (57%) believe it is more important for Germany to have strong ties with the United States than with Russia. Just 15% prefer strong ties with Russia, and another 21% volunteer that it is best to have an equally close relationship with both. However, East and West Germans differ on ties with the U.S. While 61% of Germans living in the West prefer a strong affiliation with America, just 44% of people living in the East agree. And while 23% of people in the East voice support for strong ties with Russia, only 12% of those in the West agree.
On the issue of Ukraine, when asked if it is more important to be tough with Russia or to have a strong economic relationship with her, half of Germans voice the view it is more important to be tough. In spite of Germany’s long-standing economic and energy ties with Russia, only about a third (35%) express the opinion that it is better to have a strong economic relationship with Moscow. Notably, younger Germans (53%), ages 18 to 29, are much more supportive of standing up to Russia over Ukraine than are older Germans (36%), ages 65 and older.
Americans and Germans disagree, however, about whether the current U.S. and EU posture toward Russia over Ukraine is too tough, not tough enough or about right. Americans want to ratchet up the pressure, while most Germans do not support a tougher stance.
More than half of Americans (54%) believe that U.S. policy toward Russia is not tough enough. And 59% say the EU is not being strong enough. At the same time, roughly six-in-ten Germans (62%) think the U.S. position with regard to Russia is too tough (27%) or about right (35%). Similarly, 62% of Germans believe that EU actions against Russia are too strong (18%) or about right (44%). Only 23% of Germans think Washington is not tough enough. And 26% believe the European Union is not aggressive enough.
Older Americans (65%) are much more likely than younger ones (45%) to hold the view that the U.S. is not being tough enough on Russia. Republicans (69%) are also more critical than are Democrats (47%).
Americans ages 65 and older (70%) are even more critical of the EU’s dealing with Russia over Ukraine and at odds with Americans ages 18 to 29 (47%) on this issue.
In Germany, supporters of the SPD (39%) are more likely than adherents of the CDU and CSU (23%) to voice the view that the U.S. is being too tough on Russia. And East Germans (27%) are more likely than West Germans (16%) to say that the EU is being too tough.
The East-West Divide in Germany
One legacy of the Cold War is a lingering difference in perspective between Germans from the former East Germany and the public in the former West Germany. Both East (61%) and West Germans (62%) see the United States as a reliable ally. But East Germans (44%) are less likely than West Germans (61%) to prioritize close ties with the U.S. over ties with Russia. East Germans (60%) are far more likely than their fellow countrymen in the West (47%) to voice the view that Germany should deal with its own problems and let other countries deal with theirs. In this vein, Germans in the East (77%) are more likely than those in the West (68%) to want to limit Germany’s military role in the world. And Eastern Germans (43%) are more likely than their Western counterparts (32%) to cite the fall of the Berlin Wall as the most important event in modern U.S.-German relations.
The Partisan Divide in the United States
Partisan politics increasingly divides Americans on a range of issues, not the least of which is the U.S.-German relationship. Republicans (69%) and Democrats (71%) agree that Germany is a reliable ally. But Americans view a number of critical issues in the relationship through a partisan lens.
Democrats (67%) are far more likely than Republicans (16%) to approve of President Obama’s handling of Washington-Berlin ties. Nearly seven-in-ten Republicans (69%) say the United States is not being tough enough on Russia over Ukraine; only 47% of Democrats agree. Most Democrats (59%) believe TTIP will be good for the country, while only 45% of Republicans support that view. And while 60% of Democrats would like to see Germany play a more active military role in the world, just 51% of Republicans want Germany to take on more of the security burden.