In 2017, Pew Research Center and Körber-Stiftung began collaborating on joint public opinion surveys to gauge the state of relations between the United States and Germany. The questions were developed together, and each organization fielded a survey within their own country starting that year and continuing in 2018 and 2019. Many of the questions have been repeated each year to allow both organizations to track attitudes over time. Topics include relations with other countries, defense spending and military deployments, and general foreign policy attitudes.
The 2019 findings come from a Pew Research Center survey conducted by SSRS in the U.S. from Sept. 17-22 among 1,004 respondents and a Körber-Stiftung survey conducted by Kantar in Germany from Sept. 9-28 among 1,000 respondents. This analysis also includes results from the 2019 Pew Research Center Global Attitudes survey in each country, conducted among 1,503 people in the U.S. from May 13-June 18 and 2,015 people in Germany from May 31-July 25.
Three years into a turbulent period of American-German relations, with Donald Trump at the helm of American foreign policy and Angela Merkel leading Germany, there continues to be a wide divergence in views of bilateral relations and security policy between the publics of both countries. Political divides on both sides of the Atlantic continue to shape attitudes about relations with other nations, perceptions about defense spending and Americans’ and Germans’ views of each other.
But there has been some improvement in Germans’ overall evaluation of the relationship with the United States, and young people in both countries are more optimistic about the state of bilateral relations in 2019. Still, attitudes in the two nations remain far apart, especially on the use of military force, obligations under NATO and relations with other world powers such as Russia and China.
On the core question of relations between the U.S. and Germany, publics in each country sharply diverge in their evaluations. Americans, for the most part, are quite keen on the current state of relations, with three-quarters saying the relationship is in good shape. This represents a 7 percentage point increase in positive sentiment since 2017.
Among Germans, only 34% say the relationship is good, with a scant 2% saying the relationship is very good. However, this represents a more positive evaluation than in 2018, when only 24% of Germans said the relationship was going well. This corresponds to an increase in overall favorable views toward the U.S. found in Pew Research Center’s 2019 Global Attitudes survey, especially among people who place themselves on the ideological right in Germany, even as favorable opinions of the U.S. remain low.
Despite these divergences in opinion, young people in both countries have more positive views of the U.S.-German relationship. In the U.S., for example, 82% of people ages 18 to 29 say the relationship is good, compared with 73% of those ages 65 and older. Similarly, in Germany, four-in-ten young people say relations with the U.S. are good, compared with only 31% of those 65 and older.
These are among the major findings from a Pew Research Center survey of 1,004 adults conducted in the U.S. from Sept. 17-22, 2019, and a Körber-Stiftung survey of 1,000 adults conducted in Germany from Sept. 9-28, 2019. This analysis also includes results from Pew Research Center’s Spring 2019 Global Attitudes survey, conducted among 1,503 adults in the U.S. from May 13-June 18, 2019, and 2,015 adults in Germany from May 31-July 25, 2019.
Sharp divides in German and American views of security issues, from use of force to defense budgeting
Differences on security issues predominate when looking at American and German public opinion. For example, Americans and Germans take opposing views on Article 5 obligations under NATO. When asked whether their country should or should not use military force to defend a NATO ally in the event of a potential Russian attack, six-in-ten Americans say their country should defend that ally, while an equal share of Germans say their country should not.
Meanwhile, 63% in Germany say that the U.S. would defend a NATO ally in the event of military conflict with Russia.
Americans are also more likely than Germans to say it is sometimes necessary to use military force. About eight-in-ten Americans believe it is sometimes necessary to use force to maintain order in the world, yet only about half of Germans agree.
In both nations, those on the ideological right are more likely than those on the left to feel that the use of force can be justified. While nine-in-ten American conservatives see military force as necessary, only 65% of liberals agree. In Germany, nearly six-in-ten adults on the right see military force as necessary, while about a third on the left agree.
When it comes to defense spending, differences between Americans and Germans also emerge. When asked whether the U.S.’s European allies should increase, decrease or maintain their defense spending, half of Americans say that spending levels should remain the same. This marks a notable shift in view from 2017, when 45% of Americans felt their allies in Europe should dedicate more resources to national defense.
Germans view their country’s defense spending differently. The public is divided on whether to increase or maintain current levels of spending on national defense, with about four-in-ten taking each view. Like in the U.S., views on this issue in Germany have changed since 2017. At that time, about half of Germans were content with their country’s defense spending, while about a third felt it should be increased.
In both countries, relatively few believe Europeans are spending too much on national defense, and that share has remained fairly stable since 2017.
In the U.S., Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are more likely than Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents to favor increased defense spending in Europe. However, the share among Republicans who think the U.S.’s European allies should increase their defense budgets has fallen by 14 percentage points between 2017 and 2019. There has also been a more modest decline in this view among Democrats.
In Germany, partisan gaps also emerge. Supporters of the CDU/CSU are on balance in favor of defense spending increases. However, supporters of the Greens express more skepticism, with only 28% saying they want to raise defense spending. Members of the SPD fall in the middle, with 41% saying Germany should increase defense spending.
Americans support military bases in Germany, while Germans express doubts
Americans and Germans also take differing stances on the U.S. military presence in Germany. People in the U.S. see their country’s military bases in Germany as much more important to the security of their country than Germans do: 85% of Americans believe these bases are important to the U.S.’s security interests, and nearly six-in-ten see them as very important.
In the U.S., there is a partisan divide on this issue, though support for the American military presence in Germany is high among both Republicans and Democrats. Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, nine-in-ten see U.S. military bases in Germany as an important part of their country’s national defense. Among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, that share is about eight-in-ten.
Germans, by contrast, are not sold on the idea that American military bases are important to German security. While about half of Germans see U.S. military bases as important for their country’s national security, 45% disagree.
Younger Germans especially doubt the importance of American military bases in their country. Roughly six-in-ten of Germans ages 18 to 29 think U.S. military bases in Germany do not contribute to German national security, while 61% of those 65 and older believe the bases are important to Germany’s defense.
Americans, Germans differ on foreign policy partners and cooperation
There are stark differences between and within the U.S. and Germany when it comes to which foreign policy partner is considered most important.
Among Americans, 36% choose the United Kingdom as the most or second-most important foreign policy partner. Roughly two-in-ten say China (23%) and Canada (20%) are top partners, but Germany is chosen by only 13% as the most or second-most important partner, in between Israel at 15% and Mexico at 12%.
Among Germans, France is clearly seen as the top foreign policy partner, with six-in-ten saying this. A large share also say the U.S. is a vital partner (42%), and this represents a rise in such sentiments from 2018, when only 35% named America as a top foreign policy partner. China (15%), Russia (12%) and the UK (7%) round out the top five. (The survey was conducted before the UK left the European Union on Jan. 31, 2020.)
In the U.S., political affiliation dictates who people think is the most important foreign policy partner. While both Republicans and Democrats agree that the UK is their most important partner, Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are keener on Israel as a partner (26%) than Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (9%). Democrats also place more emphasis on Canada and Mexico for their top foreign policy affiliate. However, views of Germany are similar among partisans in the U.S., with both sides ranking Germany fifth on the list of most or second-most important foreign policy partners.
For Germans of differing political stripes, the differences are less dramatic. Supporters of the CDU/CSU, as well as those who support the SPD and Greens, name France as the first or second-most important partner, followed by the U.S.
When it comes to cooperation with other countries, there is again a divergence between American and German views. Nearly seven-in-ten Americans (69%) say that they want to cooperate more with Germany, compared with only half of Germans who say the same about the U.S. Nonetheless, the percentage of Germans who say they want to cooperate more with the U.S. has increased nine points since 2018. At that time, fully 47% wanted to cooperate less with America.
One area of convergence is the broad support in both the U.S. and Germany for more cooperation with France and Japan. And similar majorities in the U.S. and Germany want to cooperate more with China. However, a greater share of Americans want to cooperate more with the UK (76%) than of Germans who say the same (51%).
When looking at attitudes toward cooperation with Russia, Germans are almost twice as likely as Americans to want greater collaboration. Increased cooperation with Russia is a more common preference among Republicans in the U.S. (41%) than Democrats (32%), as well as among Germans living in former East Germany (75%) than in the former West (63%).
Democrats in the U.S. are more likely to want greater cooperation with Germany than Republicans. And in Germany, supporters of CDU/CSU are more willing to want greater cooperation with the U.S. than those who support the Greens and the SPD. This jibes with data on the international image of the U.S., where those on the ideological right in Germany tend to be more favorable toward the U.S. overall.
Closer ties with Russia and China?
When asked to choose between having a close relationship to Germany or Russia, Americans clearly favor Germany (61% to 26%). When Germans are asked to choose between Russia and the U.S., however, the gap is smaller (39% to 25%), and three-in-ten Germans volunteer both.
But as it relates to a rising China, attitudes diverge the other way. Germans are about twice as likely to say they prefer a close relationship to the U.S. over China (50% to 24%), while Americans are almost equally divided (41% prefer Germany, 44% say China).
In the U.S., younger Americans are much more likely than older Americans to want a close relationship with China over Germany. For example, 58% of Americans ages 18 to 29 say it is more important for their country to have a close relationship to China than say the same about Germany (32%). But among older Americans, more say the relationship with Germany is more important than the relationship with China.
There are also slight partisan differences in the U.S. on the choice of a close relationship with Russia or Germany. About two-thirds of Democrats (66%) say they prefer close ties with Germany, compared with 57% of Republicans. And 31% of Republicans prefer close relations with Russia compared with 21% among Democrats.
Among Germans, there is far more support for a close relationship with Russia in the former East than in the former West. Nearly four-in-ten East Germans say that they prefer close ties with Russia, compared with only 23% who say the same about the U.S. And West Germans are twice as likely to prefer a close relationship with the U.S. than with Russia.
When asked which country is the world’s leading economic power, Americans and Germans give starkly different answers. Half of Americans name the U.S., with about a third (32%) choosing China. However, roughly half of Germans name China (53%) as the leading economic power compared with 24% who name the U.S. Relatively few in both countries see Japan or the countries of the European Union as the leading economic power, although 14% in Germany name the EU, about twice as many as in the U.S.
Americans and Germans differ in their views of international organizations and leaders
Americans and Germans also hold different opinions on countries and international organizations. On balance, Germans tend to view these nations and organizations more positively than Americans. This divide is starkest when it comes to views of the EU. While roughly seven-in-ten Germans favor the union, only about half of Americans agree. A similarly wide gap exists between German and American perceptions of Russia, though favorable opinions of Russia are less widespread in both countries than positive views of the UN and EU. There is greater consensus on the UN and NATO, though notably, Germans tend to think more highly of these organizations than Americans. About one-in-five Americans express no opinion of either the EU or NATO.
In the U.S. and Germany, views on these countries and organizations vary based on ideology. Conservative Americans and Germans on the right of the ideological spectrum are more likely than American liberals and Germans on the left to view Russia favorably. On the other hand, liberals and those on the left are more likely to favor the UN and EU than conservatives and those on the right. For all countries and organizations where those on the right and left did not see eye-to-eye, the divide is notably wider between Americans than it is between Germans.
Additionally, Germans living in former East Germany tend to view Russia more favorably and the EU less favorably than those living in the former West. Just over four-in-ten of those living in the former East say they have a favorable opinion of Russia (43%), compared with one-third of those in the former West. And 71% in the former West favor the EU, while 59% in the former East agree.