Is Atlanticist Denmark turning more European?

Donald Trump may have done lasting damage to the United States’ reputation even in pro-American Denmark

Donald Trump and Mette Frederiksen meet during NATO 70th anniversary meeting on December 2019

A new survey carried out for the European Council on Foreign Relations and Think Tank EUROPA documents, in excruciating detail, the devastating impact Donald Trump made on European views of the United States. From a Danish perspective, it is noteworthy that the research reveals Denmark – a traditionally Atlanticist country that has long opted out of European defence cooperation – to be one of the countries most critical of the US among the 11 surveyed:

  • 71 per cent of Danes believe the US political system is broken, compared to 61 per cent across the study area.
  • 65 per cent of Danes feel the world is in a worse place because of the Trump presidency, compared to 53 per cent overall.
  • 41 per cent of Danes name the US when asked which country has the most potential to divide the EU. Here, the average from all surveyed countries is 32 per cent.

And this time, it is personal: Only one in four Danes disagrees with the statement that “Americans cannot be trusted because they voted for Trump”. Fewer than four in ten trust American citizens to make the right choices for their country.

Interestingly, research from Pew suggests that Americans themselves are distrustful of their own people’s ability to make the right choice. This sentiment was already in steep decline even before Trump was elected in November 2016, as shown from the graph.

US citizens: Trust in the wisdom of the American people when making political decisions

The important lingering question for the Biden era is whether today’s public sentiment is part of the habitual ups and downs of opinion polling – or whether something more fundamental is going on.

The new survey offers some grounds for optimism. After all, a sizeable 62 per cent in Denmark feel more optimistic after Joe Biden’s win – simply, it seems, because of the fact that Trump is no longer in the White House (again, a higher figure than the average of 47 per cent across the 11 countries in the poll).

And deeply negative views of the US are nothing new. This winter, it is 19 years since then US president George W Bush succeeded in repelling millions of Europeans by speaking of an “axis of evil” in his state of the union address. The controversy of his “war on terror”, peaking with the invasion of Iraq the following year, led to widespread opposition to US foreign policy and rising anti-Americanism in many parts of the world. Denmark was no exception. A userneeds survey from 2007 found that Danes viewed Bush as a greater threat to world peace than the leaders of the so-called evil axis themselves – Mahmoud Ahmedinijad of Iran and Kim Jong-il of North Korea.

Views of the US improved greatly under Barack Obama. And, to most Danes – a full 75 per cent, according to the new survey – it is the very personality of the American president that, in itself, matters for the relationship with the US.

Something is different …

But something is different now, and it is not just the realisation that 78-year-old political veteran Biden is no 47-year-old rising superstar Obama. For one thing, America’s status as a global power – in the eyes of Europeans – is in freefall, very much helped along in this descent by Trump’s political programme. In Denmark, 48 per cent of the population – against 60 per cent across the 11 surveyed countries – believe that in 10 years’ time China will be a greater power than the US.

To the extent that public opinion plays a role in shaping the political agenda of Europe’s leaders, this means that the US will not give off the same stardust it once did. Although only 18 per cent across the study area (and a similar 17 per cent in Denmark) see the EU emerging as a greater power than the US in the next decade, it is likely that, on more and more policy agendas, the EU would like to see itself as a twin rather than as a little sibling of the US.

DK: Do you believe that, in ten years' time, the European Union will be a stronger power than the US?

It is young Danes who most expect the EU to become a power greater than the US in ten years’ time

Another, more tangible, evolution of European views of the US concerns hard security. Just two years ago, in January 2019, only 15 per cent of Danes disagreed with the statement that “NATO is a sufficient security guarantee” for Denmark, according to a survey carried out by Voxmeter for Think Tank EUROPA. In this latest round of research, the percentage of Danes who trust that the US will always protect Europe is down to 10 per cent. A substantial 66 per cent in Denmark say that Europe cannot always rely on the US and needs to look after its own defence capabilities.  

DK: Which of these statements best reflects your view?

These Danish figures are striking, as Denmark’s opt-out from EU defence cooperation in practice blocks the country from joining European efforts to take greater charge of its own security. The results strongly suggest that the Trump presidency will leave an enduring legacy in Denmark in the form of decreasing support for the defence opt-out.

Interestingly, it is young Danes who most expect the EU to become a power greater than the US in ten years’ time. Twenty-five per cent share that expectation. But the weakening of the transatlantic alliance witnessed during the Trump years means that Denmark’s youngest citizens can expect to have to fight harder for that power than before.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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