The fifth annual Transatlantic Trends survey of U.S. and European "public opinion" was released just the other day, on September 6. (And don't for one moment think, either, that the architects of these surveys aren't highly conscious of the distinction between the general public, on the one hand, whom we can define as the very large and heterogeneous class of the population regularly excluded from policymaking, versus the official level, on the other, which in contrast is the relatively small and homogeneous class whose social role is defined by their membership within the loop of elite policymaking.)
Opinion surveys such as this (as well as the last survey sampled here) are at one and the same time both credible and entirely untrustworthy. They are credible in the straightforward sense that they do measure, more or less accurately, what they purport to describe: Their sample population's responses to particular questions. But they are untrustworthy in a fundamental sense, too. Aside from the loadedness of a survey's questions, and the way they lead their respondents away from several possible ways of responding toward one particular way, the survey before us explicitly has an agenda.
I don't trust the Transatlantic Trends 2006 survey. That is to say, its findings very well may accurately capture the opinions of the populations surveyed (i.e., roughly 1,000-people apiece from the United States and 12 European countries, including Bulgaria, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, The Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, and Turkey). Instead, what I don't trust are the motives of the annual survey's sponsors–the German Marshall Fund et al.
My Skepticism Thermometer rises dramatically when, for example, the coverage of the survey in the Chicago Tribune reports that (Sept. 7):
Despite Europe's increasingly negative feelings about the U.S., the survey found that Americans and Europeans share a common outlook when it comes to assessing global threats. Large majorities on both sides of the Atlantic ranked global terrorism and Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons ahead of the war in Iraq as the most serious problems facing the world today. There was considerably less concern about immigration.
Similarly, my Skepticism Thermometer shoots past its safe limits when in the Washington Post, columnist Jim Hoagland writes (Sept. 8) that “a transatlantic poll released by the German Marshall Fund on Wednesday reported that Americans and Europeans are in close agreement that the three greatest threats to global peace over the next decade are terrorism, Iran getting a nuclear weapon and radical Islamic fundamentalism.”
Worst of all, though, is what happens to my Skepticism Thermometer when pouring over the presentation and discussion of the findings themselves—it shoots past the red-zone into an unmeasurable range of extreme distress. This is because the Transatlantic Trends 2006 documents read as if, from the perspective of the survey's designers, what they are most curious to learn about is how well Europe’s populations and the U.S. population have swallowed the official or party lines of the day.
So a common outlook among the various populations on both sides of the North Atlantic is regarded as a desideratum. (Just as it was during the reign of the Cold War system of propaganda, for example.) And in broad terms, this ought to include widely shared beliefs across many countries (but especially across the U.S., U.K., Germany, France, Italy and Spain) that the greatest threats to international peace and security are (in no certain order) (a) Islamic fundamentalism, (b) terrorism, and (c) Iran’s nuclear program.
Thus in the opening paragraph of Key Findings 2006, it is explained that (p. 3):
Five years after September 11, 2001, the image of the United States in the eyes of the world has not recovered from its steep decline after the war in Iraq. Yet at the official level there have been efforts at rapproachment, shifting the transatlantic policy agenda toward the challenges of emerging global threats and concerns….In this year’s Transatlantic Trends,…we analyze whether and how this spirit of working together at the official level is reflected in American and European public opinion on a range of global threats and policy issues.
In other words, the 2006 survey not only includes a descriptive component (i.e., an assessment of how well the desired common outlook has been inculcated across the general populations of the 13 countries sampled). But, crucially, it also includes a prescriptive component—going forward, what the official level believes the content of this common outlook among the general public ought to affirm.
It is as if elite policymakers on both sides of the North Atlantic aspire to create a system of propaganda that will work as effectively as the Cold War did. But now without the luxury of having a real Soviet Bloc on the other side.
The only question is, How to bring about conditions such that the prescriptive and the descriptive become one?
This is how the Transatlantic Trends project looks to me.
Transatlantic Trends 2006 (Homepage)
Transatlantic Trends Topline Report 2006 (Complete report)
Key Findings 2006 (Summary)
"Americans, Europeans Share Increased Fears of Terrorism, Islamic Fundamentalism," Press Release, September 6, 2006
"2006 German Marshall Fund's Transatlantic Trends Survey," Daniel Fried, Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, U.S. Department of State, September 6, 2006
"Europe Shares Trans-Atlantic Outlook, but U.S. Image Still Suffers – Terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, Iran, Iraq viewed as major issues in survey," Jeffrey Thomas, Washington File, Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State, September 7, 2006
"New Poll Shows U.S., Europe Share Same Goals, State's Fried Says," Vince Crawley, Washington File, Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State, September 7, 2006
"Iran Winning Turkish Hearts, Minds," Marc Champion, Wall Street Journal, September 6, 2006
"Survey says European support for U.S. falling," Tom Hundley, Chicago Tribune, September 7, 2006
"US disapproval of Bush rising to European levels," Daniel Dombey and Hugh Williamson, Financial Times, September 7, 2006
"Bush doctrine on terror fails to convince public," Ewen MacAskill, The Guardian, September 7, 2006
"US and Europe are united in rejection of 'war on terror'," Stephen Castle, The Independent, September 7, 2006
"Turkey and Europeans turning cool to NATO," Judy Dempsey, International Herald Tribune, September , 2006
"Americans and Europeans Share the Same Fears," Sebastian Rotella, Los Angeles Times, September 7, 2006
"Turks Warm to Iran, Jilting Allies, Poll Finds," New York Times, September 7, 2006 (republished from the International Herald Tribune)
"Poll Shows Decreasing Support for US and EU," Turkish Daily News, September 7, 2006
"Poll: French, Americans Would back Strike on Iran," Turkish Daily News, September 7, 2006
"The widening Atlantic," Unsigned Commentary, FT.com, September 8, 2006
"The weekend's 9/11 horror-fest will do Osama bin Laden's work for him," Simon Jenkins, The Guardian, September 8, 2006
"Spurned by the West, Turkey Looks Eastward," Suat Kiniklioglu, International Herald Tribune, September 8, 2006
"Turkey's European Vocation Is Very Precarious," Suat Kiniklioglu, Turkish Daily News, September 8, 2006
"Wanted: Global Teamwork on Terrorism," Jim Hoagland, Washington Post, September 8, 2006
"The United States (and Israel) vs. the World," ZNet, September 7, 2006
Update (September 9): Here's a scary question: How much of the boilerplate of American Power on display in the multiple documents below do you suppose overlaps with the work of the U.S.-based German Marshall Fund and its four fraternal organizations, as their Transatlantic Trends 2006 surveys try to determine the size of the acknowledged gap between elite American and European opinion, on the one hand, and American and European public opinion, on the other? On a scale running from zero to 100, with 'zero' representing no overlap, and '100' representing complete overlap, how much independence do you suppose the survey highlighted here really has?
Let me quote the closing paragraph of its Key Findings 2006 ("Conclusion," p. 22/24):
Looking ahead, the gap between the reported improvement in transatlantic relations at the official level and persistent negative views among European publics may simply reflect a time lag in the perception of change, especially if political leaders continue to declare their desire to leave behind the bitterness around Iraq. On the other hand, the persistence of negative views of President Bush among Europeans may indicate that their minds are made up, that change will only be possible with a new president after 2008. We have explored differences among European countries to show the contours of public opinion on a range of issues. There are also differences across the political spectrum and among European policymakers, themes which are explored in another, related survey project. Public opinion is only one of many factors shaping foreign policy, a factor that is influential under some conditions, such as elections. We should look closely to this fall’s midterm elections in the United States and to next year’s presidential elections in France as politicians seek to gauge the public mood and their support for future policies.
In Focus: National Security, White House Office of the Press Secretary
The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, White House Office of the Press Secretary, March, 2006. (For the PDF version of the complete report.)
9/11 Five Years Later: Successes and Challenges, White House Office of the Press Secretary, September, 2006. (For the PDF version of the complete report.)
National Strategy for Combatting Terrorism, White House Office of the Press Secretary, September, 2006. (For the PDF version of the complete report.)
"President Discusses Creation of Military Commissions to Try Suspected Terrorists," White House Office of the Press Secretary, September 6, 2006
"President Bush Discusses Progress in the Global War on Terror," Atlanta, Georgia, White House Office of the Press Secretary, September 7, 2006
"President's Radio Address," White House Office of the Press Secretary, September 9, 2006
Setting the Record Straight, White House Office of the Press Secretary, September 6, 2006
"Fact Sheet: Progress Report: Fixing the Problems Exposed by the 9/11 Attacks," White House Office of the Press Secretary, September 7, 2006
"Ask the White House," Frances Fragos Townsend, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, September 8, 2006
"What Has Risen from the Rubble," Alberto Gonzales, Chicago Tribune, September 10, 2006