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Perceptions of threats

Given the time frame of Transatlantic Trends annual series of polls, our data do not allow us to say whether the 9/11 terrorists' attacks made a significant change in the way people in Europe perceived threats after the end of the Cold War or if they shifted the public order of priorities.4 Only for the United States, using a similar question asked in 1998 by CCFR, can we make a limited before-after comparison. However, no question similar to the ones examined here has been asked during the Cold War, and therefore we also cannot definitely conclude whether the end of the Cold War has produced a different structure of priorities in threat perceptions. As a final note of caution, all our analyses of threats are based on close-ended questions, listing a number of specific threats and inviting people to react to them.5

To explore the degree of consensus among the US and European public on what are the main threats arising from the international system, we proceed in three steps. We first examine similarities and differences in the perception of threats of Europeans and Americans, to gauge how much overlap we find in their assessments. Are Americans (or Europeans) more or less concerned than Europeans (or Americans) about threat X than they are about threat Y, or do they diverge in their assessment? Second, we explore whether threats are ranked differently by Europeans and Americans. Do Europeans and Americans prioritize threats in the same way, or do they assign different priorities to these threats? Third and last, we explore whether a common overarching structure captures the way people perceive threats among Americans and Europeans.

Our analysis is based on a battery of close-ended questions that list a number of specific threats and invite people to react to them. Table 3.1 shows the percentages of respondents who deem each of a list of threats as an 'extremely important' or 'crucial' threat. It offers a first, rough, picture of the similarities and differences in the perception of threats on both sides of the Atlantic and their evolution between 2002 and 2007.6 The question asked respondents to evaluate each of several possible threats to their country's vital interests over the next ten years.7 The results represent a mixed picture and supply ammunition both to those who claim a gap does actually exist and to those who, on the contrary, tend to minimize its significance.

Initially, in 2002, there was indeed a wide and significant gap between Europeans and Americans in the number of people expressing concern for a set of threats. A far greater percentage of Americans than Europeans considered international terrorism, Iraq developing weapons of mass destruction, a military conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors, China becoming a great power, Islamic fundamentalism and an in-flood of immigrants and refugees, to constitute a 'critical' threat to their own country. Almost unanimously (91 percent) the American public considered international terrorism to be a 'critical' threat, while only 65 percent of the Europeans said it was 'extremely important', a difference of 26 percentage points.8 The gap also ran high on China (33 percentage points difference in 2002), Iraq developing weapons of mass destruction (28 percentage points difference) and the Arab-Israeli conflict (24 percentage points difference).9 Unfortunately, the comparison is not conclusive, since, as mentioned before, in 2002 the question

Table 3.1 Level of European and American threat perceptions (2002-2006) (in % 'extremely important' threat)1

United States

Europe*

Difference Europe-US

Average

Ranking

2002

2003

2004

2005

2006

Aver.

2002

2003

2004

2005

2006

Aver.

2002

2003

2004

2005

2006

Aver.

US

EU-5

Growing power of China

58

44

51

19

28

24

39

16

28

9

12

Iraq developing WMD

85

85

58

58

27

27

1

2

Terrorist attack with WMD

75

75

51

51

24

24

3

5

India and Pakistan

54

54

31

31

23

23

7

10

Iran/North Korea

developing

WMD

59

78

69

47

64

56

12

14

13

4

3

Violence and instability in Iraq

61

61

48

48

13

13

6

6

Political turmoil in Russia

25

25

13

13

12

12

15

15

International

terrorism

91

70

76

72

80

78

65

69

68

58

70

66

26

1

8

14

10

12

2

1

Global spread of nuclear weapons

66

66

55

55

11

11

5

4

Large numbers of immigrants

56

38

26

35

45

40

38

30

21

26

33

30

18

8

5

9

12

10

13

11

Continued

United States

Europe*

Difference Europe-US

Average

Ranking

2002

2003

2004

2005

2006

Aver.

2002

2003

2004

2005

2006

Aver.

2002

2003

2004

2005

2006

Aver.

US

EU-5

Global spread of disease (AIDS)

51

54

51

52

48

48

35

44

3

6

16

8

8

8

Globalization

26

26

19

19

7

7

14

13

Economic

downturn

41

43

54

46

39

42

43

41

2

1

11

5

11

9

Israel and Arab conflict

66

39

38

48

45

46

44

45

21

-7

-6

3

10

7

Islamic

fundamentalism

63

44

51

45

59

52

51

48

52

45

61

51

12

-4

-1

0

-2

1

8

5

Economic

competition

14

12

13

17

14

16

-3

-2

-3

17

14

US unilateralism

21

21

30

30

-9

-9

16

11

Global warming

43

39

47

43

53

52

60

55

-10

-13

-13

-12

12

4

(N)

1121

1001

1000

1000

1000

5001

5012

5011

5041

5006

  • 1 Percentages are computed including don't knows (DKs).
  • * Europe is France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and United Kingdom.

Source: CCFR-GMFUS Worldviews 2002, GMFUS, Transatlantic Trends, 2003-2006. Reported for 2002 are the percentages mentioning threat as 'critical' in US and 'extremely important' in Europe. For other years, scores are for 'extremely important' in both US and Europe.

Text of the question: 2002-2006: T am going to read you a list of possible international threats to Europe ('to the US' in the US) in the next 10 years. Please tell me if you think each one on the list is an extremely important threat, an important threat, or not an important threat at all' (figures for answer category 'extremely important threat').

was worded differently in Europe and the US.10 When we compare priorities in 2003, we see most of these differences decline drastically on most questions. Whether this is an artifact of the changed wording, or rather a consequence of 9/11 receding into the past, we cannot say.

A comparison can instead be made in the United States between some answers in 2002 and in 1998, to see the extent to which perception of change has been affected by 9/11 and the War on Terrorism. Using the CCFR 1998 data for the US, and comparing the five items identical in the two surveys, we find that concern for international terrorism moved slightly up (from 84 percent in 1998 to 91 percent in 2002), while Islamic Fundamentalism increased substantially (from 40 percent in 1998 mentioning it as a 'critical threat', to 61 percent doing so in 2002). On the other three items, differences are not large. The percentage of those who consider 'Large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming to the US' as a 'critical threat' went up from 56 to 60 percent between 1998 and 2002 and those mentioning 'Global Warming' went up from 43 percent in 1998 to 46 percent in 2002.

However and more importantly, despite the initial absolute differences, the ranking of concerns was strikingly similar across the Atlantic. This was already the case in 2002 and remained so in subsequent years.11 Both in Europe and the US, international terrorism and Iraq were ranked at the top in terms of concern, while economic competition and political turmoil in Russia were at the bottom of the list. Iraq developing weapons of mass destruction was close behind for both Europeans and Americans, as was 'Islamic fundamentalism'.

In the overall rank order of perceived seriousness of threats there are a small number of remarkable differences. Americans were relatively more concerned by 'power political' threats such as 'the emergence of China as a world power', the spread of nuclear weapons and the relations between India and Pakistan. Europeans, on their part, were more concerned about such issues as Islamic fundamentalism and global warming. But the differences are minor, and on many issues Europeans and Americans thought alike.

Moreover, 2002 was a quite exceptional year, with the Americans still experiencing the immediate impact of the 9/11 events. Looking at the data in a longer time perspective, they probably convey a more sobering message. Contrary to what we could expect, terrorism (and Iraq) in 2002 had not yet structured the perception of threats of the Americans in a similar way as some argued (e.g. Kagan, 2002; Kupchan, 2002) the Soviet Union did during the Cold War. Less than one year after 9/11, we could register that the US was a country, temporarily deeply uncertain about the threats it had to cope with and in a state of existential Angst.

In the years since then (2003-2007) things did change, however. In terms of relative concerns and priorities, Europeans and Americans turned out to have more in common than the proponents of the transatlantic gap would claim. For one thing, a systematic decline in threat perceptions among Americans since 2002 has brought them much closer to the perceptions of the average European. This already happened, presumably, between mid-2002 and mid-2003. For terrorism, perception widened again slightly after 2004, but it then followed a parallel path for both Europe and the United States. Between 2003 and 2004, percentages mentioning terrorism as a 'very important threat' went up in US from 70 percent to 76 percent, while in Europe they remained stable at 71 percent. In 2005 the percentage of those thinking it was a 'very important threat' declined to 59 percent in Europe and to 71 percent in the US. In 2006, it went up to 79 percent in US and up to 66 percent in Europe.

A third way of approaching the issue of commonality in threat perceptions between Europeans and Americans is to see whether they look differently at these threats, emphasizing some more than others. Do Americans see threats differently from the Europeans? Do they emphasize a different cluster of threats? And are these threats all lying on a common continuum - as one might expect if terrorism plays such an overarching role - or are they rather seen differently, depending on whether they are perceived as coming from more standard, Realist, kinds of threats or from less conventional factors, such as those promoted by globalization and other transnational forces?

To explore the structure of threat perception we run a principal component analysis of these threats for each year, from 2002 to 2006, separately in Europe and the US. Tables 3.2 (A and B) report the factor loading results of the set of structural Principal Component Analysis (PCA) of the polls conducted between 2002 and 2006, in US and in Europe.12 Most years, in both Europe and the United States, a two-dimensional factor structure appears as the most appropriate to interpret and synthesize the data. The two exceptions are the United States in 2003 and Europe in 2006, when a three-factor structure is statistically compatible with the data.

Two results emerge from Tables 3.2A and 3.2B. The first result, reassuring for those who claim a lack of commonality in threat perception across the transatlantic area, is that both in Europe and the United States threats cluster in similar ways. On the one hand, issues related to Terrorism, Nuclear Weapons, Immigration, Islamic Fundamentalism and

Table 3.2A European threat perceptions (2002-2006) (PCA polichoric correlation with varimax rotation)

2002

2003

2004

2005

2006

1

2

1

2

1

2

1

2

1

2

International terrorism

0.44

0.54

0.47

0.46

0.45

Islamic fundamentalism

0.43

0.48

0.68

0.59

0.53

Large number of immigrants

0.14

0.24

0.39

0.54

0.59

0.28

0.16

Iraq developing WMD

0.46

0.46

Violence and instability in Iraq

0.41

A terrorist attack on [COUNTRY] using WMD

0.46

The global spread of nuclear weapons

0.49

Iran acquiring nuclear weapons

0.49

Military conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors

0.39

0.33

0.28

0.41

Tensions between India and Pakistan

0.37

Global warming

0.2

0.15

0.61

0.62

The global spread of a Disease

0.58

0.5

0.46

A major economic downturn

0.46

0.22

0.26

0.51

Economic competition

0.6

0.62

Globalization

0.54

The development of China as a world power

0.43

0.15

0.29

Political turmoil in Russia

0.18

0.27

US unilateralism

0.72

Proportion variance explained

0.2871 0.1928

0.3189

0.1943

0.2963

0.2580

0.2792

0.2708

0.3182

0.2017

(N)

4311

4677

4767

4731

4685

Only coefficients greater than .3 have been reported, unless all of them were below this threshold.

Table 3.2B American threat perceptions (2002-2006) (PCA polichoric correlation with varimax rotation)1

2002

2003

2004

2005

2006

1

2

3

1

2

1

2

1

2

1

2

International terrorism

0.5

0.52

0.55

0.54

0.49

Islamic fundamentalism

0.47

0.47

0.6

0.53

0.4

Large number of immigrants

-0.65

0.41

0.37

0.46

0.38

Iraq developing WMD

0.42

0.45

Violence and instability in Iraq

0.31

A terrorist attack on [COUNTRY] using WMD

0.44

The global spread of nuclear weapons

0.39

Iran acquiring nuclear weapons

0.46

The development of China as a world power

0.33

0.31

Military conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors

0.5

0.51

0.45

Tensions between India and Pakistan

0.44

Global warming

0.59

0.64

0.67

The global spread of a disease

0.59

0.6

0.43

A major economic downturn

0.59

0.41

0.54

Economic competition

0.15

0.26

0.27

0.24

Globalization

0.59

Political turmoil in Russia

0.36

US unilateralism

0.81

0.2857

0.1505

0.1190

0.3469

0.1631

0.2889

0.2608

0.3008

0.2634

0.3440

0.1966

Proportion variance explained (N)

925

815

895

877

902

Only factor loadings greater than .3 have been reported, unless all of them were below this threshold.

1

Military conflicts, band themselves together in one group, while threats related to Global Warming, Economy, Globalization, Russia and China cluster on the other side. For both the Europeans and the Americans, these two groups of problems represent distinct kinds of threats, the first mostly related to standard Realist challenges to the nation-state and the second representing post-Modern, globalizing trends.

On the basis of these two dimensions, we constructed two variables, as summed ratings of the answers to all questions laying on either the first or second dimension. We call them, respectively, the Realist threat variable and the Global threat variable, ranging from 0 to 3. Figure 3.1 reports the evolution of these two variables from 2002 to 2006. Both Europeans and Americans turn out to be quite worried. On average, 71 percent of the overall pooled sample including all five European countries (EU-5) and the US between 2002 and 2006 had a score higher than 2 for the Realism threat perception and 54 percent for Global threat perception. It is also true that Americans were, on average, more worried than Europeans, and more worried of Realist threats than of Global threats, but the main gap in threat perception is in 2002, when

Evolution of the two dimensions of threat perceptions over time (US and EU-5 average scores)

Figure 3.1 Evolution of the two dimensions of threat perceptions over time (US and EU-5 average scores)

Source: TTS, various years.

the average Realist threat perception score was 2,651 for the US and 2,374 for EU-5, and this gap in threat perception, on both dimensions, had already diminished in 2003.

The second result, this time confirming the existence of differences between Europeans and Americans, is that threats weigh differently in Europe and the United States. People in the United States are worried mostly by threats related to terrorism. The Terrorism/ Fundamentalism/ Immigration dimension stands out as the primary clustering factor around which the Americans address their concerns, while, in Europe, these variables are first only until 2003, while from 2004 on they move second, following the non-Realist threats as a source of concern.13

The evidence on threat perceptions points to one major conclusion: Europeans and Americans overwhelmingly see the world in the same way when it comes to threat perceptions. Perceiving the same threats does not imply, however, that they draw the same conclusions on what to do about them, and particularly whether the use of force is an adequate and legitimate instrument to address them. We will explore this issue below, but let us first turn to the next element, the sense of community across the Atlantic.

 
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