US, Europe being pushed together

I like Europeans. Well, to be more precise, I like them as much as I like most Americans. I have been traveling in Europe (Switzerland, France, Germany and the Netherlands) over the past few weeks, and my experiences inform me that most ordinary West Europeans like Americans, too. Or, again to be precise, they like us as much as they like any other foreigners. In fact, if you believe cab drivers — and I have always believed they are the best living and breathing barometer of a local zeitgeist, almost the equivalent of a scientific poll — Americans are moving ahead of a lot of other competitors for Europeans’ affections. Looking to the future, I think that two trends could solidify bonds between Americans and Europeans: the growing visibility of Islam and influx of Muslims into Western Europe and the U.S., and the rise of China as a superpower.

Relations are already better than some American political pundits suspect — the ones who always are defeatists about getting along with Europe. The latest polls I could find show that 75-plus percent of Americans have favorable opinions toward the biggie West European powers like Great Britain, Germany and France. Looking back across the Atlantic, the Europeans’ polls on Americans are not so glowing, but they are not as bad as they once were. A poll that Pew Research conducted across Europe just two years ago showed that America was viewed positively by a majority of respondents in most of Europe. And a recent poll of Europeans reported this year by Gallup found that most of those surveyed with any opinion of leadership of the U.S. are approving of it. Only 26 percent expressed outright disapproval of our leaders. This is perhaps what Americans can expect at best — that Europeans don’t hate us. It’s a starting point on the path to better communications and relations.

But when you ask ordinary Europeans what they worry about, anecdotally it seems to be the rise of women wearing the hijab on Europe’s cobblestone streets. It’s a common topic of the times. The recent events in Boston seemed to spur some Europeans on, encouraging them to engage in dialogue with an American on the topic. Europeans that I met clearly don’t want a persecution of Muslims, and some were even quick to criticize those secular and religious leaders and organizations — even the Catholic Church — that they felt have gone too far in various forms of alleged discrimination against Muslims, but even some of these same Europeans hastened to say that they “don’t like the hijab, at all.” The French, of course, have been most public about their reactions to hidden Muslim women. But I heard murmurs everywhere. And Boston made people want to talk to Americans, wondering whether we must share ideas for responding to Islam.

Europe also is still trying to get its economic sea legs from the waves of recession and bailouts that have swept across the continent. But in the northern climes I was visiting, far from the calamities of Greece, Spain, Portugal and Cyprus, times seemed remarkably good on the ground.

But even the better-off Europeans feel the rise of China’s military power and worry of it. A 2011 Pew poll of Europeans found respect for China’s economic growth while at the same time characterizing the rise of China’s armed forces as a “bad thing.”

Americans and Europeans may be bonded further in the next few years as we both respond to challenges from the East. On China and Islam, I don’t see there being that much difference between American and the Western European attitudes toward the best way forward. Certainly the divide will not be any greater than the divide between East and West or North and South here in the states.

Hill is a pollster who has worked for Republican campaigns and causes since 1984.