NATO Publics Reluctant to Provide Military Aid to Allies Under Attack

David Cameron, Angela Merkel, and Barack Obama, June 4, 2014Going forward, most NATO members are willing to provide economic aid to Ukraine and offer it NATO membership. But they generally shy away from sending arms to Kyiv or escalating economic sanctions against Moscow. And at least half in Germany, France and Italy are unwilling to use military force to defend other NATO allies against Russian aggression….

Russia Seen as Threat to Neighbors

There is widespread public concern in some NATO member states that Russia poses a military threat to neighboring countries aside from Ukraine. Seven-in-ten Poles say Moscow poses a major danger, as do roughly six-in-ten Americans (59%) and about half of British (53%) and French (51%). But only 44% of Italians and 38% of Germans see Russia as a major menace. Notably, while older Americans (64%) are far more likely than younger ones (51%) to say Moscow is a military danger, it is younger French (63%) rather than their elders (47%) who are the most worried….

Views of NATO Generally Favorable

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is the Western alliance created in 1949 to provide collective security for its members in the face of the military threat then posed by the Soviet Union. NATO now includes 28 countries from Europe and North America. The eight NATO members surveyed by Pew Research Center in 2015 account for 78% of NATO countries’ population, 88% of their gross domestic product and 94% of their defense spending.

Overall, NATO members have a favorable view of their 66-year-old alliance. A median of 62% expresses a positive perception of the organization. But this generally upbeat attitude masks national differences that highlight current tensions and possible future difficulties for the coalition. It also does not capture differences within countries. For example, people who place themselves on the right of the ideological spectrum are more supportive than those on the left in Spain, France and Germany. But only in Spain do more than half of people on the left have an unfavorable attitude toward NATO. In the U.S., a majority of Democrats (56%) voice a favorable opinion of the organization, but only about four-in-ten Republicans (43%) share that view.

Given their contentious history with Russia and their proximity to the fighting in Ukraine, it is not surprising that 74% of Poles hold a favorable opinion of NATO and the security reassurance membership in it provides. Polish support for the alliance is up 10 percentage points from 2013. Six-in-ten or more French (64%), Italians (64%) and British (60%) also hold a favorable view of NATO. However, roughly a third of the French (34%) and about a quarter of Italians (26%) express an unfavorable attitude toward NATO.The greatest change in support for NATO has been in Germany, where favorability of the alliance has fallen 18 points since 2009, from 73% to 55%. Germans living in the east are divided – 46% see it positively, 43% negatively.

The American public’s attitude toward NATO belies the U.S. role in the organization. U.S. defense expenditures account for 73 percent of the defense spending of the alliance as a whole. And this is among the highest proportion of total alliance security spending since the early 1950s. But only 49% of Americans express a favorable opinion of the security organization. This is unchanged from 2013 but down from 54% in 2010 and 2011. Meanwhile, the proportion of Americans who say they have an unfavorable view of NATO has grown from 21% in 2010 to 31% in 2015….

A median of 57% of the NATO publics surveyed support offering Ukraine NATO membership in response to the situation involving Russia. About two-thirds of Canadians (65%) favor that option, as do roughly six-in-ten Americans (62%) and Poles (59%). Germans (36%) and Italians (35%) are the least supportive of Ukraine’s membership in NATO. In fact, a majority of Germans (57%) and a plurality of Italians (46%) oppose offering Kyiv this option….

There is relatively little support among NATO members for sending arms to the Ukrainian government. A median of only 41% back such action. Despite Poles’ general antipathy toward Russia, their concern about the military threat posed by Russia and their blaming Moscow for the current violence in Ukraine, only half (50%) want NATO to give arms to Kyiv. Americans are divided on the issue: 46% support sending weaponry, 43% oppose it. A majority of older Americans (56%) favor arming the Ukrainians, while more than half of younger Americans (54%) oppose it. And majorities in four of the eight nations are against helping arm the Ukrainians. The strongest opposition is in Germany (77%), Spain (66%) and Italy (65%)….

Mixed Views on Coming to the Aid of NATO Allies

In Article 5 of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty that created NATO, member states “agree that an armed attack against one or more of them … shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that [they] will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by … such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force.” This commitment to collective self-defense has been the backbone of NATO since its founding, a tripwire to deter Soviet aggression throughout the Cold War. But in the face of Russian activities in Ukraine, not all NATO-member publics are willing to live up to their Article 5 obligation.

Roughly half or fewer in six of the eight countries surveyed say their country should use military force if Russia attacks a neighboring country that is a NATO ally. And at least half in three of the eight NATO countries say that their government should not use military force in such circumstances. The strongest opposition to responding with armed force is in Germany (58%), followed by France (53%) and Italy (51%). Germans (65%) and French (59%) ages 50 and older are more opposed to the use of military force against Russia than are their younger counterparts ages 18 to 29 (Germans 50%, French 48%). German, British and Spanish women are particularly against a military response.

More than half of Americans (56%) and Canadians (53%) are willing to respond to Russian military aggression against a fellow NATO country. A plurality of the British (49%) and Poles (48%) would also live up to their Article 5 commitment. And the Spanish are divided on the issue: 48% support it, 47% oppose.While some in NATO are reluctant to help aid others attacked by Russia, a median of 68% of the NATO member countries surveyed believe that the U.S. would use military force to defend an ally. The Canadians (72%), Spanish (70%), Germans (68%) and Italians (68%) are the most confident that the U.S. would send military aid. In many countries, young Europeans express the strongest faith in the U.S. to help defend allied countries. The Poles, citizens of the most front-line nation in the survey, have their doubts: 49% think Washington would fulfill its Article 5 obligation, 31% don’t think it would and 20% aren’t sure….

Germany: Old Divisions over Russia and NATO Remain

Overall, Germans see neither Russia nor Putin in a positive light. But eastern Germans (40%) are twice as likely as western Germans (19%) to have confidence in Putin. And more than a third of those in the east (36%) have a favorable opinion of Russia compared with just 24% of western Germans. Easterners (28%) are also less likely than westerners (40%) to believe that Russia poses a military threat to its neighbors. And they are more likely to want to ease economic sanctions on Russia.Conversely, people living in western Germany (57%) are more supportive of NATO than are those in the east (46%). And they are more likely than their eastern compatriots to support the use of military force to defend other NATO allies….

Major Partisan Split in the U.S.

Members of both parties support NATO membership for Ukraine. Such support is greater among the GOP (71%) than among Democrats (59%). Moreover, there is a partisan difference about U.S. obligations to come to the military assistance of other NATO members. Nearly seven-in-ten Republicans (69%) say that Washington should come to the aid of its allies in the event of Russian aggression. But only 47% of Democrats back that long-standing U.S. treaty obligation, while 48% oppose it….

Russians Hold Negative Views of U.S. and Other Western Powers

Russians have very negative opinions of Western powers. Majorities in Russia have unfavorable views of the U.S., NATO, the EU and Germany. And these feelings of dislike have intensified in recent years.In the current survey, around eight-in-ten Russians have an unfavorable opinion of the U.S. (81%) and NATO (80%). This includes about half who have a very unfavorable opinion of the U.S. (49%) and NATO (50%). Only 15% and 12% respectively have favorable opinions of these Western entities….

Coinciding with diminishing positive views of major Western powers, half of Russians see NATO as a major military threat to their country. An additional 31% see NATO as a minor threat. Only one-in-ten say NATO is not a military threat. Older Russians ages 50 and older are more willing to say NATO is a major military threat (55%) than Russians ages 18 to 29 (43%)….

Complete Pew Research Center Report, June 2015, “NATO Publics Blame Russia for Ukrainian Crisis, but Reluctant to Provide Military Aid.”

These are the key findings of a Pew Research Center survey of 11,116 respondents in eight NATO member countries, including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as Russia and Ukraine. The survey was conducted from April 6 to May 15, 2015.

Image: David Cameron, Angela Merkel, and Barack Obama, June 4, 2014 (photo: Office of the Prime Minister)